How Art School Confidential's Reality Was Remade in the Editing Room

Robert Hoffman moved up in the filmmaking ranks the
old-fashioned way – he got lucky. Years of working as a post supervisor
and assistant editor paid off when he was post-supervising
Ghost World for director Terry Zwigoff, who
recognized his editorial talent and eventually hired him to cut
Bad Santa. His latest project is Zwigoff’s
Art School Confidential, and he
told Film & Video how small but important parts
of that movie’s reality were remade in the editing room. When do editors
start thinking like VFX artists? And how much responsibility do they
have to maintain the truthiness of a performance? Hoffman is one of the
breed of tech-savvy editors who’s finding out.
What have you learned from being a post-production supervisor?
Understanding what my needs are in the editing room ‘ where money
should be spent and where it shouldn’t be spent. I would prefer to do
as much of the work on the temp mix in the Avid [as I can], and that
way money can be used for the final mix ‘ the sound that people will
hear in theaters, not just the sound we have for a one-time screening.
Also, just understanding what the workflow is for everybody, and what
people need to do to get their jobs accomplished hopefully makes me
more patient when things don’t happen on time. As a post supervisor you
feel responsible for everything and you get a tightening in your chest.
As an editor, I’m much more relaxed, especially around a good post
supervisor. And eventually everything falls into place, even in the
darkest moments when you think it’s not going to happen.
How did you make the transition from post supervisor to editor?
I started off as an assistant editor, and I worked for the Motion
Picture Corporation of America, Brad Krevoy and Steve Stabler’s
company. I thought, “I wonder what being post supervisor is like?” And I
started post supervising. But I missed editing and was lucky enough to
edit a couple of independent features. One was called
Rhinoskin: The Making of a Movie Star, which spent a
year at festivals, and I really enjoyed it so I edited whenever I
could. On Ghost World, [director] Terry Zwigoff
found out that I could edit and I made some contributions on that film,
along with some other really talented editors. And Terry hired me for
Bad Santa. And that was my first big title.
Did you always want to be an editor of feature films?
I wanted to be an editor; I just didn’t want to follow the traditional
route. I went to USC film school, and I remember one of the
second-semester projects: you direct for the first half of the semester
and your partner edits your film, and then you switch roles. In the
film that you edit you’re also the cinematographer, it’s just a two-man
team. And I remember shooting a particular shot, and I shot it out of
focus and pulled back and the teacher said to me, “Ah – that’s editor’s
eye.” And I said, “Really? Is that a disease?” And he meant that I was
shooting it as a cinematographer but I was looking at it editorially
because I knew it was going to make a good cut. I always enjoyed
editing, and I was lucky enough to get scenes to cut in the early films
where I assisted. It’s just very difficult for assistants to move up,
and I wasn’t sure how to do that. I’m just lucky enough that Terry
Zwigoff came along to open the door for me. But I always tell people to
be ready for luck when it happens. There are, unfortunately, no
specific ways in which a person can land a career anymore. There are no
real apprenticeships any more, which is a shame.
But you used to have to be an assistant editor just to get
time on the flatbed editing machines. Now, you can pick up a lot of it
using Final Cut Pro on a Mac.
You can learn how to operate the equipment, but you can’t learn to be
talented at it. By picking up DV Xpress or Final Cut you can see if you
enjoy doing it – and if what you cut together actually makes sense to
other people. But the thing you don’t really get anymore is to sit next
to an editor and hold their trims or find things for them and pick up
what they’re doing.
Creating the Take You Need
What did you use to cut Art School Confidential, and how did technology impact your work?
I cut on an Avid Meridian. I had not used the Meridian yet, but the
director and I made it very clear that we wanted to stick with Avid –
and it was the best choice we could have made for that show. It’s just
an incredible tool. In Art School there’s a scene where the lead
character is in a classroom in a drawing class and the girl of his
dreams comes in to model for the class. [Terry Zwigoff] wanted to build
a sequence that showed he was so infatuated with her that he couldn’t
move. Everyone else starts drawing and he doesn’t. We were able to
build that with singles, but the director asked about the wide shot
where everyone starts drawing – was there a take where he does not draw
at the same time as the rest of the class? And there wasn’t. But we
just did a little split-screen – I assume Final Cut Pro can do the same
thing – where we put a piece of the shot where he wasn’t drawing over
the corner of one where he was drawing and basically created a take
where the rest of the class starts drawing and he is still immobilized
by her presence. It was remarkable to be able to do that, and in the
Avid it looked flawless. We obviously did it as a visual effect
eventually. But I started doing a lot of that. If we cut out some
dialogue and then on the reverse angle someone’s head wasn’t in the
right place I would just steal a part of the shot where their head was
in the right place, do a picture-in-picture, and place it over the area
I needed to replace.
You’re creating a rough composite so you can see whether your idea is going to work.
Exactly. But as it’s being done, it looks perfect. At the end, when we
printed out the list of FX, we had many more than we ever thought we
would. The producer referred to them as “Robert Hoffman’s opticals.” In
a couple of cases, they were important story moments. But for some
instances, there was a bad cut because a head was not matching and I
would just composite in with a picture-in-picture the head in the right
position. We once needed a character to say something in a different
part of the scene. We actually tried putting his lips over his mouth
from earlier in the scene. And that’s one that took us out of the movie
every time we saw it. We couldn’t get it close enough because it really
needed to be a 3D effect. We ended up, thankfully, not having to do
that. But I’m sure it could have been pulled off by Digiscope (Santa
Monica, CA), which was our VFX house.
You ended up going to a back-up plan?
We just cut it differently. It was very odd, and it made me feel like I
was doing something wrong. I thought it was maybe unfair to the actor
to put dialogue in his mouth that may not have matched his facial
expression had he actually been saying that dialogue. I thought, “Boy,
this is a little bit dangerous. I’m not sure it’s an ethical thing to
do.” It’s a hard job to say something truthfully – and suddenly you’re
giving them different dialogue.
But as an editor you’re constantly cutting away to reaction
shots that may or may not have originally been in reaction to a certain
line of dialogue.
That’s true. We do that quite a bit. You’re manipulating everything.
It’s just this new thing that I call “cutting within the shot,” where
you’re able to superimpose certain things. I suppose if it’s truthful
for the film, that’s all that matters and everyone looks good. On a
second or third viewing you can tell whether you’ve pulled it off or
completely botched the job.
Is this something that you get the feeling other editors are doing?
Yes, I’ve heard other editors talk about it. One of my former
assistants told me, “Oh yeah, we did that all the time” on this big
effects movie he worked on. I don’t know that it wasn’t done in the old
Kem and Moviola days – it’s just the immediacy of being able to see
whether it works or not makes it easier to do and easier to sign off
on. You have it there in the Avid and you can look at it and see if it
works rather than waiting to see whether or not it can be pulled off.
Leaving Film Dailies Behind
I always think about guys like David Lean or Sam Peckinpah,
how if they wanted a shot to look a certain way, they’d have to hang
out and hope they’d get the light just right and go for that magic
moment. And now you can get the moments that you missed in a digital
Some directors just like to replace the skies because they like the way
the skies look in certain elements they’ve seen at visual effects
houses. It’s like a digital camera versus a film camera. You can
manipulate things and change things, and you don’t have to be that
careful because you know you can fix it later. It’s actually like
digital editing versus film editing, too. It’s precise, but you know
you can always slip it very easily with the edit tools on the Avid or
Final Cut Pro, which has trim tools as well. I’m not saying it makes
people sloppy – it’s just a different way of working. I know there are
a lot of assistants now who, even if they go to film school, they’ve
never touched film. And I think that’s a great loss because there’s
something about the history of film and the nature of touching it and
smelling it and knowing what the importance of a frame is. There’s
something great about knowing where the key numbers are, knowing how
important those are, how important it is to code a piece of film. I
don’t miss the smell of the coding machines. But we had film on
Bad Santa. We printed film, we had film assistants
who sunk the film, we screened film dailies and then we transferred it
to digital.
Does that mean you didn’t print film on Art School Confidential?
We did not print film on Art School. Jamie Anderson
was our DP, and he would print selects that he wanted to look at. On
Ghost World, we didn’t print film either, although
we did conform film. We printed film for preview screenings. On
Bad Santa the film was already printed. And in
Art School we previewed on tape. We did an HD
screening, which looked beautiful. We had never done that before. We
found a place up in San Rafael called Intrepid Productions and they
digitized the footage from our HD tapes. The only thing that wasn’t
smooth was we had some of these VFX elements that had to be recreated.
These little composites – somehow that list didn’t get translated. But
they were easy enough to do. It was beautiful. It was so amazing to see
it projected. And after that, we actually started making Betas right
from the Avid for some screenings. And obviously they weren’t like the
HD, but we saved a lot of money by not going to HD. As long as we
weren’t screening in a 500-seat theater, it was good enough for our