Consider this the white flag on, among other things, my e-mail inbox. I used to try to return all my fan mail within a day, but then this matter of my first quarter of film school came flying in like a defensive end from my blind side annihilated me. I feel as if someone tied a rope around my waist while I wasn't looking and then attached the other end to a giant parachute that they tossed up into a raging gale. One minute I'm standing there, and then suddenly I'm yanked off my feet and dragged through the forest, struggling the whole way to detach myself, to no avail.
I moved to LA and had about three days to unpack and settle in before school started, and the rest has just been a blur. For some reason, perhaps stupidity, I didn't anticipate the first year of film school being so packed wall-to-wall with class. Morning, afternoon, evening, even Saturdays, we all seemed to live at school. I've never lived in a city for so long and seen so little of it. I've worn a deep path between my apartment and the school parking garage, and that's about it. I don't even know the entire campus; the only portion I'm really familiar with is the section where the film school is.
Yesterday I threw out about five-foot tall stack of unread Sunday NYTimes, only to discover another stack of equal height behind it. The newspaper stack is flanked by two towers of magazines, the whole thing resembling a sort of Petronas Towers of print media. The good thing is that if there's a nuclear winter, I should be able to keep warm for months by using it as kindling.
This last week, my classmates and I have grown more and more exhausted as hour upon hour of editing on the flatbeds have begun to take their toll. I can't recall another week in this century when I've strung together so many nights with just a few hours of sleep. The other day, I wandered from the sixth floor of my parking garage down to the third before I found my car because I couldn't remember which level I'd parked on. I couldn't even remember parking it at all.
Editing on 16mm film on a flatbed is one of those experiences which we'll speak of fondly in hindsight, but when in the midst of it, more than one of us nearly succumbed to frustration and despair. More than one of us has had to field a phone call from a crazed classmate and to talk that classmate back from the ledge. Having learned to edit on a computer, I had an especially hard time getting used to the idea that cutting in a single piece of footage could take ten minutes as opposed to 20 seconds.
This is how nearly all major motion pictures were edited for years and years! It's almost as difficult to fathom as the stories my dad used to tell me about programming a computer by feeding it punch cards. I hadn't thought about how slow the editing process would be when I wrote my script consisting of back and forth dialogue for about three minutes straight. As a result, I had to make nearly 40 cuts. You bet I looked on with deep envy at those folks who had films consisting of four or five long takes spliced together.
At the same time, I now understand why certain filmmakers, like Scorsese and Spielberg, held out as long as possible before moving to digital non-linear editing (in the case of Scorsese, it was his editor Schoonmaker who made the switch, but he went along begrudgingly). For one thing, there's a certain discipline and care that working with actual film engenders. Being in a dark room with a trim bin filled with hundreds of feet of film, working on a flatbed machine the size of a compact car, feeling the film run over your fingers...at no other point this quarter did I understand as clearly that filmmaking is a craft as much as it is an art. Sure, a dish prepared in a microwave oven is going to be ready faster than one baked in a real oven, but you also taste the difference.
Making a cut that works is much more satisfying on the flatbed. By the time I finished cutting my film, I'd gained an intuitive sense of how many frames I needed to add in or pull out to get the timing I wanted. You can build a similar sense of timing on a computer, but with film, the relationship between time and linear distance (the length of film in your hand) is fixed.
That bright semicircle of light? That's the end of the tunnel. Thursday we screen our movies on the big screen, Friday we meet with faculty for the end of quarter evaluation, and Saturday I fly back into the arms of NYC for the holidays.
Yesterday I spent a couple hours capturing foley for my film. The clicking of a woman's heels on linoleum, the scraping noise of a wooden chair being pushed back or pulled forward against the ground, the rustling of a woman searching through her purse, even the chafing of fabric against fabric as jackets are put on or removed. I projected my movie on a large screen and sat in the recording booth while a classmate outside would walk in heels in time to the movements of the actress on screen, or sit down and stand up while putting on or removing jackets of various fabrics.
Professional foley artists have one of the most fun jobs around.
When I went back in to add the foley to my sound mix, every sound that matched the action on screen gave me a silent thrill. The engaging sense of hyper-realism that comes from watching a Hollywood narrative film comes in large part due to the clean sound from foley, something that's difficult to capture with the mics on location or on a camcorder.
Today I finished my sound mix. I had to go back to my Nagra tape and recapture a take because my actress's lines got clipped when I transferred to CD-R. The Nagra is an old sound recording device, analogous in age to the flatbed in editing. We used the legendary 4.2, pictured below. I believe it was in the third episode of season one of The Wire when McNulty or one of his peers complained about still having to use a large, clunky Nagra taped inside his shirt to do surveillance when the FBI had moved on to stealthier, more compact, wireless recording devices.
The Nagra is bulky and heavy, but it has one thing going for it. No matter how hot the sound, it's nearly impossible to cause the Nagra to distort. It has an amazingly wide latitude and forgiveness and can capture the most dynamic ranges of sound with ease. But transfer to CD and you bump heads with the lousy dynamic range of digital sound. A shouted line that sounded beautiful on the Nagra clipped when I transferred it to CD, and so I had to recapture with a lower input level on the CD Recorder to remove the distortion in the line reading. Digital sounds has its conveniences, but it's still trying to catch up to analog sound in quality.
Thursday all of our movies will show on the big screen at school. I'm excited to see everyone's work projected large. The improvement in home theater technology this past decade has been great, but I'm not one of those who prefers watching movies at home just because of the cost or inconvenience of going to a movie theater, dealing with lines and rude people talking on cell phones. Seeing a face projected twenty feet high fundamentally changes your experience of the movie, and so does seeing it in the company of others.