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Editing Perfectionism: The Right Details

Don't Miss Something Easy Because of Something Hard By Charlie White
When watching a superb documentary about the late film director Stanley Kubrick, thoughts of perfectionism crossed my mind. Is it justified to be a perfectionist? Is it possible to ever achieve perfection? As digital video editors, should we even try to aim so high? It all boils down to humanity, time, and ultimately, money.

Even though Kubrick had a reputation as a perfectionist, I dont think he ever achieved perfection. Sure, he got close to it with almost all of his movies, but from an editors viewpoint, I think he could have used an editor with a bit more assertiveness. In his films, it seems like the editor felt that if Kubrick indeed needed 100 takes to get a shot as near-to-perfect as it could get, the least the editor could do was to leave it in the film. But I think, in his pursuit of perfection, Kubrick lost something in many of his expertly-crafted shots -- spontaneity. And whoever edited his work (himself a lot of the time) needed to pick up the pacing a bit, in my opinion.

We can learn a lot from Kubrick. The main thing is this: If Kubrick, perhaps one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, couldnt achieve perfection, can I? Uh, no. After all, Im only human. So, maybe perfection isnt something we can ever achieve, but that doesnt mean we shouldnt strive for it. It just means that we shouldnt expect it, especially if we have a limited budget of time and money. Too much perfectionist thinking and striving will inevitably end up in disappointment. But still, I never want to give up what director Oliver Stone likes to call the "fight for quality." There are always those who will oppose you in your battle for greatness. Many times its up to you, the expert editor, to decide which details are worth fighting for and which arent going to make any difference.

I once had a brilliantly inspiring, albeit maddeningly demanding teacher named Herbert Hazelman who laid down an axiom that Ill never forget because it applies so well to so many things, not least-of-all digital video editing. "Hazelmans First Law" was relentlessly pounded into my head like so: "Dont miss something easy because of something hard." A common beginner mistake in editing is paying an inordinate amount of attention to one tiny unnoticeable detail, and in so doing, missing an easily-fixed and glaringly obvious fundamental element. An example would be getting so caught up in trimming one frame or color correcting one shot somewhere in a sequence that you miss the fact that two of the easily-replaced shots in that sequence are woefully out-of-focus.

So, pay attention to detail, sure, but pay attention to the right details. I do believe that the secret to high quality video production is in the details, but not in the details that no one but you will ever see in a million years. If you have all the time in the world and an unlimited budget, go ahead and pay attention to all the details. If not, then practice triage, where only the elements that are noticeable will get your undivided attention. From your own editing experience, recall which details to which you've paid attention made a big difference in the final product and which ones were a total waste of time. Get a second pair of eyes to look at a piece you're working on, and see if someone else thinks that detail you're wrestling with is as noticeable as you think it is. Keep in mind that when you're looking at the same sequence all morning, you can see tiny nuances in there that only someone who has seen it fifty times will notice.

In all this talk of details and perfection, Im reminded of the Shakers, the fundamentalist throw-back religious folks who are well-known for their simply styled but nearly perfect furniture craftsmanship. In their view, only god can be perfect, so in each of their furniture creations they add one barely noticeable flaw, just so theyll stay on good terms with their maker by not challenging his perfection. So, if youre ever frustrated by your slightly imperfect video production, just say to yourself that youre only trying to keep from being struck by lightning. And finally, if you ever really do achieve absolute perfection, please, please, tell us all how you did it, so we can all bow at your feet in worship.

Charlie White, your humble storytellerCharlie White has been writing about new media and digital video since it was the laughingstock of the television industry. A technology journalist and columnist for the past seven years, White is also an Emmy-winning producer, video editor and shot-calling PBS TV director with 26 years broadcast experience. Talk back -- Send Chazz a note at [email protected].

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