Limitations exist in even the best projects. As an editor, here are some of the most common I encounter:
The interview is shot with only one camera.
There are no cutaways.
Archival material doesn't exist.
The director doesn't have a vision.
Photographers, no doubt, have their own recurring obstacles. And we’ve all struggled with production shortcomings that result from financial compromises.
In 2005, I was eager to direct a short film I wrote but lacked the requisite money to hire a cameraperson, rent lights or pay for pretty much any of the items necessary to actually produce a movie. So I improvised. My friend Pamela Chen made still pictures, and I recorded audio with a handheld Marantz deck. The result was an unusual fiction/multimedia hybrid. Ten years later, I was eager to film a half-dozen monologues I’d written but found myself once again short on cash. Instead of waiting to replenish my bank account, I rounded up some actor friends and used my limited funds to record the pieces as short radio plays.
Would these projects have been better had I waited for more optimal conditions so that I could produce them in the traditional fashion in which they were originally conceived? Maybe. But certainly, other unexpected constraints would have crept in along the way. There really are no perfect projects. Challenges never go away.
But here’s the good news: Limitations are an invitation to rethink what’s possible. They force us to reconsider what we’ve done before and help us to, in the words of writer Raymond Carver, find a new path to the waterfall.
Working through obstacles is the essence of what I do as a documentary editor. In fact, some of my best work has been the result of finding creative ways to circumvent missing material. Of course it's far easier to write that sentence than it is to endure the uncertainty and self-doubt that inevitably arrive when I don't know how to solve a problem. Those days, to be blunt, kind of suck. They’re stressful precisely because they push me to the edge of my ability. They force me to answer questions for which there are often no immediate answers.
More than once I’ve found myself wondering about my life choices. In those moments, I’m sure my wife, Ellen, has wondered about hers as well. As she’ll no doubt tell you, my go-to method for wrestling with uncertainty is usually worry. I ruminate. I walk around feeling confused and adrift. I suspect these feelings in some form are probably familiar to you, too.
But then, I let go of my own fear and remember the best advice she ever gave me:
What if it wasn’t a referendum on your skill? What if you took your ego out of it and just tried to figure it out as an act of intellectual curiosity?
Of course, she’s right. When we give ourselves room to play, to experiment, without regard for outcome, the answers inevitably show up. They surprise us like suddenly seeing a bird on a city windowsill. The poet W.H. Auden confirms, “The centre that I cannot find / Is known to my Unconscious Mind.”
Recently, my good friend and former MediaStorm colleague Tim McLaughlin found himself in a similar predicament.
His assignment: to create an accompanying video for Zadie Smith’s essay “Deana Lawson’s Kingdom of Restored Glory” to play at the International Center of Photography’s annual Infinity Awards, an event honoring the industry’s best photographers and critics.
But MediaStorm was allowed to use only six of Deana Lawson’s photographs for the film. Let that sink in a moment: half a dozen images for a film that needed to last five minutes. For reference, an image on screen for five seconds is, for the viewer, already a very long time. Even more challenging, neither Smith nor Lawson was available for interviews.
“Well, I was certainly nervous,” Tim, who recently joined GoodFight Media, told me. “When I first started my career in editing, I would have been terrified by the prospect of these limitations. But I’ve been through enough productions to know that severe restrictions like this can force you to think laterally about how a film should look and sound.”
In other words, limitations help us reconsider how things should be done. They open up the world to unexpected possibilities. But we need space and an uncritical mind to find the way.
“I allow myself a lot of creative leeways,” he explains, “and try not to talk myself out of ideas before I really try them. When I was an art student, I would constantly talk myself out of trying things for fear of what the other students would say or for fear that I was doing something that had already been done. I’ve learned over the years to quiet that voice.”
The resulting film is beautiful, insightful and, yes, much, much better because its initial limitations forced Tim into new territory.
So I leave you with two thoughts:
First, when you’re stuck, try trading stress for play.
And second, please watch the Zadie Smith film on MediaStorm.com.
Neither will disappoint you. ■
Eric Maierson is a freelance writer and two-time Emmy-winning video editor and producer. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Ellen, and their two dogs.
Illustration by Julie M. Elman, a professor at the School of Visual Communication at Ohio University, where she teaches design.