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Q&A with Michael Wohl

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Michael Wohl talks about the best updates to Final Cut Pro 7, the most exciting developments in the world of film and video editing, and what it takes to be a good editor.
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Peachpit: Apple Pro Training Series: Final Cut Pro 7 Advanced Editing is considered by many to be the Bible for learning Final Cut Studio, why do you think this is?

Michael Wohl: Well, my approach has always been more about teaching the "why" of editing than just the "how." Lots of books explain what each button and control does, but if you don't know when and where to employ each tool, it's not going to help make you a better editor. Just because you know how to make marks with a pen on paper doesn't make you a writer, and correspondingly, just knowing how to operate the software doesn't make you an editor. This book bridges that gap, teaching you the sophisticated techniques, tricks and shortcuts that will speed your work, improve your bad habits, and help you keep your focus on telling the story, not on the technology you have to use along the way.

Peachpit: Who needs to read your book?

Michael: Advanced Editing doesn't assume you're already a master, just that you know the very basics of how the software works—that way we can build on that foundation and go deeper into the really cool stuff. While the book is called "advanced," I think it's really more appropriate for intermediate users. It's ideal for people who are self-taught and don't want to wade through all the super-basic instruction in Apple Pro Training Series: Final Cut Pro 7 or for people who have read that book or taken that first course and want to take their editing to the next level.

Peachpit: What parts of the new book do you think are most exciting for readers and students? Which chapters did you have the most fun with, and why?

Michael: Different people have different "Aha!" moments depending on the types of shows they cut, but there are amazing little bits and pieces in almost every chapter. For me, teaching this book in the classroom is so exhilarating because of the looks of sheer joy I get when we come across one of the great shortcuts, time-savers, or creativity-inspiring techniques. Often it's the simple stuff; one little trick that will save you hours and hours of time, or mastering a new tool that makes the editing process more fun. I often take some of that stuff for granted, but when a student suddenly "gets" how much time the Ripple tool can save them, or how to use Gang Sync to speed up their workflow, or how fun editing multiclips can be, or how easy and intuitive it is to do cool compositing effects...and on and on, every time I get so excited, knowing how much even a little thing can improve not just the editor's experience, but it can improve the resulting content—which is, after all, what it's all about.

Peachpit: What will readers find on the DVD that comes with the book?

Michael: There's a whole bunch of great projects to work with, each specifically tailored to demonstrate and illuminate the different tools and aspects of the program. Also, there are examples of a variety of types of content, each of which makes use of different tools and techniques in the software including dramatic footage, sports, documentary, music video, and much more. It's all professionally shot, often from familiar commercial sources, and each project contains all the raw footage so you can experiment on your own, and really master the different tools, even after you've gone through the specific lessons in the book.

Peachpit: What's the most interesting or useful addition to Final Cut Pro 7 for advanced editors?

Michael: For me, it's the little things that matter the most. In this latest release, there are dozens of tiny tweaks that really improve the editing experience, but many of them are too arcane to explain here. My favorites are peppered throughout the book where you can see in context why a new command like Match Frame Subclip Master Clip, or Ripple Sequence Markers really improves your editing experience (though here, out of context, they sound ridiculously dry and inconsequential). I will say that the new variable speed tools are really fun and easy to use (and they're a vast improvement over previous versions). That, and the new colored markers, which may seem cosmetic, but is actually a dramatic improvement in functionality. Already I can't imagine how I lived without them.

Obviously there are lots of great new features in Final Cut Pro 7. Is there anything you'd hoped for that wasn't in this upgrade, and which you're still hoping will be in the next?

There are always things that are missing. In fact there are still features that were in our original spec for Final Cut Pro Version 1 that are still not there in Version 7! There are a few things I'm still hoping will come along soon though, like a better way to manage browser columns and item-specific undo.

Peachpit: When you teach Advanced FCP to your UCLA students, what are they most excited about?

Michael: At UCLA we're committed to instilling in our grad students a strong sense of storytelling and of clarity of vision. We are not training technicians there, we're training filmmakers. I put a lot of emphasis in the idea of controlling the viewer's point of focus, which can be done through choice of shots, composition within shots, and through juxtaposition of images in editing. That said, the students there get just as excited as anyone else learning advanced editing techniques such as when I finally wean them from the Razor Blade tool and get them doing real trimming. It's fun, speeds their work, and allows them to keep the emphasis on the story.

Peachpit: As part of the original Final Cut Pro engineering team, you helped design the workflow and interface that has earned Final Cut Pro its award-winning reputation. How do you see the current evolution of Final Cut, particularly in light of all-digital workflows?

Michael: I'm incredibly proud of how Final Cut Pro has grown and how the team continues to improve the editing experience, creating elegant, intuitive, powerful features that facilitate the creative goals of our users. None of us ever could have imagined the number of people now using the software, as well as the wide range of places it's being used. As for all-digital workflows, currently there are too many standards and too many subtly different workflows you have to keep track of if you're using a variety of cameras, but inevitably that will get smoothed out and the editors can go back to their main job. That said, I think Final Cut Pro has done a great job of remaining format agnostic, happily working with just about any footage you can think of, even mixing and matching from different ones and keeping the hard work required hidden under the hood. To the user, once your stuff is ingested, you can edit the same way and still take advantage of all the amazing tools available in the software. All-digital workflows greatly simplify what used to be the most tedious and error-prone part of the editing process [ingesting footage]. While there are still kinks to work out, it's already hard to imagine going back to the technology of even a few years ago.

Peachpit: What do you see as some of the most exciting new developments in the world of film/video editing?

Michael: it's impossible to ignore the significance of 3D technology, both in terms of acquisition and exhibition, and I think it's clear that the next decade is going to see a wholesale transformation into a more immersive experience using these technologies and—more importantly—the related technologies we haven't even thought of yet. When you combine that with the incredible sophistication of computer-generated content, which is becoming indistinguishable from photographed images, and is simultaneously becoming available to a much broader group of content creators, we're really on the cusp of a whole new type of content creation. While Avatar shows the promise of these technologies, it will be the independent visionaries who expand the moviegoing experience in ways beyond our wildest imaginations.

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?

Michael: I went to film school where I was taught both the mechanics of filmmaking technology and the mechanics of storytelling. Neither is very useful without the other (unless you want to to stick to writing novels). While that education was enormously helpful, it's the 18+ years of experience since then that have made me the editor I am.

My first advice to new editors is simply to cut anything and everything they can get their hands on. There is simply no substitute for experience, and taking on new projects will inevitably force you to keep up on the current trends both creatively and technologically. I'd also say, however, that if you're focused on "breaking into the industry," you're stuck in an antiquated mindset. There are tens of thousands of competent editors working in Los Angeles alone, and only a few hundred "industry" jobs. The reality is that working as an editor is never again going to be as lucrative as it was ten or twenty years ago, but that doesn't mean there isn't tons of work. There is an ever-expanding utilization of video content in an ever-expanding field of exhibition methods (TV, phones, kiosks, video walls, airplane seats, bar bathrooms, and of course on your trusty computer screen). All that video needs to be cut, and the fundamental rules of storytelling haven't changed. Master those rules (and stay on top of its constant evolution) and you'll be able to get work.

But no matter what, make sure you are enjoying the process. If you love the methodical (and often tedious) process of editing then you'll be happy no matter what footage you're cutting. If you're only in it for the fantasy that you're going to someday get a star on Hollywood Boulevard, you're going to be spending a whole lot of hours in a dark room dreaming of the future instead of enjoying the present.

Peachpit: You are an instructor at UCLA, you write, direct and edit independent films, and you're a bestselling author: where do you get the energy and inspiration?

Michael: I know it sounds kinda cheesy, but I'm inspired by the idea of storytelling. Whether I'm teaching others the tools, or exercising them myself, it's all about communicating knowledge to the community around us. Story is an ancient recipe for sharing the most important and deep types of knowledge. It's one of the most sacred and fundamental tools we have to help us grow and evolve as a society. And there's really no substitute.

For example, you can try to tell a child not to touch a hot stove, but it's not until they have the personal experience that the lesson is made clear. But through story she can learn and grow without having to suffer real pain. Instead of having to burn herself, the fictional character does it for her, but make no mistake, the lesson is learned. While a film may be overkill to teach something so simple as the visceral danger of fire, it's the only tool we have for teaching the deeper values that matter most; such as, courage, how to love, how to grieve, and how to be better human beings.

That is what inspires me, keeps me going, and why I've dedicated my life to not just telling my own stories, but encouraging others to share theirs too. And if writing a book like this one will help make people more effective storytellers, and in turn, helps get another inspiring and enlightening film made, I am, in my small way, helping create a better world.

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