[Frame of Reference] with Editor Deb Eschweiler

Deb Eschweiler

Deb Eschweiler is a freelancer in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, with clients in Chicago, Louisville, Denver, San Francisco & Los Angeles. “Since we are in the age where exports & uploads no longer take all day, the fact that I haven’t met all of my clients face-to-face is less of an impediment to doing good work with them as it may have been in the past”

Deb’s a facility trained editor, and although she’s not as technical as some, she does find that she’s more technical than many. “My career has spanned nearly two and a half decades that have seen a tremendous amount of change as to how we do our jobs as editors, but one thing always remains the same. Those who are in it for the love of telling good stories will find a way to keep telling stories, no matter how the technology changes our jobs.”

What got you interested in editing?

I found myself learning about video production in the ’80s, before it was common for public schools to have a video production department, or even merely a video camera. This was definitely before the days of desktop editing software.

Initially I wanted to edit film. I was enamored with the tactile aspect of physically cutting film. However, film is expensive, especially for a high-school kid from a middle-class family. My parents were not too keen of subsidizing an expensive “hobby” like filmmaking. My junior year of high school was spent with a mentor who taught me the basics of video production. Someone in the mentoring program had a connection at the local CBS affiliate. The mentoring folks, not knowing the difference between film production & video production, figured that video was almost the same as film, so they were going to send me to the news station for my mentorship. However, they felt that I needed to get up to speed on some things, so they first sent me to the local cable station to be trained by the cable station’s media specialist. That man & I got along very well, and I ended up working with him for the entire run of the program. I’m sure very much to my mother’s relief, as she probably would have been apoplectic at the thought of her suburban-born & bred 16-year old baby daughter driving into downtown Minneapolis five days a week.

How did you get started in editing?

The mentoring program in my county apprenticed smart kids who had exceeded what high school offered and would benefit from a different learning experience in virtually any discipline. While I learned the basics of shooting in the studio & field, as well as editing, early on my knack for editing was readily apparent. I was always good with puzzles. Having pieces to fit together to make the whole was a challenge I enjoyed and was an aspect of production with which I had early success. Like most people my age, I am of the MTV generation. To the younger me, the job of an editor was much more apparent in music videos than it was in the film-making process. Although I have only done a couple of music videos in my career, I have always thought of myself as being inspired in the early days by music video editing.

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

It depends on the job, really. Each one that I use has strengths & weaknesses in certain areas. Sometimes I don’t have a choice, as the client either owns the gear, or there are multiple editors working and we all need to be working with the same software, or the project was started using specific software and there isn’t money in budget to convert it to another NLE.

I am an Avid editor from way back in the early days. My first facility had 2, then 3, then 4 Avids, along with digital linear online suites. As senior assistant, I was responsible for maintenance & archiving projects, so I became very familiar with the systems and how they needed to be treated to be kept happy. Avid will always have a special corner in my heart.

I learned Final Cut Pro in the early ’00s when I started my freelance business. It didn’t really take off until 2003 when I upgraded to a G5 from a G3 and unintentionally built my suite around it because my clients heard that I had Final Cut Pro experience & my system. They started calling to book me before I even realized I was on my way to building a suite. My business went from 100% Avid to 30% Avid/70% FCP by the late ’00s.

I’ve always had a couple of clients who had their own Avids, so I was able to stay fresh with both Avid & FCP for the better part of a decade.

In the early ’10s, I had a client that wanted to explore Premiere Pro as a replacement for FCP Classic. So I learned Premiere Pro.

I am currently getting up to speed on FCPX, because now more than one client has decided that is the NLE that suits their needs. Which NLE I use swings from season to season, it seems. I logged more hours on Avid in the last two years than the previous five years combined. I now have in my suite the ability to use Avid Media Composer, Final Cut Classic, Premiere Pro CS6, & FCPX.

Give us a run through of your editing process

Usually I first take stock of what I have and what I need. Do I have a script? Do I need a script? Do I need to find stock music or footage? Is it a multi-day shoot and do I have everything or will they be augmenting this media with more shooting?

I tend to ingest/import camera media first so I can have an idea of what is there. Sometimes I log right away. Sometimes I wait to log until I’ve seen a script or an outline so I know what I need to log. Often I cut all the interview answers together to know what the content is and whittle it down to what they want the message to be. I work with Producer/Directors on content most of the time, so I don’t necessarily have control of the message, I just fashion it to the needs of the client based on input from the producer/director. I tend to focus on nailing down content & the message first before I move on to how it looks – unless I’m waiting for answers on content and I don’t have anything else to do.

Then I move ahead to the “make it pretty” questions. Do I need to make a graphics package from their branding elements or the theme from the event? Do I need to do color correction or add effects or treatments to the video to help make it more effective? There are a handful of clients who can’t wrap their heads around the concept of “Work-in-Progress”. Sometimes I have to make the video look nearly finished before the clients can even have a hope of following the content. They get distracted by the jump cuts if I haven’t put B-Roll in yet because I figure what’s the sense of spending their money putting in B-Roll if we’re going to cut that SOT? But they need it. There are scads of projects that I re-cut after we thought we were near the end because the people responsible for feedback just couldn’t focus on content when there was so much left to do on the “make it pretty” part. It’s only when they can sit back and watch it from the beginning to the end that they can absorb it.

So I’ve learned how to build some projects in a way that I can easily back out and go another direction. For example, I make use of transitional elements so I can take things apart, rearrange, add or delete if need be without causing a domino-effect on the rest of the piece.

What tips were you given that has been really helpful?

Triple-redundant backups. Always.

“It’s not about you”. A very well-meaning producer told me this during a rough edit session when I was but a wee assistant editor. The details of the story elude me these many years past, but the gist of it is sometimes you just have to bite the proverbial bullet and get the job done whether or not you are in agreement with all the people in the room. It wasn’t one of my “horror-story” sessions. If it was, I think I’d remember it better! It was just the way he stopped, looked at me, and earnestly said it. It didn’t sink in right away. One day, a little while later, I had the epiphany, “Oh, that’s what Steve meant!!”

How organized are you?

I have quadruple-redundant backups of my working project files. :-D. In addition to my current working project files, I have one backup on a separate hard disk on my RAID, one on a USB stick that lives on my desk, one uploaded to my Dropbox, and one saved to my personal Transporter. Sometimes I have a fifth on my FTP if I’m feeling particularly vulnerable. I usually have one full-media backup of my active projects. (though right now I probably should double-check my current projects… I may have lapsed this month).

I am a logger & and organizer. Some projects I spend more time organizing than I do editing. My process is always evolving, I find new ways to make things even easier to find on almost every new project it seems. If necessary, a non-eidtor could open up my media drives and with a short explanation, find virtually any piece of media without batting an eye.

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

Often I am given a rough outline, a pile of media (I used to say, “box of tapes”, but that’s so rare these days…), perhaps a music track, and the direction of “Let me know when there’s something to see”. Sometimes there are interview stringouts and a pile of B-Roll that may or may not be logged. Sometimes there are bona-fide scripts, complete with B-Roll timecode notated & graphic sections mapped out. Each project has it’s own challenges.

What is your favorite film? Favorite TV show?

My first love was The Wizard of Oz. I am still in nerd-love with the original Star Wars movies, though I’m always skeptical of Ewoks.

As for television, I miss Leverage and am still a bit sad about Firefly being cancelled. I have a few current shows that I find interesting, but I’m waiting for the next big character-driven show that makes me miss the characters between episodes. I don’t have HBO, but according to many of my friends whose judgment I trust, Game of Thrones is probably one that I would dig quite a bit. I was able to watch the first season recently, and they may be right!

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

My first staff job was cutting news. My second job was staff editor at a facility that did a lot of marketing & training work with the Fortune 500 companies and the like that are headquartered in & around Minneapolis & St. Paul. Now that I’m freelance, many of my clients are corporate, medical & government. We do the standard fare of marketing, informational, patient-focused, physician-focused, customer-focused, employee-focused & training videos. I also do a bit of pre-event video production for live events, editing on-site for live presentation during events, as well as post-event documentation for posterity. I also have done series work for production companies with contracts with HGTV, The Travel Channel, & Discovery Networks. I’ve done spot work and narrative work. I’ve done promotional videos, training videos and web videos. I did a series of eye surgery videos.

If you could meet any editor, who & why?

I had the opportunity to get Walter Murch water during a Las Vegas FCPUG SuperMeet several years ago. He is very generous in sharing his experiences with the next generation(s). Though I was able to hang out backstage, we didn’t have the opportunity to have a personal chat, so I’d love to sit and listen to his stories and have perhaps ask a question or two. Also, Marcia Lucas. I recently read an article about the making of the first Star Wars movie and her contributions to the script as well as in the edit suite. It would have been a very different film had it not been for Marcia Lucas’ vision of the characters.

What advice can you offer to get through complex edits?

Break it down. Find the pieces. Find where the middle is and where the edges are. Find out who has final say early on & try to get them involved in the process if you can. There’s almost nothing worse than spending three weeks on a project and getting to the end and finding out that your client’s boss wants to rewrite everything because they never were given the opportunity to read the original draft. Also, take breaks. Recharging makes the work go faster in the end.

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

Plug-ins that fix problems are very helpful. I have seven different ways to do a light pass, & that’s great. I use some of them for different reasons depending on the circumstance. But I love plug-ins that solve problems or improve workflow. Automatic Duck, before it was released in to the wild, solved so many workflow problems for me. Though not strictly a plug-in in all cases, it is/was a peripheral piece of software that let me spend less time doing the tedious bits and more time doing the interesting bits. I also am a fan of Intelligent Assistant’s products for the same reason. I have been using 7-to-X and Event Manager for a few months now as I figure out my workflow for FCPX. The amount of things I didn’t have to re-do when translating a recurring FCP Classic project to FCPX was stunning. And though not plug-ins in the traditional sense, I recently acquired a few volumes from Rampant Design and hope to use them more in future projects when I get my next chance to be more design-y.

How does the director-editor relationship work for you?

Most of my clients & I have been working together for quite a while. When we are working together, we sometimes are extensions of each other’s brains. I know what they want because they know what they need to tell me to get the results they want, but they don’t always need to use all the words. One producer says of our relationship, “When I say it needs to be blue, you already know what shade of blue I want”. I have several producers that I can read like a book. I can tell when they are frustrated. Sometimes it’s with the client. Sometimes, yes, it’s true, it’s with me. We talk about the project, the process, where we are and where we should be. I talk openly about budget. I take responsibility when I made a mistake & I fix it. If my producer makes a mistake, and I need to fix it and there’s no budget, I fix it anyway. If the paying client makes a mistake and there’s no budget to fix it, then we discuss the situation to see if it warrants additional billing before I fix it anyway. I have only once felt like it was necessary to stop work because the project rapidly outgrew the budget because the producer failed to rein in the client and manage their expectations.

How do you deal with problem clients/directors?

I go back to that advice Steve gave me all those years ago, I remind myself that “It’s not about me”. I do my job. I offer suggestions when appropriate, but experience also tells me when the person on the other end is unreceptive to input from the editor, & I’m really just there to push the buttons in the right order. Sometimes the situation calls for the ol’ saying, “Smile and take their money”. And later decide if you want to risk it again if they call back with another project. Sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes you just know it will never be worth it, & sometimes you have to take the chance that you can learn to work together over the course of a couple of projects. It’s rarely smooth-sailing the first few projects together. Either you can figure out what makes each other tick, or you can’t. Sometimes it really is a personality conflict. Not everyone gets along with & understands how best to work with everyone else. Sometimes it’s best to part ways amicably and hope they still feel they can recommend you to someone else who has a different working style.

What’s your overall philosophy about editing?

As one of the editor’s I used to assist is very fond of saying, “Sure beats working for a living”. There are plenty of jobs I could be out there doing to put a roof over our heads and food on our table. And I might even make more money doing some of them. But what we do, though it has it’s moments of tedium punctuated with long hours & adrenaline-soaked deadlines, is not a rote, 9-to-5, rat-racey, working for the WEENUS kind of job. Most days, I love what I do, and the rest of them, well, they don’t add up enough to make it worth doing the math to add them up.

Name one thing that you would tell an aspiring editor

If you don’t speak up, they won’t hear you. Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut. This is a career of dichotomies, ironies & contradictions. Learn to be flexible and the Edit River will take you exactly where you need to go.

Follow Deb on twitter @debesch for more insights on her editing journey.

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