Tuesday, December 16, 2008

An interview with Michael Rubin, pt.1

by Matteo Milani, October 2008

Michael Rubin is an educator, author, filmmaker and entrepreneur. After graduating from Brown University with a degree in neuroscience, he began his career at Lucasfilm's Droid Works, where he was instrumental in the development of training for the EditDroid and in introducing the Hollywood market to nonlinear editing for film. From 1985-1994 he designed editing equipment and edited feature films and television shows in Hollywood. In 1991, he was also editor of one of the first television programs to be edited on the Avid Media Composer. Since then, Rubin has lectured internationally, from Montreux to Beijing, and has published a number of texts on editing for professionals as well as consumers. His pioneering book for professionals, Nonlinear: a field guide to digital film and video editing (1990) is now in its fourth edition and is widely used in film schools. Rubin has been a teacher to hundreds of professional film editors. Today he continues to teach, write, shoot video, and consult. I reached Mr. Rubin during his stay in Italy for VIEW Conference 2008. We talked about his successful book Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution (2006) and its expanded universe.

MM: Would you like to describe how the project about "Droidmaker" started?
MR: The first thing that got me to write the book was that I was just so surprised no one else had already done it. The descendents of Lucasfilm’s efforts were everywhere I looked. Secondly, I saw Episode II and realized that I only had a few more years before the entire saga was complete; the time to produce a book was upon me. And thirdly was that all those guys were alive, everyone in the book is still alive, and young enough to remember. You know, you wait too long and suddenly someone dies, losing the chance to talk to him/her. The stories from everybody change in a certain way as you get older.
I didn't just interview them. I debated with them about this. Sometimes I would get them together to discuss what happened, because if you just ask someone: "What happened here, why did you do that?" and so forth, he tells you what he remembers, which may or may not be factual. So I talk to someone else asking for the same story and he tells me a different story and then I ask a third person to tell me the story and he tells me a third story. Then I go back to the first person saying: "These guys said this. Is it possible? Because I think from my research that the other guy has actually got closer, because you were out of town..." We worked through these stories which was very unjournalistic. I wasn't just taking their reportages, I was trying to figure out where to put the puzzle together.
In many cases - not so much with the SoundDroid (also known as the ASP -Audio Signal Processor) - but very much so with Pixar, there's lot of people involved in the story. I would come up with an answer to a scenario of what happened in the seventies and eighties and eventually all these people would agree, but it's not always the way any one person remembered it. George Lucas asked me not to trust written reports of what happened from newspaper articles, but only direct interviews from primary sources. If you have an article, you have to go and figure out if it really happened or not. The journalist is different from an historian. For a while I felt like a journalist, but by the end of the book I felt like an historian. That was an interesting process for me.

MM: Did you join "The Droid Works" to introduce the EditDroid and SoundDroid post production tools to Hollywood?
MR: I worked between the engineers and the editors. The salesmen were helped to convince people to use a “droid” if someone else was using them. The engineers knew about editing, but they didn't always know what was going on in Hollywood. I sat in the middle of that. On the SoundDroid I sat with Stevie Wonder, The Grateful Dead, Barbara Streisand. These people came to see it and I demonstrated to them. I had that kind of role. I was a teacher of the editors, a support for them. I learned a lot about what a computer could do. I was constantly reporting back to engineering about the user interface and what it needed to do, what was lacking and I helped prioritize what we would fix, what was most important. Sales need to do this to sell to a client, editor need to do that or they wouldn’t be able finish the project. If you don't finish the project you'll never sell any more systems, but e.g. we're still in the middle of the project, they try to make a sell sale today and we need the money from the sale to help pay for the engineering. So how do you prioritize? It's tricky. I wasn't the final decider, but I would help in those debates. I continued in that role for many years, alternating between training, demonstrating, product definition, and editing myself. Sometimes people would have a smaller project, and they needed someone who could cut their commercial, low-budget feature film, or music video. Sometimes they brought an editor and I trained him. They were usually happy when I cut it, but at that time, at 24 years old, I was new and young, with little experience. I was an apprentice to Gabriella Cristiani and other fine editors, I learned about editing very quickly from watching them. I also learned a lot about user interface design, which helped me later in other types of work. It was a great job and a magical time, the 80's in this all-new field.

MM: How did movie people perceive the experience of navigating in a nonlinear medium rather than an analog linear one in the early days of digital revolution? Were they scared about those new technologies?
MR: They were unhappy. There was usually a silence for a while. On the EditDroid I was usually editing the scene and they were seated watching me edit. Finding a shot for me was to press a button and it was on the screen. It was easy to pick up shots and move them around. They couldn't believe it. The SoundDroid was more far out. Never before could they see the sound! To see a waveform of sound had never been done before. We could zoom into a waveform, go down to the sample, look at it, zoom out. You literally looked and just said: "That's where the amplitude kicks up and where you cut it". In both cases people can't hide their excitement and their fear. It was a combination of feelings. In a demonstration the products looked good; the problems were often more in the production flow. I was not really showing the drawbacks of those expensive computers, they couldn't be aware of what it was not good at, what was hard to do. There's a process to get the images or sound into the computer, with practical limitations. But just in its functioning there were amazing wonderful things to show them. I was really so excited that they got excited, just all the fun things we could do. I truly challenged them, they hadn't seen anything work as fast. That's how people felt about it. I felt good with people who really cared about great tools.
Most people don't like changing the way they work. They've been doing something one way for their entire career. The cost is really high to suddenly work a different way. This makes them nervous. It would take almost ten more years before this type of equipment took over Hollywood. Some of them used that time to experiment with it, some of them decided to not try at that stage of their careers. I was waiting for the senior people to retire and junior people to come up.
It's hard to remember how scary the new technologies can feel for someone. We are good at computers now, but at that time no one had computers, no one had experience on computers. They routinely crashed, they were complicated, there wasn't the help menu, no manual, no internet. People called me at night all the time, because a workstation cutting motion pictures had to work all the time. I can't tell you how often it crashed halfway through a project. Twenty years ago there was often no backup, you lost everything.
[...] more frequently than anyone would have liked, the machines would crash. Not just a system crash, which required rebooting, but a corrupted hard disk. No matter how often you saved your work, there was nothing that could save you from the death of the disk. - excerpt from Droidmaker
Sometimes this computer was very sensitive. If you did something in the wrong order, it crashed. There's no logic for that. I was very good at using the system, I could keep it from crashing, I worked all the time. I knew how it was built and how to do things the right way.
When you teach someone, sometimes they will do the other way. When I worked with Gabriella Cristiani in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky, I sat next to her many days of work, watching her hands. You're watching her cut, she's not asking, but you're going to see what she's doing. Somedays I sat watching her fingers and if she was about to press the wrong button, I stopped her gently. I didn't want to bother her, but at the same time I didn't want to crash the system. In these early days you had just to be like sidekick, trying to keep them from making the computer screw up. I was good at that (laugh).

MM: Did you coin the terms "non-linear editing", "random-access editing", "virtual" editing (
MR: I didn't invent the terms. A lot of companies were making this kind of equipment at that time and the sales people would use eventually these words. Sometimes they used all the words: "This is random-access virtual non linear editing system, with film style." I tried to figure out what each expression meant. Random access is really about finding stuff, it means that you access stuff in a non linear way. I want that shot and I don't have to go looking through a bunch of stuff. So I looked at the terms I'd been hearing from people and reading through magazines and I decided that the right term for what this kind of editing was non-linear. Everything else was useful in a certain way, but I decided to pick one term and I would use it and try to educate everybody.
By 1990 I wrote my first book for filmmakers called "Nonlinear", it was the right moment in time. It was still five years before nonlinear editing was widely adopted, but the book helped bring together video tape editors, who knew a lot about technology and nothing about cutting movies, film editors, who knew everything about cutting movies but nothing about video or computers and computer users, who are great with the equipment but they didn't know much about editing. It created the language for everybody to use and to help each other going into and through the nineties. So I didn’t invent the term, but I probably popularized it as defining these editing tools.

MM: What's your thought about physical and chemical-mechanical approach on video/sound editing (film, tape), compared to numbers as symbolic representation of images and sound?
MR: Film editors are like tailors, they make beautiful clothes and have a feeling for the material. They can feel the scene and they know that it's good. I did a lot of dark room (photography) and I loved the smell and feel of film. Something is lost when you lose the tactile nature of film and sound. You can do more with the computer and that's not a question. If you're a craftsman, an artist like a sculptor, and you like working clay, you can make beautiful things out of that. No one can tell you that doing a 3D model on a computer, which is way more flexible, is better than clay. You are good at clay. Something is lost, there's no doubt about it, when you leave clay behind. But computers are great and have other attributes. I was sad to facilitate the loss of the art form of cutting film. At the same time, you can't stop the advance of technology, pretend it wasn't going to happen. I thought the best we could do when we're promoting this new technology was to embrace what was going to be lost and the work on transferring the knowledge of the people on how to use it, teaching young people how to do it. I believe in apprenticeship, that's important.
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