"Our Art is Sometimes Called Invisible": Kate Amend On the Art of Editing

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Earlier this week, editor Kate Amend presented a keynote highlighting the role of an editor and her journey through the ranks of the industry during Sundance Institute and the Karen Schmeer Fellowship’s Art of Editing Brunch. Below we’ve published Amend’s speech in full.

I’m so happy to be here with my fellow editors. Congratulations on all of your films, and I hope you truly enjoy yourselves. The audiences here are smart, enthusiastic, receptive and generous. It’s so gratifying and thrilling to share your work with people who really get it. Thanks to Sundance Institute and the Karen Schmeer Fellowship for gathering us together to honor and celebrate The Art of Editing. And for recognizing that we are artists.

I don’t think anyone grows up wanting to be an editor. When I was a kid the options for women were housewife, teacher, and nurse. But I always fantasized that I would do something in the arts. I wanted to be a singer or an actress – although my parents didn’t encourage that. Teaching would be good, but marriage and housewife was the ultimate future in their eyes. But still, I played the violin and the piano, participated in school plays, was a cheerleader – which is kinda like dancing. I tried painting and drawing, too. I was a decent writer – always on the school paper. I just knew a life in the arts was what I wanted.

So fast forward and imagine how thrilled I was to discover editing, where we practice all the arts. We work with light, color, music, words, shapes, and movement to tell a story. We choreograph, we compose, and we conduct. And whether there’s a script or not, we are writing. No wonder it’s so hard to describe what we do.

Wouldn’t you know our art is sometimes called “invisible.” And a high compliment is “seamless.” That’s why mentorship is so important, because I don’t think one teaches editing as much as one “models” it. Being in the presence of a great editor is the best way to learn, and I was fortunate to have many brilliant and generous mentors when I was starting out.

When I first started in this business all I knew is that I wanted to make feminist films. I had been teaching Women’s’ Studies in San Francisco and had immersed myself in the women’s movement. There were women filmmakers making their mark in fiction and documentary. Such organizations as Women in Film and the DGA’s women’s steering committee were formed to raise awareness about sexism in the industry, and to promote and create opportunities for women filmmakers.

Unfortunately the same conversation is happening today. And not just about women but people of color. But we were profoundly optimistic in those days and believed that our activism could make a difference.

So when I arrived in LA my first stop was at feminist artist Judy Chicago’s studio, where the monumental and iconic art work The Dinner Party was being created. The Dinner Party was described as a re-interpretation of The Last Supper from the point of view of those who did the cooking. There I hoped to meet filmmaker Johanna Demetrakas who was making a documentary about it. I was told that Johanna was away for a few months, but I was welcome to work at the studio in any capacity I felt comfortable with. So I began my volunteer experience there immediately. The energy in the studio was electric. There was a sense of purpose and excitement – we were all working on something that we hoped would showcase women’s contributions over the centuries and shine a light on our hidden history.

'The Case Against 8,' edited by Kate Amend.

Meanwhile I got my first job in the film business! It was an entry-level AE position at a Sound/Post Production House in Hollywood. I was ecstatic! The first day I was taken around and introduced to everyone. Editors hunched over upright moviolas, assistants sitting at rewind benches, and I was taken to my first mixing stage. I didn’t know at the time what a big deal the mixing stage was. Suddenly I was in a small screening room and projected on the screen was a black-and-white film of a woman scantily clad in black lingerie dancing and simultaneously being jolted with electric shocks. What the fuck? Welcome to the world of B movies. Yes this place worked on action films, biker flicks, slasher movies, or more accurately exploitation films.

So I’d landed a job. But what about my values? It would be a good story if I could tell you I turned around and walked out – but I stayed. It turned out there were a lot of really nice people working there on a variety of films and television. I started to learn my assistant editor duties filing trims, syncing dailies – and most importantly – reconstituting fill. I also took a turn as the Sound Fx Librarian.

Flashing forward, I did gain from this job experience. Back then it was hard to advance from assistant to picture editor, but I was able to get work as a sound editor, and I learned from some very creative sound designers and mixers. And in an act of ultimate revenge, in the 90’s I edited a film, Some Nudity Required, which was an inside look at the world of B-movies with a particular focus on the exploitation of and violence against women. And it played at Sundance!

Anyway, I worked at the sound house for a few months but decided to put Hollywood on hold to throw myself wholeheartedly into working on The Dinner Party. And it’s the best decision I ever made. It’s there that I really learned what it meant to be an artist. The concentration, the discipline, the focus demonstrated by Judy Chicago – and through her example all the people working on this art project – truly inspired me. And I did eventually work on Johanna’s documentary also. I volunteered a couple days or nights a week and I was able to be in the edit room and watch a master editor up close. I learned about dramatic editing and lyrical editing. And the importance of humor. I think laughter is often the best way to draw in an audience. And it’s something that I look to employ in every film I cut – even in films about the darkest of subject matter.

I continued to work with Johanna on other films as a paid assistant. The cutting room was a special place back in those days because I was actually in the room with the director and editor during the entire process. One day I was sitting at the rewinds and the director turned to me and asked, “Exactly what is it you’re doing?” I told her that I was putting the trims back into the dailies reels in sync. Her mouth dropped open and she said something like, “That sounds perfectly horrible. I’m so sorry.” See, she had no concept of the thrill of actually going home after a day’s work knowing that you had cleared a trim bin. So I worked happily at my bench – a witness to the creative collaboration that goes into making a film sing.

And Johanna would give me fun assignments – like searching for shots, doing fixes on a scene, and one day the opportunity to cut my first scene. I still remember it to this day. It was a film about WWII and my scene was about men enlisting in the army and going off to war after Pearl Harbor. I cut a musical montage to “Goodbye Mama, I’m Off to Yokohama.” I labored over it for a couple days, and when it came time to show it to the master, I was nervous, and convinced that what I did was lame and obvious. But when she lit up and said, “It’s great!” I was not just relieved, but elated, and convinced that I could find true creative expression through editing.

That was my first film about WWII and it’s also where I met Mark Harris, who was the writer of that film. Mark and I would eventually work on many films together including two more WWII films: The Long Way Home and Into the Arms of Strangers, which would each go on to win Oscars.

So rewind to about 25 years ago when I was finally able to start cutting feature docs, usually for first-time directors who had little or no money. One of those early films was Metamorphosis: Man Into Woman. Lisa Leeman and Claudia Hoover were following a man undergoing a sex change – this was 25 years ago – and it anticipated the current conversation about transgender stories. This was my first documentary that got into Sundance. Those were the days when the Festival Director would come to your editing room, watch a rough cut, make a few notes and then say, “you’re in.” And we even won an award. We had no idea how things would soon change…

I also had the great opportunity to work with the brilliant director/cinematographer Joan Churchill. Joan’s hand-held footage is exquisite – she can cover a scene in a single beautiful shot. Sitting with Joan – watching dailies and then beginning the editing process I learned so much – especially about the joy and challenge of not cutting. She followed the action so instinctively, her camera was always in the right place and she’d arrive there perfectly. But obviously you’ve gotta make a cut. I would carefully and judiciously look for just the right frame to lift my grease pencil and make a mark and would breath a sigh of relief when Joan agreed with my decision. I do remember that one day she said to me something like, “I never shoot cutaways because the editor will just use them.”

We worked long, hard hours, but I loved my work. There was nothing that could distract me. Well there was one thing: tennis. Joan, my assistant, Liz, and I would sometimes have to stop everything to watch a great match. And the Anita Hill hearings were happening at this time too, so we just brought the TV into the editing room.

Sometimes you have to stop for history.

People often ask if it difficult to make the transition from film to non-linear. And for me it wasn’t because there was an interim nightmarish period when I was editing on ¾” video tape to tape – which I think is the most inelegant, cumbersome, laborious system invented by man. So I embraced non-linear. In fact I think I genuflected.

But the editing room dynamic and the editor/assistant relationship did change dramatically. Often the assistant would work around the editor’s schedule. Like ships passing in the night, we’d leave each other instructions and notes. The AE has a highly technical, demanding, and crucial job that leaves little time for them to participate in the creative side of the project. I need them desperately and am grateful for the work they do. So it makes me very cross whenever I hear stories of editors who are abusive or disrespectful to their assistants. I see the AE as my partner and lifeline.

I always try involving my AE’s in screenings and feedback sessions. And I do give them opportunities to cut. And this isn’t because I’m generous and magnanimous. With hundreds of hours of footage, I need help! In multi-character films I’ll have my AE tackle a character, or one of the story lines in a complex film. I’ve had devoted and conscientious assistants over the years. I want them to be involved and take ownership of the film – which is what I did as an AE. In editing I did find true creative expression, so it gives me great joy to foster and nurture that in the next generation. Which is why the Karen Schmeer Fellowship is so important, because the best way to advance as an editor is to be mentored by the people who are the best at what they do. Thank you for creating this amazing opportunity.

Oh and just a full circle update: Currently I’m cutting a film called Feminists: What Were They Thinking? and we recently filmed an interview with Judy Chicago. I’m also the Supervising Editor on Making Waves: The History of Cinematic Sound, and I’m also working on a documentary (with Helen Kearns) about tennis superstar Serena Williams. So it kinda all worked out.

Let me close with an important update (especially for those who were here last year at this event).

There is soap in the guest bathroom.

The serf’s apprentice found it and put it there!


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