By The Book

When I direct, I am fastidious. Nothing gets past me. I make sure that if I can’t take camera and sound notes, there’s someone who will. I try to plan things out in as much detail as possible, but stay prepared for the plan to go awry and have some way of keeping track of the way things changed. It’s not what you imagine when you think of the glamorous world of film making, but neither is the crafts services table. Maybe it’s my time at NYU that made me this way, though probably not given the fly by the seat of my pants approach I used then. Maybe it’s the time I spent as a PA for Warner Brothers, though I had little responsibility then. I think, if anything, my attitude came from time I spent with Thor The Barbarian, a dear friend of mine who produced three seasons of great independent TV in New York, starting in 2000. We knew things never went as planned, and that the ability to improvise, to talk you way past disagreeable people and to keep it together was essential. We didn’t overload our crew with too many responsibilities, so no one ever cut corners and our editing staff (three FCP editors, including me) was never overburdened.

Not so however, when I’m only the editor. Often, I feel like a maid, sent in to clean up the mess left by the director. Take, for example, this anonymous batch of footage. It’s supposed to sync up, but someone recorded it on one camera at one speed and the other camera at another speed. The end result is two clips of the same action with the same actors at the same time that cannot sync up. What a waste.

Two shots of the same subject shot at the same time but do not sync.

I think much of the problem with film these days is that people think that because anyone can afford editing software and a camera, that anyone knows what they need to know in order to be a director or editor. Not so. Jack Warner once said “I don’t get what the big deal is about writing. It’s just putting one word after another.” That attitude is not seen as helpful in any quarter of the film industry, and yet people feel exactly that way about every other job in film.

There are things that are a certain way because they work a certain way and when someone does them differently, it tells you something about their background. If an actor prints his or her CV on the back of their headshot rather than stapling it, it means they don’t work very much, otherwise they’d need to update the CV often and therefore need to staple it to the back of the photo. If a sculptor has long hair, it tells you either he or she doesn’t work with stone very much, because stone dust collects in hair.

A clapper board (or slate) is used to do several things. First of all, it tells the editor what shot is which, where to look for sound (if recorded separately) if they should look for sound at all (if the shot is silent, or MOS, the clapper loader puts their index finger between the sticks of the slate when they hold it in the shot) if there are multiple cameras it should say what reels the shot is being recorded to, sometimes it will even have the timecode displayed on it.

Its most obvious function though, is to synchronize the sound between shots and depending on the production, separately recorded sound. This is not complicated to figure out. If you’re the editor, the sound of the clapper board has to line up with the first frame when the sticks come together. That means if the sticks are blurry or obscured in any way, it won’t work because you could be a frame out in either direction (or more) without knowing it. It means the clapper needs to be near the microphones or at least miced in the same way as everything else, so there’s no lag between the image and the sound reaching the microphone.

The most important thing though, is that the clapper’s top stick falls on the bottom one. This is to keep the sticks from blurring when they come together. Some people who don’t know what they are doing will lift the clapper up to the top stick, blurring not just the moment they sticks meet but also all the information on the slate. Some people clap their hands together, which in an emergency can work, but needs to be done the same way as the clapper is operated, not by clapping like you’ve just seen a Broadway show. Finally, there is the snapping of fingers, which, like the others, is equally stupid and useless. All of these are the hallmarks of the amateur film maker and sadly, some of the directors I’ve had to pick up after. Honestly, I’ve had an easier time doing honeywagon duty on a farm.

It’s important people know how to do these things properly, not to make me happy, but because it makes the film work.  I may have to forgo the use of certain shots because someone decided to cut corners.  It certainly takes more time in postproduction to get things to work when a director pulls this kind of act, and in the end, it’s not up to the director what the film looks like.  It’s the editor’s choice.

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