Seeing a stack of tapes labeled and ready to gather dust on a shelf is a feeling of accomplishment I've never had before last week.
A full season of This American Land, in glorious HDCAM
Not because I've never really had physical copies of any of my work (although outside of a DVD or two, that's definitely true), but because this was my first time cutting for broadcast and I'm pleased to announce I didn't screw any of it up.
Before this show, I only occasionally had to worry about title safe lower thirds or broadcast safe colors -- when I worked those DVD projects. But finishing a 1080i show for TV and a simple DVD for an internal training video are basically night and day when you look at the delivery specifications for PBS. Most of my work before this had been a mishmash of stuff in a sequence that eventually got spit out into a 720p H264 file for YouTube, the kind of thing where you can easily hide mistakes and inadequacies. There's not a whole lot of hiding when you're delivering 1080i. You're pretty much just naked to the world there.
There have been a couple of blog posts and press things
floating around, but I couldn't let this milestone pass by without my own personal blog post to mark the occasion that I finished a television series and didn't screw up anything major.
The season storyboarded, daunting at first with every checkbox now filled. YAY.
THE TRIP FROM INDIANAPOLIS TO ATLANTA, AND FROM CORPORATE TO BROADCAST
I ended work at my last job on a Thursday. The following Thursday, I drove from Indianapolis to Atlanta to start work with Creative COW's Walter Biscardi at Biscardi Creative Media. By Monday afternoon, I was editing This American Land
By Tuesday night, I had a fever of 104 and was sitting in an urgent care center explaining the finer points of my bodily functions to a nurse practitioner. Somehow, I had gotten strep throat without any oral symptoms. I spent day three of my new job in bed unable to move, the grim reaper sitting in the corner of the room checking his watch periodically.
I got a shot of some kind of magic medicine that allowed me to eat and walk again, and I was cutting again on Thursday, because I am dumb.
You know how you feel after you've been circling the drain, right? As a result, I did a really crap job on my first cut and was rightfully informed as such. It was dumb to start working again so quickly. It's not like I was tied to my desk and forced to work. And it's not a simple task I could put myself on auto-pilot to finish.
And that was my first week in Atlanta, Georgia. Like an Olympic runner who slips and falls on their face at the starting block.
I don't like making excuses -- even if they're mostly legitimate, they're a waste of time. I took the feedback, learned from it, and fixed my edit. And as much as it sucked, I'm a tiny bit glad my first cut went like this. Lessons learned the hard way are often the stickiest. And what I learned here - about storytelling and my limits - is stuck permanently right in the front of my brain.
MAKING MISTAKES JUST HOW I LIKE 'EM
Happily enough, the challenges that followed did not stem from my storytelling skills being stunted by my brain swelling in my head and leaking out my ears (or whatever, that's what it felt like.) Mistakes were made fully conscious, just how I like 'em.
I really dig Premiere's sexy waveform views. There I said it.
Before this project, most of my paid editing work was very utilitarian -- mostly just getting things in the right order. One of the things I enjoyed the most on this show was the blend of the creative and technical challenges. Getting the opportunity to put all the knowledge I've been stockpiling from places like Creative COW to work -- to see if I really did know as much as I felt like I did, and learn even more -- was gratifying.
I was thrilled to be cutting stuff of quality, but there's also always something to consider or fix: a sound bite to repair, a camera nudge to cut around, a GoPro shot at the wrong frame size or frame rate. I like troubleshooting things and choosing a course of action. It's like a really weird puzzle. And it's job security.
The door to my edit room is pink.
Compared to FCP7 and Media Composer, I'd hardly used Adobe Premiere Pro before I jumped fully into it for This American Land
. Learning Premiere's way of doing things - or rather, unlearning all the stuff I HAD to do to keep FCP7 happy - was a challenge. It wasn't difficult to do in practice, but it was hard to wrap my mind around it in theory.
Between acclimating to a stand-up desk, or using a Wacom tablet and pen, or being in a dark room all day, though, switching NLEs was the least of my challenges in this new gig.
For the last four years, I was editing in a cubicle in a loud office next to a window. I spent most of the time huddled closely to my laptop screen, trying my hardest to concentrate. I always wondered if I would adapt too much to the loud bright editing experience, and I really did.
I found it difficult in my new gig to not
be able to sit dangerously close to the screen. There was almost TOO much space available for my use. Of course, I got over that in about a week.
And a week was all it really took when I attempted editing at a stand-up desk, and Wacom-ing instead of mousing. But being in a dark room with adjustable lights and an 18% gray wall, a room that's had thought put into it...I'm used to it, but trying not to take it for granted. Now I find it difficult to edit with a mouse and laptop at home these days. Of course I can do without, but the benefits to my editing from these peripherals is definitely measurable, maybe only because I'm happier.
Another job benefit: sharing a break table with a dog.
AN ODD DELIGHT
I never really thought I'd be using Premiere professionally until the last year or so. While I was pretty easily annoyed by CS6, Premiere Creative Cloud has been an odd delight to work with on a daily basis, mostly because it WORKS for shows like this.
I got all kinds of stuff thrown at me, sometimes having half-hour timelines with 7 or 8 different formats sitting in it. I had no performance issues. On an iMac. A good iMac, but still - an iMac
It takes a long while to load all the clips for a project with a lot of media references and there's no equivalent to transcode/consolidate for taking all those formats and making them into one nice little format for later.
Coming from FCP7, this was straight-up crazytown. I had gotten used to transcoding practically everything unless I had discovered a specific workflow in which the native media actually worked. But for the most part, everything was ProRes. And while hard drive space is cheap and plentiful, it was still an extra step and an extra bit of media to manage. I've had a number of conversations with editors that are trying to make the jump from something like FCP7 with its delicate sensibilities, and it's been going something like this:
"There's no log and transfer."
Yes, you just drag in media.
"But...no. I can't do that."
Yes, you can.
"NO I CAN'T, YOU ARE UNCLEAN."
Really, you can forget the FCP quirks. It's okay. The funny little Log and Transfer glitches. The still photo size limits. Even the H264 stuff (sorta, it's still not the greatest for editing.) Premiere has its own quirks, but they are fewer and far between. Why does it make me so happy to not have to resize images before I put them in my project? It's the little things.
(Most of the minor issues I ran into specifically on this show were legitimate bugs that Adobe noted, and even fixed during our production cycle.)
A BRAND NEW CONCEPT: TAPE
Speaking of my mind being wrapped around things, let's talk about tape.
I had to deliver shows on tape. A brand new concept for someone who finished a thing and uploaded it to YouTube in the past. Before, it was "Oh, it's wrong? Delete, upload again."
Not that tape is difficult. I mean, look at it. It's all old and junky. You hit the right buttons in the right order and it's just supposed to work. And it mostly did.
But when it didn't, I had the hardest time troubleshooting because I have no experience to rely upon. Is it me? Is it the machine? Both? NEITHER? I DUNNO. Well, it was USUALLY me, somehow. But a couple times it wasn't.
On one episode, after I thought I had truly gotten the hang of the easy 89 step process of laying a show to tape, I spent much longer than I thought I would trying to troubleshoot -- infuriating, because I HAD the episode all done, I just needed to do an insert to fix an error (of mine, of course) and it would NOT work. For no REASON.
After retracing my steps and determining that I hadn't forgotten something stupid (like plugging in the machine control cable which I GUESS is important, whatever), we determined that it was the deck acting bananas. Then oopsies, the deck messed up the tape. I think I watched that episode about 19 times that day before I got it out the door.
Tape. A weird concept to be learning for the first time in 2013, but now I appreciate FTP just a little bit more.
Laying a show to tape, hoping I didn't forget something important like color bars.
DEADLINES AND DETAILS
Another challenge? Deadlines, funnily enough. Broadcast also can have some quick turnarounds, which always worries me because there are so many DETAILS to check. You mess up one thing at the beginning and you can cause a terrible domino effect that makes future-you curse your name.
I've never missed a deadline, but the consequences of doing so at past jobs had been being told, "You suck." Missing a TV deadline is more like, "You really suck because you've caused a cascade of failure and now it won't air on time and it'll cost a lot of money AND YOU SUCK."
The only real stumbles here for me were receiving projects from editors I've never met who don't necessarily organize things in the most effective way. Trying to turn around something relatively quickly while wading through someone else's piles of junk? Well, it's not the most fun I've ever had.
While everything went very smoothly most of the time, there were times, particularly toward the end of the season, when I could appreciate a well-organized timeline, a good sound designer, and a responsive producer.
Beyond all the technical challenges, the learning of new things, and the completely new environment for living and working and generally just existing
, the real high point of cutting This American Life
was having authorship over a thing. A thing people watch willingly that is trying to change the world for the better, especially in a way that I support on my own time.
I especially enjoyed the segments I cut without active producer guidance or scripting. And the show opens -- making the best minute and a half you can manage that will keep people watching after the opening titles. But being trusted alone to assemble a half hour show? Yep, I could get used to that. More, please.
It's been a very full 6 months working at BCM and I've learned a lot about myself as a person and an editor. Working on a national PBS show is a huge leap from where I was a year ago. Since Thanksgiving just happened and we've got this holiday spirit going on, I suppose it's appropriate to say I'm thankful for people who still give the young and technically "inexperienced" a chance to prove their worth. More often than not, it seems to pretty much work out for everyone involved.
Bossman Walter and I after a long weekend OUTSIDE the edit room - shooting original content. We do see the sun occasionally.
(Here is one of the things I edited. This American Land is currently airing on a lot of PBS stations, and will start airing on others sometime soon or not soon. Check your local listings and such.)
Never mind, I broke everything.
And I don't mean my first industry job. My first JOB. The first time I got a minimum wage paycheck for cleaning out a toilet. Well, in my case it was for cleaning up about 7 gallons of frozen ketchup, but we can talk about that another time.
The deeper I get into my editing career, the more I realize that the basis of everything I do on a daily basis was learned at my first job. When you peel away the layers of technological aptitude and the years of experience, the thing that sets one person apart from another in this industry is their ability to be a decent human being -- or deal with those that are not.
I got my first job when I was 16 -- a waitress at a 24 hour diner and soda fountain, basically. A corporate chain with corporate rules, many of which were arbitrary only because they were so freaking obvious: priority system (first in, first out -- for food or for customers), wash your dang hands, smile occasionally. Others actually were arbitrary: carry a tray with you every time you're in the dining room, even if you're just bringing a refill and carrying a single glass on a tray makes it WAY MORE LIKELY TO SPILL THANKS. In a way, the arbitrary rules were a part of the learning experience for every corporate experience that I ever had after, but that's not my point here.
My point IS I find it very interesting that most of the situations I first went through as a 17-year-old waitress are situations I find myself in as a 27-year-old editor. The setting is different and I don't have to wear a uniform anymore, but I find value in the experiences and lessons I got in the weeds
, as they say.
A nice spring evening, I'm working the dinner rush as usual. Our restaurant was famous for making shakes to order (yipee) so almost every table ordered at least one (YIPEE). On this particular evening, we got super slammed. As a diner waitress, you make your tips from turning tables quickly (yay cheap food), so this wasn't completely out of the ordinary or beyond our capability. Except for when the dishwashing machine stops functioning at 6PM. We had plenty of plates and such for the moment, but ALL the glasses were dirty. Having had this happen before, we started using foam cups usually reserved for to-go orders. More expensive for the store, but not as expensive as not making shakes, right?
As luck would have it, this night I got a table of regulars: an grumpy elderly couple that came in every Tuesday evening with coupons for a spaghetti dish and added the same lime freeze shake to their order. I brought their lime freezes in a foam cup, explaining that the dishwasher had broken for a moment and the clean glasses were way too hot to put cold liquid inside.
"No. We don't want this. We want real glasses."
I said even if I manage to cool off two glasses enough to not BREAK when I put the cold ice cream inside, they'll still have residual heat that will make everything melty fast.
"I don't care. We want glasses. And we want you to remake these."
I took their wrongly cupped shakes away to "make new ones." Being slammed, I didn't have time to deal with these crazy people. I found two warm glasses, poured the perfectly good shakes I had already made into them, put fresh whipped cream and a cherry on top, and returned to the table with their hot glasses and warm shakes. They took a taste.
"Perfect. See, that wasn't so hard."
And they kept coming back every week. And I never gave them a foam cup ever again.
Lesson: People will pay you for your expertise and a good product, then require neither.
A couple months after I started this job, I had only begun to understand the manager-server-customer dynamic, and that different managers operated things differently. I was working after school during a dinner rush with three other servers, one of which was named Jen. Jen had probably worked there too long, but she was good. She took an order of burgers to a table of four -- a guy, wife, two daughters -- and the man's hamburger had an ingredient on it that wasn't supposed to be on there. Jen sighed a little too loudly. She was sighing at the incompetence of the kitchen, not at the man's complaint. The man took her sigh as backtalk and threw the hamburger directly at her face
, screaming expletives about how the customer is always right.
I was still only 16 and new to this, so I couldn't believe this was going down right in front of my eyes. Still, I expected the customer to be asked to leave. Or something, right? He just committed battery with a burger!
I watched my manager, Brandy, apologize profusely to the man (who was now staring directly at the table in shame), comp his meal, and give him coupons for next time. Jen sat angrily in the back of the store until he was gone. Jen and Brandy were enemies until Jen stopped showing up for work. I never saw the burger thrower again.
Lesson: Stick up for your own people when they're wronged. If you don't, you end up with a good editor that resents you and a client that's never going to use you again anyway to show for it.
Another dinner rush scenario. Slammed as usual. Good for tips. Except not, because a majority of my section is being taken up by a youth baseball team and they all want shakes. I take their orders down and get the shakes done and out of the way as quickly as I can because they're so tedious. Just as I was feeling much better about maintaining control of my section, I hear the screaming of nine 10-year-old boys.
I ran to the table and found that one of the kids had attempted to drink his shake too quickly, and had quickly puked it right back up onto the table. In the middle of a dinner rush. With a full dining room of people surrounding them.
I looked at the table and didn't see any puke, so I was kind of relieved. I mean, how much puke could a 10-year-old kid make in a matter of moments with a small shake, anyway? I saw a little pile of paper placemats sitting in the middle of the table -- or what I thought was a little pile. I lifted them up to survey the damage. There were more placemats than I thought. Oh, the humanity. Puke was covering the entire table. It was so much worse than I thought.
Half the kids saw this and started screaming again before I could cover it up again. This caused most of the tables in my section to turn and see what the fuss was all about, and get an eyeful of chunky beige kid-barf. The kid's mom, seated next to him, looked at the pile, looked at me, and said "I'm an RN. You should be wearing gloves when you clean that up."
So I carefully did and still managed to take care of my tables. The vomit-table left me a whopping 10% tip after all the accommodations I offered to them, but some of the surrounding tables left a couple extra sympathy dollars.
Lesson: Sometimes you're running one step behind a bad situation -- covered in barf/bad footage, and the only thing you can do is smile and do your best not to make it any worse.
After high school, I transferred to another restaurant location in the middle of downtown Indianapolis where I worked for a few months in college before moving on to a new hospitality gig. Things were bigger, rougher, and much more violent at this location. On a bright January afternoon, I was running the dining room alone in the dead space between lunch and dinner. I only had one table of three youngish people -- two guys and a girl. Our restaurant, being a diner, had a cash register where you paid your bill instead of at the table, so I was running that too. While I was behind the counter looking at the dining room, one of the guys leapt out of his chair and started beating the hell out of the other guy with anything he could get his hands on: a half-filled glass, a plate, a condiment rack, a ketchup bottle, a chair. My tiny speck of a manager tried to break it up as the girl ran away, but the dude was destroying the guy's face pretty rapidly. Blood everywhere. Mr. Manager yelled at me to call 911 since I was standing next to the phone.
A woman had walked in during this fight, seeing everything that had happened including me on the phone. She wanted to place a to-go order, and I told her it would be just a minute until I finished speaking with the 911 operator. She got super duper mad at me for not taking her order right away. And then she got even madder when the 911 operator asked me to walk away from the counter to the bleeding man and ask him if he thought his nose was broken (??).
About this same time was a manager shift change, so the dinner manager had walked in the front door to find a man with blood pouring out of his face and a very upset customer who complained about me walking away from the counter. The dinner manager wrote me up for not taking the customer's order while I was talking to the 911 operator.
Also, this was the first and only time I called 911 and I got put on hold.
Lesson: Sometimes when you think you're doing the right thing, someone will perceive it as not the right thing at all. That doesn't make it wrong.
Waitresses commonly get taken off dining room duties toward the end of their shift to do "side-work" which is some kind of cleaning task usually. One of the assigned side-work duties at my restaurant was the bathroom. Usually this was just checking the supply levels and sweeping, but it was still considered to be the worst of the assignments. On this fateful day, my lovely manager informed us all that deep cleaning would be necessary for a visit by a health inspector the next day. She took me in the bathroom and told me that the dried urine on the wall beneath the urinal needed to go. So there I was, kneeling under a urinal, scraping dried whatever
off the wall, begging the universe to not have some creepy man walk in.
Lesson: THINGS CAN ALWAYS BE WORSE.
When I was 17, I thought that after I moved on from waitressing and customer service and got a real editing job, all that stuff would be a distant sticky memory. Instead, I find myself referring to the things I learned in the ice-cream-covered trenches now more than ever. How to treat other people, dealing with complaints, learning to accept that the best you can offer is the best you can offer; regardless of whether you're crafting a show for a producer or mixing a shake for a customer, it's all relevant.
Learning to control what you can, triage what you cannot, and sever ties with those that deserve it: that's the trick to be a good editor that I started learning much earlier than I ever thought.