Zen Mind/Experienced Mind

For Class #6

 Instructor: Norman Hollyn T.A.: Beth Moody
 Office: 310-821-2792 Phone: 323-472-1164

 E-Mail: nhollyn [at] cinema.usc.edu

E-Mail: elizabethmoody [at] gmail.com


A Chat With Michael Kahn

This article was originally published in the Editors' Local 700 Guild Newsletter. The Newsletter is filled with interesting articles and interviews. This chat is part of a series of Fireside Chats that the Guild sponsors for its members, with particular emphasis on training assistant editors in the craft of editing. It was hard to select sections which I particularly agreed with because I agree with so many of them. But listen to what Kahn talks about when he talks about rising above the intellect and going with the gut. Of course, he's got years of experience so his gut has been fairly well trained.

Zen Mind/Experienced Mind:
Fireside Chatting with Michael Kahn

by Liza McDonald

Wondering if there is life after assistant editing? In need of a little inspiration and encouragement? Or just want to be with other assistants who, like you, are exhausted from experiencing "the glamour of show business"? Then RSVP for the monthly "Fireside Chats" sponsored by the Guild at Electric Picture Solutions in Studio City!

True to their name, these informal gatherings take place beside a crackling fire, in a room that is a combination 70's coffeehouse and New York basement apartment. Each month features an accomplished editor (or "former assistant editor", if you prefer), sharing wisdom and anecdotes that will be like bits of gold strewn along your path.

Such was the case on Nov 18th, when about forty assistants sat for a "chat" with Academy award-winning editor Michael Kahn ('Raiders of the Lost Ark', 'Schindler's List'). Editor Bruce Green (Michael's assistant on 'Raiders' and others) gave his mentor an affectionate introduction, saying: "Michael taught me that an important part of being an editor is to teach your assistants to cut, to think like an editor. I hope the editors you work for are as generous with you as Michael was with me."

After the introduction, Michael looked to the ceiling and took a long, long pause ("to get this right") before he spoke. His reflections on being an editor were so organized, they could be considered a brief "manual" of Kahn Zen for assistants and editors. Here's just some of the "gold":

1."Be A Sponge"

The transition from assistant to editor is not a physical move, it's a mental one. Learn everything you can. Ask lots of questions. Most importantly, look at dailies: ask yourself what approach you would take with a scene, and then see what the editor does.

2."Be The Best You Can Be"

Get into the habit of doing your best. Train yourself to be dedicated. Come in early, stay late. Have energy, show interest. Anticipate the needs of the editor.

3. "Keep The Goal In Mind"

See lots of movies. If the movies are good, ask "What about the picture works?" If they're bad, ask "What would I do to make it work?" On your own time, take some of the outtakes and work on a scene. This will help you begin to understand structure.

As you begin to edit...

4. "Drop Your Forebrain"

Get in touch with your feelings. Be more interested in Life than in Editing, because when you're talking about film structure, you're talking about Life. Bring your Life to dailies.

5. "Don't Do What The Director Says, Do What He Means"

You've already studied the dailies, now study the director. Once again, ask lots of questions. "What performances do you like?" "Did you have anything specific in mind when you shot this?" "Did you have a particular editing style in mind?" "Do you mind if I try something radical?" Be a contributor, not just an order taker.

6. "Don't Edit From Knowledge, Edit From Feelings"

What will make your work stand out and be special is in the realm of the intuitive. Understand the characters. If you put yourself into a scene, you can contribute to what the director is giving you. Be a collaborator, not just a pair of hands.

8. "Be Willing To Experiment"

Have the attitude: "This cut's never gonna work-that's why I've got to try it!"

9. "Never Bore The Audience"

Get them to feel what you feel; to "cook" with you. Yes, it is a manipulative art.

10. "Make Your Assistants Part Of The Team"

They've seen the dailies, show them cut scenes. Get them to start "feeling" for themselves. If they give you good ideas, give credit where credit is due.

11. "It's Never Your Film"

It's the director's film, make him look good. It's called editing but, for the director, it's a continuation of directing.

12. "Withmanship"

Let the director know you are "with" him. Be a team player. Never too cocky. Never too wise. You are there to do whatever you can to help.

13. "Not Every Show Is Going To Be A Masterpiece"

You don't know what will work in advance. Consider it the greatest challenge of your life if you have to "take doo-doo and make ice-cream out of it". It's your job to help make the footage work.

14. "It's Never Easy"

There is no such thing as a simple picture. There are hundreds of ways to cut a picture; try to edit the film in one of the best four or five ways.

15. "This Is The Beginning"

Starting out, you will be like a young fawn-shaky on your legs. But with time, your memory for shots will develop, you'll learn how to respond to directors and producers, and what at first took days will soon take hours.

16. "Let It Go"

After the job is over, clear your mind. (To keep fresh, Kahn reads the book "Zen Mind/Beginner's Mind" between films.) Let the release date be exactly that. 

Reprinted from The Motion Picture Editors Guild Newsletter Vol. 19, No. 3 - May/June 1998

Copyright © 1998, All Rights Reserved by The Motion Picture Editors Guild, IATSE Local 776

Though I've tried to accomodate other browsers THIS SITE IS DESIGNED FOR BEST USE WITH IE for the PC, SAFARI for the Mac, and FIREFOX for both the PC and the Mac. It also looks reasonably good on the iPhone. Lucked out on that!

All material, except where noted, ©1999-2008 by Norman Hollyn. Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Send me an e-mail at my office
Last Modified - September 30, 2008