Egos in the Editing Room


I brought a sweater and hot coffee to work, never mind it was a blistering summer’s day. Inside the production studio, excessive air-conditioning frostily preserved the computer equipment. It was like working in perpetual January. I had recently edited a two-minute promotional video for a travel series. Today I would get the final okay from the director. The project wrapped, he could fly to New York, meet with investors, and raise funding for the pilot. Everything was going to plan.

The director Mr. Otter entered along with the cinematographer Mr. Badger (not actual names). They were excited about the project, impressed with the story structure I crafted from their loose collection of ideas, the distinctive style I had built from their images.

With an edit bay to ourselves, playback began.

Thirty seconds in, Mr. Badger cried, “Hold it!” A time-lapse of a sun-drenched field with fluffy white clouds skirting the sky faded into a close up of a shady leaf swaying in the breeze. The shady leaf (Badger’s footage) wasn’t featured as long as the sunny field. “It’s not fair,” he complained. “They should both be equal.”

I raised an eyebrow, failing to see the logic. Mr. Otter chuckled. They were old friends. It was only fair their time-lapses should be equal. Diplomatically, I explained that the unequal lengths were due to the original footage. For a time-lapse to last more than a few seconds (as in Badger’s case), there must be several hundred or even thousands of still photographs (as in Otter’s case).

Mr. Badger frowned. He hadn’t thought of that while filming. Re-shoots were impossible. The budget was spent.

“You’re the editor,” Mr. Badger said to me. “Fix it.”

Ignoring his attitude, I got to work. Meanwhile, Mr. Otter prattled about how he spent eight hours filming his time-lapses. Packed his own lunch even. Mr. Badger’s mood soured.

I adjusted the footage to slow motion. It was still too short. I would have to shorten Otter’s footage to be equal. Mr. Otter fussed. He didn’t want to shorten it. The best bit was the ending where the fluffiest clouds came into view.

I offered to shorten the clip at the beginning, preserving the fluffy cloud ending.

Mr. Otter folded his little hands over his belly. That was acceptable.

Playback resumed. Mr. Badger snidely remarked that Mr. Otter’s shots did not look artistic enough. To my amazement, Mr. Otter agreed. It seemed Badger’s visual style was to be the unique selling point for the show. Without warning, I was expected to sacrifice Otter’s majestically composed, well-lit shots, leaving only Badger’s footage: shaky, dark, and always too short. Mr. Badger often lost interest mid-shot and filmed only eight seconds of brilliance at a time. I tried to preserve what I could of Mr. Otter’s footage, needing clear visuals to anchor the storyline. My allegiance was to the meta-structure. The men wouldn’t listen. The hour dragged on. Both of them seized on every millisecond of footage. The battle of egos had begun.

I took a long sip of my latte. Sugar and caffeine are how I cope with the irrational. Unlike Alice, I never would have made it out of Wonderland without gaining fifteen pounds. I was forced to alter everything that had been approved in the last edit session as “perfect!” and “we love it!” and “don’t change it!”

At last we reached the finale: an informative soundbite from an ecologist. She took a stance on the environment, subtly critiquing the travel industry.

“Maybe we should lose it,” Mr. Otter fretted. “It might offend the investors.”

Cut it?!” Mr. Badger exploded. “That’s the only reason I got involved in this project! Save the environment, man! Tourists are destroying the planet!”

“This is a show for tourists!” wailed Mr. Otter, throwing his hands in the air.

The men bellowed at one another. Eyes flashing, teeth bared, they sprang to their feet. Rolling office chairs careened across the room. I snatched my latte from the desk and ran.

Unlike Ernest Hemingway, I’m not ashamed to say I ran like hell. I found a deserted sound stage and closed the soundproof door behind me. Alone in the glare of a forgotten spotlight, I sat on the bottom rung of a ladder. My latte was cold.

How had these men come this far without realizing they weren’t even on the same page? They had spent days shooting footage together. They had written the script together. Perhaps the excitement of “doing a project together” had blinded them to reality. Perhaps their personal friendship blinded them to their deeply entrenched professional rivalry. The harshest fact about an editing room, is that sooner or later you have to face facts. The footage is either there or it isn’t. The “totally awesome” performance you filmed is either brilliant or flat. Garbage in equals garbage out.

The fact I made anything coherent out of their opposite ideas had been a miracle. Now it was a shambles. I didn’t see how I could stay on the project. They wanted me as their collaborator, as lead editor if the series got picked up. Imagine wading through a Costa Rican rain forest, stung by a thousand mosquitos, watching those two wrangle over who would film the time-lapse of a lesser spotted tree shrew. Exotic tropical locations, sleepless nights of editing while those two bickered over every fade-in. It would be like The Odd Couple meets Apocalypse Now. On the one hand was money, potential opportunity. On the other, a toxic partnership that would burn out my sanity, creativity, and my spirit.

In the end, I had to be true to myself. I resigned after the revision was complete. No investor ever bought the show. When egos collide instead of collaborate, no amount of editing will ever “just fix it.” The last I heard, Badger and Otter found another editor to make more revisions. Two years later they are still arguing, still editing.