The editing on Nic Roeg’s Performance still seems staggeringly modern. Fast and sometimes showing two stories unfolding at once it’s easy to see how it laid the groundwork for modern cinematic storytelling with techniques that have found a natural home in promos and commercials.
I’m watching it as part of a friend’s showreel. Tony Palmer (left) had been brought on as a young assistant editor fresh out of a commercials cutting room in Chelsea and his input on Performance made him editor of choice for Nic Roeg in many of his later films as well.
Now an Emmy-award winning film editor with a vast body of work stretching from commercials to obs docs via Michael Mann features, Tony doesn’t exactly struggle to get work these days but, as a rule, broadcast television isn’t interested. He’s carved a niche mostly doing passes of indie feature films and promos to inject a bit of his trademark style into the editing. This is only possible because he has taught himself Final Cut Pro (yes, 7 and X) and set up an edit suite in his flat.
Since training as a video journalist at Channel One Television 15 years ago and then getting into documentaries, I have been part of the drive towards one-man documentary crews. It was never an ideological or stylistic choice on my part, just being in the right place at the right (or wrong) time. Many of the cameramen and directors I have worked with have lamented the seemingly inexorable move towards “multiskilling” but, finding myself part of the revolution, I have made it my speciality and have embraced the opportunities it’s has given me.
I have been quick to defend this way of working, when done well, for its benefits including greater intimacy with subjects, more dynamic footage, access to more tricky locations and it brings with it an holistic understanding of the film making process and the how each stage affects the others and the final outcome. It’s also, I always say, a great way to learn the skills you need to make films. But only up to a point.
Learning on the job is a fast way of picking up skills and learning efficient techniques. Being ultimately responsible for the edit has made me a better camera operator, for example. It’s a way to quickly reach a level of proficiency at which the job gets done reliably. But although there is a steep learning curve to begin with, it levels out as one becomes more adept . This plateau is the problem. Working at this end of the industry, you are likely to be greeted with relief for coming up with a functional film that gets it’s point across. Skilled executive producers with that magical ability to improve a film are in short supply.
It’s at this point that the absence of mentors in and industry where everyone is freelance and multi-skilled industry becomes evident. The move from competent to genuinely great is something that few people can make without the guidance of those who have gone before.
Where are they? Many of them aren’t working because they are considered too expensive, often because they can only do the one thing and that makes them too expensive. Perhaps they are just considered dinosaurs by the people who do the hiring. Whichever it is, their absence from the workplace leaves a huge gap for those of us eager to keep improving our skills beyond the technical. Tony’s LinkedIn profile lists his education “Film School of Life” and I’m lucky to know Tony and to have the chance to learn from him in the same establishment.