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The Avid Excellence in Editing Award: Sam Pollard

By Tracie Lewis

Grappling with structure on a documentary about President-Elect Barack Obama, Sam Pollard took a break to talk about his life as an editor. For him, great storytelling is not so uch a gift as the end result of hard work. Mentoring and consulting on many films, he is a gift to many filmmakers. As a full-time professor at New York University since 1994, Pollard says, "I think in some ways, it saved my career as an editor and keeps me inspired as a filmmaker; I'm constantly in the orbit of young people who have such imaginations and creative ideas." He is one of the few successful African-American editors working in both narrative and documentary films, but admits he prefers the challenge of documentaries.


You are credited as a mentor or consultant on several documentaries. Who were your mentors? How did you get started in editing?

Sam Pollard: I started at Channel 13 [WNET, the New York-based PBS affiliate]. They had a film and television workshop in the late '60s-early '70s that initially came out of Black Journal. It was a one-year program where professionals came in and taught different aspects of filmmaking and television-making, and I gravitated towards editing. After that program in 1972, I was fortunate enough to get recommended for a job on a film directed by director/playwright Bill Gunn called Ganja & Hess. The editor was Victor Kanefsky. He took me under his wing. I stayed on with him for almost three years as his assistant. A couple days a week, he would stop me from doing my assistant's work and make me sit down and watch him work. He would explain why he made all the edits and what he was trying to do editorially and storytelling-wise. He's the one who really shaped me as an editor.

Then I was fortunate enough to work with George Bowers, an African-American editor who cut a lot of feature films in the '70s, '80s and '90s. I became his assistant after I left Victor. When he started directing dramatic children's shows in the early '80s, he gave me the opportunity to edit my first dramatic dialogue stuff. Then, he introduced me to St.Clair Bourne.

Saint was a filmmaker who made me come back and understand that whole circle act that I believe in--that you come back and revisit life as a person of color, and understand that the work that I'm supposed to do is really supposed to make sure I echo and support the stories of African-American people.

So my three mentors were Victor Kanefsky, George Bowers and St.Clair Bourne.


Talk about the first film that you edited.

I was 25 years old and working as an apprentice with Victor. One of Victor's clients was doing a half-hour film about Mardi Gras and the black people who dress up for Mardi Gras as Indians. He couldn't afford Victor, and he asked me if I would cut the film. It was a half-hour film that I cut on an upright Moviola. It was a real baptism by fire. I spent three and a half months working on it. After I finished editing it, I never wanted to see it again.

But what's fascinating about that--what's really circular about it in a spiritual way--is that almost 30 years later I was dealing with When the Levees Broke (Spike Lee, dir.). I started to edit the opening montage for that with Louis Armstrong's "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" I was looking for footage, and I found The Black Indians of New Orleans (Maurice M. Martinez and James E. Hinton, dirs.). If you look at that opening montage of When the Levees Broke, some of those shots are from the first film I ever edited.


How do you explain to your students at NYU how to become exceptional storytellers by capturing a moment out of time?

It's really sort of looking at the material and re-looking at the material and re-looking at it and building assemblies and finding the creative arc-basically what we call a three-act format-and seeing where you can make it work. It just takes a lot of hard work to try to come up with different variations, a different structure, until you find the one that just starts to click. The elements that you think, "Oh, this is going to help tell the story. This sequence crossed with this sequence is going to build the story." And then you hit that wall and say, "No, doesn't work anymore. I've got to figure out how to make it work."


You're not only an editor, but you're a director and a producer as well. How do these roles relate back to editing?

They all do. One hand washes the other. As a producer, my experience as an editor has enabled me to go out and understand the types of questions I need to ask of a subject, the kinds of footage I need to look for if I'm shooting on location, or the kind of footage I need to prepare myself to find--and how to research and find help to tell and fill out the story. On the other hand, as an editor, working as a producer has enabled me to understand what the elements a director or a producer may be trying to find, or a technique to help tell the story they're looking for--because I've already been out there in the trenches and I understand the process. Sometimes, a producer or a director of a documentary can't be articulate about what they want. You've got to really pay attention, because it's really the subtext of what they're saying that may have more impact and may give you the direction that you need to shape your story.


There are different types of editing systems and the technology has evolved, especially over the past 10 years. How has that affected you?

It's been a great challenge, because I started out with the Moviola, which I didn't work on very long, and I went to the Steenbeck, which I worked on for almost 20 years. I was a little reticent to go with the nonlinear way. I don't think I'm a computer genius, but I was able to apply myself to learn how to use the Avid. Now we're using Final Cut, and finally, I bought a Final Cut six months ago and I like it a lot. In terms of the aesthetics, because I came from a Steenbeck experience where I had to really think about the cut before I made the splice, it helps me when I'm editing on these nonlinear machines--because I understand the nuances of holding on to six frames or letting six frames go.


You've worked with veteran filmmakers such as St.Clair Bourne and Spike Lee and filmmakers who don't have as much experience. Do you collaborate any differently with them?

Filmmakers like Saint and Spike come to the table with years of experience and very strong points of view. So when you work with those guys, you know you can collaborate with them, but they really have a stronger sense of where they want to go. With less experienced filmmakers, I'm a stronger collaborator because they're relying on me to help them find the arc and direction of the film.

So I do work much harder with younger, less experienced filmmakers. Editing films--specifically, documentary films--is demanding work. And when you make it work, you feel exhilarated. You know when you don't make it work, you feel like you wanna just go into a hole. I've worked with lots of filmmakers, be it Spike or Saint or Thomas Harris or Shola Lynch. Every one is just a little adventure. It's a real adventure, trying to make a film come to life.


Tracie J. Lewis is a writer and producer, and a programmer at Film Independent.