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Q&A with Norman Hollyn

Norm Hollyn chats with Peachpit about his new book, The Film Editing Room Handbook, including how he broke into film editing, the danger in chasing the technical cutting edge, and where he gets his inspiration.
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Peachpit: The title of your book is The Film Editing Room Handbook: How to Survive the Chaos of the Editing Room. What’s the chaos, and who needs to survive?

Norm Hollyn: Editing any sort of project – whether it’s a film, television, web series, corporate video, low budget or high budget – is getting increasingly more complex. With the proliferation of camera formats, editing platforms and distribution channels, it’s pretty chaotic out there in the post-production world. If you’re working on a project with one or more assistants, then they are going to see the chaos. If you don’t have that sort of budget then it’s all going to fall to you to organize your editing world.

As far as the second part of your question, I think that it’s obvious – everyone needs to survive. Whether you’re working on a feature that comes out in the theaters in five months, or trying to deliver a corporate video tomorrow, it’s easy to get disorganized in today’s editing rooms. And that will lead to lost time, lost income and a ton of frustration.

Peachpit: What do you think readers will find most useful about your book? Can you point out one of your favorite sections?

Norm: The book is really a tour of the entire filmmaking process, from the point of view of the editing room and the assistant editor. How does a musical, or a documentary, or a high-end feature film, move through its life? How can I avoid the pitfalls that I don’t even know are pitfalls? I deal with that in my book. So I think that anyone who wants to understand how to help themselves to do things right in the editing room is going to find this useful.

I’ve also had a lot of positive comments on previous editions from people who weren’t editors and, in fact, weren’t even filmmakers, but wanted to know how films were made in the editing room.

One of my favorite sections of the book is the chapter called “The Hardest Job Of All – Finding A Job.” There are plenty of books on the market that tell you how to push the buttons on a variety of editing machines, but nothing really on how to use those skills to get a job. That is getting increasingly harder, as more and more people do the work, at cheaper and cheaper rates. You’ve got to figure out some way of differentiating yourself from the next person. And I talk a lot about that in the chapter.

Peachpit: The Film Editing Handbook is now in its fourth edition. What are some of the changes you have seen in the world of editing since the last edition, and how does the new book address these changes?

Norm: When I did the first edition, it was all about feature filmmaking using celluloid. When I did the last edition (the third) I used alternating chapters between celluloid and digital, but still concentrated on the world of New York and Hollywood filmmaking. In this edition, celluloid is virtually gone, and I’ve moved more into a world when anyone can be editing on their computers – it’s not just about the two major U.S. film capitols anymore.

Peachpit: How would you compare The Film Editing Room Handbook with your other critically acclaimed Peachpit/New Riders book, The Lean Forward Moment?

Norm: They are entirely different looks at the filmmaking process. The Lean Forward Moment is about the way you can shape the way in which you tell your stories, scene-by-scene, beat-by-beat. It’s about writing, directing, cinematography, sound, production design, producing and editing. The Film Editing Room Handbook is about editing and about organizing yourself to edit better. It’s not about aesthetics, it’s about setting up an editing room so you can concentrate on the aesthetics. In that way, they really complement each other!

Peachpit: How did you get your start in a film editing career? Did you have a formal training in film editing? What advice would you give to new editors who want to break into the industry, or editors who want to remain at the cutting edge of their industry?

Norm: My editing training came in a way that doesn’t really exist anymore — from standing next to amazing editors like Alan Heim, Lynzee Klingman, Gerry Hambling and Barry Malkin on films like Lenny, Network, and Fame, handing them little pieces of film and listening to them talk to their directors. It was almost a little game that I played with myself when I was assistant as I tried to predict which piece of film they would ask for next – the closeup on Faye Dunaway? The two shot with Dustin Hoffman? I was able to learn both the aesthetics of editing and the politics of the editing room by apprenticing to these people.

I made a lot of films myself when I was in college, though my university didn’t have a film program. I just convinced my theater professors to let me do films instead of term papers. That, and my apprenticeships in the New York editing world, were what helped me to learn what to do and how to move up to being a good editor. Nowadays, there’s very little opportunity to learn really good practices and proper editing room etiquette and behavior. I’m hoping that we do that in film schools today. My book is an attempt to bring some of that apprenticeship to people who can’t go to film school.

As far as editors staying at the cutting edge of their industry (whatever one it is), that’s a double-edged sword. Whenever I finish a job and stick my head back out into the world, it seems like there are a new codecs, new cameras, new workflows (now there’s a word that we had never heard of five years ago) and new challenges. So, it’s important that editors stay on top of these things.

On the other hand, it’s way too easy to get sidetracked into chasing the technical cutting edge, and forgetting that most producers and directors hire us because we are good at putting stories together. So, the best advice I’d give editors today is to stay on top of it all – read magazines and web sites about filmmaking and editing technology, go to see movies but also attend user group meetings to learn about new technologies, and keep an energetic and open outlook on all aspects of the industry.

Peachpit: You head up the editing track at the School of Cinematic Arts at USC, speak and lead panels at conferences worldwide, and write bestselling books: Where do you get the energy and inspiration!?

Norm: My wife says that if I wasn’t doing so many things I’d invent some, just to be busy. That’s how my metabolism works. I get energy from working with great people and doing creative things, so I’m constantly looking for new experiences. Speaking and teaching in the Middle East or in China gives me as much satisfaction as editing at home. In the 21st century, editors can’t stay cocooned in their little editing rooms. We have to get out there and do a lot of things. It’s not just me. It’s all of us in today’s world.

Peachpit: You have worked with some of the world’s most renowned directors including Francis Ford Coppola, Alan J. Pakula and Sidney Lumet. How did this experience inform your approach to film editing?

Norm: And don’t forget Alan Parker. He’s done such a wide variety of exciting projects that it was great to watch him work.

I believe that every experience you have helps you to meet the next one better. I learned storytelling from the directors I’ve worked with, and that’s still one of my great strengths. I’m also known as an actor’s editor, and I know that I got that by listening to Sidney Lumet talk with Alan Heim, and working with a director like Jason Alexander. I also learned how to work with large crews from directors like Coppola and Lumet. And I learned how to have fun while working hard from a director like Michael Lehmann on Heathers. And I can’t even begin to tell you how much these experiences have informed my sense of teaching.

Peachpit: Who are some of your favorite filmmakers?

Norm: I like directors who do different things in ways that push themselves. Stanley Kubrick made films that I can watch over and over, to this day. Bernardo Bertolucci and Federico Fellini kept pushing envelopes. Then there were great Hollywood directors like John Ford and Preston Sturges. But, boy, that makes me sound old, doesn’t it? It’s not that I don’t like plenty of modern movies – directors like Jason Reitman, Sam Mendes, and almost anything that Pixar releases. It’s just that I think I need to wait for a larger body of work from them, to answer your question properly.

Peachpit: We heard a rumor that you are launching a brand new video podcast with fellow Peachpit/New Riders author Larry Jordan – can you tell us more?  

Norm: Ah, filmmaking rumors. Don’t you love them?

But they’re true. We’re working on a series of video podcasts called 2 Reel Guys. We’ve got about ten done right now, and will be shooting ten more soon. I’ll let you know when the time is right but, basically, they deal with something I said way back at the beginning of this interview. There are plenty of resources that tell you what buttons to press and how. 2 Reel Guys tells you why you’d press those buttons. It’s all about storytelling, and deals with a lot of the same things that I talk about in The Lean Forward Moment.

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