The premise for the Cutting Edge Tour headed up by Adam Epstein, five year veteran video editor and post production guru for Saturday Night Live, was a tricky one. I know because I spent a few days bouncing ideas around with him and looking at how to structure the thing. This review will set out specifically what you will (and won’t) find in the workshop.
How do you structure something inherently deeply technical (read: possibly very, very staid and very boring), that is incredibly far reaching (read: the full gambit of video editing and the world of post production) into a one day workshop (read: no time whatsoever) that is likely being attended by both full time pro’s and hobbyists alike, and everyone in between?
After seeing the workshop last week as it kicked off a ten week, 32 city tour, I'm here to try to answer these questions.
With so little education and live workshop resource aimed at the editing and post-production community, there is no way you can get a one-size-fits-all when you set out to deliver a one day workshop in this subject area. So let's start off by outlining what you are going to get.
What You Get
- One Hilarious Comedy Show / Workshop Combo
Adam is hilarious. This might not be at all important, but for most of us, sitting for a full day (and a three hour evening seminar) on this stuff – even if we love it – can be tough. Adam has a great sense of humor, probably from spending so long working at SNL and also his own background as a writer. I’ve not sat in any seminar or workshop before and laughed so much. I don't think I've sat in a comedy club recently and laughed as much. Adam’s wit is sharp, self deprecating, slightly darkly humorous, so he may not appeal to everyone, but most of the audience at the workshop I attended found him hilarious, definitely one of the highlights.
- A Broad Overview of What It Means To Be An Editor Today – From A Great, Working Editor
Adam is not a full time educator, or even a part time educator. He makes his full time living and income from editing and has done so for 15 years. He is an expert in his field and an agency-represented commercial editor, who recently started work on his first Hollywood feature. All of his actual SNL project files from various videos are used throughout the day as real life examples of how he did what he did, and why.
In the last decade since I’ve been editing, the industry has changed dramatically. The traditional role of the editor has become diluted, particularly on smaller jobs, where budgets are tight. Now, the role can include compositing, 3D title and graphics design, coloring and grading for particular looks and often separate sound and audio mixing, even on smaller productions. Adam, with his current experience, particularly on the fast paced SNL delivery timeline but his background in promo and commercials, has a huge amount of real world experience to share. I want to learn from people like this, and I think others probably feel the same.
He explained that while the days of just being a “set of hands”, to cut and sequence footage aren’t necessarily over, he clearly sets out that if you have any aspirations to move into more creative, compelling, team-based work, you need to know more than ever before to make the transition.
- He Focuses On Why, Not How
To slightly reiterate the point made above, this was the key thread of the day that just resonated with me. Everything he taught on the day relates back to the narrative, the vibe and the context of the story we (or the director) is trying to tell.
On the SNL Film Unit, it’s very apparent that they work incredibly cohesively as a team to always come back to the context of the piece they are trying to create. It’s the reason their pieces are watched and shared online by millions, because they nail the context of the jokes and the parody pieces.
We hear this time and time again; that it’s not the gear (and in this case the hardware or software we use to edit or do post work with), but the story we are tying to tell, and how we are engaging our audience.
In the section around picking takes for instance, he tries to instill why certain cuts weren’t selected over the actual selected take and while it’s not always easy for him to say with 100% certainty why something didn’t make it (it’s more art than science), he stills imparts the necessity of always coming back to focus on the narrative of the project.
Who Is This Course NOT For
So if that’s what you get from the experience, let’s take a quick look at what you don’t get (and more importantly, why).
- This Is Not A One Day Film School For Video Editing Master class
This workshop will not school you in the very basics or fundamentals of editing theory. As Adam pointed out, he doesn’t feel poring over the history or technique in great detail is particularly worthwhile from a practical sense.
While he does discuss technique (J cuts, L cuts, accordion style editing and Walter Murch and Hitchcock’s thoughts and theories are looked at in the evening session) it’s really done with a focus on the practical.
If you attended the previous tour that MZed put on (Vincent Laforet’s “Directing Motion”) where the emphasis was on analysis of classic direction and camera motion sequences, this is a very different experience. Adam prefers the practical side of education, and when he explains his role on SNL, it becomes quickly apparent why.
His day to day workflow centers around a breakneck, weekly 48 hour delivery schedule that simply cannot be missed or else SNL will have trouble going to air. The show simply must go on - or in this case, his edits simply must be ready to go out. His job is very much rooted in practicalities, and a coffee-fueled race against time to be as efficient as possible to ensure final file delivery in time for the show.
He does get into some classic editing analysis in the evening, but he really focused hard on passing on his thoughts and approach to maximizing efficiencies in his complex workflow throughout the day. If the thought of film/editor school in day gets the juices flowing, you might want to look elsewhere, Adam is trying to make his day session as practical and relevant as possible.
- He Avoids “The How” (To Focus On “The Why”)
The minutiae of how you edit, or perform complex post production technique (such as coloring, grading, compositing or creating complex 3D text and titles) is definitely look at but you should not expect to come away with a deep technical understanding of how you execute every detail of this stuff. Adam purposefully avoids spending lots of time getting into great detail on how he does any one of things. This isn’t to say he avoids – on the contrary, he shows from project setup, all the way through to final file export how he works and some of the editing/post work he typically encounters, and then demonstrates that live, but he doesn't dwell on any one aspect because he has a huge amount to cover in the course of the day.
The real reason for avoiding a "how-to" approach is because he wants to paint a much more important picture of how he organizes his workflow to free up his time so that he can focus more of his energy on “the why”, that is, why he does what he does to make the piece better connect to the audience and add more value to the jokes that the writers have put in to the script. He is always working in service of the script.
As an editor myself, I felt I learnt something at each step of the way, whether it was a better way to clean up spill from green screen capture, or laying down a more full sound bed. He rightly keeps the audience focused on how best to stay organized so that whatever the level of complexity of your project, most of your time and energy can be spent in service of the of the story (the “why”).
This course is really designed to show you the end-to-end process of what Adam does on a weekly basis at SNL, and how it applies to all of us no matter our experience of what type of project we are working on. It’s clear the industry is expecting more and more from “video editors” and the workshop is enlightening and useful in that regard.
It will probably not completely revolutionizehow you edit; and that’s fine because Adam has purposefully not designed it to do that.
What it gives you is a constant prod with a sharp stick to be asking yourself “why?". The reason this is so important is because the context of why we edit in the way we do, adds the greatest value to the production, gives us a style, or range to work from, and helps add value to the overall production. It’s not the cameras, the actors, or the software in isolation, but about figuring out how best to pull all of this together to elevate the work that has gone into the production, making the whole bigger than simply the sum of the individual elements. Adam calls this "plusing", taking key ingredients and making something more meaningful out of them all. I'm constantly looking at my work now, wondering how i can "plus" something, and elevate it.
Finally, when you throw in Adam’s brilliant sense of humor (including a hilarious tip of the hat to Seinfeld, with a section entitled the “Airing of Grievances” where he invited us onto his proverbial editor-analyst couch to confidentially and anonymously share some hilarious client experiences), it feels more like a day long workshop and comedy club rolled into one unique package.
If you’ve been to see the tour and have any thoughts, please share them in the comments below, would love to hear what your own experiences were like.