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In Conversation with USC's Norman Hollyn

COW Library : Cinematography : Debra Kaufman : In Conversation with USC's Norman Hollyn
CreativeCOW presents In Conversation with USC's Norman Hollyn -- Cinematography Feature


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Creative COW's Debra Kaufman spoke at length with Norman Hollyn, who is a Full Professor and Head of the Editing Track at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. Hollyn, whose picture and/or music editing credits include Meet the Applegates, Heathers and Sophie's Choice, will start a two-year term as President of the University Film and Video Association in September. Hollyn talks about the ways technology has -- and hasn't -- changed the editor's job, what's new in editing and why a film school education still matters to young editors.


Debra Kaufman: What kind of students are you seeing at USC's School of Cinematic Arts. Has that changed over the years?

Norman Hollyn: I've been at USC for eight or nine years and the kind of students that we're seeing apply has certainly changed Unlike at AFI or Chapman, when we accept students as undergraduates or graduates, we don't track them as editors. They're production students and we force them to specialize in at least two things while they're here -- they usually choose directing and something else. Some of these production students find their love for editing and focus on that.

When I first started here, we were actively looking for people with good stories to tell and we attracted some who came out of different disciplines, bringing in a good 20 to 30 a year from outside the media creation world. Now, everyone who comes in has created media at some point. They're very familiar with a lot of technology, such as iMovie or Final Cut or Sony Vegas Pro. They've shot stuff whether it's with their iPhone or some other camera. There are so many more film programs in high school and the technology in general is more accessible. I wouldn't necessarily call these students more accomplished, but they have much more experience in media creation than the students we were attracting when I started at USC.

Because it's so much easier to create and even distribute media, this isn't shocking at all. It's more surprising when we get students who have not picked up the camera than those who have. Students who have not picked up a camera but are good storytellers bring a different perspective.


How has the editing changed vis-à-vis technology? What editing programs do you teach at USC's School of Cinema Arts?

We teach storytelling, not technical. So the core of what we do isn't changing -- the form is. We've moved fully into digital capture for almost all of our classes, and we're acknowledging that color correction, VFX creation and complicated sound creation are important parts of what we need to do in the editing room and that much of what we used to do in the labs is now being done on set. Some of our students are using motion capture, some are using 3D, many have moved away from DSLRs, all are experimenting with a variety of formats.

But we still have no courses that are titled "Editing Using Media Composer" or "Using Assimilate Scratch on Set." Our classes are about the process. We have no classes about the technology per se. Our classes are collaborative filmmaking/storytelling classes. As an adjunct to that, they have to learn different applications in order to tell their stories better. But we're not focusing on a technology. One of the reasons why is when I cut something six to eight months later when I finish, things have changed big time, especially workflows. We want to teach students not so much the technology, which is easy to learn nowadays with tutorials like the ones on Creative COW. What we want to teach them is how to tell stories better than the next person, no matter if it's a documentary, music video or a narrative. So we are teaching agnostically when it comes to editing tools. We have 160 stations of Avid Media Composer but we also have that many of FCP 7 and a large number, maybe almost as many, of the Adobe CS5.5, moving to CS6. We're adding more Adobe Premiere seats to be even more agnostic.


Editors now do more than ever before. They're often expected to do temp music, VFX, color correction. Is this reflected in what you're teaching them?

It's absolutely part of what we do. We prepare students in several ways. We find most of our students learn much better in a project-oriented environment. We start with simple projects they make on their own. Gradually, we introduce the collaboration process. They all learn ProTools as well as Media Composer, so they're learning more sophisticated sound in their classes. One thing I'm particularly proud of is that we have many more editors teaching in the classroom have face time with the students, as opposed to a more generalist approach. In their classes, students have editors leaning over their shoulders saying, why don't you try this temp music or now let's go in and do some color correction inside whatever NLE you're working in. We try to force them to look straight at the editing process without that in the first semester, and then we add in all those things to a great or lesser degree as their learning progresses. By the time they get to the second year, students self-identify whether they want to do more specialization in editing. And that's when we hit them with learning additional tools.

In addition, in the production classes they may be editing a film directed, written, produced and shot by others. We also have pure editing classes where we give them pieces that have been shot professionally and that's where they learn how editing helps with storytelling, how temp music and sound will impact the storytelling, how to really create a mix that's professionally done enough so that you can bring to studio executives. If we don't teach them how to use all those tools you mentioned, they won't be able to be successful.


Is that a change from the past?

Yes, it was absolutely NOT true 10 years ago. I should stress that we define the "industry" not narrowly the way it used to mean -- features and TV. The industry means much, much more now -- including new media, transmedia, web video, gaming. What skill sets do the students need when they jump into that stuff? They need to be able to put temp visuals, temp color, temp music and audio, sometimes finishing and titles. All that is necessary, including how to be post production supervisors themselves. In addition to that, and for the last seven or eight years, editors need to know multiple NLEs. You can't just know Media Composer or Final Cut Pro.

The core of what you have to teach them is the art of editing? How do you do that?

It is complex to teach the art of editing. It's a combination of several things. You have to have really good teachers, people who have actually done it. Last year, for instance, on the intermediate graduate level class, we had Dan Lebental (Cowboys & Aliens, Iron Man 2), Zack Arnold (Burn Notice, The Bannen Way). Most of our teachers are like that. You have to have teachers who know what they're doing and know how to talk about it. That's part of my job, to build a curriculum that starts simple and becomes more complicated. The intermediate and advanced editing classes teach how to shape scenes for maximum impact, regardless of whether it's a documentary or narrative.

The fact that we can select our students from a great pool means they're smart and can also fire up other students in collaboration. We're also fortunate enough to be located in Los Angeles and have amazing alumni who constantly come in as guest speakers in classes or at events. And what they say shows up in the students' editing work. We were talking at one event with one of the editors from Mad Men, who was describing how he uses the Fluid Morph in Media Composer to shape performances. You can make a little jump cut inside a performance, drop in that effect and it morphs the jump cut; in 50 percent of the cases, you don't even realize there's been a jump cut. It's used throughout TV shows and features, to pick up the pace of a performance or to lose a piece of audio. Days after this visiting editor talked about it, I started seeing it on timelines in student projects.

I had Steve Cohen, the author of "Avid Agility," come in and talk to one of my classes for an hour and a half. He's an Avid savant and knows everything about the program; the students' minds were blown by what he had to say.


What else -- aside from editing -- do students need to know about being an editor?

There are at least two answers to that. One is that I think they learn about politics of the editing rooms. They learn that from discussions and being put in the cauldron and having to edit on super tight deadlines with a director and producers looking over their shoulder. One of the biggest learning curves our students have is how to work collaboratively. They come to us with a DIY philosophy where they've done it all themselves. One of the scary things for them is to figure out how to get what they want out of a scene without doing it themselves. How do I talk to the cinematographer without grabbing the camera? How do I talk to the editor without grabbing the keyboard away? That's a big, big thing we teach here, and it gradually phases in until when they leave. You can't do that without modeling it, giving them the experience and then giving your own feedback. For instance, you can't flat out tell your director he's wrong, of course. We talk about it, issues come up and we discuss them and stay with it day by day. By the end, their thesis films can have 80 people in the credits. They have to learn how to collaborate well, and that's intangible.

Aligned with this, the other intangible is that we have such an active and smart group of students who have come through here over the years. We call it the Trojan Mafia and they're incredibly helpful with each other, long after they've graduated. Who do they work with or talk with? The people they went to USC with. In my division alone, production, we take in 110 students every year, and the students find people who they really like, graduate with and then work with after school. That, to me, is a complete intangible value for people who come from all over the world and wouldn't have access to these other creative minds.

Now that the technology is more accessible and easier to learn, is there still a reason for students to go to the university to study it?

I don't think everybody should go to film school or university. Some people will probably learn well with their own self-motivation, in terms of being open to other points of view and learning things on their own. Some people are resourceful enough to find people wherever they are, to listen to why something they're doing isn't working. Then they should take whatever it costs to go to an undergraduate program and make their own movie. That's fine.

But there are a lot of people who don't have that kind of self-awareness, especially when they're 18 or 19. If someone gave them $100,000 to make a movie, they could really screw up their careers in a way they can't do here. We provide a protected atmosphere where you can screw up. You can take chances in a way you might not feel you can when you're working with your own or someone else's money. It gives you a chance to build a creative community because there are lots of students who you know have got your back, and you have theirs....and will hire you on their films. That built-in community helps provide support.

Also, and especially for undergrads, we're a liberal arts school. At the same time you're learning film, you're also learning writing, science, a million other topics. Most of our students are double majors as undergrads. Some are doing neuroscience. You can't tell me that won't enrich their films. If the student is studying art history or even pre-law, you can't tell me that won't feed back into his or her movies. That kind of world only exists in a liberal arts school, not if you're doing it yourself.

Crystal Cruises' industry-first partnership with USC's School of Cinematic Arts will teach digital filmmaking on the iPad to luxury cruisers. (PRNewsFoto/Crystal Cruises)
USC School of Cinematic Arts building. From a related news and interest story: see caption below. (PRNewsFoto/Crystal Cruises)
Most of our students do a lot of work outside the school as well, so they're building their own groups, working on their own films independently with filmmakers from AFI and UCLA. What works for some people won't work for others. So you shouldn't feel like you have to go to a film school to learn film but there are intangibles and real benefits from doing it.


What can a film school or university-based editing program do to enhance the art and craft of editing in the industry?

Our students have the ability to take classes in critical studies and interactive media. In some of the super interesting forward-thinking gaming classes, Henry Jenkins teaches transmedia. The first thing our incoming freshmen do is take a class that's a large game that forces them to work across divisions and work with everybody else, building media. When they walk out of here, they'll have had an experience that forces them to think and experience things outside their comfort zone. When they move into the industry, I think they'll have a leg up. They'll say, "I've created a movie but also told a story in a game." They'll be able to build worlds for their stories and find different ways to plug into that world, with different media. That and collaboration is the way the industry is moving. They'll be so ready for it, and will feed that knowledge back into the industry.

An exciting part of my job description is future-proofing the school. I have to look down the line and figure out where I think the industry will be in three years or five years. We need to know what our incoming freshmen will need to know in four years when they graduate. I'm forced to go out of my comfort zone all the time and say, this is what I need to know is happening. That's why I immediately glommed on to mobile, when you started covering mobile in your blog MobilizedTV.

Another area that interests me is long distance collaboration. More and more people who graduate will work for directors across the globe. How can you facilitate that, both technically but also from vis-à-vis communicating with a director you may never meet? That's the way we're moving, and thinking that far down the line to transmedia, new media, is future-proofing the program.







Image of USC School of Cinematic Arts building from a news article featured at Creative COW on Crystal Cruises' industry-first partnership with USC's School of Cinematic Arts to teach digital filmmaking on the iPad to luxury cruisers.(PRNewsFoto/Crystal Cruises)





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