When a dire situation is at hand, an cuddly little animal called the hairy frog (or even more affectionately, the horror frog) intentionally breaks its bones to form claws. Another creature called a horned lizard creates pressure in its nasal cavity so great, the blood vessels in its eyes burst, spraying attackers with blood. A possum will, uh, play possum, which includes foaming at the mouth and emitting a green anal fluid. Potato beetle larvae cover themselves in their own poop. And the poop is poisonous. An malaysian ants? They just self-destruct.
As editors, we become very intimate with footage and invested in a story from the very beginning. It’s as if you build a personal relationship with the subject-matter, or even the subjects on the screen. There’s a fine level of attachment and privacy to a film or video that’s built up as you’ve worked on it. You’ve carefully crafted it. You’ve raised it from birth. You’ve slowly carved it out of stone. It’s been molded in your very hands for the last week, month, or year. It’s your little duckling that you’ve sheltered from the harsh reality of the world.
And now you’re screening the final product for the first time, and people are going to look at it and tell you what they think about it and everything.
You know that feeling where you want to melt into the floor to escape a situation? You should have been born a sea cucumber. They can turn from solid to liquid, and back again. Handy.
For me, the first screening of a finished (or semi-finished) product is fairly traumatic. And I think this is true for a lot of editors. But why? Shouldn’t we be excited to show the world what we’ve done? Shouldn’t we be eager to get it up on the big screen so we can start hearing feedback? Isn’t the point of all this to tell a story that makes someone feel something? How they gonna feel anything if you hoard your work in your edit room on your little screen?
I am excited, and I want the feedback. I want people to experience what I’ve experienced. But the idea of blowing up the blood vessels in my eyes also becomes inexplicably appealing.
I have been wondering why this natural aversion to my work being shown happens. I’ve heard that some actors can’t watch themselves on TV shows or in movies. Or artists can’t view their own public exhibitions. Why is the transition from the creative environment into the cold, mean world so harsh? I mean, most of us as editors have developed a thick skin. We can defend our cuts. We’re comfortable with our skills. It has nothing to do with confidence.
What makes watching your work on the screen without the ability to hit the spacebar and flee the area feel so different, psychologically?
I don’t think I have to argue that a majority of editors are introverts. Sure, it’s not always true, but generally if you enjoy the quiet solitude and reflection of 18 hours in a dark room on a sunny Spring day, you’re probably seeing those same patterns throughout your lifestyle. Obviously being an introvert doesn’t mean you’re socially crippled or unable to be in public. In fact, most people aren’t even entirely in one camp or another. Introverts aren’t just shy. Shy people are freaked out in social settings, and introverts are not always as such. But what is true is that “introverts are people who find other people tiring.” Could this be an explanation for my natural aversion to public screenings? A defense mechanism resulting in an involuntary reaction leaning toward solitude?
I find that public screenings are a lot like public speaking classes in high school. In these courses, you’re often speaking about something that’s supposed to be important to you (no doubt a strategy from teachers to make you care about the project.) You have a certain level of attachment to your subject, you’ve got a carefully crafted argument, and now you’re facing 30 or 300 bored faces that are mostly just waiting for you to finish or fail, whichever comes first. Your palms get sweaty. Your blood pressure goes up. You’re painfully aware of every tiny error you make in your speech. Minutes seem to turn into hours. But the truth is that hardly anyone ever notices this anxiety or stumbling. The audience doesn’t know the intentions you held internally for the speech. Huge mistakes to you are tiny blips to them.
Back to the theater, and you’re feeling the same way. You’ve got a carefully crafted argument in the form of a film, and you desire to change or affect a person with your argument. But just like in high school, the audience doesn’t know your original intentions. They don’t pick up on the things you wish you could fix.
But somehow, it doesn’t make it any easier to realize that. So the big screen is somehow a threat to everything you hold dear in your edit, and you’re trying to decide if you should hide in a closet or storm the stage “come at me bro” style. Maybe this feeling comes from a fight-or-flight response? Fight or flight, of course, is the surge of an animal’s sympathetic nervous system that primes the animal for fighting or running. Basically, it’s a response to stress that puts you on the offensive (running the hell away) or defensive (come at me!) In a very first world fashion, I seem to experience this feeling most when I go to see my work screened before an audience.
So, my frontal lobe knows what I’m going to put it through. Then my body reacts to these thoughts by turning all my systems up to 11. And the primal systems left over from millions of years of evolution release the same response as if I were being chased by a brontosaurus. (Yes, I know homo sapiens didn’t exist when brontosauruses did, just let me have that fantasy, ok?)
It seems silly to be so bothered by 24 frames per second flashing by on a screen, but maybe I shouldn’t feel that way. In a recent study about how films effect the human mind, researchers discovered that “movies activate every one of the seven intelligences: the logical (plot), the linguistic (dialogue), the visual-spatial (images), the musical (soundtrack), the interpersonal (storytelling), the intra-psychic (inner guidance), and even sometimes the kinesthetic (moving) as we tense up or move to the music.” So the films themselves are turning all of my sectors up to max power as aregular viewer. As someone deeply involved in all of these areas? Well, it’s more like critical mass. I’m experiencing all of these, plus the additional things beyond the frame that the audience can never know.
Speaking of experiences beyond the frame, in the book “In the Blink of an Eye”, editor Walter Murch says “Emotionally, it seems like some big hand has come and grabbed you up by the hair, picked you up, and put you down ninety degrees to one side. And you think, ‘Oh god, look at that.’ It’s as if up to this moment you have been constructing a building but always standing in front of it to evaluate it. Now all of a sudden you are looking at the side of the building and seeing things you seem to have never seen before.”
“Oh god, look at that.” Sums up a public screening pretty well, I’d say.
Murch goes on to give some advice for dealing with screenings, stating that “Even with technically finished films, public previews are tricky things. You can learn a tremendous amount from them, but you have to be cautious about direction interpretations of what people have to say to you, particularly on those cards they fill out after the screening.”
Of course, we all know that the interpretation of a film will vary wildly from one person to another. But it’s hard not to get caught up in why one person may have a strongly negative reaction, while another will sing praises to you all night. As it turns out, it’s all in their head.
In a research project a few years ago, some researchers tracked the brain activity of subjects while they watched several segments of films. As you’d expect, there was a certain level of similar behaviors. In fact, all the activity in the logical, sensory, or basic comprehension processing was pretty much the same. The really interesting part is that the interpretive parts of the brain always showed different patterns. There was never a match between subjects when it came to the emotional, intellectual, or perceiving parts. Logically, each person saw the film the same. Emotionally, entirely different.
This goes to show us that the basic form of a film may exist in the same way for each person, but the experience of it? Wildly unpredictable. I guess that’s not really that surprising, but to see it exist as tangible data is pretty impressive.
So we’re back around to our original premise: why do things change for us as editors when we have to show our work on a big screen to a bunch of people? An evolutionary defense mechanism? A psychological reaction? A biological response?
Like anything else in life, it’s a big, complicated pot of a little of everything, I think. Natural caveman instincts. Emotional investment. Past experiences. As the great Ron Burgundy once said, we’re in “a glass case of emotion.” Everybody wants to be validated. Am I right? Am I?
But next time you’re in the screening room, wishing you could burst forth some claws from your own hands or cover yourself in poisonous poop, remember: there are some people out there that are biologically programmed to hate your work! Great! May as well relax, grab a drink, sit down, and enjoy the fruits of your labor. The screening room, while traumatic, is also an educational experience. Nobody can put it better than Murch: “The most helpful thing of all is simply learning how you feel when the film is being shown to 600 people who have never seen it before.”
And be really glad that your human brain can understand and prevent these natural reactions from taking over, because nobody wants green anal ooze in a crowded theater.
I’m interested to hear what others have to say on this topic. How does the first public screening (or in progress screening) feel for you?
Half-assed bibliography (psh, I’m done with school, man):
“In the Blink of an Eye” – Walter Murch