Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What I Wish I’d Heard At Graduation, Part 11: The Better You Get, the Less Intuitive the Work Is


When I got started as a video editor, I had to painstakingly log every scene, sort them into hundreds of carefully-described bins, and slowly discover which clips worked together through trial and error. 

Then as I got better, I started to develop a “sixth sense”.  As I previewed the raw footage, I was able to spot which clips would be the most useful.  I quickly discarded all the footage I wasn’t going to use without logging it.  As I edited, I started making fewer “rough cuts” because I knew instinctively where to cut into a clip and where to cut back out. 

I got paid by the job, not by the hour, so one benefit of this was that I was able to do more work and make more money. “Finally,” I thought, “this is what real professional editing is like.”

But I was wrong.  When I started hanging out with real feature editors, I was shocked to see how they worked.  I visited the editor of Todd Solondz’s movie “Happiness” and I saw that she (or an assistant, when she had one) had not only logged each clip with exhaustive detail, but she had gone much further…

She had painstakingly subdivided each clip into each sentence of dialogue, and then created a separate sequence for every sentence in the movie, demonstrating how it sounded from every possible angle.  She explained that this was standard, because you never knew when the director was going to say “I’m sure there was a better take of that line, let me hear them all.”

Intuition, as it turns out, follows a bell curve.  You start off with little, develop a lot of it as you become a cocky young turk, and then you abandon it again as you become a master.  The better you get, the less intuitive your job is, and the more drudgework you do. 

This turns out to be equally true of screenwriting as well, for several reasons:
  1. As with video editors, once you’re getting paid real money, you have to be able to show your work, to prove that you made the best choices.
  2. You also have to be able to reverse engineer every decision you make, to undo it and redo in 10 slightly different ways. 
  3. But even if you’re just writing for yourself, you find that the more you know, the less you trust yourself.  You’ve had too many scripts go wrong because you coasted on intuition until you crashed.  You force yourself to slow down and work more methodically, so that you can backtrace your steps at any times.
So was all that experience for nothing, given that you end up working just as menially at the top as you did at the bottom?  Is there any hope for your heroes?  Yes, there is.  Tomorrow we will find a ray of hope in our grand finale…

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