Frame of Reference with Editor Norman Hollyn

Norman Hollyn has been described as a “media expert,” a reference to his experience in a wide variety of media types – in both the old and new media worlds. He is the co-producer and co-host of the videocast 2 Reel Guys.
He is a long-time film, television and music editor (HEATHERS, THE COTTON CLUB, SOPHIE’S CHOICE, Oliver Stone’s WILD PALMS), and is Associate Professor and Head of the Editing Track at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. He is an author of nearly 100 articles and his internationally translated book, THE FILM EDITING ROOM HANDBOOK, has just been published in a fourth edition. His previous book, THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, also from Peachpit Press/Pearson, has been attracting great reviews worldwide.
He has taught worldwide, including several workshops for the Royal Film Commission in Jordan. He has taught at the Sundance Film Festival, and consults and speaks at major corporations such as Dreamworks Pictures, Pixar Animation, Forbes and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He has worked as an expert witness in legal cases involving the aesthetics or history of editing, and is partner in an Internet development firm.

What got you interested in editing?

As a kid, I worked as an usher in a movie theater (yeah, I’m THAT old) and I’d get to see the movies ten or twelve times a week.  After a while you start to analyze why you laughed at one thing, or got scared at another.  I think that THAT was the beginning of my love for editing.  Then in college I found that I could disappear in the editing for hours and hours without noticing the passage of time.  That’s when I decided to choose editing as my career.

How did you get started in editing?

After college, I was working as PA and general helper on sets for PSAs and, knowing that I wanted to work in editing, I volunteer to work for free with the director, who was editing the pieces himself.  After a few of them, he got enough money to hire an editor and I volunteered to work with her — a woman named Kathy Wenning.  While I was assisting Kathy on a PSA she was hired to supervise the sound on the feature film LENNY, and she asked if I’d be an apprentice with her on that film.  I thought for about a nanosecond and jumped at the change.

What is your preferred NLE(s) of choice? Why?

I have worked on Lightworks, Montage, Ediflex, Avid, FCP and a few others and can say that I am most comfortable on Avid Media Composer.  But I think that it would be stupid for any editor to shut themselves down to only one NLE.  It’s pretty much a given in Hollywood that you’d better know FCP7, Media Composer and Premiere if you’re going to work constantly in the business.  So, while I’m most comfortable on Media Composer, mostly because it’s the one used on most of the features and television that I’ve done, I also am very happy working on FCP.

Give us a run through of your editing process

I start by reading the script as much as I can.  My job is to crawl up inside the director’s (or producer’s) heads and get to see what makes THIS film/TV project the one that they wanted to do.  I have to start to see the world through their eyes. This doesn’t mean that I do exactly what they want to see, but if I truly understand the story and the feel that the director is interested in, then it helps me to understand the footage and the process.

Then I like to watch the dailies several times.  If we’re having a dailies screening (which is getting more and more rare), I will try to watch the footage once before the screening — to get my first impressions — and then watch it again with the director.  Then I’ll try to watch it again before I make my first cut.  Obviously, this doesn’t work if I’m getting three hours of material a day.  But what I’m looking for here is the way in which the footage interacts with the story.  I learn about the film from observing actors (i actually like going to rehearsals and going to set), camera, production design, etc. The more I immerse myself in that world the better able I am to watch the dailies clean and ready.

What tips were you given that was really helpful?

First, never apologize for anything.  You are in charge of the editing process and they don’t want an incompetent wimp running such an important department.  Second, always listen.  If you disagree with anyone, that’s okay, but listen to their point of view.  If your director and you disagree over a point, figure out why he/she feels that way. You’ll almost always end up with something that is better than either of you could have thought up on your own.  Third, have fun.

How organized are you?

Organized enough.  I lost a ton of my organizational skills when I went from assistant to editor, but you won’t get anywhere if you’re not organized.  It’s important to keep organized with your footage, your scheduling and your politics. However, when I go home — my desk there is a mess.  I just won’t let that seep into my work.

Can you work without a script, finding the story and building it on your own?

Of course.  That’s what we do in documentaries or trailers.  And, thanks to digital capture, more and more directors are shooting their films in doc style, and we’re getting more and more footage in the editing room.

What is your favorite film? Favorite Tv show?

I don’t have favorites in that way.  I can go years without thinking about Stanley Kubrick’s films, but they are a total influence on me and my work.  I will occasionally go back to a Fellini film, or a Mike Leigh film, or a great piece of television comedy (I could watch FRIENDS or ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT multiple times).  And I have re-watched much of the first, second, and later seasons of LOST.  But I find that I have genres, or directors, or writers who I’ll be attracted to.

It makes it really hard, by the way, to feel this way and fill out my Oscar ballot every year.

What style of editing have you done? (Narrative/Documentary/News/Corporate/Wedding/Etc)

Narrative.  Doc.  Music Videos.  News. Corporate.  Commercials. Pretty much everything except Weddings and Porn.

If you could meet any editor, who and why?

The great thing about working in the business is that you CAN meet pretty much any editor.  I was fortunate enough to work with one of the most amazing editors EVER, but haven’t seen him in quite a while, so I’d like to meet Gerry Hambling again.  Gerry has cut every movie that Alan Parker has directed, along with his commercials, and he’s brilliant. The opening sequences in FAME — the auditions — were edited by him while Parker was shooting.  I was Gerry’s assistant and loved them.  The amazing thing is that when they returned to the States to finish the sound and music on the film, those sequences were virtually the same as when they went back to England at the end of shooting, several months previously.  Amazing.

What advice can you offer to get through complex edits?

Complex can mean different things to different people.  It’s complex when I get 10 hours of footage for a 2 minute scene.  It’s also complex when I get footage over the course of a three-month shoot designed for one scene.  And, of course, scenes with lots of visual effects are complex in their own way.

I always break it down by story. Whose scene is it?  How does that person change?  Where are the change points (I call them Lean Forward Moments in my book of that name)?  How can I best get that across to the audience?

Which plug-in(s) do you find most useful? Why?

Honestly.  I don’t even know how to answer this question.  I use ’em, but never think about them.

How does the director-editor relationship work for you?

Usually quite well, thank you.  The biggest thing in the relationship is choosing projects well.  I try to make sure that I don’t get involved in projects with assholes.  This means I do my research ahead of time — not just on script, but on the director.  Usually I’ll know someone who has worked with him or her (thank YOU IMDb!) and I call them.  Just like they are doing with me.

How do you deal with problem clients/directors?

I’ve never met a total problem client.  But there are ranges.  This is a business which is built on fear.  Everyone is afraid of being wrong, or getting fired.  Usually, anger disguises fear.  So, if I can help the director overcome that fear, we rarely have problems.  It’s okay to disagree with someone, but ultimately, this is not my film.  Contractually it may be the director’s, or the producer’s, or the studio’s.  And politics enter into that big time.  But except in one or two cases, it has never ultimately been MY film.  So, if I pitch an idea to the director and he doesn’t buy it, I let it drop.  I may bring it up once or twice more at the proper time, but It Is Not My Film, so I ultimately give it up to the person who’s in charge.

But if I choose well, and if I help the client overcome their fears, it rarely gets to the place where I’m seething.

What’s your overall philosophy about editing?

Aesthetically – It all comes back to story.  If you ever get stuck, figure out why that scene, or that beat, or that line of dialogue NEEDS to be in the film.  And if that point can be made more efficiently somewhere else, then lose it.

Practically —  more than 50% of what I do has nothing to do with my editing chops.  It has to do with letting my collaborators know that we both have the best interests of the project in mind.  I’ve got their back.

Name one thing that you would tell an aspiring editor

The best thing you can do is edit.  Edit as much as you can and in as many different circumstances as you can.  And learn about story as much as you can.

For more info on Norman, you can find him on twitter or his website.

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