Editing vs. Writing; Editing as Writing
I think this is one of those posts that people usually label as "OT".
Writing credits for unscripted films is an ongoing issue with me, and I'm interested to see that it made such a mainstream publication.
“Writing story outlines, the way you frame a question, the arc you seek to traverse through your questions? That’s writing,” said Lowell Peterson, executive director of Writers Guild of America East. “Writing stuff to structure stories is writing. And yes, I think people should get a writing credit for that.”
Structuring story, framing text, building arcs. Writing? Editing?
In my opinion, the moment the camera is turned on and a subject is aware of that camera, there is a "writing" process going on. The angle at which the subject is shot, the lighting, or lack thereof, the way the questions are presented (when there's interviewing going on), the different clothing the subject might choose to wear because they know they are going to be shot, all are tweaking the reality of the story, whether there is a voice-over, a script, a loose outline...whatever.
Whether the "writing" credit goes to the writer, the director, or someone else who helped create the structure and flow (the editor in some cases?), the creative process of making the piece "writes" the piece. I'm not going to go into who should get the credit, I'm just thinking out loud about the process.
I've written for a solid part of my living for a long time.
I've written hundreds scripts, dozens upon dozens of published magazine articles, (and as many here know and loath) thousands upon thousands of words in blog posts - sometimes, many would charge - in a single post!
On the other side of the coin, I've also personally conducted on-camear interviews of more than 150 subjects.
So I'm appreciative of the difficulty of doing either of these things really well.
It's human nature for everyone to dismiss whatever the other party is doing as "not as difficult" or "not as relevant" as what "I" do.
So the scripted sitcom writer starts to feels their job is more special than the job of the person tasked with asking an interviewee probing questions.
The truth as I see it, is that doing either really well is VERY difficult.
Writing is not trivial. Interviewing is not trivial. Videography and audio recording and location logistics planning - none of these are trivial.
Great practitioners of ALL of these need to be celebrated.
Michael Jordan was arguably the world greatest basketball player. But a mediocre baseball player when he tried to switch. Why? Not a lack of athletic prowess, certainly. To my mind, it's because he conditioned himself over a long time for excellence in one - but not in the other.
A superb interviewer is as valuable as a superb writer. And a mediocre one in either field will drag a project down and require everyone else to up their game to make up for the weakness.
And so it goes.
"Before speaking out ask yourself whether your words are true, whether they are respectful and whether they are needed in our civil discussions."-Justice O'Connor
I've written, directed and edited three features and though the jobs can tend to overlap I think they are pretty distinct. As a writer I'm sitting there with a blank screen in front of me and have to create something out of nothing. Story arcs, characters, dialogue, structure. All of it has to be created from scratch. That stretches me creatively in a way that directing and editing can't because while they are creative process a lot of what I do when performing them is instinctive.
Editing is my favourite part of the process. Just me, my computer and my film. But I'm not creating anything while I'm doing that. I'm just trying to service what I wanted when I was a writer. Diverging from that can be very dangerous. Now sometimes director me has screwed something up and editor me has to save it and then I need to get creative but 90% of the time I'm just trying to be competent.
And actually I go back and read the original post and I see you were talking about unscripted work which makes all of what I wrote above completely OT. Sorry just been crawling through the "art of the edit" forum and got frustrated at all the claims for more credit for editors.
In ten years I haven't work with an script.
I film real life stories and I film as a "fly-on-the-wall'.
When I make an interview, of course I have many previous questions in my mind, but the real questions that I look for( and that can make a good story) arise while the guy in front of the camera starts to tell his story. If I would start with a script, i wouldn't be writing theirs stories, but mine.
When i start to edit is when the story start to be written. When i start to select pictures and interviews I have "Words" open i i write there pieces of narration and ideas to be developed afterward, and many times i write directly in FC subtitles in my time line.
I consider narration something secondary. i use it to link elements and ideas and to tell what I can't tell just with the pictures and interviews.
With narration or without narration, I write the story in my time line, and when I finish editing, in the credits, beside "Camera: Rafael Amador", "Edit: Rafael Amador", I put "Script: Rafael Amador".
Well, the truth is that put all those functions (Camera, edit,..) if somebody has helped me on something (sound, graphics,..) and I have to include him on the credits. If not, I just write "A film by Nagavision" that is the name of my company.
[Franz Bieberkopf] "Writing? Editing?"
Michael Ondaatje and Walter Murch discuss the topic.
"I always pass on free advice -- its never of any use to me" Oscar Wilde.
I just finished re-reading that last month.
Murch is very focussed and articulate about his particular take on editing, but he pretty much exclusively discusses scripted work (and very little about the writing process, though Ondaatje chimes in with a few parallels.
"In writing, especially poetry, you are always trying to find ways to forge alliances between unlikely things, striking juxtapositions, finding the right shorthand for ideas, metaphors." p.34 Ondaatje
However, the issue that interested me (touched on in the NYT article) is unscripted films with writing credits.
It isn't articulated in the article, but a writing credit is broadly interpreted by an audience to mean the film was written, ie scripted. Broadly people understand the script as the story or plot or dialog, and those who are more sophisticated understand it as plan for the various crafts. A writing credit suggests that a script was written, and it has been my contention that it undervalues the role of the editor in such projects - as the editor is significant in "structuring, framing, and building" the piece.
By way of clarification, I am not referring to credits for Development Writing, nor Narration Writing.
[Franz Bieberkopf] "unscripted films with writing credits."
At the outset, I'm not that fond of credits. Neither is Alan Smithee, a very famous director.
From a technical standpoint, they seem to be the must vulnerable element of any production, being constantly revised for additions, deletions, making logos bigger, smaller, "use the new one", crazy name spellings and misspellings.... arrrrgghhhhh!!!!! The textbook illustration of Murphy's Law.
The two henchmen in a feature from 3 years ago: Goon Juan and Goon Two. Not pronounced "2", pronounced "Twhoa"... so no, Goon Juan is not "Goon One". Yes, and that is how Raevn spells her name.
Locally, I work with an editor that insists on a writing credit if she edits an unscripted documentary, and shares it with the producer/director who has structured the story arc and written the narration. A couple of years ago, I helped fine-tune a narration, but it never occurred to me to seek any acknowledgement because its not anything I aspire to. AFAIK, that is an editor's job.
Is there nothing from Charlie Kaufman on the subject? That would be entertaining, because although it was most definitely "written", ADAPTATION sure felt spontaneous. So the next point is, if the actors are mostly improv-ing... ?
Sandy Clay (sometimes)
"I always pass on free advice -- its never of any use to me" Oscar Wilde.
I was in the Writers Guild many years ago, when I worked as a story editor for Director John Avildsen. I learned that WGA rules and arbitrations over credit are mostly about structure, which is how an original screenwriter can retain credit even when a team of "script doctors" comes in and rewrites all of the dialogue and numerous scenes.
In documentaries it's fuzzier. As some have noted above, the editor's job is not just making smooth cuts, but the larger structural task of storytelling using the available material.
Normally, that "storytelling" aspect would seem to be part of the job description for an Editor. And for a Director and a Cameraperson as well; they are all "writing" a draft of the story with their choices.
And in cinema verite or "direct cinema" as the Maysles Brothers liked to call it, you have no narrator. So a dedicated "writer" never comes near the film. Sometimes these films are credited as "A Film By" to acknowledge the shared "writing" and structuring among all parties.
But sometimes it gets fuzzy, and Editors take a writing credit to make things more equitable. Often in an unscripted, "reality" or cinema verite documentary, the "Director" is more of a Producer, setting up the situation, instigating, but not guiding a performance or manipulating a storyline. So the Editor takes on what is really a co-director role, having an equal say in identifying the story and how it should be told.
In these situations, an Editor may negotiate a writing credit -- often shared with the Director -- to indicate that on this film, the Editor was more than simply"a pair of hands" for the Director.
In terms of WGA arbitration, an Editor might have to show some notes, emails etc, to prove they were co-authoring the story structure and deserve a writing credit. But I have not heard of much arbitration in documentary writing credits. Hence the Editor mentioned above, who "demands" a writing credit up front, and apparently she gets it.
And to bring it all back to FCPX or Not:
FCP 7 is a highly-featured app with many options, tools and redundant choices for particular tasks and workflows. But we work in a Timeline with tracks and clips.
FCPX pushes language like "Primary Storyline" and Secondary Storyline to the fore.
Perhaps this is the part of "democratization" of filmmaking that's a good thing; an acknowledgment that Editing is not simply a tech job for software geeks... it is ground zero for film & video storytelling.
Whether you are a Producer, a Director or a Shooter... once you sit down at FCPX, you are reminded that you'd better get to work on your Storyline!