Video Symphony

We’ve been out of them for eight years now and I still don’t know how to refer to the first decade of this century. The “aughts?” or the “twenty-ohs?” or maybe the “zeros?” All these terms have one thing in common –they sound wrong.

Anyway, back then, about ‘04 or ’05, I was in my usual work position – down on my knees on someone’s kitchen floor – when I tried to stand up. And I couldn’t do it. My knees were not willing to comply. I had to use the line of cabinets I had just installed as a kind of monkey bars in order to pull myself up to my feet.  That was when I started thinking that it was time to look for a new occupation. But what?

In my spare time, I had been writing screenplays – as was every other person in LA. Despite a few minor successes, a couple of free options here and a Producer/Director who liked my work there, nothing was really happening. So even though I liked writing (and, obviously, I still do) I was not going to make a living with a comfy chair and a word processor.

So for months my wife and I made lists, did research, and talked it over. As we did so, I continued to work in people’s kitchens and my knees kept reminding me that my days of crawling into cabinets were numbered. The ironic thing was that as the certainty of the end grew larger, I was getting better at the job. People were saying that they didn’t want anyone working in their kitchen but me and even the term “Master Carpenter” was being thrown around. Even though I had raised my rates a couple of times, I was still booking six weeks to two months out. Of course, these were the heady days before the Great Recession dropped out of the sky and flattened everybody in the housing business.

In the midst of all this, I made my decision. I would learn to be a Video Editor. This job seemed like it was custom-made for me. It was a sit-down job that required a lot of computer skills (which I didn’t have but could learn) and a generous helping of creativity (which I flattered myself that I already possessed). And being so right-brained that it’s surprising I don’t list to starboard when I walk, it was not surprising that I was attracted to such a visual skill.

“Age?” said the salesman in answer to my question, “No, it’s really not a problem. In other areas of the business, yes it’s a factor, but in the Editor’s chair they like to see somebody older, somebody with the calm and steady attitude you only get from years of experience.”  With me being nearly sixty at the time, this was cream for the cat.

We had found several trade schools that taught Video Editing. This one, Video Symphony, was the closest to home. It was also, bigger, flashier, and more self-assured than their competitors. It had been setup as a high-end training facility while the other places we looked at seemed more like, ”Yeah, we put in a school in the back room.” Video Symphony had more than eighty computer workstations divided among eight large classrooms. When they told me that they had set up a program dedicated to working people and were offering classes on evenings and weekends, I was patting my pockets for a pen.

Thirty thousand dollars in school loans was, admittedly, a huge pill to ask my wife to swallow. I guess she bought my argument that once I had a job as an editor I’d be bringing in enough money that we could make the payments on the loans and still not have to move into a cardboard box under the underpass. Either that or she looked into my big, pleading eyes and just couldn’t say no.

Once again, I became a student. When you’re sixty and going back to school, your approach is very different. When you look speculatively a nicely-tanned, attractive female classmate, it’s only because you’re wondering if she understood that part about “drop frame rates.” Instead of wondering if you can skip a class without missing too much, you’re wondering when you can come and do some extra hours on a workstation just so you can keep up with some of the young hotshots in your class.

The principal software that Video Symphony trained people on was Avid. At the time, and probably today, 98% of studio feature films are cut on Avid. Ditto with high-end network television. It’s a big, expensive software package that will only run on big, expensive computer work stations. We also learned Final Cut Pro, but at Video Symphony it was treated as the red-headed stepson of Post Production Software.

Editing, to me, was just another form of construction. When one begins to build a house, all around the lot there are piles of boards, plywood, nails, siding roofing materials, windows, doors, and a myriad of other things. The builder cuts boards to the exact length needed, attaches them together, stands them up in the proper place, and moves on. An Editor is, essentially, doing the same thing. Every scene has been filmed or videoed, in its entirety, four or five times. All from different angles. The Editor takes a moment from here at this angle and a moment from there at that angle tweaks them back and forth to get both the audio and the video to work seamlessly, then goes on to the next set of moments.  One of the main differences is that, in construction, you don’t have the Architect and the Interior Designer sitting on a comfortable couch right behind you and watching you work. “Can we see this room again only with that wall three inches longer, and this window opening six inches to the left.”

One thing the school, the teachers, and a little bit down the road, the students had to contend with was the constant innovation of technology.  When I began in 2006, for example, everything arrived in the editing room on tape cassettes. The higher the quality of the show, the bigger the tape cassettes got, not to mention the size and price of the tape decks needed to capture all the video and sound. We were taught, retaught, and drilled on the workflow to digitize those tapes and get them into the computer’s memory and the Avid’s usable files. By the time I’d completed and passed ingestion of taped media, production houses and studios were trading in their old tape cameras for ones that shot on hard drive. Within six months of my graduation in 2009, tapes and tape decks were as out-of-date as flip phones and CRT monitors.

I had been in the school for a couple of years before someone finally came out and told us the truth. Graduates of Video Symphony were not being hired directly out of school as Editors. The few that were actually editing were working on no-budget indie productions for “exposure.” The paying jobs that we were eligible for was Assistant Editor.

Going back to our Construction analogy, the Builder has minions working for him that cut, code, and stack all the raw materials and get everything ready so when he walks onto the job site he can start whacking things together immediately. The Editor has Assistant Editors that spend all night ingesting all the dailies into the Computer’s memory, going through them and throwing out all the blown takes, then precisely coding each take at each angle and ingesting these marked clips into the Avid’s files, ready for cutting. A one-hour show might need five to seven hours of raw footage in clips. Then the next day the Editor saunters in, cracks his knuckles, and begins putting the show together.

During my last year of school, 2008-09, I had taken on as many small freelance editing jobs as I could squeeze in. The bottom had fallen out of the kitchen remodeling business and I had more free time than I wanted so I did what I could to build up my resume. Then I went looking for work.

After I had been sending out resumes for only a couple of weeks, I got a request for an interview with a small production house that was looking for Assistant Editors. I interviewed with the boss and, with a big grin and a handshake, he offered me a one-month Internship. I would work there for free for a month, and after that, if they liked my work, they would pay me fifteen dollars an hour. This was about what restaurants were paying experienced dishwashers.

I turned it down. This offer had come so quickly, I told myself; surely others that were a little more reasonable would soon follow. Au contraire, mon frère. This would turnout to be the closest I ever got to a regular Post Production job.

In hindsight, I had three things going against me; any one of which could have, by itself, swamped my canoe. Together they were like taking a torpedo amidships just below the water line. One was the Recession. Everyone was feeling the pinch, even the entertainment industry. Financiers and Producers were suddenly looking for ways to save money by downsizing. The second blow was the advent of Final Cut Pro. This software was relatively inexpensive, ran on any regular computer, was fairly easy to learn, and could do almost everything Avid could do. Kids across the country were buying a copy of FCP, a laptop, and an instruction book. Shortly thereafter, hordes of them began showing up in LA willing to work for minimum wage. The third, and maybe the biggest blow, was that most people in the Los Angeles area who were looking for an Assistant Editor were men or women in their thirties. And nobody wants to hire their Dad to be their assistant. Somehow, yelling out, “Hey, run down to craft services and get me a cup of coffee and a bagel, wouldja? And this time don’t put so much damned sugar in it!” at a nice old guy with gray hair just makes the yeller look and feel like a jerk.

After many months of banging my head against that particular wall, I threw in the towel, stopped mixing my metaphors, and went back to the kitchen cabinet trade. People who needed their old cabinets repaired because they could not afford new ones began calling. It wasn’t much, but I was able to pay a few bills and start chipping away at those ridiculous school loans. With luck, ibuprofen, and steroid injections, I was able to make my knees last for another seven years until I could finally retire.

My New (Old) Project

In 1981, my older brother Lewis was killed in a car wreck. He and a friend had loaded their few possessions into a small pickup truck and began the drive to Colorado. They had put a down payment on a house in Colorado Springs and were looking forward to moving in. Another fellow named Jack who was traveling east had come along to help with gas and driving. With three guys sharing driving they decided to go straight through without stopping. In the early morning hours, Jack was at the wheel and he fell asleep. The truck went off the road, flipped over several times and Lewis, not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown out.

The news devastated my mother. She loved all of her sons equally but Lewis had heart and sincerity that touched everyone. Different people process grief in different ways and sometimes it takes a long time. But Mom just couldn’t seem to get past it. A gray depression had settled in. She couldn’t sleep, didn’t feel like eating, and she lost weight. It was not the loss of her son that she questioned; it was why the grief of it wouldn’t lessen. She was always a “there’s got to be a reason for this” type of person and she began to look for explanations. She read “Life after Life,” the classic exploration of long-tunnel-white-light near-death experiences that set forth the proposition that death was not an ending, more of a waystation on a continuing path. That book gave her some comfort.

From there, she burrowed deeper into metaphysical books, looking for answers. Being more a person of science rather than faith, she steered away from the “Crystals and Angels” side of the field and concentrated on the writings of traditionally educated, competent experts who were pulling back the dark curtains of death and existence and taking a look behind. I do not know the source of the information or even the name of the practitioner, but she read of a trained psychologist in San Francisco who was having great success in treating patients by taking them back in time, through hypnosis, to re-experience a past life. Frequently she and the patient would find a traumatic event that is still causing suffering in this present life.

When I asked Mom if she’d read of any examples, this is the story she told me. The patient was a man with crippling acrophobia. His fear of heights was so overpowering that he couldn’t go up more than two or three floors in any building. A glimpse out a window would drop him, shaking, to his knees. The Psychologist took him back to a life in which he was a porter in the Andes. One day he and two other porters had to cross an old, rope and stick bridge that spanned an almost bottomless gorge. With heavyweight packs balanced on their heads and shoulders, the three men started across. They were halfway to the other side when the ropes broke. They dropped to their deaths on the rocks below.  The Psychologist had the man remove himself from the violent emotions of it and describe, calmly, his own death. He told her that the fear of the death that awaited him was so strong that he was dead before he even hit the ground. After these sessions, the man improved remarkably. He still had a healthy respect for heights, but he could go up in high buildings or use low-to-medium sized ladders. The understanding of “why” can be a powerful force for dealing with an abnormal mental reaction.

“Since I can find no reason for this unending pall of sorrow in this life,” Mom reasoned, “perhaps it has its roots in another life.” She called the psychologist’s office in San Francisco and made an appointment.

The psychologist gave Mom some tools to deal with her grief, gave her a taste of past-life regression, then told Mom that a young man who had recently begun practicing in Colorado Springs had been trained by her to guide past-life experiences through hypnosis. Once Mom was back at home she started going to this young man several times a week. With his guidance, she began to piece together a life in which she, in the body of an English merchant, had abandoned and lost a child that would eventually be reborn as her son, Lewis. In reaction to that abandonment, the entity inside her – she refers to it as her “inner mind” – vowed to never lose this child again. The young man guiding her was able to convince the Inner Mind that there was no guilt and that it was not to blame for the loss of Lewis. The dark fog of depression and grief that had surrounded my mother for so long quickly disappeared.

Along the way, Mom had had several intriguing glimpses of other lives and was convinced there were many more waiting to be explored. She had learned so much about herself and this new way of looking at the flow of life that she very much wanted to continue. Not being a wealthy woman, she could not afford to keep paying for the young analyst’s help. In solving this problem, she created a system of self-hypnosis that utilized a simple cassette recorder. Using this system she could put herself into trance and give herself the suggestions that allowed her to spend four or five evenings a week for the next eleven years carefully delving into and examining one past life after another. As she went forward, she remembered to keep detailed notes of each session.

After reconstructing forty or fifty of her past lives and filling up a stack of loose-leaf binders with notes, she decided to write a book. She got out her old IBM Selectric, plugged it in, and began to type. By then (early 90’s) desktop computers with built-in word processors were commonplace, but she was a bit computer-phobic and was convinced that the clickety-clack of typewriter keys was the sound of “real writing.”

She selected about twenty of the most dramatic and interesting of her lives and told the story of each of them as a kind of mystery tale – what clues she originally found, how she began to flesh out the story, how her inner mind, being sensitive and emotional, would sometimes refuse to answer her questions or show her important details, and how she was finally able to discover the truths that explained everything.

Once she was done, she had to retype the entire manuscript. Without a computerized word processor, if you find you have to rewrite a few sentences, juggle a couple of paragraphs, or correct the odd spelling or grammar error, you have to retype the whole damned thing. When she finished that process she sent out copies of the book to agents and publishers. There was some interest, an agent took the manuscript on provisionally, but the reactions were pretty much variations on a theme: “This has some fascinating and interesting stuff, but it needs some reworking from the ground up and we don’t think the audience for this is big enough to justify the expense.” In the end, the manuscript was never picked up.

After some careful self-examination, Mom realized that the purpose of her explorations had always been self-discovery and healing. The desire to publish was, being brutally honest with herself, nothing more than a desire for validation. “Since I am in a whole different place than I was when I started,” she reasoned, “what more validation do I need? I am healthier, happier, and more at peace with myself and the world than I ever was before I started this. I am content.”

And with that, she bundled up her notebooks and manuscripts, put them on a shelf, and never opened them again.

I was the only one of her sons that was really interested in the project. She had been sending me chapters to read as she finished them. I would read them and give her strong encouragement, which she appreciated, and a few suggestions for changes, which she didn’t. After a lifetime of being an artist, she had learned to ignore opinions and advice from well-meaning family and friends. Art is a creative medium that does not lend itself to feedback and editing. It is as pure a reflection of the skills and thoughts of a single artist as anything in existence. My mother viewed her writing the same way.  To lessen the burden of re-typing the whole book, she hired a young woman to do the typing for her. When she realized that her typist was correcting spelling, punctuation, and grammar as she went, Mom angrily sacked her and took back the manuscript to finish herself.

Somewhere around 1998, I received a large package from my mother. Inside I found a note that read: “I’m sure I will never find the time or desire to work on this again. I give it all to you, to do with as you see fit.” Along with the note were several boxes containing different versions of her book. I packed the boxes away, telling myself that someday I would go through them to see what might be done Then I would forget about their existence until the next time we moved. So from Venice, California, to Sylmar, California, to Prescott, Arizona, and finally here to Cottonwood, Mom’s book followed us along collecting dust and promises of “someday…”

Last summer someday finally arrived. I had finished my novel  Headfirst*, it was being reviewed by an Editor, and I needed something to do to counterbalance writing these blog stories. After I spent a fruitless afternoon clambering around in the piles of boxes in our storage unit, my wife took a stepladder into a closet in our apartment and pulled Mom’s book off a high shelf.

I worked out a rough plan to get the book ready in an electronic environment that did not exist twenty-five years ago. Phase One would be to scan each page, put it through an Optical Character Recognition program, then paste the result in Microsoft Word and re-do the formatting and spacing. Then on to the next page.  After nearly 300 pages, I now have the first draft. I wouldn’t have thought it would take more than three months, but here we are.

Phase Two will be the heavy rewrite phase. There are a lot of passages that aren’t quite clear, segues to write, and whole chapters that will need a full refurbish. The final chapter – “How To Do It Yourself” – involved using a cassette recorder. To keep things up to date, I will have to show how you can give yourself the necessary instructions using an iPhone, Android phone, or tablet.

When, in a few months, I have a second draft, I will sendcopies out to Beta readers for notes and feedback. (If you are interested inbeing a Beta reader on this project, please send me an email) Then I will gothrough it once again with the proverbial “fine tooth comb.” At the end of thisPhase Three, I will have to start figuring out the best way to take the beastto market.

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*Go to the right-hand column and click Boscamp