Pedro Kos on the Art of Editing and Escaping the Creative Doldrums

Pedro Kos

Earlier this week, director and editor Pedro Kos presented the fourth annual keynote speech during Sundance Institute and the Karen Schmeer Fellowship’s Art of Editing Reception. Below we’ve published Kos’ remarks in full.

Thank you. What an incredible honor it is to be here speaking with you at The Art of Editing Reception. Thank you so much Kristin, Garret, and Robin for inviting me to speak and to the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, the Karen Schmeer Editing Fellowship, and the Sally Menke Memorial Fellowship for holding my favorite event at Sundance. You all play such a key role in supporting editors in our craft.

I’m also so incredibly humbled and thrilled to be among friends and such a talented group of accomplished editors, in both fiction and non-fiction. I am really in awe of all your work and I am so honored that you are here today.

And just to inject a bit of scorn into my remarks from the get go, I want to send nasty looks towards the previous keynote speakers. Lewis Erskine, Kate Amend, and Joe Bini –– you were all so freaking good and inspiring that you definitely brought me a lot of anxiety as I’ve attempted to cobble together something worthy of following in your footsteps (thank you Dr. Waldman for those Beta blockers). But the good news, it turns out, is that I had already, unknowingly written the speech.

Exactly one year ago this very day, on January 23, 2017, a film that I co-directed and co-edited called Bending the Arc premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival. I was once told by a director whom I’ve worked with and whom I love dearly, that the creative process won’t be as painful if I speak my mind and don’t hold things in. And so, apparently, the night before the premiere screening, I took that advice to heart and the editor in me decided to write a letter to the director I was about to become. So here it is.

[Pedro pulls out and opens the letter]

Dear Pedro,

Tomorrow you officially become a director as Bending the Arc makes its world premiere. It’s going to be your Sundance bar-mitzvah! A lot of things might start to change … Number 1: People will ask your opinion earlier in conversations; Number 2: People will ask your opinion period; Number 3: your hair might grow back [Still waiting on that one]. But as you’re about to embark on this journey, I feel it is incumbent upon me, Pedro the Editor, to make sure that you, Pedro the Director, always remember who you are and where you come from so that the lessons you learned in the edit bay are not lost in the director’s chair.

So like any good story, we should start at the beginning. Well maybe not, as beginnings are always the hardest to crack, but let’s at least go back a little over 20 years ago to the summer of 1996 when you had that first moment of inspiration where everything clicked. It was in between your junior and senior years in high school and you had enrolled in a summer film school course, something you had been wanting to do since you were 11 years old. And for two transformative months you were completely immersed in learning about the art of filmmaking. Do you remember how the most magical moment of all was the first time you edited your student film? You had signed up for the graveyard shift from midnight to 6 a.m., and during those six hours sitting at that Steenbeck, you cut and spliced the 16mm footage that you had filmed, taking shots and assembling them into a story, creating an emotional response so much greater, with so much more power and meaning than the individual shots themselves. Remember how transported and hooked you were? How you finally realized that it was in the edit room that a film was really created. And as you walked to your dorm room as the dawn broke, the creative energy still pulsating throughout your body, you couldn’t contain the knowing smile that spread across your face –– you had found your calling.

Now let’s cut to almost 20 years later, to another late night of editing and the young you –– the budding, optimistic filmmaker –– had become the present day me, Pedro The Editor. But by now, that overwhelming sense of inspiration had transformed into a suffocating sense of desperation.

It was 2 a.m. on a Saturday night. Less than a week away loomed an extended Sundance submission deadline. And it’s not like I had arrived here by slacking. For 12 straight weeks, I had worked 12-16 hour days, without a single day off. I had barely spoken to my family. My friends had long given up on inviting me out. My last relationship had ended over my inability to escape the constant drumbeat of work on my brain.

But worst of all, in this very moment on that late Saturday night, the inspiration was gone. All that I was doing felt awful. Work that once felt special and driven, had become mechanical, rote, empty. I knew that the film I had was far from being a viewable, good cut. In fact, in our profession, we have a technical term for what I had –– it was “a piece of shit”.

I felt like vomiting at the very sight of my edit bay. I felt like I never wanted to cut another frame again. I felt that all the creativity and inspiration had been drained from me forever, and that Pedro the editor was no more. I was being consumed inside by a paralyzing black hole of anxiety. But somehow, I managed to get that “piece of shit” cut into Sundance by the deadline. I was so embarrassed, I felt like digging a grave and burying myself in it forever. To no surprise to me, that cut was rejected.

So how did Iyouwe get here?

For starters, it was not just that film. It was the long line of similar and compounding experiences that had preceded. Each had their own ups and downs, like every film does. And don’t get me wrong: I consider myself very fortunate. I have worked with incredible, generous and nurturing filmmakers, whom I love and adore and are like family to me to this day. They taught me (and continue to teach me) so much about the art and craft of filmmaking and what it really means to be real big-hearted collaborator. Their love and friendship mean the world to me.

And yet despite this remarkably good fortune, many of these projects could still not escape from the endemic issues that are spreading throughout the world of documentary editing. In the past few years we have witnessed an exponential increase in the hours of usable footage –– a decade ago a couple hundred hours of footage (like I had on Waste Land or The Island President) was considered a good amount, now we’re talking in the thousands of hours of material in many cases. And yet work schedules only seem to be getting tighter and tighter, and expectations seem to be rising –– for example, assemblies now feel like they should play like fine cuts in some instances. And to make it even more challenging, our budgets and the size of our edit crews have not kept pace with this exponential change. So with this diametrically opposed clash of demands and support, something had to give –– and that something was me.

Like every one of our peers, I felt a deep sense of commitment to each and every film I edited. I always wanted to give all of myself in service of our art. I know others have handled all these pressures better than I have. But I have been burning the candle at both ends for way too long… and Pedro the Editor has finally been consumed by the flame.

So, what the hell are you going to do about it, Mr. Director? Well, like any good editor, I’m going to offer you the solutions now, so that you can present them as your own later [ouch!]:

1. Create an environment that encourages open dialogue where we can discuss process and craft.

2. Make the cutting room a safe place to dream, experiment, take risks and fail, because, oftentimes it is from our own failures that breakthroughs are made, allowing us to reach new heights in our craft.

3. Don’t confuse us with the machines or the tools that we use. We are human beings just like you. We need to eat. We need to sleep. And sometimes we just need to take a break. In all honesty, after pulling a couple of all nighters, my work is not the best.

4. Please don’t expect us to view and log material and cut scenes in a flash, while simultaneously becoming immediate experts in all the latest technological updates. I promise you, we’re working just as hard as you are, but only so much can get done in a given day, and get done well.

5. Please keep in mind, we are not just technicians, we are storytellers. We are not just there to serve and troubleshoot system errors, but to collaborate. We also put something of ourselves and our lives into the work. So, if we keep dipping into the well of inspiration without replenishing, it will eventually run dry.

And so, Pedro, I leave you with this hope. I dream of a world where all editors can have a life outside the cutting room and live, laugh, and love. Because in order to tell human stories properly, you need to take part in the human experience fully and be first and foremost experts in the human condition. If you can do your part to help make that world a reality, then you will be the kind of director that editors can truly call a creative partner and collaborator. Especially an editor like yourself.

Good luck.


Pedro the Editor

Now don’t worry about Pedro, the Editor. He’s doing just fine. He took a long break from editing, which he needed to. We went into therapy, and he reconnected with the things that inspire him… his friends, long walks on the beach, his passion for watching films, and travel. And now he’s available for edit consultations. If you’re interested just let me know and I’ll give you his contact info.

So what am I, Pedro the Director, going to do about it. Well, I’m going to try his recommendations. Of course, some will be easier than others. From the new perspective I now have, I see other big challenges that face our community. We do live in a golden age of documentary filmmaking. But the problems that Pedro the Editor brought up are very real and growing.

My hope is that we can start a conversation about the way we approach filmmaking. The key to building a healthy and sustainable foundation to the editor/director relationship –– and, honestly, to the director/producer relationship; and the producer/editor relationship; and the relationships with our studios and financiers, and with all the other members of the filmmaking team –– is to start with a mutual basis of self-respect, a commitment to healthy and constant two-way communication, and the recognition of the basic humanity in our fellow collaborators.

And lastly I’d like to say…

To my fellow, more experienced and veteran editors: thank you. Thank you for all your love and support, and I count on your leadership in creating the change that we so want to see.

And to the younger editors starting out, I hope you feel the support and the strength to speak out, instead of burning out, like me. Because your talent, your vision, and your voice are too precious to be lost.

Thank you so much for listening.

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