Last evening, I played with a new toy my wife bought recently, a video editing program for her computer. She had a good, practical reason for buying it: she realized that her family videos—important records for her as a grandmother—were not very good. In fact, they tended to be boring, filled as most home videos are with extraneous and accidental footage. One's collection of still photos can be sorted out rather easily. One can throw out those inevitable shots of people with their eyes shut or strange looks on their faces, the multiple views of a pretty sunset, the failed attempts to record something that struck you powerfully at the time but in retrospect only leaves you puzzled over the waste of film. She hadn't had time to learn how to use the program yet, and I was curious.
Not so long ago I gave away all my 16mm film equipment. For some years I had held onto a dream of making serious films, creative and personal glimpses into my world. But film is not an easy medium. Nor inexpensive. I did make a half-dozen short films, "documentaries" that allowed me to capture ideas and moments the way my wife tries to capture the people in her family. Eventually I bought a video camera, thinking that I could work better with the freedom from concern over cost that video seems to offer. But consumer-level video hadn't developed enough; there wasn't the editing equipment available to give one the capability of producing "serious" work. My enthusiasm eventually faded and I turned my creative attention to other media. Giving up my film equipment was a momentous and emotional thing for me. It was not just ridding myself of excess stuff, it was giving up my dream. I still kept my (by now) old camcorder. But it mostly gathered dust, and the batteries became useless.
Technology seems to be catching up with me. My wife's new digital camcorder will perform miracles compared with my twelve-year-old 8mm model. And I realized, as I played with her computer last evening, one can now actually do the things with video that I only dreamed of doing a decade ago, things that would have been impossible to do with 16mm film without Hollywood-level budgets. And the image quality of small digital cameras today is almost as good as 16mm film—viewable on any television screen without the bother and clatter and enforced darkness of home film projection. In a few hours, I managed to assemble a three-minute record of my granddaughter's high-school graduation (from twenty minutes of tape), a neat and effective "documentary" that isn't pretentious but does preserve a very special occasion, and that won't elicit groans from relatives and friends when I pull it off the shelf to show them.
After retiring an hour later than usual, I found myself sleepless. I'd doze off, only to dream about putting little pieces of video together, trimming and fitting, learning the technique of electronic editing, and then wake up thinking about how I might do it differently. I watched the clock click off the minutes and hours, and tried to let go. But I was hooked by the task. Not the first time I've done that.
Then I began to realize that it wasn't just this task I was obsessing about. It was about my dreams of three decades ago, of recording my environment and my ideas and my responses to life itself, of looking with different eyes at the world, and speaking from someplace deep inside me. It was about searching for my voice, my voice, the urge that took me away from security and comfort thirty years ago to return to school. It was like glimpsing a familiar face in a crowd, one I had once loved and lost in my fumbling efforts to make my life.
How many hours I had spent at the editing bench, sorting through pieces of film, looking at scenes over and over until they were memorized, and until a story began to put itself together. How exciting it was to turn the process over to itself, simply follow the film as it took charge of its own creation! To watch, and to perform the tasks it asked of me almost without any volition of my own. Building the edifice of a film is participating in something that only seems from the outside to be a deliberate activity. One's control is given over to the process.
And one's sleep is often relinquished, as well. The mental process doesn't stop when the editing session is put aside for more mundane necessities. It's all the more mysterious because it isn't verbal. These days I write a lot, and often an essay puts itself together in my head before I even decide to sit down at the keyboard. Film/video editing isn't like that. One has to look at it, scan the pictures and the action, trial-fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle and look at it again and again. Only then does it take shape in the mind. On the other hand, I write by writing and discovering. I may have a theme in my head beforehand, but it isn't until the words begin to appear on the computer screen that I have any sense that I know what I'm thinking. The difference between words and pictures, I suppose, is in the fact that words are almost infinitely available. I can begin with a few, and call all the rest out of my vocabulary, that amorphous storage-bin that forever resists organizing. Film and video editing is a process of selecting from a very few pieces, rearranging and trying out different combinations until one has assembled that finite number of blossoms into the best possible bouquet. Given that difference, however, the two endeavors are quite similar. One can never say anything completely new; but the force of a statement is always unique.
Having spent the better part of the night here at my computer instead of sleeping in my bed, I think perhaps I've accomplished something, anyway. I feel depleted of words, my obsession that kept sleep at bay having dissipated itself through a different medium. My urge to express my mysterious insides seems to have found its riverbed, somehow. The thing inside me that calls itself a dream unfulfilled has curled up once more in a corner. I think I can go back to sleep.
Donald Skiff, January 15, 2001