Editors Getting Short End

A group of Motion Picture Editors Guild members have formed an ad hoc committee to study deteriorating working conditions in the post-production industry.

Compressed schedules, marathon shifts in edit rooms and an increase in work-related injuries, such as wrist and hand problems from extensive use of computer keyboards, are top concerns.

The committee’s first objective is to study and discuss these issues, with the possible goal of using its findings as bargaining points during upcoming contract negotiations with producers. Committee members emphasize that their group, which numbers at least 25, is not officially sanctioned by the Editors Guild.

Says one disgruntled editor: “Post-production schedules are contracting as the result of several things: Producers and people at studios don’t know yet what the new technologies can do; they think because we’re using computers, we can cut instantly, and we can’t.

“Also, every picture is now on a rush schedule because you have a one-weekend window of opportunity to be a success – or a disaster,” he continued. As a result, he said, “In features, and in TV too, people are working long hours under incredible stress, unbelievably short turnaround time, and with large, multiple-editor crews.”

Fearful but concerned

Concerned editors would speak only on the condition of anonymity, and asked even that the group’s name not be used, fearing being labled troublemakers. But others, who claim no affiliation with the committee, acknowledge that shortened post schedules threaten to wreak havoc with the creative process and the quality of the finished product.

Guild president Don Zimmerman, who is currently using a Heavyworks electronic system to cut “The Nutty Professor,” says use of multiple editors on a project is another disturbing trend: “It cheats the product and it’s not the best way to get things done. Everyone has a different style of cutting, and if you’re the lead editor on a project, you wind up in a supervisory situation, going from one person to the next, giving your input. That means your own cutting time is reduced.”

For producers, it’s cheaper to hire a group of editors who work for a short amount of time than to let one person work for a longer period.

No flexibility

But in most cases, the second option isn’t viable anyway, because release dates are generally locked in, with no room for flexibility.

“Editors hate to work on teams,” says one retired guild member. “But by putting two or three editors on a project, a producer saves a week’s interest payment, so he still comes out ahead on his budget.”

Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell, who edits Martin Scorsese’s films and won an Oscar for “Raging Bull,” in addition to being nominated for “Woodstock” and “GoodFellas,” concurs with many of the issues raised by the ad hoc committee, although she isn’t a member.

“I’ve heard from so many people how horrendous the schedules are, that they’re putting three to six editors on a picture, and problems can arise from lack of a single style. I can tell there’s some discomfort out there,” she says.

Because she works so closely with Scorsese, the scheduling time crunch hasn’t made much of a difference to her. She’s wary of the overall trend toward shortening post schedules.

“People think that because you have an electronic editing machine, the film will go faster,” says Schoonmaker-Powell, who used a Lightworks digital system for the first time on Scorsese’s current “Casino.”

“My next Scorsese picture will be done on a Lightworks – I think going back to film would be a rude awakening. But even though Lightworks increases the speed of physical editing, it still takes time to get the film right. The rhythm, structure, pacing-you can’t get that by waving the magic wand of digital editing, ” she says.

Rapid-fire post also is dangerous to workers’ physical and mental health, asserts director Martha Coolidge. Though Coolidge has used an Avid system on her last three films – “Lost in Yonkers, ” “Angie” and “Three Wishes”- and swears she’d never go back to film cutting, she agrees with editors who see the downside of producers’ and execs’ looking for a quick turnaround.

“There’s a growing body of knowledge about the problems of working with computers, such as eyestrain, headache, fatigue, muscle problems. In other industries where people use computers a lot, we know about work-related illnesses,” says Coolidge.

She adds: “In an ideal world, electronic editing ought to make editors’ hours more human, because people are becoming ill working such long hours. And it should make the movie better, because you have more capabilities in terms of what changes you can make.”

Though she acknowledges that her own films haven’t been subjected to such stringent post schedules as others, Coolidge nonetheless recounts stories of editors and other post crew members working 18-hour days during the final weeks of a project. Other editors substantiate those claims, saying that entire post staffs go with little sleep and few off-hours in the frenzy to get a film locked.

Despite the ad hoc committee’s efforts to change the current trend, Guild president Zimmerman says a difficult road lies ahead: “The Editors Guild has never really had much influence. That’s what these people are trying to do now, bring up some issues and see what we can accomplish as a group. But we’ve never been a guild that’s been famous for our lobbying.”

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