Taking Over the ACE Awards 2: How to Make Film School Work
CreativeCOW presents Taking Over the ACE Awards 2: How to Make Film School Work -- Art of the Edit Editorial

CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.

Each year, the American Cinema Editors holds a student editing competition in which students are provided the same set of video dailies they must edit into a short. The submissions are judged by a panel of professional film editors, with three finalists invited to the formal and fancy ACE Eddie Awards in January. One student receives an Eddie award among the crowd of high level editors also being honored for their work on the year's biggest and best movies and television shows.

For the first time, one school swept the finalist nominees for the award. Not a school in New York or LA, but University of North Carolina, School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, NC.

Under the encouragement and guidance of their faculty, students at UNCSA applied to participate in the ACE competition. Three students -- Aneesa Mahboob, Chris Dold, and Emily Rayl -- traveled to Los Angeles, and Chris was presented with the statue by JJ Abrams at the ceremony. But more than just an award, the three students were able to visit Los Angeles, make strong connections, and feel welcome in the editorial community. And that's on top of four years of job-oriented preparation.

UNCSA's editing graduates have a high rate of success right out of college, while many young people struggle to land their first gig. While they're working on the last phases of their academic careers, they feel the same fear any nearly-graduated student feels: after four years of relative safety within the walls of the school, what happens next? While Chris has another year left at UNCSA, Aneesa and Emily are graduating seniors that have after-graduation jobs already secured. What has led to their success? Their faculty -- Julian Semilian, ACE, and Michael Miller, ACE -- have a lot to say about their students, and what all young people can focus on and take away from a film school experience.

Michael Miller is a long-time editor turned instructor. After starting out his editorial career as an assistant editor on Woody Allen's Manhattan and Stardust Memories, he worked on Raging Bull for Martin Scorsese. Moving up to editor, he cut Raising Arizona and Miller's Crossing for The Coen Brothers and moved to Los Angeles to continue his career and expand his credits to include films such as Anaconda, Ghost World, and Infinitely Polar Bear. "After spending time at UNCSA as a guest artist, I began guest lecturing at such learning centers as Cornell University, New York Film Academy, AFI and Sonoma State. When a full time position opened up at UNCSA last fall, I was rarin' to go."

Michael Miller
Michael Miller

Julian Semilian, ACE
Julian Semilian, ACE
Jullian Semilian started his editing career in Hollywood. With over 16 feature films to his credit, he has a personal enthusiasm for experimental and avant-garde filmmaking [juliansemilian.com] he uses in a curriculum he influenced at UNCSA. "I had always secretly wanted to teach. When I was in editing in Hollywood there was a half-conscious voice in the back of my mind explaining what I was doing to an imaginary student.

Teaching was a dream I held dear but never consciously considered would actually happen." Julian saw an ad for a teaching position in a convenience store, applied, and has been teaching for 18 years.

Creative COW: One of the great debates for someone that wants a post production career is "college or no college." As an instructor, one might assume you're a supporter of getting a degree. What's your perspective on this debate?

Michael: I didn't attend film school. I merely took a couple of film history and film theory classes as an undergraduate. But working as an assistant editor when motion pictures were cut on film was a viable way to learn the craft. The job was to find the pieces of film the director and editor needed and in order to do that efficiently, the assistant had to be in the room with them. Based on what they were saying and doing at the KEM, I had to anticipate what they'd need. So the assistant editor was privy to all editor/director dialogue -- why to cut to a close-up instead of an over-the-shoulder shot, why to delete line of dialogue, why to move scene 85 before scene 37, why not to cut, why to cut on this frame instead of that. In digital editing, a computer keystroke gets you the shot the editor and the director are looking for, so the assistant isn't in the room with them. Access to that kind of dialogue has vanished. The only place for an editor to pass along the keys to the craft are in film schools.

Julian: I am neither for nor against going to college for editing. But I am for going to college for editing and sound at our school. We are committed to the thorough education of the student editor in all aspects of editing and sound. The students are "industry-ready" when they graduate. The faculty is made up of seasoned, passionate and caring professionals, who, incidentally, are still engaged in the process of making.

Many young people go directly into the business, each with some degree of knowledge or skill, and perhaps some talent. We feel this is not enough. The learning curve out there is steep and many don't make it, or at least not as far as they would dream, because they are unprepared, both professionally and emotionally. On the other hand, our students are thoroughly mentored in all aspects of the profession; the technological and the pragmatic, learning and practicing repeatedly in all the current platforms; in the artistic, through a thorough revisiting of the cinema history through the eyes of the editor, a detailed study of the editing of the great classics, one-on-one mentoring on the student projects; and in addition, familiarizing the students with art history, literature, music, drama.

Every year we invite important working picture and sound editors to spend one-on-one sessions with each and every editing student. We spend countless hours in discussions about editing room protocol and behavior. That's one reason we have such a high percentage of industry placement, either in Los Angeles or New York, and in other markets as well. We also keep in touch with all of our alumni who always call us for advise and sometimes for job possibilities. And of course, our own contacts as faculty come in very handy in getting the students internships and job connections. We are constantly in touch with our students, even when their careers are well under way.

Mentorships developed in the business are tinged with the tension and the stress of the tight schedules and the emphasis on performance under such stress. While we have schedules here as well and are very strict about keeping them, we also know this is still a dress rehearsal. The penalty for messing up is less severe and it becomes a lesson rather than job and reputation loss. So the training at the school and the pre-career time spent here, under the guidance of an experienced professional, is invaluable.

CC: What is important for students beginning a media program or film school to understand?

Michael: Editing software changes all the time and seldom if ever affects the way a film is edited. A viewer can't really tell if a picture has been edited on a moviola, a Steenbeck, on Avid or Adobe Premiere. So, while it's important to know current programs, what's far more important is to know what good editing is - in terms of performance, pace, rhythm and, of course, dramatic storytelling.

Julian: It is essential to understand that every single one of our students with a degree of motivation, drive, and good work ethic starts to work right away. That makes about 95% placement. I think the longest wait time before being employed is about two months. We also have a great alumni network. The alumni help the new graduates with jobs. That's because they know how powerful the training here is and trust the new grads.

Another element of the mentorship [a film school offers] is that we are able to prevent the students from making the same mistakes we made. Some of the situations that we went through in our careers occur in the school environment as well, but the penalty is less severe. Also, when a former student calls for advice, we can easily discern when they are about to make a wrong move that could cost them a good chunk of their career and point them in the right direction.

I went to Hollywood with little training other than my desire to work in the film business as an editor, having some skill in synching dailies, and without any contacts in the industry. It took thirteen months of daily knocking on doors to finally break through and get an apprentice position at Paramount. It was in the film days, and I was charged with delivering reels of film from cutting rooms to projection and back. You did this all day. When you weren't busy with that you were sent to a large non-air conditioned print storage room where you made fill. From time to time you got the privilege of synching dailies.

I was lucky enough that five years into my Hollywood days I was hired to be an assistant to Bernard Gribble, ACE, one of the all time great editors. Bernie was the editor's editor and I couldn't have wished for a greater mentor. What I learned from Bernie all those years, I am able to impart to many students. [Julian wrote an obituary for Bernie as well: http://www.larryjordan.biz/app_bin/wordpress/archives/1416]

Bernie's influence was immense. It was because of him that I was successful as an editor. Towards the end of his life Bernie mentioned to me that since going digital, the relationship of editor to assistant had changed drastically and he was worried that since the mentorship that used to take place when cutting on film was no longer possible, film editing itself would suffer. The same concerns were expressed in articles in the ACE magazine, CinemaEditor. ACE helped us tremendously by connecting us with many great editors who came as guest artists, some of them repeatedly, people such as Tom Rolf, Alan Heim, Michael Tronick, Stephen Mirrione, Michael Miller, Lori Jane Coleman, Bud Smith, Bill Gordean, Harry Keramidas, Allan Holzman, Zene Baker for picture editing, and sound editors Lon Bender and Willie Statesman. They devoted many hours to working one-on-one with the students and giving copious advice.

CC: Has the video production and post production industry changed over the last decade or so in a way that makes getting a degree more or less favorable?

Michael: Not the last decade as much as in the last two decades the assistant editor's job has entailed, in its entirety, tasks that are best done outside of the editor's room. Learning the craft from professionals in a university or conservatory setting has become much more important than it once was.

Julian: Since the digital age took over, the technology has been changing very fast. When we cut on film, the Moviola, and then the Kem, were predominant for the greater part of the history of cinema. The process didn't change very much for so many years. Once you learned the basics, you didn't have to worry any more. Now people have to stay constantly up-to-date with the development of the technology. So for us, it is much more favorable. The students go into the business having mastered all current platforms.

CC: What's your approach as an instructor?

Michael: I've had success combining theoretical and anecdotal readings, screenings of film clips or whole films, classroom lectures discussions and editing assignments that apply what was learned in readings, screenings and the classroom. The screenings are hugely important because watching great motion pictures raises a student's aesthetic standards more than anything else.

Julian: Beginning with year one, we teach a year-long class following the development of cinema through the eye of the editor, starting with Muybridge and ending with the latest trends and developments of the art of editing. The students are given exercises emulating these developments. I like to spend a lot of one-on-one time with as many students as possible. That leads to rapid development for those who are going into editing.

In addition, each editing student has a faculty mentor. In every year, much time is spent going over multiple possibilities of scene interpretations of films the students are editing, finding new ways of fixing substandard performances, figuring out ways to make up for limited coverage, fixing story points. We deliberately and diligently analyze every cut. I prepare students for the job market by sometimes making them make changes in scenes that already play well.

We also spend many hours analyzing the editing of scenes from great movies, getting down to the principles behind the choices that were made by the editors. The same goes for sound.

CC: Tell me about your experience at the Eddies this year.

Michael: I love attending the Eddies. Seriously, is there anything better than seeing editors in formal attire? But this year was truly special. ACE president Alan Heim had visited UNCSA as a guest artist a couple of months before the awards dinner and was extremely warm and welcoming to the students and to the faculty members who attended. Everyone was, actually. The students got to meet and chat with Alan, Carole Littleton, Tina Hirsch, Steve Rivkin, Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey -- so many great editors I could go on and on and on! And how exciting to see Chris Dold accept the Eddie Award from JJ Abrams!

Emily, Aneesa and Chris with Julian Semilian and Michael Miller at an ACE cocktail party.
Emily, Aneesa and Chris with Julian Semilian and Michael Miller at an ACE cocktail party.

Julian: Overwhelming happiness and pride in our students and our program. We have great appreciation to ACE for giving so much consideration to our school. While in LA for the ACE awards we had an alumni dinner one night. The room they reserved for us at the restaurant suddenly filled up and alums spilled out in the next room. There were students there from each year I taught, and each one of them was working! Rarely have I felt so happy in my whole life!

Michael Miller surrounded by new grads and alumni of UNCSA in LA.
Michael Miller surrounded by new grads and alumni of UNCSA in LA.

CC: Why is it important for students to pursue activities (like this contest, or internships, or self-produced films) outside of assignments and projects?

Michael: The ACE contest gives the students a chance to edit professionally shot material. As good as university screenwriting, acting and other programs may be, they often don't provide student editors with material that could air in primetime on a network or play theatrically. So the contest gives the students a chance to hear their playing on a Stradivarius, as it were. Internships give students a chance to work for and with professionals in the field. And outside assignments and projects give them opportunities to practice their craft. Practice, as we know, well... you know.

Julian: Most of the students pursue a traditional Hollywood career. We have been very successful in connecting our students with editors and companies we know. We encourage students to pursue internships in order to become familiar with the practices of professional editors in the actual combat of daily pressure. Many of these internships turn into jobs upon graduation, as the students are asked to return. Other students wish to pursue more non-traditional forms of cinema. Some are committed to experimental films; they work freelance in post companies while pursuing making personal films. There are former students who are showing their work in galleries and festivals.

CC: Some people argue that technology isn't important to learn in school, but entry level positions assume a degree of technical aptitude. How do you deal with a balance of creative and technical skills needs? How can students assure they are prepared with both aspects to enter the job market upon graduation?

Michael: Aside from mastering the 4-year curriculum, the best way to be prepared, I think, is to understand that it's probably necessary to start with an entry-level position. Another great thing about the ACE student editing competition is that the finalists got to "network" with the top professionals in the industry -- editors who might be able to put them to work as interns, apprentices or possibly even assistants.

Balance is the key. Learn to use ProTools and Adobe and Avid, and study Hitchcock, Renoir, Fellini and all the great masters of filmmaking at the same time. Having a very wide frame of reference as a movie lover is often as important in landing a job as having technical skills.

Michael Miller and new graduates of UNCSA on a senior trip in LA.
Michael Miller and new graduates of UNCSA on a senior trip in LA.

Julian: It is absurd to argue that technology should not be taught in school. It's like saying a painter doesn't need to learn how to mix paints. Creativity needs the platform of technology. And truthfully speaking, they feed each other. You can really be free and spontaneous when you know the technology. We begin with Premiere Pro for year one and two, while those committing to editing and sound continue to year three and four with Avid, ProTools, After Effects, DaVinci Resolve.

That being said, it would be ideal to have a dedicated tech person teach the basics of a platform, while the faculty can be freed to deal with the creative aspects and with further honing the mastering of the platform.

Still, creativity and the imagination are the most essential essential elements. It is creativity and imagination which drive the work. I have met quite a few people who live with the illusion that knowing Avid or Premiere Pro or After Effects makes you an editor! It is unfortunate that level of delusion still permeates much of the populace.

CC: What do you hope a student has learned by the time they come to graduate?

Michael: I hope they've begun to understand the enormous power of editing. The power to find and use great moments even if they can't be "match cut" into the film. The power to construct better performances from multiple takes than you can find in any one take. The power to restructure a story -- to rewrite a picture in the editing room. The power to focus viewers' attention and keep them transfixed.

Julian: I want my students not only to be technologically and creatively savvy, but to be able to speak intelligently about cinema, art, literature, music. All the arts feed each other. To be a great editor you have to be a complete artist. Being articulate in sharing a vision with the director leads to greater work, and being hired again.

Don't miss Taking Over the ACE Student Awards Pt 1: Advice From Grads, an interview with the remarkable students who swept the ACE Award student nominations and their creative journey so far, the value of a formal education, their future outlook, and their first -- and surely not last -- Hollywood awards banquet. You'll be inspired, challenged, and reminded why we do this.