Editing Commercials: Owen Plotkin

For Class #15

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

 E-Mail: nhollyn [at] cinema.usc.edu

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Editing Commercials: Owen Plotkin

A commercials editor discusses how he used humor and time compressionn techniques in editing a series of spots for office.com. Notice the lack of involvement of the director in the post production process.

The Art of Cutting Commercials: An Interview With Owen Plotkin
By James Monohan
Monday, October 23, 2000, 12:10 AM PST

Inspiration can hit creative types at any time of the day. One might be jogging, visiting the doctor or waiting for food at a diner when a great idea comes to mind. Such is the premise of three Office.com spots directed by Pam Thomas of Satellite Films and created by Cliff Freeman & Partners. Here, Owen Plotkin of Editing Concepts, talks about editing all three spots.

How long have you been editing with Editing Concepts?
Longer than I wish to tell.

All right. So, for these Office.com spots, what was discussed in production, in terms of the look and the feel of the pieces?
I think the first contact I had was with the Cliff Freeman creative team. They talked about the commercial being a departure from what people have come to except in Freeman comedic spots. In other words, they planned to make them not as broad as, for example, Freeman's Little Caesars Pizza commercials. They've also done spots for Staples and Outpost.com, which are outrageous and arresting. However, for this particular client, they wanted the pieces to incorporate traditional storytelling, using humor that was more subtle.

To what degree, if any, were you involved in the planning and design of the spots?
We didn't have any pre-production meetings, though we did talk about the storyboard. Essentially, the final design came out of the performances and the filmed footage. The film was beautifully shot and performances were great, so my editing involved deciding which great takes to keep and which to leave out.

How much footage is generally shot on these types of commercials?
Each director and project varies wildly in terms of the amount of footage shot. You can get anywhere from 100,000 to 5,000 feet of film for a 30-second spot.

Perhaps you can describe the process of digitizing the footage into the Avid.
A one-light telecine was done of the footage, and it was imported into the Avid by my assistant Peter Shmuhl. Whether or not I load in the footage myself depends on how much footage there is and how many other jobs I have going. I like to see all the footage more than once before I start selecting it. I do prefer loading it in myself if possible.

I noticed that, in terms of editing style, all three commercials clip actions and compress time with the use of jump cuts.
Yes, I often imply things with fragments. All three commercials are very linear, and there are a lot of elements to the story that have to be conveyed, so it seems natural to use jump cuts to compress time. Those cuts also help to create tension, which works well with the release of humor.

So, using the doctor's office scene as an example, did the director shoot with the intention of using jump cuts of the patient playing with different devices in the office?
The director may have planned for those, but I'm sure she was not surprised by those jump cuts when she saw them. She definitely wanted something that felt current and modern in terms of the cutting style. That said, I would just as soon not use jump cuts and cut a spot with as few cuts as possible. It depends on what works for the particular spot.

Some commercials have to cut a 15-second version, as well as a 30-second version. Did you have to do that for these three?
Fifteen-second commercials are a horror. They are a blot on advertising. I don't think it's effective to tell stories in 15 secords. If the spot is designed to be 15 seconds, it can work. However, considering the complexity and large amount of story elements involved in these spots, if we had tried to compress them into 15-second spots, it would have been a joke. We did not have to do that, fortunately.

How long did it take to cut these commercials?
They gave me a day and a half to cut all three commercials. It was fast. I had some decent first cuts of all three spots a day and half after receiving the footage. What I would do is get one commercial to the point where I knew it would be OK. Then I moved onto cutting the next commercial. The director came in after I had completed these cuts and offered suggestions. Basically, she liked what I had done, though we talked about certain shots that she liked better than others.

What would be your advice to editors who want to learn how to cut fast but still maintain a level of quality?
Don't make a mistake of thinking that because you can operate the Avid quickly that you'll be able to get a good cut out of it quickly. I think some young editors tend to want to operate the machine as fast as they can. However, that approach doesn't get you to a good cut in a short amount of time. What gets you a good cut is understanding the concept and idea of the piece and building a spot from there. The rest is just sculpture -- chipping away what is not essential. I think you can get a quick cut if you can see the big picture, which takes a certain talent. You also need to be able to pick the best scenes and the best performances. Over time, as you edit more and more, you'll get better and faster.

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