A Conversation: Veteran editor Lawrence Jordan, ACE

By Randi Altman

Lawrence Jordan’s fate was essentially sealed upon birth. His father and his grandfather made a living working in post and film editing in New York City.

He grew up around it; it encircled him. His path became pretty clear at a very young age. “I was very fortunate to be born into a film editing family. The running joke is that a trim bin was my first playpen,” he laughs.

Even with his rich family history, Jordan wasn’t handed a job. He started the way many did, as a runner. “I learned all the things that someone in that job learns about the cutting room — while trying to hone editing skills in my spare time. I then got into the union and became very focused on feature film editing.”

Some of those feature films include Jack Frost, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, Riding in Cars With Boys, Fallen and Are We There Yet? He also embraced dramatic television series such as NYPD Blue and CSI Miami. He most recently cut a feature for Netflix, called Naked.

Naked

Not long ago, we threw some questions at Jordan, about his love for editing, how he evolved with the technology of industry and his online class, Master the Workflow.

What was your path to editing?
My father, Morton Fallick was a film editor who started Cinemetric, one of the first integrated commercial post companies in New York in the 1960s. He followed in the footsteps of my grandfather, a projection and sound engineer, who helped organize the unions in New York. He worked for CBS News for many years. Because of this history and my love of movies, I knew I wanted to work in film from a very young age.

Many of the film editors who I ended up really admiring came out of my father’s shop. They were young guys who wanted to get into film, and his commercial house was one way to learn the craft. People like Richard Marks, Barry Malkin, Craig McKay and Evan Lottman — they went on to become some of the most respected feature film editors of the ‘70s, ‘80s and beyond.

My first job was as an apprentice in the Warner Bros. film library. Soon after that I got a job as an apprentice sound editor working on a picture the legendary Dede Allen was cutting. It was called Mike’s Murder directed by James Bridges. I worked directly for supervising sound editor Norval Crutcher.

How has editing evolved since you started in the industry?
I started back in the days of 35mm film. It was a completely different industry. The editing community was incredibly small back then. I think there were only about 1,000 or 1,500 people in the entire guild, and we all edited on Moviolas or flatbed machines like the Kem or Steenbeck. Back then, editing was a much slower and more deliberate process. Things were done by hand and ideas were executed at a different pace.

I saw videotape becoming a popular means of editing. Videotape annoyed me because it seemed that it had a lot to do with punching numbers into a keyboard and timecode. Kind of ironic isn’t it? I wasn’t particularly fond of that way of approaching editing. I liked the visceral and physical feeling of handling the actual film. And with the exception of experiments by Francis Coppola, back then, nobody else was cutting features on videotape, so I focused on working in 35mm.

But as time went by, I couldn’t really avoid the technological change. New systems were being developed that used multiple videotapes to approximate the nonlinear nature of editing on film. Then there were systems that worked off of laserdisc, but I was building a career as an assistant in features and none of these new systems really seemed like they were “there” yet.

Then, in 1991, while I was working as additional editor on Jodie Foster’s directorial debut, Little Man Tate, I got a call from my dad who said, “They’re editing off of hard drives now!” He went on to tell me about the Avid Media Composer and how it was being used in commercials. This was very exciting to me because I had started to get into computers in my personal life, and in those days we were all awed by the power of even the most rudimentary computer systems.

I went down to the Avid offices in Burbank and got a demo of Media Composer. I think there were maybe four or five of us in the room, and when I saw the demo, I was floored by the power and simplicity of digital editing. I knew this was what my future was going to be if I was to continue to pursue a career as a film editor.

I spent a year learning everything I could about the Avid system and digital video — the hardware, software and compression algorithms. At the same time, an editor friend of mine, Steve Cohen, who was also into nonlinear editing, asked if I’d be interested in doing a show on the Montage Picture Processor. It was a hybrid/digital version of their multi-deck Betacam system, and just not up handling the demands of a feature-length project. About a week into dailies we decided to make the switch and cut on the Avid. That project was Teamster Boss: The Jackie Presser Story.

How did that change the way you worked as an editor?
With the speed and flexibility of digital, editors were soon expected to do many of the tasks that traditionally were given to other departments. More complex sound editing was first. On films, temp dubs were prepared by the sound department, but this became something you could do pretty well on the Avid. As digital editing evolved and CPU speeds accelerated, it became more common for the film editor to rough-out visual effects. The way it is now, the spectacular VFX that are being done with CGI and the like still have to be subbed out to the VFX team. But you can do an awful lot, especially for temp in the offline.

Today, directors, producers and studios all expect these tasks to be accomplished in the offline. Although you can execute ideas much faster, there’s a ton more work. Additionally, with digital cinematography, editors are getting more footage than ever before. Whereas an average-budget feature might have had 200,000 or 300,000 feet of film on 35mm, now that same project — not even one of the large tent-poles films — could easily have a million feet of dailies. Think about it. By comparison, it took Francis Coppola three years to shoot a million feet of dailies on Apocalypse Now!

Do you have a particular editing philosophy?
If I did, it would be that I let the dailies speak to me. I say this because, of course, we’ve all read the script and talked to the director about his or her vision, but once you actually get the dailies —for any number of reasons — you could be looking at something totally different from what you expected.

This could be affected by whatever the conditions were on the day of production. Or whatever discussions might have gone on between the actors and the director in terms of how they approached a scene or interpreted the script.

So I let the material in front of me dictate how I’m going to make my initial cut on a particular scene. Then it’s a process of looking at the film as a whole and going back to the script and finding the best way to tell the story with the material you have.

You have worked on TV and film. Do you wear a different hat depending on what you are working on?
In television you’re dealing with much tighter schedules. The workflow is highly structured, and although you don’t get as much film every day, you really need to bang scenes out quickly. TV is also a writer/producer’s medium. You only get to work with the director of each episode for a few days and then the producers come in and give you their notes. All of this is usually done in a few weeks’ time.

On feature films, it’s completely different because you’re the head of the department. And even if you’re working with an additional editor, you are communicating directly with the director on a regular basis. A feature film can often go in many more directions than a television show. In the case of comedy, there can be all kinds of improvisation and you are dealing with different situations each day.

When cutting a feature, you’re much more intimately involved in the DNA of the film because you’re living with it for a much longer period of time.

Then, of course, you get into the director’s cut period, which usually lasts around 10 weeks. During this time, you’re typically developing tone, and not only with the story, but in terms of sound effects, music and visual effects. Depending on the situation, the editor is often much more involved in the final mix, color correction and delivery. That level of involvement just doesn’t happen for editors in television.

Do you have a preference in how you work? On-set, near-set?
I guess cutting on-set is happening more often these days, but if I had my preference I’d be in a cutting room near the set. As an editor it’s always nice to have the luxury to be in a quiet space where you can really take in and sort through the material. We want to give it as much thought as possible and have the maximum amount of uninterrupted time to solve whatever problems may come up. I do know that more editors are being asked to edit on-set in real-time. And I guess that’s a necessity for certain films.

During my initial cut, I try to keep it as simple as possible. I’m focusing on two things: story and performance. I try to fill-out my cut with as much sound and music as possible, and as many temp visual effects as necessary. In regard to music, most films nowadays have music supervisors who can be of great help pulling material. Because source cues can be expensive, often they’ve had discussions with the director, even before the editor comes on board.

What system do you work on? Are there any plugins that you use regularly?
I work on the Avid Media Composer. As I said, I was involved with its introduction into feature filmmaking and television in Hollywood, and it’s still the primary tool for 99 percent of all feature films and television shows for studios and networks today.

I know that there are other pieces of software out there, and I’ve had some experience with them, but the longer you work on a tool, the more ingrained it becomes in your muscle memory. With the Avid, the speed at which I can execute ideas is much faster using software that I’ve been working with going on 25 years now.

As far as peripheral software and additional tools, I do like to use Adobe After Effects to work with temp visual effects. It’s a very powerful program. It does have its limitations in terms of getting metadata in and out of the system, but I can create temp comps and the like relatively quickly with it. Of course, there’s Photoshop. I’ve also used Boris FX pretty extensively, and their Mocha tracking tools are pretty amazing.

What are you working on now?
I just finished a feature for Netflix called Naked, starring Marlon Wayans. It’s a comedy that has a tremendous amount of improv. I worked with a great director named Mike Tiddes, with whom I had worked previously on another feature called Fifty Shades of Black.

We had a lot of fun. It was crazy, because for an editor, improv comedy is always challenging —sometimes you’re literally creating stuff that wasn’t shot! It was also exciting because it was for Netflix. Although it didn’t have a theatrical distribution, it was an original film for them and was distributed in 180 countries on the same day.

The power and possibility with the new streaming networks just amazes me. These production companies have tremendous resources and are really giving the film and television production world a shot in the arm — it’s a real boost for employment opportunities for editors and assistants. I think it holds tremendous promise for our industry in general.

How do you work with your assistant editor? Do you give them a chance to cut?
Because I spent 10 years as an assistant, I really have a lot of respect for what they do. Assistants are essentially the glue that holds the editorial process together. Without an assistant who is at the top of their game — focused, organized and generally passionate about what their role is in the process — an editor can really find himself/herself in a pickle.

Today, much of the assistant’s job has become a metadata manager. There are so many different types of media. It’s the same media that we used to have, but it is delivered digitally and in so many different formats.

I always try to give my assistants a shot at cutting at least a scene, if not a couple of scenes, on every project I do. There really is no other way to learn the editing craft, besides having it handed down to you by an editor. To me, this was something that existed when I was coming up and was essentially at the core of the apprenticeship nature of our craft from the time it started. This was how we learned to do our job.

It’s pretty much still the same way, but it’s the proverbial Catch-22. You can’t learn the actual nuts-and-bolts of the job in a cutting room, unless you have a job in a cutting room. You can’t learn this in theory while in film school. They don’t really teach the sort of inner workings of the feature film workflow, or even television workflow in film school. It’s much more of a macro approach — an overview to how the work is done. I’m not aware of any film programs that teach the job of the assistant editor.

NYPD Blue

Now, of course, there are certification courses and specialized schools, but unless you’re working on the front lines on a feature film or television show you’re really not going to get an understanding of the full spectrum of what the job entails.

So, yes, I do try to give my assistants a chance to cut. I also solicit their opinions on scenes that I have cut. I ask for their ideas. I ask for their feedback. I ask whether they remember anything in the dailies that I might have missed. That’s the nature of our work. It’s a collaborative process, and it helps me do my best work.

I hear you are doing something called Master the Workflow. Can you explain what that is?
Yes, Master the Workflow is something my assistant Richard Sanchez and I came up with on our last film, Naked. Richard had developed a comprehensive database in FileMaker that tracks all of the media and metadata created on a feature film. It made me realize how much the job of the assistant editor has changed from when I was an assistant. With the explosion of digital production and post, I thought that it would be of tremendous benefit to detail the critical role that the assistant editor plays in the editorial process.

We decided to create an online education course and named it Feature Film Assistant Editor Immersion 1.0. It takes a potential assistant editor from their initial meeting with their editor through final delivery of a finished film. I felt strongly about creating something like this, primarily because we wanted to show a way for people to learn what goes on in a cutting room in the way it used to be learned.

As I mentioned earlier, there has been an apprenticeship model in post and film editorial throughout its history, but because of digital technology, the editor and the assistants have become somewhat siloed. An assistant doesn’t get to sit in the room with the editor as they are creating the cut as much anymore. So the craft is not being handed down as it was traditionally.

The course is a detailed view of what takes place in the editing environment. For example, we discuss how you deal with the director, how an assistant deals with his editor, how to navigate the sometimes touchy political nature of dealing with producers and studios. Things as simple as when to express your opinion, and when not to.

We wanted to impart all of these things to a new generation of filmmakers and make it available online so that those who might not otherwise have the opportunity to get inside a cutting room and learn how the job is done could learn those skills. We’ve already had our first session with 50 students. They’ve been very, very positive with their feedback and we’re excited to see where it goes.


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