(Editor’s Note: This blog was written by Daniel Gross who was sent to Sight Sound and Story through our Professional Development Accessibility Program.)
The unemployment rate of people with autism is about 90 percent…pretty wild, right? For me, in being an aspiring film/TV editor with autism, that’s pretty heavy with obvious implications. Since my University of Southern California MFA graduation in 2013, I’ve made some herculean efforts to earn a living as a film/video editor back in my homeland of New England, which I maintain is the only all-encompassing career objective I’ve ever truly had. However, inconsistent success at this sometimes has me feeling like a human pinball, bouncing off rails with irrational energy, racking up occasional impressive points out of dumb luck...only to end up free-falling past the flippers every damn time, in need of someone to launch me back up again. To me, this pinball machine represents the film industry, and I am just one of its wide-eyed players, always in danger of losing the quarters that fuel such madness.
This is why the Blue Collar Post Collective group is so invaluable for ALL of us in the post-production community, especially those with my “dancing around the edges” career status, so to speak. No matter how good any of us are at networking (a.k.a. “ladder climbing”) on any level, we could always benefit from a little extra support in this insane world, with just a few extra ladder rungs to help us climb…which then compels us to send the ladder back down if we get high enough. This is why I applied for the BCPC’s “PDAP” program a couple of times over the past year or so; it’s not because I was restless for adventure, free stuff, or extra networking, but because I learned a long time ago to never pass up a potential opportunity brought forth by people you trust and respect. Thankfully, BCPC was there to support me in May 2019, when they picked me as their sole PDAP winner and attendee of the 2019 “Sight, Sound and Story” convention up in NY…and I will forever be grateful for it. Here is my story of how the PDAP adventure went down:
On June 12th, 2019, I woke up unusually early (for me, anyway) at about 5 a.m., so I could catch the Hartford Amtrak train that BCPC so generously booked for me. Even though it was a quasi-luxury train I had caught a handful of times before in my life (to a city I’ve gratefully been to many, many times), it was nevertheless the start of a great adventure I couldn’t possibly foresee the end results of.
After I arrived at Penn Station and bought all kinds of inexpensive food in advance for the upcoming days ahead, I took the first of what would be many long walks over to the Pod 39 Hotel. I couldn’t believe I had never heard of it before, to be honest, especially considering there are all sorts of Pod hotels all over New York City; this one was called Pod 39 because it was on 39th Street. I was a great admirer of the no-nonsense economic chicness of the place, even if the tiny room was a bit tricky for me at first, mostly because I’m 6’4”! (I did know to expect that in NYC from past experience, though…real estate space is a commodity hardly anybody has enough of up there.)
Then, after check-in, I proceeded on foot to the first pre-arranged networking meeting BCPC had set up for me. As you can see from the nearby photo, I had been sent to a modest little news-gathering service you all might have heard of…;)
This meeting was quite an interesting one for me, for various reasons. I have long been a sporadic reader and admirer of the New York Times (as well as all the films that have been made about it), and I have had many small-scale experiences with journalism in the past. I was meeting with one of the NY Times’ most renegade video reporters they have, it would seem…a young one-man-band freelancing journalist named Hunter Boone.
Hunter is a man with quite a lot to say, do, and teach, all in the tightest of timelines, and he has more than enough friendly enthusiasm and self-critical neuroticism to propel him. He’s very much like me in that way, and it turns out we’ve both had more than our share of experiences in struggling to find employers who will take a chance on us, while also treating us with authentic respect. He gave me loads of tips on places to find new jobs, where to find good stock music and VFX, and how to manage and calibrate post-production audio in a smarter way…amongst many, many other things he talked about in a whirlwind 90 minutes. He also helped me understand that journalism is the art of recognizing untold stories/insights and using a lifetime of skills to communicate them, with the utmost of efficiency and emotional sensitivity. Sounds a lot like film/TV editing in a nutshell, doesn’t it? ;)
The next morning, I headed to another meeting BCPC had set up for me. This one, however, was a request of mine, upon advice of some very good film editor friends of mine. I was told that the Harbor Picture Company, a highly-esteemed place where they do extensive picture and sound work, was the place for me to be…and, by God, they were right!
I spoke with about 7 people who were very well established within the company, and learned a lot about the politics and protocols and various technical challenges/procedures within sound editing and recording. I learned just how chill and low-key sound people need to be amidst occasionally-intense pressures and volumes of things to accomplish, and also just how much of a global effort it now is to nail down a sound mix (which does make sense, as all of filmmaking in general is a global effort as well). Picture editing, i.e. my biggest forte, does have a lot of these considerations as well, but in more of a straightforward way that ebbs and flows.
I also learned about the utmost importance of being in the NY Editors’ Union in order to be eligible for the truly awesome and well-paying editor/AE jobs that float around New York. I think some part of me has known this for a while, but I wasn’t truly able to formulate a plan as to how to join the union until I spoke to people at Harbor about it that day. However, union or no union, I am certainly well-aware that most post-production jobs in most branches of the business do sometimes require “eating instant noodles every day” for a period of time. This is something that famed documentary editor Jean Tsien recently said of her own career, during her appearance at the event I had come to the city for…which was Sight, Sound and Story 2019. ☺
The event had a good turnout of post-production professionals of all different kinds, I would say…and having been to a few events like this, I knew this was to be expected as I settled into the first documentary-editing panel of the day.
This panel featured Jean Tsien and another famed documentary editor named Carla Gutierrez, and it got off to a very profound and philosophical start. It turns out that documentary editing is known as a metaphorical marathon, not a sprint, and it doesn’t require locked-down choices early and immediately. In fact, Jean claims that a documentary’s beginning and ending are best left undetermined until the very end of the editing process, and that the very first things that should be edited are one or two very difficult/showy individual scenes. This helps earn editorial trust with one’s director and producers, and allows the editor full input as to what will comprise of a documentary’s all-important first few minutes (i.e. the time window which convinces the viewer to watch a whole documentary, according to Carla). Carla also asserted the importance of knowing that “everything is in service of the story” as one assembles these key scenes in a documentary.
But these aren’t the only responsibilities a good documentary editor can be trusted with! Jean has been allowed in the past to advise directors what to shoot for their documentaries, and has also been allowed to shoot her very own “b-roll” for documentaries as well. In exchange for these above-and-beyond duties, Jean has earned producing credits on at least thirteen different documentary projects over the years, a handful of which she was also a credited editor on. This was hugely inspirational for me, as I have ambitions of creative-driven producerial roles on film projects as well; I like to believe I’ve done this kind of consulting in the past, but mostly on scripts that haven’t yet been produced, or chose not to credit me in the end.
Jean proceeded to point out that one particular documentary she edited, “Plastic China”, actually changed global policies about recycling at one time; this reminded me all the more that money, pride, and name-driven cache are very far from the reasons one should get into this business. Carla and Jean strongly believe that the craft of film is the only craft in the world where you can make a widespread and palpable difference on the world around you…and entirely through “textural and emotional decisions”, which forge a unique and inimitable “sensory connection” with audiences. Little wonder, then, that editors can often become so paralyzed by insecurity in this business with such tremendous power in their hands. As Carla cheekily surmised, she often finds herself thinking: “How did I edit all those other films? I am a FAKE!”
A famed film and television editor named Leo Trombetta doesn’t seem to have this concern quite as often. He takes somewhat-rebellious pride in his “schizophrenic brain” on the job, which causes him to ignore his director’s literal commands much of the time, and tackle what he thinks is REALLY behind each note he gets. Otherwise, he’s just a hired pair of hands, and not the Jackson Pollock-esque interpreter of filmic art that he needs to be. This idea also very strongly resonated with me; I, too, require in-the-moment ability to “take possession” of the footage I’m looking at, even though I know the project belongs to everyone at the end of the process, as it rightfully should. This is one of the many great thoughts that Leo espoused during the narrative-editing panel…which he shared with another great film and television editor, by the name of Kate Sanford.
Kate could also be termed a rebel of the television-editing world, in that she most often finds herself hired on streaming shows with not-unflexible deadlines (comparatively speaking), and she doesn’t often have to hew to maximum episode lengths or looming network/studio/fan expectations. However, in exchange for this freedom, Kate has to tolerate a one-week fan-chatter shelf life (due to the all-episodes-at-once release model), the viewers’ complete ignorance of end-credits songs (which is usually the fault of the streaming service that skips credits automatically), and constant competition from at least 700 other streaming shows on the web. Little wonder that the theatrical-movie experience is so likely on its way out the door, according to both Kate and Leo, as well as the premiere events and reviews that have accompanied it.
However, it is still possible for most up-and-coming editors (such as myself) to build the type of career that famed film editor Mary Jo Markey built for herself. She began her career as an apprentice editor for the late, great Dede Allen in the late ‘80s, and then worked her way up the assistant/associate editor ladder for the next eight years on a wide variety of films. Ironically, it was the world of television that truly launched Mary Jo’s career…and it was J.J. Abrams who was on that launchpad with her, as Abrams hired her to edit for him in the late ‘90s. The two of them did not fully get a chance to “flex their abilities”, however, until they completed the pilot for “Lost” in 2004.
Then, the following year, Dede Allen found herself meeting with a woman named Paula Wagner, who was trying hard to lock down the editors for a big new project she was about to start filming. The project was “Mission: Impossible III”, the director of which was none other than J.J. Abrams…which led Dede to urge Paula to allow J.J. to hire her long-ago apprentice, Mary, despite her lack of prior film-editing credits. This story, in my mind, was the highlight of Mary’s wonderful two-hour on-stage discussion with the great Bobbie O’Steen.
This is pretty much everything one could ever want or relate to in a “climbing the ladder” story. Mary did not mince words about how much persistence, determination, and dumb luck it took for her to accomplish this (with talent being less important than all three of those things); she rose to the top of the ladder because she “refused to be denied” by such an unforgivingly-tough industry, which will thwart young people at every turn. I can certainly relate to that in spades as an eccentric autistic person with a stutter…I have plenty of “war stories” despite my admittedly-unconventional career path, but I have read far, far worse from others on the web.
These stories are among countless other things I’ve read over three decades, especially about my great love of film and TV. This is why I was enthused to hear Mary’s opinion on the importance of absorbing literature as a young scholar, and how she wouldn’t have nearly as good of an editorial grasp on story, characters, and subjective point-of-view without that. In Mary’s mind, it’s all about how best to develop one’s decision-making brain in reading, criticism, and writing…which feeds into an editor’s ability to “search for moments” within a giant pile of filmed material, and then build the scene from there. Once that scene is built and she “watches it down”, the very second she becomes confused or bored by that scene, the “fix-it wheels instantly begin turning” within her sieve-like mind. Seriously, what else could qualify someone to rewrite Klingon, of all things, as Mary once did to fix a problematic scene from “Star Trek Into Darkness”? ;)
But, in any case, Sight, Sound and Story 2019 was now concluded, and it was time for my “interstellar voyage” back to Connecticut! I wasn’t about to leave before snapping a farewell picture, though…
Now, a month after my wonderfully-informative and fun New York journey, I can’t help but reflect on how far I’ve come in my career, despite all the reasons I shouldn’t have; I also realize how valuable and precious of a journey it is to find mentors who will walk that path with you. After all, Leo Trombetta never did have a mentor, and he got his first job in the business by calling people and knocking on their doors one after another, until he finally came across an editor who was willing to take him on. It wasn’t so much because this editor felt an immediate kinship, loyalty, or commitment to Leo…it was because this editor had no one else knocking on his door besides Leo.
As far as I go, I have spent tremendous amounts of time knocking on people’s doors over the last 11 years (even if most of those doors are now powered by email and Facebook), and I’ll never again take for granted my ability to earn the loyalty and commitment of numerous editors to date. In fact, as a direct result of my visit to Harbor, where an editor friend of mine was coincidentally working on that day, this friend has now made a commitment to let me “job-shadow” him on his next project. If I do well at this, and I successfully join the union afterwards (with hours I’ve previously earned), he plans on working hard to get me interviews for AE positions on scripted shows! While I know this will amount to far more long hours, ego-free subservience, and high-octane responsibilities of the organizational sort, I’m also highly confident of how exciting and invaluable of a “ladder rung” it will be towards my ultimate goal of becoming the “director’s ear” on exciting/unconventional film and TV projects. After all, it’s a living that people such as Leo wouldn’t trade for anything in the world…and neither would I.