The Other Mystery Box

For the seven people in the world who haven’t yet seen The Force Awakens, I must warn you; here be (pretty minor) spoilers. I’ve done my best to avoid the biggest, but seriously, if you haven’t seen this film yet then I think you need to reevaluate your choices in life. 

Most of you reading this will have already seen JJ Abrams’ TED Talk, wherein he explains The Mystery Box, and preserving the audience’s experience of seeing a movie for the first time on the big screen. For those who haven’t, it is well worth your time. It’s from 2007, so pre-dates his Star Trek and Star Wars films…

In the weeks since the release of The Force Awakens, countless articles and blog posts have been written speculating on the unexplained parts of the story; the parentage of Finn and Rey, how Maz came into possession of Luke’s lightsaber, what caused Kylo Ren to turn to the Dark Side, how the First Order rose to prominence, etc etc etc. It’s natural for people to want those questions answered, but we seem to have learned almost nothing from the prequels and from JJ’s Mystery Box approach.

Take Darth Vader – the ultimate bad guy, until the prequels revealed him to be a whiney brat. You can never look at Vader the same way after you see him ask “Where is Padme?”, then scream “Nooooooo”. Vader was demystified, and his power diminished. This is why we’re collectively worried about a “young Han Solo” movie, even if it is written by the great Lawrence Kasdan – you have to have a little intrigue in your characters.

The Mystery Box is used as a shorthand for the lengths JJ and crew go to in order to preserve the secrets and surprises of the movie, but in fact I believe the point of The Mystery Box that gets lost is more aligned with forcing the audience to do the work of filling in the blanks themselves. It promotes debate between friends once the movie is over. As JJ himself says in the talk “mystery is the catalyst for imagination”.

For this story to work, it doesn’t matter who Max Von Sydow plays, and how he relates to Leia and Kylo Ren – he just knows them somehow. Isn’t it more fun to speculate ourselves than just to know? What would it add if he turns out to be a character from Rogue One? It might make us more sad when we rewatch him getting killed off here, but actually it would remove suspense from the other film if we know he is assured to survive (another prequel problem – Obi Wan and Yoda are the most likeable characters but you can never put them in real jeopardy, we know they’re in later films in the series).

We live in a world where all human knowledge is literally at our fingertips, and become incredibly frustrated if our lust for information isn’t sated, so isn’t it nice every once in a while to not have the answer? And instead to have to find our own answers.

Perhaps that’s why we seem to be responding so strongly to The Force Awakens; it has fired our imaginations back into life, and into world of possibilities. That’s the real purpose of the Mystery Box. 

To quote JJ again; “there are times when mystery is more important than knowledge”.

No Such Thing As Too Easy To Use

Every day, we use complex machinery without thinking about its design. We turn a tap, and water comes out of the faucet. We pick up a phone and dial a number, and we’re connected. So simple that you don’t even remember learning how to do it.

So why does editing software have to be complicated? There’s a need for more and more control, over effects, titles, transitions, but fundamentally it should be easy to say “this shot, then this shot, then this shot, then this shot”. This is the philosophy behind FCP X. You have total control if you want it, but if all you’re trying to do is put a few shots together, maybe add some music, and put it on YouTube, you never have to go that deep into it. You can pretty much drag and drop everything you need. It’s the closest thing to a WISIWYG editor.The simplification, the hiding of the deeper controls, the magnetic timeline that upset so many people, it’s all designed to allow people to make videos, even if they “don’t know what they’re doing”.*

This is a scary prospect, right? Why are directors going to need us if they can edit themselves? Won’t producers decide they can save money if some kid in India can do it for a tenth of the cost of your day rate? Isn’t this the beginning of the end?

Well, no. It’s not. I can understand the fear of course – editors the world over have uttered the immortal phrase “they just don’t appreciate what we do” which naturally leads to fear that they are not valued, and therefore might be replaced. That’s a legitimate fear, by the way, but not what I’m talking about today. The influx of cheaper alternatives (which is all this comes down to) is not the problem. The problem is that you aren’t making a substantial and valued contribution as a storyteller. 

In the past, editing systems were so complicated to use that you needed some technical training to be able to do it. That made your job slightly more secure because it was impossible to get just anyone to use it. The equipment was also incredibly expensive relative to today, so you couldn’t just show up with a laptop and get a job done. Both of those things have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with editing. 

Now the situation is that you can’t hide anymore. Equipment it cheap and software is easy to use. You now have to be valuable as an editor. You have to know story, structure, timing, evaluate performances, all “soft” skills. You have to contribute something new to a scene that has been months in the planning, be reliable and not make silly technical mistakes.

When you do all those things, you become valuable, a member of the core creative team. It doesn’t matter how easy to use the software is – you won’t get outsourced.

*Actually, as William Goldman famously said, nobody does.

On Not Winning An Award

Losing sucks. It’s awful. Anyone who tells you different is lying. It hurts. 

I’m not talking about sports, where there are great stories of teams showing great character, determination and dignity in a hard fought defeat. At the most recent football World Cup, the US soccer team won over a legion of fans with their valiant efforts in going further into the competition than expected and their dedication and hard work as they were knocked out. They showed huge commitment and effort until the last moment and they were widely appreciated and respected for it.

In the film industry we have awards ceremonies and too often winning an award becomes a mark of whether the work you’ve done is of quality. Are you going to hire a filmmaker or an award-winning filmmaker? 

But while not winning can make you feel like a loser, that’s really not how filmmaking works. The audience you make the film for is rarely the same group in charge of handing out awards. But if the film resonates with an audience it can have a huge imact on their lives and in the wider world. 
So don’t feel too glum if you don’t win an award. It’s nice to be recognised, of course, who wouldn’t want that? But it’s far better to change the world. So let’s aim for that instead.
This post was inspired by the fact that we were nominated for a CorpComms Award for best use of video, for our series The New Guy, which we’re incredibly proud of and I think is probably our best work. 

We did not win. 

Whose Edit Is It Anyway

A real conversation from my office;
My colleague Jess, on seeing a rough cut of an episode of our latest series; “That’s really good”

Me: “Sarah (my assistant) cut that one”.

Sarah: “Yeah, but you told me what to do”.

Me: “That doesn’t matter, you still edited it”.
This got me thinking about ownership of an edit. How closely should we tie an edit to the editor?

It seems to me that there are always at least three parties involved in an edit that I work on, often many more. Fundamentally for me it breaks down to three;

Me – I get the footage, a script and some guidance from the director, and then I’m left alone to create something. The first cut therefore is pretty definitively mine, because there aren’t many other people involved. I might show it to Sarah before sending it on to Jim (my director) for a second opinion and fresh pair of eyes, but it’s mine.

The Director – Jim and Rob (as my directors) for some reason think they can tell me how they think it should be different from what I’ve done. What nerve, right? I kid, obviously, and over time I’ve come to learn how they like things to such an extent that my first cuts tend to be pretty close to the intention. But they always have notes and they’re usually right. So I make those changes or we argue over it and I make my case for why we shouldn’t. And so is the second cut is still mine? Less so than the first cut? 

The Client – this is where things get tricky. We’ve all had clients who trust us and appreciate us and give great notes, and I’m sure we’ve all had clients who perhaps don’t trust us quite as much. That’s charitable enough, I think… And sometimes you make changes you really don’t want to make. You use a different piece of music that you aren’t as keen on. You compromise. And you start feeling that the cut isn’t yours at all anymore. There might be layers of approval even within a client company, so you’re the servant of many masters.

So there are a lot of voices that go into a cut. But in the end, they all go through you as the editor. If you disagree with a change, you have to make your case for not changing it. The skill of negotiation is a huge part of the process. If you aren’t convincing enough to keep your version in-tact, was it ever yours to begin with?

My point is that you own it as long as you want to take the responsibility for it. If you’re blindly following direction, and client notes, maybe you don’t own it because someone else cares about it more. You can still own it when taking notes, you can still own it if you co-edit with someone else. 

You may not physically click the button on every in and out point, but that doesn’t mean it’s not yours. Own it!

Restricted Intelligence 3

It’s becoming a yearly tradition; the sharing of the latest Restricted Intelligence trailer…

This summer we completed work on Season 3 of Restricted Intelligence. It’s amazing to see how far it’s come in the now four years I’ve been at Twist and Shout, and the conversations we have about the direction it takes. Being our own client can be tough – we hold ourselves to high standards, but we also have to be mindful that we’re making a series that has to by it’s nature be work-appropriate for companies.

These two trailers were created now that we have three seasons – the first is for season 3 itself, and the second is the Uber-Trailer for all three seasons. Fortunately having cut all three seasons in FCP X, pulling up timelines from the earlier seasons was easy. I don’t love that you can’t consolidate a project with just the used media and handles the way you used to in FCP 7, but on the other hand, it works. And who’s going to argue with that?