December 16, 2005
Rick Derby is an HBO award-winning documentary film producer (“Rocks With Wings”) and a senior film editor on one of the hottest Hollywood film projects of 2005, “The Producers”, starring Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, and Uma Thurman. It opens today in New York and Los Angeles.
Yesterday I had the chance to visit my good friend Rick at the Broadway offices of Sound One, one of the major players in the film industry in New York’s Times Square. What a treat. I got an up-close and in-person look at the inner workings of digital film editing and sound effects in one of the hottest of hot American industries, and one of our biggest exports.
I was amazed at how much raw technology there was in the various studios as I made my way through the halls, adorned with posters of all the top movies produced at Sound One. Millions of dollars of the latest digital hardware were stacked in dozens of racks of equipment in room after room. In every studio, teams of editors and special effects professionals were huddled behind glass walls in dimly lit rooms with multiple screens, surrounded by state-of-the-art mixing consoles and multi-track sound equipment. It was a techie’s dream. It even looked like the engineering lab from my days as a systems test manager on the nuclear submarine program.
However, one thing that amazed me: how frequently a place like Sound One has to re-tool. Every couple of years, the stuff is turned over because new technology comes on so fast. (And you thought your PC went obsolete quickly.) So much for “owning” hardware; ownership really comes down to a term-use license. Since things evolve so fast in the world of film, it wouldn’t surprise me if equipment is often retired before it’s paid off.
But enough of the big-iron talk. What I was acutely interested in was the artistic and creative process around film editing – putting all that “software” into a coherent, integrated whole out of the bazillions of units and modules shot earlier by the director and all the actors. The night before, I called Rick at 7pm, expecting him to be home finishing dinner with his lovely wife and daughter, Sandy and Kemlee. But no, Rick answered and told me that he was “double slammed” with exhaustion, lying prone on the couch in his editing studio. He was almost passed out from all the overtime, trying to make a deadline for the film’s release. It seems like film editors live a similar life to those of software integrators at the tail end of a project. Deadline looming, 70-hour work weeks, and total chaos. Whether the software is a movie or a corporate internet portal, it’s all the same for the folks at crunch time, with a lot riding on a deadline.
Two things impressed me about these parallel worlds. Both came from how Rick described how he saw the creative process. First, all that tooling meant nothing if it weren’t in the hands of a skilled professional. Hardware is dumb iron without a creative mind. A fool with a tool is till a fool, but in the hands of a master and with great content to start with, you can have an Academy-Award winning blockbuster in your hands.
Secondly, it was really hard to be creative when you were dying of exhaustion. The night before, Rick hit a mental brick wall when I spoke with him after a killer day. No amount of pushing was going to get him that “Aha”. We talked about how non-stop production may sound like a good model for factory machines, but when a creative human being stopped being creative because his/her brain was overcooked oatmeal, then leaving the pot on the stove late at night wasn’t going to result in any major breakthrough – just soggier brain/oatmeal.
It’s amazing how much software designers and film editors have in common. I also find it curious that we’re really not talking “film” anymore. It’s all a bunch of digital bits assembled into a sequence on big hard disks; essentially computer.exe files that unfold according to a time-generated sequence after you hit a button that says “Start”.