216. So You Want To Be An Assistant Film Editor

Chapter 216

Two accessories were mandatory for film industry freelancers: A Filofax planner and an answering machine. Nobody saw the answering machine so that didn’t matter much, but having an off-brand planner was akin to murdering babies or something. The only social sin more egregious than carrying something other than a Filofax was having an 818 area code.

One carried his or her Filofax everywhere, not only to keep up with all of those important appointments but more importantly to maintain a list of contacts in one’s network. Without a network, a freelancer’s answering machine light never flickered.

The closer my last day at Tales From the Crypt came, the more obsessively I checked my answering machine, but the light never blinked. All day I worked the small network of phone numbers I gathered over the previous year.

“Hey, Mike, it’s James Stafford from Tales From the Crypt.”

“Hi, James. How can I help you?”

“Hey, I was just wondering if you might be hiring over there at Soundelux.”

“Who is this again?”

“James Stafford. From Tales.”

“Are you a sound editor or something? I don’t know who you are.”

“We’ve met lots of times when I’ve been over there picking up sound reels,” I said.

“Oh. What does that have to do with me? What can you even do?”

“Hey, Gary! It’s James from Tales.”

“Hey, man. What’s up?”

“Hey, are you looking for any help over there?”

“You don’t want to cut negative, James. It’s a boring job. Come by sometime, man. We’ll go to lunch.”

Pinning back on the the Music Plus name tag was looking inevitable. I drove by only to find that they were going out of business — purchased and liquidated by Blockbuster to squash the video rental side of their business.

Days passed without that goddammed little answering machine light blinking. I had most of Bill’s office boxed up. Tales would be completely over in a week.

And then finally a message: “James, it’s Laura from Tales. Are you still looking for a show? I know a supervising sound editor over at Cannon who is putting together a crew. Call me.”

WIMbot_Web_BW_smMy new boss was a veteran sound editor who cut his teeth working on The Brady Bunch. He owned several Emmys, a Mercedes convertible, a house in Beverly Hills, and he was working at Cannon.

Back in 1990 the film business was very cliquish, as I’m sure it still is. As studios went, Fox, Paramount, Warner, Universal, and Sony were the top of the heap. Everyone always acted unimpressed with their gig, but it was a given that working on a show for a major studio was big time.

The next tier comprised small studios that were doing well, like New Line, for example, and Disney, who were notoriously cheap. At the very bottom of the barrel were companies like Corman and Troma, porn, and industrial and student films. Cannon was just barely a notch above this category.

At that point in time Cannon was a part of MGM-Pathe, so my new cutting room was located in the Pathe building on the edge of Beverly Hills. I was an apprentice sound editor now, and because this was a union shop I had to join both the International Alliance of Theatrical State Employees (I.A.T.S.E, pronounced “eye-ought-see”) and the Editor’s Guild. My salary was $800 per week, $300 more than I was making at Tales.

Tony, my new boss, was the nicest, easiest going guy imaginable. “Have you met Cheryl yet? She’s my right hand, so you’ll be working with her. Hey, Cheryl, come in here a sec.”

In walked a beautiful blond woman woman, mid-twenties, deeply tanned with bright blue eyes. “What, Tony?”

“Cheryl, meet James. He’s our new apprentice editor.”


“Hi,” I said.

“Anything else?” Cheryl said.

“Can you help him get set up? Workbench, splicer, 4-gang, the whole bit,” Tony said.

“There aren’t anymore 4-gangs. All we have is that extra 8-gang in Bill’s cutting room.”

“Okay, give him that. It doesn’t matter,” Tony said.

Cheryl sighed. “Come with me,” she said.

“Come back around 11:30, James. I’ll take you to lunch and we’ll get to know each other,” Tony said.

“Okay, thanks.”

All the way down the hall Cheryl muttered to herself. Fat old bastard sits around all day…why do I have to do everything…hate this fucking job …. We arrived at my new cutting room and I stood quietly while Cheryl stomped around and slammed editing equipment onto my workbench: split reels, take up reels, guillotine splicer, grease pencils, Sharpies, splicing tape, synchronizer.

I loved the gear of the cutting room. Editing film and sound in 1990 wasn’t terribly different from the same job in 1950: It was a completely physical process.

As assistant editors we sat at high tables called “benches.” The bench featured a light box in its center and a tiered rack affixed to its back for small rolls of film, tape, razor blades, that kind of stuff. Bolted to each end of the bench was a hand crank affixed to a long shaft. One would slide a big reel of 35mm film onto the crank assembly on the left end of the bench, tape the end to an empty reel on the right end of the bench, and turn the right handle clockwise to move forward through the reel of film. Need to rewind? Crank the left handle counter-clockwise.

But movies feature sound, too. Back then the sound elements — the dialogue, music, and sound effects — were transferred onto clear 35mm film stock coated with the same brown magnetic tape as an audio cassette. Having this sound, or “mag” as we called it, on 35mm film stock allowed it to travel through the same editing equipment as the reels of film.

In the center of our benches rested the synchronizers, a heavy chunk of metal painted a metallic pea green that housed an axle and a little counter similar in appearance to an old car odometer. The axle held several gears designed to work with the perforations, or “perfs,” on the edges of the film. Each set of two gears (one for either edge of the 35mm film) was called a “gang,” so for example a two-gang could handle one reel of film and one reel of sound.

Synchronization was everything, as any fan of overdubbed films knows. Each frame of film was four perfs tall, and even two perfs out of sync was easy for an amateur to see. Given that 35mm film traveled through a projector at 24 frames per second, that means the average person could detect a 1/48th of a second variance between moving lips and the words coming out of them. Humans are pretty impressive beasts.

There were three kinds of jobs available to assistant editors: film crews, sound crews, and music crews. Most of the jobs were with film and sound editors: Music editors pretty much picked assistants and stuck with them. The film assistants were responsible for popping tracks, or synching the sound from the location shoot of the picture. This is where the classic slate comes in: James’s Boring Story, Scene 3, Take 5, .

That “clack” of the slate is how we synchronized the picture to the sound. We’d put the mag in our synchronizer, drop a little hinged cassette player head onto it, and crank the handles on our benches back and forth. Most of us wore headphones (Sony studio-quality cans, unless you wanted to be ribbed for buying inferior equipment. It was the Filofax all over again), but every bench also sported a small amplifier/speaker combo attached to the synchronizer. Back and forth we’d crank, listening for “James’s boring story, Scene 3, Take 5” followed by the “clack.”  Then we’d mark the exact spot on the mag where the slate clapped shut, turn on the light box, and look through the hundreds of images in 24 frames per second sequential order until we found the very first image showing a closed slate with “James’s Boring Story Scene 3 Take 5” written on it.

Once we had the sound and image of the closing slate marked, we ran both through a device called a “coding machine” that heat transferred numbers onto the edge of both the mag and the film. For the rest of their lives, both would be known by the corresponding numbers branded on their edges. After this was done, keeping sound and film in sync was pretty simple, but woe unto the assistant who screwed these steps up. He or she would spend hours at the bench with a razor blade, scraping away his mistake so that the whole business could be run through the coding machine a second time.

The coding machine looked kind of like a reel to reel tape recorder, but instead of audiotape 35mm film stock ran between the reels and instead of a recording head a metal drum rotated in the middle of the device, stamping a unique number at one foot intervals on the film stock — cthuck cthuck cthuck. We had to set the initial number before turning the machine on. For example “001A0000” might mark the very first slate of the very first reel of the very first scene of a movie. George Lucas allegedly took R2D2’s name from this kind of cryptic cutting room nomenclature.

Another of the assistant’s coding machine responsibilities was to keep the hot turning drum lubricated with Tri-Flow oil, which burned off as the machine cthuck cthuck cthucked away in the corner of the cutting room. Letting the coding machine dry out could mean thousands of dollars in damage, and that meant getting scratched out of somebody’s Filofax.

I haven’t been in a cutting room in over 20 years, and the sounds and smells of the coding machine remain fresh. I read once that as Reagan’s Alzheimer’s advanced, the last thing to go were his memories of summers spent as a lifeguard. Sometimes I wonder whether the last bit of my memory to be claimed by dementia will be the rhythmic cthuck cthuck cthuck of the coding machine.

There you have it: James the apprentice sound editor at his new bench at Cannon, cranking reels back and forth through his 8-gang, synching sound and coding elements. I wasn’t a messenger boy anymore.

Categories: Memoir

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