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Fall 1998

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Summer 97 > Article

  A Seamless Edit
by Muriel Pritchett

James Herbert's latest film has no plot, no script - and no clothes. But it does have one thing most art films don't yet have: a new editing system that revolutionizes the method that has been used for the past 80 years.

The film, Scars, explores love, innocence, trauma, loss, vulnerability and mortality through the routine, daily activities of a 20-something couple - who are nude most of the time. The film "has many levels of understanding," Herbert said. "It's a painting come to life."

The new editing technique, though, may be taking on a life of its own. Rather than cutting and splicing the film the way editors have for decades, Herbert employed new digital technology available from the University of Georgia's UCNS (shorthand for University Computing and Network Services). Although digital technology has quickly become the standard for most commercial ventures, it is still relatively new to non-commercial film makers, and Herbert said he believes the process has many benefits for other art films.

"Using the traditional flatbed, analog technology of physically cutting and taping together strips of film and audio would have taken months," said Herbert, a UGA Research Professor of Art who has made 48 films in his three decades at the university. "The UCNS non-linear process allows for much faster decision making."

Editing by computer saved not only time, but money - another item most film makers find in short supply. Rather than leasing space in an expensive regional facility, Herbert was able to edit the film on campus with the help of UCNS digital media manager Mark Jordan, a sculptor who provided the computer know-how.

Starting with a relatively inexpensive computer and standard, off-the-shelf software, Jordan said they "pushed the technology to its absolute limits, building an editing system that went far beyond what we started with."

Herbert, one of the very few artists ever to receive Guggenheim fellowships in two fields (painting and film), worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Jordan, a longtime friend and colleague. Together, they edited a variety of film images to create the black-and-white film, which was shot on location last summer in Italy.

Without a script to guide them, "the venture was a lot riskier and came with a greater chance of failure," Herbert said. The actors worked from concepts and suggested notions; all dialogue was improvised. Scripting actually grew from the process of editing Herbert's film tableaux.

"Fortunately, we came up with a way of discovering stories in the imagery that was shot spontaneously. Through editing and sound-shaping, we found a nucleus to carry forward a story," Herbert said. "I know that this is unconventional, but making singular order from chaos is added excitement for me."

Although Scars has no conventional plot, it contains all the elements found in a regular film. "It just doesn't have a plot in the normal way you'd think of a plot, but it does have a beginning, a middle and an end," Herbert said. "It's just more elliptical than a Hollywood film."

Like other artists, Herbert works with nude figures but that's where the similarity stops.

The catalogue that accompanied a retrospective exhibition of Herbert's films at New York's Museum of Modern Art contained the following praise for Herbert's work: "Nudes photographed with such a disquieting ambivalence - a kind of transcendental nostalgia - are otherwise unknown in American cinema," said Laurence Kardish, the museum's curator of film.

"The nude is a metaphor for art itself in that something is revealed and yet remains mysterious," Herbert said. "People move differently when nude. They sit, walk and stand with a special grace. There's a purity both in their physical and spiritual presence."

The film's momentum is driven by a psychological undercurrent reflected in its title, Jordan said. "Throughout the film there are physical scars, as well as emotional and abstract scars," Jordan said. "The scars are sometimes demonstrated or metaphorically or allegorically suggested. Sometimes the scars are created in the actual physical look of the film itself."

James Herbert's SCARS

Much of that look was created in the process of editing. With Jordan's help, Herbert soon discovered that the computer not only could edit film quickly, but also could add cuts that - unlike the old "cut-and-paste" method -were almost seamless. The computer enabled the editor and film maker to go from A to D or Z to L and from here to there with great ease and facility, and we can make edits that we might never have thought of using," Herbert said.

The many editing possibilities available with the new computer technology also enabled the editor and film maker to take more chances. "Sometimes the computer even suggested a cut," Herbert said.

What's more, the old analog method of cut and paste "builds up a patina that influences editing decisions," Jordan said. "The digital method is clean. It recedes into the background and allows the art to come to the fore."

In addition to employing new digital editing technology, Scars, Herbert's first 35 mm film, required something else the film maker didn't have - a 35 mm film camera. Herbert bought a 45-year-old motion picture camera for the film, but later found it incorporated noises of its own into the audio. Here again, digital editing came in handy. Herbert and Jordan re-recorded and added in new audio; some camera sounds remain, giving the film "a somewhat documentary edge," Herbert said.

Herbert usually considers sound secondary in his films, focusing instead on image quality and lighting. But after Jordan worked out the sound problems, the impact of the sound seemed bigger than the picture, Herbert said. "Mark has really been intent on creating sound imagery," he said.

The 75-minute film, which is now receiving some final "tweaking" at a professional audio studio, will only be shown at film festivals and maybe in art museums, Herbert said. That's in line with his many other credits, which include the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Gallery of Toronto, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and film festivals from Europe to Australia. Aside from music videos for groups like R.E.M and the B-52s, Herbert's work is largely supported by grants from foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts. However, the bulk of financing for Scars came from Herbert himself.

Herbert said he is especially interested in how research in new digital editing technology enhances the artistic process. "The old analog systems are aggravating because you have to look through countless rolls of actual film to get where you want to be. It's distracting and you can often lose your way," he said. "The applied nature of this research fits my needs as an artist and film maker."

Herbert and Jordan see the digital editing technique as important to other film makers and researchers. "We have greatly upped the ante on complexity and pushed the limits so that more modest productions can be done more easily," Herbert said.

Overall, Herbert finds the new technology "fresh and exciting." As a painter, Herbert often paints the canvas with his hands instead of with brushes. "That is just a different process for painting; this is just a different and new process for film making," he said.

For more information, access http://www.eits.uga.edu/imas/.

Muriel Pritchett is an award-winning writer in the UGA drama department. She earned master's degrees in journalism and in theater from the University of Georgia.

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