The Christmas Carol Chronicles
On Becoming Captain Ahab
The editing of Two-Man Performance of A Christmas Carol was a long journey. . . . and a lonely one.
My earlier plan to send off the hours of video tapes to a production company fell apart when I received the cost estimates. It was nearly equal to a year and a half of rent.
What was I going to do with all the video tapes stored in plastic box containers? For a while I stored them in a closet out of sight. Perhaps in my unconscious mind, I hoped they’d become repressed memories. I realized, however, I could not escape the responsibility.
Working with the computer was not a task I relished. Formerly, I used the computer as a high tech typewriter banging out copy for company brochures, writing lesson plans, or pecking out shopping lists. But the thought of undertaking post production non-lineal video editing weighed heavily on my shoulders.
Fortunately, I had experienced editing videos when I worked on my first music video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gh4kv5BBsnU I had the rudiments. But when I reviewed the hours of tapes I realized I would need to delve deeper into techniques if I hoped to capture the complexity of Dickens’ tale.
The learning curves for each of the software I employed were steep and time-consuming. My life in front of the computer became a series of trials and errors during which failures seemed to follow one another like logs cascading down a river. But I refused to leave an editing session until I got at least one small segment completed. I became a man possessed — a Captain Ahab in pursuit of the white whale. Worse, I was turning into a recluse. Turning down invitations to dinner or declining to go out for drinks. Friends who showed up unexpectedly at my front door I treated with the ill-concealed surliness I reserved for door-to-door sales staff. Even my children sent me emails with messages replete with concern. “Haven’t heard from you recently, Dad. You OK?”
No, I was not OK. I kept pounding my head against the brick wall inside my brain in the form of doubts, repressed anger and a stubbornness to find solutions. Why couldn’t I get a particular edit to work? Why should I have to do the editing? Wasn’t there anyone who could help me? Did any of the actors or crew member give a damn whether I succeeded in completing the edit? Why did we refuse to put up more money for the budget?
In life, we pay for our debts in time or in money. In this case, I was paying the price with the only precious commodity in my possession. Time.
There were nights I sat in front of the computer and stared at an incomplete edit. Wondering how to approach it. And if I failed, I refilled my wine glass to the brim. More than once I drank myself to oblivion and passed out in my desk chair in front of the computer. When I returned to consciousness, I stumbled to my bed and collapsed on the bedcovers.
Overcoming Two Major Obstacles
Attitude: Young people today are more adept at manipulating computers and wireless devices. But me? I remember when computers first made their appearance in the market. I pronounced to my prepubescent children that the computer would soon go the way of the hula hoop. Well, time proved me wrong. I had to coexist with the computer in my work and in my daily life. An uneasy coexistence. My uneasiness intensified whenever I listened to the ranting of my oldest brother. He viewed the computer in the same way a customer at a restaurant views a cockroach in his mashed potatoes.
With each new software I bought, I had to remind myself that it would take me one step closer to completion. Each software meant I had to take baby steps before I could grow into the techniques I needed. I practiced with methodical step-by-step procedures to edit the easier scenes. I managed simple transitions using keyframes and the opacity function. In time and with painstaking effort I soon succeeded in making use of mattes, in correcting colors, and in ‘sweetening’ the audio.
Each editing session became a problem solving episode. On the days I easily solved a problem, I threw my hands up and shouted “Hallelujah!” On the other days, I shouted at the computer monitor and fired off a volley of inflammable language. But inevitably I calmed down and started again.
My attitude was: Can’t go back. Can only move forward.
Techniques: Learning to edit is similar to learning to cook. Both require a set of recipes to create a particular result. I bought how to books to help me decipher what at first appeared to me as the arcane language of editing. With practice I was able to follow the recipes for J and L cuts and three point edits. Soon I moved on to more complicated editing tasks: masking, secondary color correction, key framing, and ultimately getting a handle on rotoscoping a scene to eliminate the background.
None of these tasks came easily to me. But like the fledgling chef who mixes the ingredients for a soufflé that falls flat, I kept working on a particular edit skill. After nearly a year, I could create special effects that movie pioneers at the turn of the 20th century would have been proud of. Primitive and sketchy, the resultant effects helped me create the spectral atmosphere Dickens described in the novella. (I admit I cannot boast of possessing the special effects skills of 21st century editors working for major production companies. But give me another four years.)
The thorniest problem I faced was the scene from Stave Five in which Scrooge leans out the window to talk to the boy on the
street below. To give you an idea of the problem I faced take a look at the video on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/87851890
Examine the background behind James House who is getting comfortable sitting on the veranda. Notice the postwar Japanese architecture? All of that had to be eliminated. I spent weeks on using the rotor brush function in After Effects to erase the window and eaves. Talk about inflammable language. I resorted to those words more frequently than in any of time of my life. But finally I got the result I struggled for.
I completed the final editing three months before the scheduled premiere of a Two-Man Performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The next problem I faced was to add Japanese subtitles to the video. I found a company who could produce the subtitles within the tight time frame. The chore of adding the subtitles fell on my shoulders. Another series of inflammable language ensued. But I got the job done.
The premiere went off with a minimum of difficulty. But the criticism the following day was blistering. Most of it was aimed at the subtitles. “Inept. Amateurish. Unprofessional.”
The criticism hurt. For a long while I felt as if no one appreciated the effort I had taken to get the video ready for public viewing. All that work for what? To face a torrent of critical comments? No one mentioned the acting, the flow of the story, the ghostly atmosphere, the seamless editing points.
For nearly a year, I walked around in the doldrums. I stored the completed video and the assets on hard disk drives and stored them in a trunk. Once again with the attitude: out of sight, out of mind.
Shortly before I reached my 70th birthday, a woman friend of mine over drinks in a pizza restaurant asked me about the video.
“I’m so sick of it,” I replied.
“But you put so much time into it.”
I merely shrugged my shoulders. “Add it to the list of other failures in my life.”
Our conversations drifted to changes in the music and film market. “People listen to music on their iPods and iPhones,” she said. “The market on the web is unlimited.”
Her comment planted a seed. I had just bought an iPad and downloaded Apple apps. And I thought why not create an Apple app of a Two-Man Performance (TMPCarol)?
Again I had to learn new skills and devoted another year in learning in how to create a digital publishing product. Today it is ready for uploading to the Apple gatekeepers.
For those interested, take a look at www.tmpcarol.com for more detailed information.
Today, I feel an overwhelming sense of relief. An albatross is being released from around my neck. Soon I will upload the app to the Apple gatekeepers for distribution. This project had formed a large slice of my life for four years.
People have asked me, “What made you spend so much time on the project?”
The answer is complicated. On a superficial level, I felt an obligation to the actors, to the one-man tech crew and to the still photographer. Almost every week they showed up for the shooting. They put their hearts and soul into the work at hand. None of them had the slightest hope of receiving compensation for their time and talents. In a way, they were as caught up with the adventure as I was. I could not disappoint them.
On a deeper level, like Scrooge I had to cope with the ghosts from my past life. Two failed marriages, one major film disaster in the late 1990s and the countless other minor and major failures as a single parent lay embedded within the layers of my subconscious mind. I was determined to wrestle with the problems until I got the better of them.
Necessity forced me to take on the burden of editing. In the process I learned how to use software I would never have touched otherwise. I learned to cope with disappointments and failures. I learned the value of persistence. The old saying, if you first you don’t succeed, try, try again, became my mantra. Sometimes in the morning after I woke up, I’d say to myself, “Get out of bed, you lazy bastard. Give it another try.”
Would I do it again? At my age? No. I am running out of years left to me. Instead, I will capitalize on the skills I learned from my experience.
Will the TMPCarol app make a sensation in the global marketplace? Ah, why of course. Failure is no longer an option in my life.