Joe Bini Talks the Art of Editing and Offers a Cautionary Tale for Editors Everywhere

Film Editor Joe Bini. ©Sundance Institute | Ryan Kobane

Sundance Institute

Earlier this week, editor Joe Bini presented a Keynote highlighting the role of an editor in the filmmaking process at Sundance Institute’s first-ever Art of Editing Brunch, where we announced a new partnership between the Documentary Film Program partnership and the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship, highlighted this year’s Sally Menke Editing Fellow and celebrated the achievements of all editors premiering work at Sundance. Below is Bini’s speech, followed by a cautionary fable titled “The Serf.”

We are privileged to honor these two legendary editors, Karen and Sally, who left such an incredible legacy of great films and approaches to films. Editors of the caliber of these two have an innate understanding of filmmaking due to the very job they have dedicated their lives to. Because they spend their time working with the actual medium of film, images and sounds, as opposed to words on a paper, editors are often the most fluent speakers of the language of film.

Making a film is an extremely difficult endeavor. When you shoot a film, some shit works and some shit doesn’t work: that is always the simple fact. The single most important guiding principle that I have learned is that you can only be successful making films by being truthful—truthful about the process, about what you do and do not know, about what is and is not functioning, and to not delude yourself with fabulous montages, crafting the great acting performance or cultivating rock star dreams.

Our job is to speak the truth, whether people want to hear it or not, and the truth is none of us know anything. We have to reinvent the wheel with each new film.

Congratulations to everyone in this audience who has ever had a film in this festival. It is a massive achievement, I don’t have to tell you that. But don’t let it be the end-all achievement. Continue to strive towards making better films. The best way to do that is to continually educate yourselves about filmmaking. That’s one thing I’ve learned from Werner Herzog: he is about always making another film and always learning from the experience of doing that. I’m continually blown away to see how a person who has made over 50 films can continue to develop himself as a filmmaker. We must all do this, it seems to me.

“Art of Film Editing Brunch.” ©Sundance Institute | Ryan Kobane

One of the best ways to keep developing is to continue educating ourselves through community, through talking to each other about the process of making films in an open and honest manner, with the only agenda being to share our passion for filmmaking and by so doing, teach others what we know about the craft. This is one reason among many why there continues to be a strong need for community in every facet of filmmaking. That is why we are here today. That is the legacy that Karen and Sally leave behind for us.

It is also, from my perspective, what Sundance Institute stands for: community, dialogue, passion for filmmaking. Striving to make better films and better filmmakers. Never being afraid to say what you feel or to vehemently disagree. Being privileged to find yourself among the only people in the world who understand you. And loving every minute of it.

I have been given the task of describing what, fundamentally, is the job of a film editor. “Well, to make a long story short…” (rim shot/laugh track). Rather than get involved with a dull explanation, I have composed a cautionary allegorical fable, called:

The Serf

In a multi-conglomerate kingdom not far away nor long ago, there was once a Serf, albeit a very talented and “creative” Serf, who fancied that he had what it took to be a freelance castle builder; that being someone who builds castles out of stones provided by other people. A strange job, to be sure, but one for which the Serf had been trained, at great personal expense, through a five day course at the New York Film and Castle Making Academy.

One day, the Serf got a call from his agent. “Listen,” said he, “there is a King and a Queen and a Prince, who are looking to hire a serf, one who can spin straw into gold.”

Straw into gold, eh? ” said the Serf, “Thanks for thinking of me, but I’m not sure I’m right for the job. Did you try reaching out to Rumplestiltskin?”

“Rumple’s not available,” said the agent, “He’s on the new Steve McQueen castle just now. Look, this is your big shot, it’s everything we’ve ever talked about. Just take a fucking call with them, that’s all I ask.”

And so the serf took a conference call with the King and the Queen and the Prince, and they basically talked him into joining their “creative” team in order to help them build their very special castle; one which they promised would not only be beautiful, sexy, and entertaining, but also strive to educate people about health care issues to do with underrepresented serfdom.

“An honorable goal,” thought the Serf, “though I’m not so sure they’re the ones to pull it off.” He understood that there are two varieties of royalty in this town, the genuine and the not so genuine, and that this group fell somewhere closer to the latter. You might even say they were royalty adjacent. And yet somehow the serf ended up taking the job, signing his name on the dotted line in corn syrup mixed with red food coloring.

“At least, I’ll be able to educate my fellow underrepresented serfs with regards to health care issues,” he thought, “Whatever that means.” He was not a politically engaged serf.

The next morning, a golden carriage arrived at the Serf’s mud hut, driven by a Maori woman called Chico. She offered the Serf a bottle of sparkling water and drove him to a hillside, high above the city where the King, Queen and the Prince were waiting. After greeting him warmly and inquiring about his wife (he didn’t have one), the Queen handed the Serf a set of blueprints. “Paid a fucking king’s ransom for these,” she said. “The sonofabitch who scripted the Hobbit Desolation of Smaug Castle. Sixteen drafts, you’d think I could get a decent walk-in closet.”

The Serf tried to look sympathetic, as they led him to a pile of cinder blocks where sat a young person named Chris, the person they said was to be the Assistant-Serf. “You shall have everything you need to build this castle,” declared the King, “We will spare no expense. Just make sure that no detail is left unaccounted for. We do so hate to be disappointed.” And with that, they drove off into the desolate smog, leaving the Serf alone there, with only Chris to keep him company.

“Just so you know, my real name is Mike,” Said Chris. “The Prince has, like, gone through a series of assistant-serfs and it’s easier for him to just call them all Chris.” This fact did not seem to bother Chris/Mike at all. Now, the thing about building castles out of stones provided by other people is that you often don’t know what you are in for until it is too late. And such was the unfortunate case here.

The Serf soon realized that the blueprints didn’t make any sense, no matter how much his producers had paid for them, and the stones were all cut too sharply and didn’t hold on the long shots. The schedule was impossibly short also, and the Prince, who was supposed to be directing this endeavor, had actually only ever overseen the making of a couple of pet houses. He had never really directed a full-on castle before. He was, in fact, a “first-time castle maker.”

Worst of all, and I hate to whine, but the King, Queen and Prince did not seem to have much time to devote to the castle. This seemed odd to the Serf, since it was, after all, their castle. They seemed more concerned with maintaining their public image, the successful maneuvering of which they believed to be the essential difference between royalty and royalty adjacent. That and collecting all kinds of golden trophies to put upon your castle walls. Who knew that this was actually castle-making?

But be all that as it might have been, the Serf and faithful Chris, whose real name was Mike, slaved away, day after day, week after week, month after solitary month, trying to build a castle out of cinder blocks provided by other people. When the appropriate moments came, they got other fine craftsmen involved; a mason, an interior decorator, a sound effects editor. And on it went.

Cut to the Prince, sitting poolside, texting with his psychopharmacologist. The doorbell rings, he answers it and Chico, the driver of the golden carriage, is standing there . “The castle is finished, Cuzzy Bro. I shall drive you up there this very evening, whereupon you maybe witness and admire the results of all of your tireless efforts.”

And so, that night, the King and the Queen and the Prince drove up the winding road to the site, high above the city, where the pile of cinder blocks had once been. But now, a great castle stood there:; gothic, sexy, entertaining, but also somehow striving to educate people about health care issues to do with underrepresented serfdom.

The Serf stood by the door and, as they approached, he handed them a gigantic brass key, the key to their castle, and he bid them to go inside and have a look around. They thanked him, inquired about his daughter (he didn’t have one) and then went inside to take it all in. Up the stairs and down the hallways they went, in and out of every one of the 45 rooms the serf had built.

“It’s an excellent castle in every way,” thought the Serf, “Solidly structured, confidently executed. I dare say I have hit one out of the park.”

On the floors above him, the serf could hear their boots and high heels clattering on the stone floor that the mason had so perfectly crafted–or was that just particularly realistic foley work? “I mean they have to love it, right? They can’t possibly be complete philistines, can they?”

And then, at last, the King, Queen and Prince came back down the stairs and approached the serf, tsking and tutting and looking generally unpleased, though not really verbalizing anything useful.

“Well,” said the Serf, after a particularly long pause, “what’s the consensus?”

“There is a problem,” said the king solemnly. “YES, a problem!” repeated the queen. “Such a PROBLEM!” added the prince. He wore an expression that suggested he could barely stand to look the serf in the eye.

“What is the problem?” Asked the serf, meekly. He could feel his artistic confidence draining out of the hole in the bottom of his shoe.

“The problem?” Said the King. “Good gracious, lad, there’s no soap in the guest bathroom.”

And that, my friends, as you might have by now guessed, is one approximation of what it is to be a film editor.

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