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Alan Levi: From Columbo to E.R. and Beyond

COW Library : Art of the Edit : Tim Kolb : Alan Levi: From Columbo to E.R. and Beyond
Alan Levi: From Columbo to E.R. and Beyond

A "Great Directors & Producers" Series Feature

by Tim Kolb
Kolb Communications, Appleton, Wisconsin USA

©2002 Tim Kolb. All Rights Reserved. Used at by kind permission of the author.

Tim Kolb Article Focus:
Tim Kolb explores the career of legendary director, Alan J. Levi. Spanning a career that began in the 1960's and still continues today, Tim discusses the life, work and accomplishments of a talented man whose body of work includes many of the most memorable shows in television history. He is also the inventor of "video assist" and is not only hands-on in the artistic side but in the technical side as well. Alan discusses the way that the new technology has changed the face of broadcast production and his own use of nonlinear editing tools. It's a great story and our thanks to Alan J. Levi for granting the interview and Tim Kolb for a great job in writing it.

Alan Levi and I met at the Los Angeles DV Expo in December, 2001. When we left our show-floor conversation in the Los Angeles Convention Center, we carried it on for by e-mail. During the time we were exchanging messages, I had learned a number of things about Alan that I hadn't known before. During one of our conversations, I asked Alan if he would be willing to give Creative Cow members a look into much of his personal history and what changes he's seen in the television industry. We had that conversation on December 31st, 2001. What follows is a condensed version of a more than two-hour phone conversation with the truly interesting, professional -- and just plain fun to talk to -- Alan J. Levi.

A little background before we go too far into this interview: Television director Alan J. Levi had been interested and involved in this business even before moving to California in 1960. The list of serials and television movies he's been part of directing and contributing to is, to say the least, impressive. After the more than 15 television 'Movies of the Week', you have such familiar series as Columbo, The Bionic Woman, Airwolf, Voyagers, Jag, Della Ventura, Dr. Quinn, Lois & Clark -- and more recently, ER and First Monday. And that only scratches the surface of what has been a career that has spanned everything from commercials, industrials, ABC Wide World of Sports, live television to television drama and feature films.


TK: At what point in your life does your involvement start in this industry? How did you develop an interest for film production?

AL: When I was 15, back when I was in high school, I started making films for people who could not afford to hire professionals in the industry ... groups like the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the National Safety Council. Those kinds of people who really didn't have the money to go out and spend many thousands of dollars. And I was just learning at the time, so I would basically do it for cost plus just a small profit. That way, I could continue to grow and experiment as a young filmmaker. I made 43 films before I got to college -- all of different types. My very first film was a half hour dramatic show. So, when I got to college, I was fortunate enough -- I was in Engineering School then -- to participate with another engineer and build the closed-circuit teaching TV station at Northwestern University. The school gave me a scholarship to teach TV directing in the classroom/lab situation and so I continued as a lab instructor until I graduated. Following graduation I directed about 2,000 hours of live television of all kinds ... drama, talk shows and news -- everything that you can possibly imagine. Musical comedies, stage shows -- even wrestling! I directed a lot of sports ... huge amount of sports and I was having a damn good time doing it -- which was really where it was at. I have just always been interested in the entire industry.

TK: You were very busy for a young person, right out of the blocks...

AL: And gaining experience and learning from people who knew a thousand times more than I, and it was really quite awakening. I came out here in 1960 and I went to MGM where I worked as an assistant to the Producer on a show called "National Velvet", which was a two year-lived NBC show that went to color in its second year. Then I was upped to Associate Producer on "Father of the Bride", which was only a one year show at MGM. It's then that I began to direct commercials and industrials and so on, intermixed with a lot of sports. I photographed or directed 67 episodes of the ABC Wide World of Sports in that time period and then began to do a mix of dramatic and live television and commercials. Commercials were really very big in the 60's and early 70's.


TK: ...and I see you had some success as I see you have several Clio Awards to your credit.

AL: There were about 11 of us who were making most of the national spots, and it was quite lucrative. Those commercials allowed me to put enough money away so I could finally say "no", I just want to do drama. I knew it would take a little bit of time and energy and money to be to able to just say I was going to do that -- and then be able to wait until I got my break.


During a short conversation that the editor had with Alan Levi while at DV Expo, Alan spoke of his work on the 70's action / fantasy series "The Bionic Woman" with Lindsay Wagner. During the conversation, Alan remarked: "I loved working with Lindsay. Today, we are still friends and I speak with her regularly." Told of a friend's experience who had found Lindsay alongside the road in the California desert, her car broken down -- Alan listened as he was told of how she was helped by our friend who just happened to be a licensed auto mechanic. He had always wanted to be a cameraman and as he fixed Lindsay's car, she listened to his story and it seems she didn't forget her roadside savior. Lindsay took his card and later she called him and said that she had arranged an interview to get him a job as part of the crew. To this story, Alan smiled and said: "Yes, that's Lindsay! She's such a wonderful person. One of the nicest people I ever met while working in this business."

Alan Levi directed 17 episodes of the series.

TK: Obviously that break did happen for you at some point...

AL: It actually occurred in 1975 when I went with Universal Studios, I was there for 18 years, 13 under contract. I was the only Producer/Director under contract to them for a long time and I directed over 300 hours of shows while I was there -- both episodic and long form. I did shows like Scruples, Battlestar Gallactica and The Immigrants -- shows like that.

TK: You've had experience with such a large variety of projects and areas of the industry. Have you done these things in different stages, or has your career typically been a mix or...?

AL: Well, since '75 I've concentrated on dramatic shows. In the last 25, 26 years or so I've done only a few commercials.

TK: How many episodes do you do during a particular year of any particular television series?

AL: It depends on how hard I want to work, or whether I get a movie of the week. A movie of the week normally takes about three to four months, while a television episode takes three weeks to prep and shoot. We get seven week days to prep a show and, on average, eight days to shoot it -- sometimes seven, sometimes nine or ten. ER was a nine and a half day show because it's just the nature of the beast. It was like eight prepping and ten shooting. So that was almost four weeks worth of work. If a director is lucky and schedules don't change, they can do a show a month or maybe a little bit less than that. Sometimes I've done as many as 11 shows in a year. I've also done as few as four plus a movie of the week or two. Movies of the week are much more rare now. They used to make over 350 movies of the week, and now they are making less than 150.


TK: How much of what you do is about collaboration and how much is about control? For example, I usually work with a crew of two or three and we all serve several purposes and sometimes you spend so much time trying to stay on schedule that it feels like creativity can suffer. When I've had the opportunity to do truly collaborative work, I've really enjoyed it. I imagine like anything else, it must have its advantages and disadvantages...

AL: Yes, I think you're right. There are pros and cons. In the Director's Guild Magazine recently, there was an argument/discussion between two directors. One of them said that a picture is a totally collaborative effort. He only works in a collaborative way having everybody -- the set decorators, the designers, the editors, cameramen and director -- working together from the very beginning. He believed it was the best way to make a motion picture, the most efficient way -- and the one that he figured resulted in the best product. The other director said "Hogwash." to the whole thing. He maintained that filmmaking is pure auteurism.

Note: According to the Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary, in 1954 film director Francois Truffaut first used the word "auteur" in this sense: meaning a film director regarded as having such a significant influence on the films that he or she directs as to be able to rank as the "author".

Alan continues: This director believes that the director is totally in charge of everything. This director does not like suggestions to come in, and it is his vision from the very beginning to the very end that makes a motion picture great. So, even among the professional ranks -- and I'm talking about first-rate feature directors ...

TK:'s still a point of debate that hasn't been decided...

AL: I don't think it will ever be decided. It's just 2 viewpoints and there are viewpoints in the middle, obviously... I mean, we're talking about from one end of the continuum to the other. One says total aurteurism ... and the other says total collaboration. To me, the director is at the pinnacle of the pyramid but to me, the only reason that he is up there is because he is supported by all the people below him and that he definitely has the right to say yes or no -- and I'm not saying that this doesn't work even in a totally collaborative effort. I mean if a guy who sweeps up the stage comes along and says "Hey, wouldn't that door handle look prettier if it was brass, rather than silver?" He's got just as much of a right to impress upon the director one tiny little thing and the director can look at him and can say, "You're absolutely right. Yes, my God, yes." It doesn't make any difference where the suggestion comes from. If it's a good one and contributes toward a better film, why not accept it ?

TK: ...even when that input comes from someone who doesn't hold a traditional "steering" role in the production.

AL: Yes, I think there's a middle ground in there that's always worked for me. Not exactly the same with a producer who's a dear friend of mine ... and the present show I'm directing is my 69th show with him. He's the creator of Magnum, Quantum Leap, and Jag -- and now First Monday. I'm talking about Don Bellisario, who certainly takes suggestions from a lot of people -- he listens to them -- but he's in a much more controlling situation than I am too. That's why he's who he is and what he is.

TK: He's totally accountable.

AL: Yes, he is! Everybody has their own levels. For me, and I said this to a writer friend of mine a couple of weeks ago: that every step of the way ... from the story to the script, there should be improvement. From the script to where the directors and actors take it and put it on film, the result should improve on the script. That the editor should contibute to make a better film than that which the director shot, and that the post production staff -- sound and music ... and sound effects and dubbing -- should again take that entire production and elevate it to a new level. I really feel that that's important. And it's difficult to obtain those contributions if you have an auteur -- where just one person is saying no and yes ... because then it's totally only his or her singular view. Now, the guy who directed "Titanic" ...

TK: Cameron?

AL: Yes. Cameron is an auteur -- to the point where there are some people who probably don't enjoy working with him as much.

TK: I have heard that,..

AL: And then there are other people who work that way but on a completely different level. Hitchcock did that. Hitchcock was an auteur. He said "This is what I want, and this is how I like it."

TK: Are there ready examples of the other extreme?

AL: Yes. On the other side, you find other people who work as a team and everybody just loves working with them. Ron Howard is one. He loves working with everyone -- and everybody loves him. He also has one hell of a track record if you look at all his pictures. Then there's Steven Spielberg -- speaking of a of a track record! And I agree with you and I think that any of us who are trying to create something -- even though we certainly may have a vision -- benefit by evaluating what other people want to contribute. We just don't have to accept it.

TK: I've always liked keeping my options open and have found that input from the crew has indisputably improved shots or edits for me over the years.

AL: I think we should all be open to it and I think that what you're saying is absolutely true, that we get...I think, a better result when many talented people have positive input into a production.

TK: I like to work as a team and I like to work off of other people. But on the other hand, I understand your point that there has to be a point at which you say, "Okay. That's enough input. This is what I need."

AL: Oh yeah, you've got to do that. I think it's important. I'm far more collaborative when I'm making a picture then I am when I'm designing a piece of equipment or doing something electronically. When I designed the theater/studio for our home I didn't have input from anybody but my wife. I didn't want it, because everybody has different ideas and I kind of knew exactly what I wanted for myself.

TK: It's certainly your house.

AL: When I'm designing, for instance, a control panel of any kind, designing and building off-line systems or my first design on Vidifilm -- which was the first Video Assist -- I didn't want alot of iput because it was my invention, if you will.

TK: So, for you those two processes are different ... creating a piece of equipment or creating a motion picture.

AL: I don't think we're inventing film but if I take off on something like an invention, it's much less collaborative. But that's okay, because that's my own tiny little creation -- whereas, when we are making films, there are so many people involved. I've got a cast and crew. There's pre-production, production and post-production people around me that amount to 125 people or more on each episode. That's a lot of talent.


TK: What are the most astounding technical changes in this industry as you look back and compare it from when you started to how it is today?

AL: I think there may be three or four major changes and as you say, most of them are technological. In 1963, I patented a process which is now known as "video assist." It was a company I put together with friends. I raised some money because I had this idea of building a camera that had both a motion picture camera and a television camera all in one, viewing through one lens. Jerry Lewis had done it before me but he had just mounted a small television camera on top of a movie camera, so he could see on a TV screen what the camera was shooting on film. I figured that through a single lens the TV picture was going to be much more accurate and much more facile, so I began to put that together and I did.

TK: You mentioned video assist earlier. Now I'm a person with a relatively formal education in the field and I'm a little embarrassed that your name doesn't "ring a bell." Of course, a great many memories from that time aren't the sharpest.

AL: I'll tell you why... The idea was beneficial for what I was doing at that particular time. I was directing but I was also using Vidifilm as an inroad for myself into making a lot of contacts. I applied for the patent and we had a patent pending. About 3 years later, the patent-pending was sold to the Mitchell Camera Corporation. I sold it to them because I had manufactured a number of systems for a number of different people and what we were doing was kind of exploration. I suddenly found myself so highly into the technical that I wasn't able to direct anymore. I was building cameras for NASA by that time - we were putting cameras into the training Apollo Space Craft, and I was designing equipment to go into spacecraft which facilitated both film and video through our single lens design. And we were also providing medical cameras that were going to be suspended above medical operating tables which exposed high resolution color film but at the same time you could monitor the picture through the lens with the video -- which at that time was still black and white. So I found myself suddenly getting into it so heavily that I went: "Wait a minute, whoa! This is backfiring on me. Someday I might be a very wealthy man because of it -- but I didn't want to stop directing!" The main reason I invented the Vidifilm process was because I was building a system where I could shoot multi-camera like live television and still have a film negative through the same optics. It kind of mushroomed into all this other stuff. So I finally sold the rights off. Besides, it takes a number of years for a patent to come through. I sold it to the Mitchell Camera Corporation which then took it and revised it into a Mitchell camera called System 35 -- which was somewhat of a bastard system. It was Mitchell's first attempt and the blimp was huge, where Vidifilm was a miniature camera.

TK: There's been some improvements made since then, I take it?

AL: Yes, many more improvements were made on it as time went by. No one person, you know, patented that. I mean no one person totally invented what is available today. It was a string of many people. And I dropped out of that portion of the development because I went back into doing what I love to do, which is directing. It doesn't mean I'm not still an electronics cuckoo, but... what the heck.


TK: What about other areas of field production technology? What kinds of things have changed the way you work the most?

AL: I think technologically, the miniaturization of cameras and sound recording equipment early on, was a great factor in mobility. Being able to take your cameras to places where they weren't really easy to take them before. I mean today, you have self-blimped cameras, which came in during the 60's. Before then, you had much larger and heavier cameras, the BNC and the blimp weighed as much as 200 lbs. Today you can grab a Panaflex or an Arri BL which weighs maybe 35 or 40 lbs. and which basically perform the same function. Same thing happened with sound. We used to record the sound, up until the late 60's or early 70's onto magnetic film which required a very large recorder. Then the Nagra came in which is a very small, portable, battery operated recorder. And now, many productions even record their sound on a computer hard drive.

TK: Which means the batteries are smaller and everything can be moved and set faster...

Al: Which means, basically, lighter and more portable equipment to carry around. Lighting equipment has also gotten a lot smaller. When we began using Halogen and Zenon lights, the portability factor improved once again. But, in answer to your first question, post production has changed much more violently than production has. Although now, in production, we're getting into a situation where television High Definition cameras are beginning to be used more and more -- on sitcoms and even some dramatic shows where they're using videotape, high definition videotape.

TK: Right. Actually acquiring electronically as opposed to acquiring on celluloid...

AL: Yes. Electronically. But the development of electronic post production has, I think, altered the industry more than anything else because it has been a total change. For the most part, we're still using film. We're still using film that has sprockets. We're still using cameras that you carry around, and sound recorders which record separately. There is going to be a gradual shift here to HD and to Live HD cameras, electronic capture, as time goes on. Hell, I'm no expert on it, but I've had a lot of discussions with a lot of people. I was on the High Definition Committee when I was at Universal and you know how CD's replaced cassettes, or replaced...

TK: LP's?

AL: No! Vinyls are still quite viable. I mean, people still feel that vinyl will give you better reproduction than a CD. I don't think electronic photography is going to replace film right now. But who knows what's going to happen a hundred years from now? In the post-production area, I was associated with a company called Compact Video for many years. And one of Compact Video subsidiaries, Laser Edit, was working on laser disc-based editing, which was one of the first electronic editors -- along with Montage -- where you would transfer everything either to videotape and/or to a laser disc. Then you would begin the editing process electronically instead of cutting the film dailies.

TK: Didn't CBS have a system like that at some point?

AL: Well they did. I believe it became what was called CMX.

TK: That's the system I've heard the most about.

AL: Yes. The totally electronic version came out just a little after Laser Edit. Laser Edit was the first one because they were building their own machines. And once it came out there was also -- what the heck was the name of it? -- I think it was called EdiFlex. I forget. But anyway, there was another system which was also based on laser disc recording.

TK: That's interesting. In my experience, CBS has gotten most of the recognition for early Laser Disc editing.

AL: There were 3 or 4 systems out there, and then soon afterwards, when we began to get the M-JPEG encoding down and when computer hard-drives became fast enough, then it went over to what today is known as computer editing. One being the Avid System. And now, of course, there are other systems out there that are competing with it.

TK: Avid basically invented the first implementable editing on computer hard drive.

AL: Which was a derivation of editing on optical disc. Yes. Because the control and manipulation of the editing process on a TV screen was very similar. The Laser Edit system was actually quite fast and they built laser disc machines that had four heads -- two on either side of the dual disc, so the heads were pretty quick and you had pretty darnned immediate access. Not as fast as a hard drive, but almost.

TK: I wasn't in that niche in the industry at that time but it seems as if the era of optical disc editing didn't last long.

AL: The problem was, you had to cut a laser disc and those cost a bit and took more time than just downloading the material to a hard drive as we do now.

TK: And as the computer was introduced into video production, the professional vocabulary expanded to include "crash", "lockup", "corrupt media" ... you had to come in and talk nice to it every day and backup, backup, backup.

AL: You certainly did -- as you do with every piece of new equipment, believe me. I mean, even on the Avids. I've been editing on the Avid now for -- oh my, I don't know how many years! -- I'm going to say somewhere between 10 to15. We still have lock-ups and the computer will still burp every once in a while.

TK: I think computers will probably do that on into the future.


AL: Yes, you read the editing forum websites as much as I do and you know the myriad of problems; small ones mostly, that we deal with on any system -- even those which are supposedly really quite stable. The Canopus systems are unbelievably stable depending on the combination of hardware products which are driving them. You know, everyone's having troubles out there going from the P3's and the P4's to the AMD's -- and back and forth with this kind of board, and that kind of board and how much memory and...

TK: And IRQ addresses, all that great stuff...which I don't pretend to know anything about. We recently put a Canopus system in and have found it to be pretty stable.

AL: Yes, it is. It definitely is. There are a half dozen or so editing systems out there which are really doing pretty damn well. One of them being the Mac, you know, and that's Final Cut Pro, which is making big in-roads into even the dramatic area.

TK: Do you worry at all about the viability of that arrangement long-term though? It's sort of like Goodyear deciding to make cars and expecting Ford to keep buying Goodyear tires as well. Even though that metaphor is a stretch, the relationship isn't that much of a stretch. You've got Apple who's a supplier of hardware platforms to Avid, Media 100 and others, who are actually putting out a piece of software that's competing -- and as you are even alluding to, it's competing pretty successfully. Especially with a lot of the lower- to mid-range systems out there. Obviously, if you have a Symphony or if you had a Softimage or whatever, you may not be as interested in Final Cut Pro. However if you're just using a Media Composer 1000 to do some simple cutting, you might be tempted give Final Cut Pro a try.

AL: Yes. I think you hit on it when you talk about the equipment and the software that's out there for the middle-man and even the high-end user. Actually, I think your analogy of Ford and Goodyear is a good one. Ford and General Motors and Chrysler have always put out automobiles which satisfy various levels of public demand. Chevrolet, Plymouth and Ford were at the lower end (cost wise), and the Chrysler, Cadillac and Lincoln were at the top. But I don't worry too much about the differences between the upper and lower ends of affordable technology because what is at today's high-end, will be mostly available to the lower-end user in a very short time! I think things are evolving electronically so quickly right now, that whatever we are using today may not be what we are going to be using tomorrow. And if there is a system available today which is useful within the marketplace and to an individual or to a corporation -- they ought to use it without worrying too much about what's going to happen five years down the road. Because five years down the road, who the heck knows? Sometime down the road, we probably aren't going to be using conventional memory either. It'll be bubble memory or you'll be able to go out and purchase a piece of memory that's one cubic inch big that has perhaps hundreds of gigabytes available on it. Eventually DVD's won't exist anymore because you'll be able to go out and buy a little chip the size of the Sony Memory stick, and recorded on that will be a complete movie. And it's all software, it's all going to be encoded on there rather than on the spinning disc, and you just take that little memory stick and plug it into a device and you've got a couple hours of entertainment. That sort of electronic progress is what's happening to the entire industry today. Look at MP3 !

TK: I guess my concern on Final Cut Pro is certainly not a criticism of the software itself, nor am I saying that Avid is sunk because here they come. What I was more or less thinking about was, does it wall Macintosh off? Mac has no “OEM” (for lack of a better term) customer out there who is not cross-platform, these companies can choose where they put their development resources. Even Avid, now selling Xpress-DV has to think in terms of Final Cut Pro as a competitor and a fair one at that. Why would you, as a manufacturer, put that much money into developing for the Mac Platform, just to compete with Apple software?

AL: I think mainly because there's a market for it right now. And remember, the Mac has always excelled in the graphics arena, and is continuing to make great efforts to maintain superiority in that area. Their release of the iMovie was a great middle- and lower-end advancement for home editors. Final Cut Pro is not for the casual once-in-a-blue-moon editor. It's a high-end, complex and extremely powerful piece of editing software!

TK: On that note: "middle of the road" is a tough term to define these days. When I bought my Media 100's, we put roughly $35,000 a piece into them with drives, etc., but at that time the closest competitive Avid cost $100,000 -- that was "middle of the road" at that time. It was either that or a VideoCube, or drop down to a Radius or something like that. These days where the heck is the middle of the road? You can put an Avid Xpress-DV together for $2,000 to $2400.

AL: I agree with you completely. Where the middle of the road used to be $20,000, the higher-end of middle-of-the-road can be as little as $10,000 including the computer.

TK: Or even less -- and upstairs you’ll find the spacious rec room/post production suite.


AL: I don't know where my system stands within the average cost of systems owned by people who do what I do, but I've got a fairly complete system and it's under $7,000.

TK: You said you have a Canopus DV Storm system at home?

AL: The Canopus DV Storm, yes. With dual AMD 1.6's, 512 Mb of RAM, 60 Gig System drive, 200 gigabytes of RAID for the video and a DVD recorder built-in. That's a fairly complete system. And that includes the shuttle controller. I've got a shuttle as well as a dedicated keyboard.

TK: So what does a person like yourself use your home editing system for? Do you use your Canopus DV Storm in your professional work or...?

AL: I use it a lot of different ways. One thing I don't do, is try to edit my own shows! Because we have professional editors who get our film and then they make their cut. And my hopes are that if I have a vision for a scene in any one of my shows, that I not discuss what my intentions are, editorially, with the editor. I llike to see what he or she does, because many times the editor will improve on what my ideas are. So I don't really bring my dailies home and edit them. Every once in a while, if I've directed an action sequence, I'll bring home my dailies and throw together that action sequence, and we'll sometimes compare what the editor does with what I've done and come up with ideas that are improvements on both. So I will sometimes do some edit-tinkering on a complex piece. But much more so as a storyboard rather than as a real edit on a dramatic show -- because these guys do it so well.

TK: Have you found uses for your home system in the production prep stages of your work?

AL: I do use it in certain instances that way. Frequently, when I'm out scouting for locations, I'll take my video camera with me, and I'll come home and overnight I'll put together, in a very quick fashion, a short tape, say 5 to 7 minutes long, of the locations which I thought fulfilled the needs of the show. I will then take that tape and screen it for the producers or the executive producers to exhibit to them the location site and often the various angles which I'm thinking of shooting. Many producers enjoy looking at, say 3 or 4 different location sites -- like for a house that we're using which is supposed to belong to a certain character and they'll say, "You know what? I think this house is our character more than that house is." So it helps sometimes to put together a scouting tape where I can show an executive producer within a short amount of time what I am thinking of and what we will actually see and what we won't see. When a location manager takes us out, they film everything. They shoot everything on stills, most of them anyway. For instance, for the present series which I'm directing -- CBS's 'First Monday' -- if we see that there's a palm tree sitting right in the middle of the location, that's a "no-no!" We're supposed to be in Washington DC and if we show a palm tree to the executive producer, he's going to have a fit. So I'll how him just what we're going to see -- and not see -- in the edited tape. Additionally, my wife is an actress, so I put together her demo reels from all the shows on which she's guest-starred. I also continue to edit together my own directing reels. Also, we have a big extended family, kids all over, and we do a lot of Christmas shooting, birthday shooting, etc., etc. Also, Sam and I -- Sam's my wife -- Sam and I do a lot of worldwide traveling and I don't know how many hours of "travelogue" footage we have. Sadly (the plumber whose pipes at home are still leaking!) I haven't done a lot of pulling together of that footage yet, because every time I begin to edit them, there's a new machine that comes out and I upgrade, so I have to go back and start all over again. Sound familiar?? But we've traveled the canals of Europe for the last 15 years -- in France and Holland, Germany and Belgium and England -- and those travels are all documented. Finally, using Canopus StormEdit, I'm putting all them together.


TK: Is there also the inevitable "side project" here and there?

AL: My wife belongs to a charity group out here called SHARE. SHARE is composed of nearly seventy-five ladies who are all show business wives, and who raise over a million and a quarter dollars a year for mentally and physically handicapped children, They distribute the monies through about 18 to 20 organizations. Summer before last, Sam and I proposed to SHARE's board of directors, that as a gift to the charity, we make a documentary focused on the children who benefit from these donations. Because many of the people who donate to the children are really unaware of exactly where their money goes, or precisely what benefits result from their contributions. Okay, it goes to children born with deficiencies, or children disabled by an accident, but they aren't able to go down to these facilities to see the extent of the aid which those dollars actually provide and who they go to and the condition of the children.

TK: Or to really see the difference that it makes in these lives...

AL: Yes. So Sam and I went out last Spring and shot about 20 hours worth of video. I put a camera on my shoulder again, and we shot our documentary. We then came back to our studio here at our house, editing and dubbed it here then on-lined the footage at a professional post house and showed it first at the annual fund-raising dinner last May. It is our desire that this documentary will aid in raising additional funds by providing a viewing sales-tool, if you will, for the future fund-raising seasons.

TK: Those are great productions to do. At the end, there's nothing like looking at something like that and seeing the effect it has on somebody -- to really reflect and say to yourself, "Well, maybe I can do something that really counts with these skills."

AL: I don't think a lot of us have the opportunity to really make a difference, and when we can utilize everything we've learned, and receive help from those nearest to us in order to make that difference, I think you are absolutely correct. Could I have afforded to hire the people necessary to do the job, or go to a regular editing bay? Yes, I probably could have, but why do that when you're fortunate enough to be able to do it yourself. And then there's the satisfaction of the personal "input", the personal accomplishment. I would call Sam up to the editing room every night, and say, "Hey, what do you think about this?" and she'd look at what we had accomplished that day and how it was editing down, and the result was a great deal of pride -- a lot of fulfillment.


TK: And there's the "massaging" you can do when you have total control over the time and the equipment, whereas, I think a lot of times when you are paying by the hour for editing, you know, at some point, you just have to cut loose. You say, "Okay, is the next tweak worth the extra hour of billing I'm going to have to pay out?" And at some point, usually, you say "No". But if you're working on it yourself, well, if I put one more hour of my own time in to really perfect that sequence, Yes that's worth it.

AL: Yes. Yes. There is a big difference. But years ago there was a much bigger distinction between online and offline.

TK: I agree.

AL: Today they're meshing together. But the concept still holds -- of when you're editing offline, you can do anything you darnn please, because it's like 1/10th of the cost of on-line. And for me, editing here, it was just my time. Well, my time, to me, if I want to spend 10 hours -- or 20 hours on one sequence -- I can do it if I want to. You know. Believe me, nobody's paying me to do it, and I'm not paying myself.

TK: You mentioned "1/10th of the cost..." What's amazing to me is I think in the mid- to ... let's say mid-low range, that a lot of users don't understand the power that they have in these devices today.

AL: I agree with you. Not only that, but I don't think any of us...I really mean that...I don't think any of us really utilize the full power that's built into these new editing programs and hardware. Even at the low-end to the middle-end, as you say.

TK: For instance, I use Premiere like After Effects in many, many ways. And it's not as deep as After Effects but I think the borderline between Premiere and After Effects is further up the scale then most people realize.

AL: Oh, I think you're right. I also feel the Canopus editor is really fast, it's probably the fastest editor out there in that you can just go "Bang, bang, bang!" on it and put in your effects and they're mostly all real time, It's funny because the reason that I work with StormEdit so much when the system first came is because I thought, well ... let me learn this and see how close this is to what I'm used to on the Avid. Because I went to Avid school many years ago, I can sit down on an Avid and edit really quickly. I'm not as proficient as the professional editors are, obviously, because they do it every day. I've go to pick up the textbook every once in a while and go, "Oh, that's right...that's how you do it." When I got Premier 6.0, I found it to be much more similar to the Avid and I picked it up in half the time as I did the Storm, but I learned Storm first just because it was new.

TK: That's really interesting. Since you are so used to the Avid, wouldn't a guy want to go with one of the smaller Avid systems?

AL: Well, you know, I played with the Avid Xpress.

TK: And...

AL: And I didn't particularly like it.

TK: Really?

AL: No. I didn't. But each of us has our own individual preferences! I don't think it's as intuitive as a DV Storm or Adobe Premiere. And I didn't find it to be as fast. Now there are a couple of more recent, updated versions of it since I tried it. I just didn't like the interface as much.

TK: I was a Media 100 guy and to me or to the uninitiated person, it looks very Avid-like.

AL: It is somewhat. It is Avid-like. The thing that probably swayed me over to the Storm was I liked the breakout box idea, and I think the Canopus codec is probably one of the best around.

TK: I'd have to agree with you there.

AL: And I'm interested in quality and the codec that Canopus has developed is pretty invisible.

TK: And it's actually the codec that the Xpress DV2 runs on as well.

AL: The Avid does?

TK: Yes.

AL: I didn't even know that. Did it from the beginning?

TK: That I don't know. However, I would say that you’re right on regarding the codec’s quality and when you combine that with the speed of the Storm hardware...


AL: I had a technician up here ... my projector is a custom hi-def projector on a 14-1/2 foot screen. I have 1080P up there. I take high def and put it through the Faroudja 5000 and I have 1080P. There's no line structure at all, and I clamp my blacks right at black. Anyway, I had a technician up here from Christie Digital last week, and he edits on Premiere. After we finished working on the projector, I sat him down next to me and I showed him some of the highlights of the Storm. And also the Premiere software when it's using the Storm codec and being able to do much of it in real time. His mouth just dropped open. He said, "My God, I spend so much time doing that and here you go 'boom, boom.'"

TK: It's amazing how much power we have at our fingertips today relative to even a very short time ago. I know our time is running short, I have to say that I've enjoyed this very much and you have an incredible career and history in the business ... it's something to be proud of.

AL: Well, I'll tell you something. You know, I've been really fortunate, extremely fortunate. The industry has always had its ups and downs -- but I have had very few downs. I'm lucky to have a lot of friends and a lot of stubbornness.

TK: I have a feeling that talent and hard work figures in there somewhere too. Thank you for your time again, Alan, I've enjoyed it very much and I know you stop in at from time to time. Please feel free to chime in over there any time.


AL: I’ve got to tell you, that when I find something that I believe in, and something that interests me, then I believe in putting time into it. I think you guys do a terrific job and Canopus does a terrific job, and just reading the forums which I do a lot ... there's a lot of people out there who are trading ideas for the benefit of everybody else. I think that's terrific.

-Tim Kolb


For More about the career of Alan J. Levi,
please visit his page at the Internet Movie Database site.

Want to know more about Tim? Click here for his bio. You can also find Tim as a leader in the following forums: Art and Craft of the Edit, Business Practices & Procedures, Canopus, Cinematography & Video Pros, Corporate Video, JVC DV, and Media 100.

Visit our forums and read other articles at if you found this page from a direct link.

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