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Winter/Spring 2019

The Difference Between a Deer and a Bullet

 

by Dominic Laing

 

I’ve worked as a freelance video editor for almost seven years, collaborating with creative agencies, production companies and clients on both commercial and narrative content:

Sixty seconds about how a shoe enables athletes to perform at an elite level.

Three-and-a-half minutes about how students were challenged, inspired and transformed by their four years spent at a brick-and-ivy university.

Ninety seconds about a celebrated arboretum and the rapturous mood it evokes.

 As a creative process, video editing is seen by others as either absurdly simple, (“You just throw a few clips together, right?”) or utterly inscrutable. (“I have no idea how you do that.”)

Video editing, like all creative acts, exists on a spectrum, and the editing experience is subjective depending on the creator. Personally speaking, editing is a clear, well-defined process, but not without a spoonful of spookiness — not without eight-thousand two-hundred and eleven tiny actions that, when strung together, constitute a single act of magic.

Whenever I work, I want to make something good — but in edit sessions, “good” is an ever-shifting target, subject to internal creative opinions and external market concerns. “Good,” in this situation, is reminiscent of “hevel,” a Hebrew word sometimes translated as “meaningless,” but more accurately meaning “smoke.” Whatever I define as “good” in the morning, might, by afternoon, evaporate and be replaced by a wholly other definition.

My definition of “good” has, at best, a fifty-fifty shot of being the definition that carries the day. Most often, it’s someone else with a different boss, someone with concerns and deadlines I’m not privy to, who lays down the ultimate definition. “Good,” in this case, has less to do with an aesthetic quality and more to do with functionality.

Not so much “Is it beautiful?” but “Does it do what I need it to?”
Not “Is it good?” but “Is the logo in focus?”
Not “Is it good?” but “Are all the students smiling?”
Not “Is it good?” but “Are the rakes put away in the background?”

***

Part of the job often involves “edit sessions,” where I live-edit alongside creative directors or clients for both commercial and promotional pieces. The main difference here is that while most editing takes place alone, an edit session involves a roomful of people walking — in halting, back and forth steps — through an edit. This is not always part of the process, but an edit session is always a possibility.

Edit sessions occur for several reasons. One reason is that the client wants to see behind the curtain. To appease this client — they write the checks, after all — they’re brought into a review room, where the editor sits up front, and the client watches on a large screen usually situated above the editor and their computer.

A session might also occur because the video is in trouble. Draft after draft hasn’t produced anything of agreed-upon quality, so an all-hands-on-deck edit session takes place. Problem areas are highlighted, discussed, and specific solutions are crafted. In this case, an editor might even be swapped out for another who’s more experienced with editing-by-committee.

Most video editing takes place in an isolated creative cocoon, but an edit session is that creative cocoon turned inside-out. It’s surgery in the round, but where the observers interrupt and demand the surgeon use a Number 11 scalpel blade instead of a Number 15. It’s a singular act of magic reverse-engineered into eight-thousand two-hundred and eleven tiny moments of someone in the third row telling you how to pull the rabbit out of your hat.

***

Editors vacillate between two points of view. The first is logical and linear. For Scene B to make sense, Scene A needs to communicate “X” fact. Scene B might not communicate the desired emotion, but it’s not because the scene itself is poorly constructed. Rather, it’s because Scene A doesn’t properly set up the corresponding conclusion. Through this lens, editing is akin to plumbing: identify the problem areas, swap out the faulty parts, restore flow/functionality — et voila, problem solved. This point of view is cold, calculated, and efficient.

The second point of view is a non-linear, emotional one. Here, an openness is required, where an editor engages the oft-referred-to “muse.” They’re on the hunt for that special “something” that separates this piece from every other video. The editor views the piece as some living entity. They wrestle with the edit and find surprise. It falls apart in one moment, only to reassemble in a mystical blink of an eye. This point of view is hot, intimate, and unpredictable.

If the non-linear, emotional point of view doesn’t make sense to you — good. You should be an editor. However, if the non-linear, emotional point of view does make sense to you — you shouldn’t be an editor.

Or, at the very least, you should be an editor with a tattoo on your forehead, chest, forearm, or whatever part of your body is most visible for the duration of the day.

The tattoo should read, “I AM NOT THE THING I MAKE.”

***

At the start of the session, we begin with an incoherent edit, a mess of wild creative impulses from several different people who’ve attempted to make several different things, none of which have worked. Everyone wanted something beautiful, something borne of Nature with its own life force and identity. But all we have, at the moment, is something bleeding.

In essence, we begin with a wounded deer.

Faced with this material, my job is to take creative Chaos and make Order. I have to transform something beautiful yet broken, in this case the wounded deer, into something precise, with natural force and unmistakable purpose. A wounded deer casts the viewer adrift and leaves them unsure as to what to do next or how to feel. What we need to make — what I need to produce — is a thing expressly built to deliver a direct, emboldened message.

In essence, I have to make a bullet.

***

A 9mm bullet, composed of the actual bullet element, as well as brass casing, powder, rim and primer, travels at 1200 ft/second, with kinetic energy equivalent to being hit by a brick. When the firing pin on a gun strikes the primer element, the primer ignites and ejects the bullet at the aforementioned rate. The casing is caught by the rim and ejected out of the gun by the extractor.

It is, quite literally, a controlled explosion.

Precise. Focused. Targeted.

Different bullets function differently. 5.56x45mm bullets travel at 3,025ft/sec with kinetic energy at peak of 1,709 foot-pounds, equal to being hit by a car. .270 Winchester bullets, the kind used for big game hunting, travel at 3,072 ft/sec with kinetic energy at peak of 2,702 foot-pounds. This force is akin to being hit with the kinetic energy of a freight train.

***

So, how do you turn a wounded deer into a bullet?

I can’t tell you, but I can show you. I have to reverse-engineer the single act of magic into eight-thousand, two-hundred and eleven agreed-upon replacements, re-orgs, cuts, trims, fades and dissolves. But it’s going to be boring. It’s going to involve me externalizing a natively internal process, and it’s going to involve you constantly asking me why I can’t go faster.

I don’t want to explain these aspects of the edit because I’m not comfortable justifying every tweak and six-frame shift in voiceover to a room-full of people whose own voices feel like boots on my shoulders. I don’t like to share my creative thoughts in real-time, but now I’m being asked — demanded — to brainstorm in full view, share every single thought in unbroken stream, and keep said thought suspended until it is seen, rewound, seen again, and approved.

In these edit sessions, it’s best not to think of myself as a human being with a soul. Rather, it’s best to think of myself as a machine. Editor, automate thyself. Deliver that freight-train energy. Make a bullet that kills.

Here, I need to function as I was made to function.

As if I was made for a function.

***

In case you’re still wondering, my tattoo is located on the left side of my abdomen, over my rib cage. It hurt more than I thought it would. Tickled though, which made me laugh.

***

For most edit sessions, the cold, logical point of view is the preferred point of view. It permits for clear decision-making, and it allows the editor to more clearly disassociate themselves from the edit after its completion. It’s not recommended at all to take things personally. Put more bluntly, it’s a terrible fucking idea to take things personally.

Because try as I might, I can’t control everything. Because after two twelve-hour edit sessions, chance intervenes. There’s a software glitch, and the program has to be restarted. A clip goes offline, and I can’t locate it in the original file library. The music needs to be trimmed a few frames, and I need two things I don’t have — silence and time — to make it work.

Amid the chorus of complaints, I hear, “Why’s the music off-beat?” “Why do we need to restart the program?” “Why’s the clip not where it should be?” “Why’s the computer not working?”

These are all logical questions with logical answers. Furthermore, I can’t take any of these comments too personally. They’re not referring to me. They’re talking about a song. A program. A video clip. A computer.

But I am responsible for the function of the machine and the form it’s designed to produce. In the heat of the edit session, the distance between man and machine vanishes, and I take value statements about songs and software to be value statements about me.

When someone says, “Why’s the music off-beat?” I hear, “Why are YOU off-beat?” “Why do I need to be restarted?” “Why am I not where I should be?” “Why am I not working?”

I hear the voices shouting in the room, but I also hear the deeper meanings seething and slithering beneath their spoken words.“I asked for a goddamn bullet,” I hear, “but all you’ve got is this fucking deer on an operating table?! What’s the matter with you?! Why aren’t you doing what I told you to do? I gave you clear instructions. Why aren’t you what I told you to be!?”

***

Guns are finely tuned instruments that, when used incorrectly, malfunction. In some cases, they jam, and in more extreme cases, they backfire. Such malfunctions occur when foreign elements are introduced to the gun, like dirt or condensation.

Or, in some instances, emotion.

When someone’s having a bad shooting session — repeatedly missing their targets, jamming their firearm — it’s said that they’re “putting too much emotion in the gun.”

Guns are made of steel, iron, and polymer. There is no seven of diamonds, no rabbit’s foot, no lucky die. No magic whatsoever. “A bullet,” someone told me, “is only as efficient as the parts that make it, and only as proficient as the machine that projects it.”

An efficient bullet, therefore, needs an effective gun. And an effective gun needs an efficient user. When someone puts too much emotion into the equation, the machine malfunctions.

It’s off-target. Ineffective.

Off-beat.

***

Now remember: tattoos are permanent, so make sure to double-check to make sure the spelling’s correct: “I A-M N-O-T T-H-E T-H-I-N-G I M-A-K-E.”

***

After the final export, people leave the edit room and head toward the fully stocked kitchen of whatever agency/production company I’m working for at the moment. Glasses of wine are poured, beers are opened. Someone pillages the fridge and drawers for snacks. Maybe someone shows a few people some crazy YouTube video they just found.

In time, I might join them. But even if I do, even if I share a beer with someone, I’m not going to be there, mentally. In my heart, I’ll still be with the creature — no longer wounded, no longer a deer, but still not the bullet it needed to be.

Somewhere along the process, there was a malfunction. Somewhere along the way, I lost perspective and took everything personally. Now, there’re seventy-three stitches along the creature’s gut. When it sprints, its hoofs hit the ground and the smell of gunpowder bursts upward. The creature still has antlers, but its hindquarters are now a mix of lead, copper, and steel. Its nostrils still exhort twists of breath into the cold night air, but its eyes now burn with orange embers.

The creature approaches and locks eyes with me. It is silent. I take a step forward, but it doesn’t move. I take another step, and the creature’s head bows a few degrees. An invitation. I take one more step and bow as well. My forehead rests between its antlers.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

I hear more laugher from the group watching the YouTube video. Someone pours themselves another glass of white wine.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t make you what you needed to be. I failed you. I’m sorry I voodoo-dolled myself to the edit. I took this all so personally, and I lost my place. I forgot where I was, and where I was supposed to be headed. I’m sorry I — I’m sorry I did this to you.”

It’s all I have to give at this point. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

***

That night, I have a dream where I’m made of fur and walk on all fours. I have a dream where there’re six of me, home sweet home in a circular chamber. I have a dream where I vomit 1’s and 0’s, my eyes reframe the world in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and I weep at 23.976 frames per second. In my dreams I blackout on my bathroom floor, and the tile opens to swallow me whole.

In the morning, I wake and look at the two hands I’ve always had. I walk into the bathroom and I look at my own reflection, at the two eyes I’ve always had. I undress and feel the water hit against the spine that’s always been sewn into my body. As I step out of the shower, I feel the bottom of my feet. I run my hands through my hair.

I am not a deer, and I am not a bullet.

I’m not a collection of 1’s and 0’s.

I’m not shareable via Wiredrive, Frame.io, Vimeo, Dropbox, Slack, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram. I am so, so, so, very much flesh, and so, so, so, very much blood. I breathe oxygen, and I walk on two feet. I have armpit hair and teeth, and my right ring finger is bent at the top joint because of a junior high softball injury. I recently found out I have celiac.

I cannot export my love in Quad-4 ProRes. I cannot compress my laugh into 720p format. I’m incompatible with any setting on Media Encoder. I do not come with factory settings.

***

In the book of Genesis, all existence was “formless and void.” The original Hebrew for this phrase is tohu va vohu. In addition to “formless and void,” the phrase could also be translated as “wild and waste.” When God made the light and the dark, when he separated land and water, when He populated the air with birds and filled the sea with fish, God called it “good.” In these instances, “good” referred to not merely an aesthetic beauty, but an operational one as well. The beautiful world functioned as it was meant to function. In Hebrew, “good” is tove.

My weapon of choice reflects the condition of my spirit. Be it a firearm or a computer, what I use says something about who I am. For myself, the danger is not in the desire to create something either beautiful or efficient. The danger lies in the moments where I attempt to graft myself to the work and blur the line between creator and creation. It’s the consuming desire to be defined by the thing I make — to be the thing I make.

I work, and strive, and pour endless effort into creating, but I can’t turn a wild creature into a lead casing. I can’t take wild and waste and transform it into a graceful deer.

And it’s in that moment of exhaustion where God, the first worker and creator, meets me. God, who took tohu va vohu and made tove. It’s in that space of sorrow where God, not having to say a word, rolls up a shirt-sleeve and shows me a tattoo:

“I AM NOT THE THING I MAKE.”

A Creator stands separate from the creation, but that doesn’t preclude the Creator from standing with the creation. The Creator works hard to form it, celebrates its completion and sees to its flourishing. The creation expresses the Creator, but it does not define the Creator.

I am not the thing I make. Whether it’s glorious or hideous, whether I want to be attached at its hip or never see it again, I am not the thing I make.

I know this truth, but then I forget. I’m reminded, and then I forget again. I know I’m not saving lives by making a video about shoes, universities, or arboretums — but then I forget, and I want to become a shoe, brick and ivy, or a two-hundred-year-old oak tree.

I do want my work to mean something.

I want to make something beautiful that functions as it was meant to function.

Something good.

Something tove.

 

[Check out Dominic Laing’s back porch advice]