USC Hosts ‘Cutting It in Hollywood’ Seminar
by Edward Landler
photos by Matthew Meier
Last year, Mitchell Danton, ACE, published a book — Cutting It in Hollywood: Top Film Editors Share Their Journeys — which was reviewed in CineMontage (Fall 2015) and already is in its second edition. A graduate of the USC School of Cinema and Television, a four-time Primetime Emmy nominee and an Emmy and Eddie Award winner as part of the team that edited the miniseries The Path to 9/11 (2006), Danton recently returned to his alma mater, now the USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA), for an evening seminar inspired by his book.
On Wednesday, March 23, an eager audience packed an SCA auditorium for the seminar, titled “Cutting It in Hollywood: How to Break into Film Editing and Succeed as an Editor in Film and Television.” Presented by the School’s Production Editing Track, the panel discussion was produced and moderated by Danton and SCA Editing Track Head Nancy Forner, ACE, a veteran with over 30 years’ experience in TV and features (Law & Order, Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
The seminar drew its panel from the 23 editors who shared their insights with Danton in his book. In his opening remarks, the editor/author said, “Our esteemed panelists will share their experience about how they made their film editing aspirations a reality and offer guidance on how you can break into film editing.”
With four Primetime Emmy nominees and one Oscar nominee among them, the panelists were:
Nena Hsu Erb (Zoe Ever After, Dancing with the Stars)
Billy Fox, ACE (Straight Outta Compton, Emmy winner for Law & Order)
Paul Karasick (The Flash, The Mentalist)
Ivan Ladizinsky (Survivor, Action)
Mary Jo Markey, ACE (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Emmy winner for Lost)
Ron Rosen (Godzilla, Friday Night Lights).
David Rogers, ACE (Emmy winner for The Office), was also scheduled but wound up working late directing an episode of The Mindy Project (2012-present), which he also edits.
Mitchell Danton, left, Nena Hsu Erb, Paul Karasick, Ivan Ladizinsky, Billy Fox, Ron Rosen and Nancy Forner.
Before the program started, Associate Professor Forner described for the MPEG website the training offered in USC’s Editing Track: “We have over 15 different editing classes in both the undergrad and graduate programs, and all students are required to take at least 12 of these. The editing faculty members are all working professionals in television, the theatrical world or documentaries. We also have three Avid-certified instructors.”
The school’s state-of-the-art facilities include over 200 Avid stations — all with Media Composer, DaVinci Resolve and Pro Tools — an ADR stage, a Foley stage, five large mixing stages, six smaller mixing stages, a Color Grading room and six private picture editing and six private sound editing suites for grad students working on their thesis films.
With panelists in rush-hour traffic delaying the start, Forner told the audience what she tells her editing students, “Being on time is being a half hour early,” and introduced Danton. He thanked her, the SCA, and former Editing Track Head Norman Hollyn, ACE (Heathers), who encouraged him on the book and later urged him to build a seminar around it. Danton also expressed gratitude to Oscar winner Michael Kahn, ACE (Saving Private Ryan), for writing the book’s introduction.
Characterizing editors as “cinema and television shadow warriors,” Danton asked the panelists to briefly sum up how they got their first break and what advice they had for students seeking jobs as assistant editors.
Taking “a very circuitous route to the editing room,” Erb started in production and bounced around a lot. She said, “Somehow I ended up as an associate producer working with an editor, and I realized, ‘This is cool, this is where everything comes together.’ I took a step back, went back to assisting, and my big break was when he hired me as an assistant.”
Erb’s advice centered on relationships. She said, “In film school, you’re meeting other people in the other filmmaking tracks; maintain the relationships you make now and rise with them. And reach out to editors whose work you admire — maybe they’ll have a cup of coffee with you.”
Nena Hsu Erb, left, Paul Karasick, Ivan Ladizinsky and Billy Fox.
Coming out of UC San Diego, Karasick expected to work in industrial video in San Diego, but working on the crew for a USC student project “lit a fire under me,” he said. “I was impressed by the professionalism, way beyond anything in San Diego. I moved to LA.”
His personal experience afterward was reflected in this advice: “The hardest thing was to get from school into the business where you had the opportunity to prove yourself… Getting that break, that first PA job is the inroad. Definitely make relationships, anything to show that you’re a go-getter to anybody.”
“I did not go to film school,” said Ladizinsky. He ran the dark room for a special effects company in Northridge and “learned the job at this house, cutting broadcast promos, commercials, animation.” On the side, though, over two years, he cut a friend’s first feature for nothing and it got into the Venice International Film Festival.
He went on, “Then after ten years as a freelance editor, one job, led to an accidental meeting with Survivor,” where he was to become a supervising editor. He advised, “Be enthusiastic, have good energy. If you want to cut and you’re an assistant, finish your work, have dinner and go back and cut stuff. You have a free system, free material and the editors will look at your stuff.”
Working a menial job at a San Diego TV station, Fox moved up when the person hired couldn’t do the job; this taught him that “when something happens, you got to be ready.” Moving to LA, he worked at NBC where, he said, “I learned cutting electronically. But I wanted to cut drama, and at that time all dramas were being done on film — the other side of the river. All of a sudden, the river just dried up. I worked freelance at edit facilities, growing and looking for the next opportunity and eventually I got on Law & Order where I worked with Nancy.
“It’s an awful lot of work,” Fox continued. “It’s slow but you got to love it. you have no personal life, but if you love it, you don’t mind; it’s a passion.”
Ivan Ladizinsky, left,Billy Fox, Ron Rosen, Mary Jo Markey and Nancy Forner.
Coming out of USC Film School, Rosen sent out 200 resumes and got two responses, one of which was an offer of a second assistant editor job on a low-budget film. He moved back and forth between assistant jobs and editing non-union features until he asked an editor with whom had worked, Joanna Cappuccilli, for an assistant job on ABC’s My So-Called Life (1994-95). He said, “She pushed for me to be an editor on the show, and I never assisted again.”
Rosen offered this advice: “Learn every system there is…assist all sorts of projects…and work for assistant editors. I always hire assistants on the recommendations of other assistants.”
As he concluded, Markey arrived on stage and jumped right in. “Place yourself in the path of someone who could help you,” she offered. While an assistant to Robert Redford on The Natural (1984), she realized she wanted to work in editing and he later got her an apprentice job on The Milagro Beanfield War (1988). She said, “You have to be the kind of employee that people want to help. Editing is full of nice people who will help you.”
Markey recommended keeping in touch with contacts. “It’s fine to call someone every two or three months,” she advised. “They tend to forget and most people are actually flattered when you ask them for help.” To rise from assistant to editor, she added, “a big part of success is a refusal to be denied.”
The moderator noted that Joseph M. Gonzalez became an editor because producers liked the TV series recaps he did as an assistant; Danton asked the others to weigh in on the subject.
An editor she worked with pushed Erb into editing. She said, “Who knows? Maybe someone will throw you in the deep end the way it happened to me.” Karasick presented the situation from the editor’s perspective: “It’s my job to cut the film, not to teach my assistant. But it’s my pleasure if it’s somebody I want to do that for. Do you want someone who doesn’t know the material or do you want someone who’s been in the room that whole time?”
Neither Ladizinsky nor Fox had ever been assistants. Fox, however, felt that how he got his job on Law & Order (1990-2010) was relevant. A friend recommended that he contact producer Daniel Sackheim. “No job then, but I kept in touch,” he said. “You’ve got to be pretty confident if you think you can do it — and you want to be just this side of a ‘noodge’.”
One time he called, the timing was right and he did one show. When that episode was done, he kept going in without being asked and sat in an empty editing room without work. Every few days, they would see he was there and give him footage. Eventually, he was hired and, he said, “I ended up working there nine years.”
Mitchell Danton, left, Nena Hsu Erb, Paul Karasick, Ivan Ladizinsky and Billy Fox.
In that situation or as an assistant, Rosen said, “You have to prove your work is letter perfect, and you need to cut as many scenes as you can.” Quoting Rosen from his book, Danton said, “‘Editing and assisting are very different, except for attention to detail…’ If you’re an assistant, make sure everything is right; if something goes wrong, everyone looks bad.”
After going back and forth from assisting to editing, Markey found she could always get work assisting but decided to work only as an editor. She said, “You don’t really learn until you’re responsible for the cut that goes out the door.”
After some lean years, she went into TV. “You meet so many directors in episodic television and I got so many opportunities I didn’t get in independent features,” she said. “You are really more powerful in TV than features. Features are totally a director’s medium; episodic TV is more a producer’s medium. You know the show and the directors will let themselves be guided by you.”
Danton noted that most editors in the book started in TV: “Even Michael Kahn has a Hogan’s Heroes story. Michael said, ‘The thing about film school that’s very valuable is learning how to speak the language.’”
Later, just as the discussion was opened to questions from the audience, Markey said, “Learning the language of cutting is great, but the other thing to get from your education is to study the arts, literature and the humanities to elevate your taste level. That’s the most important thing to bring to your editing work.”
From her time as an apprentice on The Milagro Beanfield War, she recalled legendary editor Dede Allen, ACE, telling her, “‘It’s not the cut; what’s important is the material that you’re putting in between the cuts that should be in the movie.’ You’re the only one who can look at that material and say that belongs in the movie,” Markey continued. “So, do whatever you can to elevate your taste level.”
The audience loudly applauded Markey’s statement, as moderator Forner said, “I think we do that here at USC,” and asked for questions.
The first question dealt with how someone gets into the union once they qualify. After editing non-union indies in the 1990s, Ladizinsky’s first union job was in television. He said, “I got into the union accidentally as an animation editor.”
Someone asked how the panelists deliberated about which job to take to help them more toward their future as an editor.
Markey responded, “I’ve turned down very few jobs. In terms of trying to shape a career, I’ve not been very good at that.” Karasick added, “There’s usually not multiple job offers at once, but try to look for where they create opportunities as opposed to where people camp out. Don’t quit is my further advice.” But, he noted, he only quit a job once and it was the right choice.
For a choice between a low-budget comedy and a TV show, Ladizinsky asked advice from a producer friend: “He asked, ‘Does the feature have any chance of getting an Oscar?’ I said, ‘No.’ ‘Take the TV show. Joel Silver’s producing it; it’ll do more for your feature career.’” Urging the audience to seek advice, the editor said, “People will talk to you; get their feedback.”
With series now on Internet sites, the question arose about how that was different from work in traditional TV. Regarding work schedules, Karasick said, “Television starts shooting in July and wraps in May; pilot season starts in March and April and delivers in May. With all the new venues, it’s more year-round with 13-episode orders rather than 23. People will start in June and end in October and then look for their next short gig. More options are opening up.”
Ivan Ladizinsky and Nancy Forner.
In addition, most of the Internet shows do not have commercial breaks. On regular TV, Markey said, “When you break for a commercial, you want to end on a compelling note so they won’t change the channel. You’re not a slave to breaks, which is great.”
Asked how they overcame their greatest editing challenges, Erb described her most recent show, a multi-camera situation comedy with 45-page scripts for 20-minute shows. She said, “They didn’t shoot it like a traditional multi-cam. They had a single-camera technique with a lot of moving camera to make it more dynamic, and it was hard to get 15 minutes cut out. It was brutal but we managed to do it.”
On an episode of The Flash (2014-present), Karasick was presented a different kind of challenge by a director who showed him no respect. His response, he said, was to “just realize his vision and keep it professional. He did wind up respecting me.”
When a Survivor (2000-present) contestant was badly burned, Ladizinsky found that the format of the show got in the way of the serious real-life material. He said, “I cut the emergency first and cut the show backwards. After Michael was evacuated, the others say a prayer with an ‘Amen’ and I said, ‘That’s it, that’s the end of the show.’”
Then it took the editor two weeks to convince the producers to cut out the tribal council which always ends the show. He concluded, “If you see a way of doing a scene better than designed, do it. What I also do is cut it both ways so they can look at both and decide.”
Dealing with a scene full of bad performances working on Felicity (1998-2000), Markey learned a valuable lesson from series co-creator Matt Reeves, “He said, ‘Let’s go through and find wherever we think a performance is good…and make it work,’” she said. “We picked what we thought was good, maybe eight moments, and rewrote the scene in the editing room.”
Offering a general rule when agonizing over a scene, Rosen said, “I get into my routine, break everything down to manageable pieces and I feel I have control.”
Addressing the question of what makes the difference between a good editor and a great editor,
Danton cited the work of Pietro Scalia, ACE (Gladiator): “Using jump cuts and juxtaposing images, he creates a mood — in a way to take you to another time and place.”
Fox said, “Shot selection is like breathing; you better know how to do it. A really good editor is someone who goes further into the cut, finding the emotion and the heartbeat. It’s not just the wide shot and the close shot.”
Karasick added, “It’s a wide range of things besides just the picture — being open to the change and the process besides just nailing right the first time.” To integrate these approaches, Markey suggested, “empathy and a knowledge of your own interior life. The more you can get inside the characters you’re working on, the more likely it is to draw the audience in emotionally.”
The final question of the evening revolved around self-doubt and criticism of one’s work. “Film school teaches you how to deal with everything except the pressure,” said Danton, quoting from Zene Baker, ACE (This Is the End), another contributor to his book.
Markey answered, “I subscribe to the theory, ‘Praise or blame, it’s all the same.’ I’ve literally had directors say, ‘It’s fantastic,’ and the next day, they say, ‘It sucks,’ and it’s the same cut. They’re going through their own emotional ups and downs and you cannot let yourself get taken on the ride with them. And you are not the only person responsible for the shape the show is in.”
Pointing out that it is part of the process, Karasick said, “It’s like water off a duck in terms of people’s attitude. In terms of editing, though, any cut you deliver should be ready for broadcast.” Ladizinsky noted, “If you are good at your craft, they know it.”
“And if you just do their notes, they will like it a lot better,” said Rosen, drawing a round of laughter and applause to close the discussion.
To listen to this podcast on iTunes, visit:
And for a video overview of the Production Division of the USC Film School, see:
Edward Landler is a filmmaker, media educator and film historian. He made
I Build the Tower, the definitive feature documentary on the Watts Towers, and is currently writing a cultural history of film. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.