by Jody VadenBurg
Hi my name’s Jody and I’m a commercial tabletop editor. This article gives me an opportunity to write about my life which I love doing- that's markedly aside from writing about myself, for proof of how awkwardly I do that please see my internet dating profile.
I never set out to be an editor but like a lot of successful people I know who ended up doing something quite by accident, I’ve found myself to be pretty good at it and I’m in high demand. I wear a lot of hats, partly because I've lost most of my hair. At once I am a commercial editor, DJ and documentary director; I've chosen to write about the former that subsidises the latter, where I seemed to have found myself editing the niche of mainly tabletop demo sequences. Most recently it’s been a lot of chocolate, Milka, M&Ms and Snickers.
A lot of the work I cut is shot on high speed cameras, namely the Photron, which shoots at speeds up to 3000fps (that’s the highest I think we’ve gone, on a recent Nature Valley commercial). If there’s one product, then it’s usually a one day shoot and I’m always on-set for jobs with Mendoza Films, cutting as we shoot. The entire morning is generally spent with David Wynn-Jones and his crew setting up the meticulously designed large scale models of replica chocolates, created by Paradigm. Once the action of the models has been set then the motion control crew hones the movement of the big round motion control rig that reminds me of a Triceratops. After this is locked in place and we’ve shot some rehearsals then the lights start getting put in place. We use a lot of lights and they are very hot and bright. You can’t actually watch what you’re doing as you’re shooting it’s so bright so many tests and rehearsals are done. Then when the director, agency creative, client are happy then we start actually turning over.
Editing tabletop sequences is, I believe, the opposite discipline to long form editing.
I describe it pedantically as “imagine all the most perfect shots that make up a beautiful sequence and you’re not allowed to use any of them because there’s no time to fit anything in”. That’s the product the client’s selling and the viewer hardly gets to see any of it! The high speed of the Photron camera transforms a one second action shot of pouring liquid into a 10 second sequence of luxuriously commanded milk splashing into a pool of chocolate. It’s the never the real thing, chocolate, or milk or orange juice or anything for that matter wouldn’t survive under the very hot lights and very long hours it has to sit there for. The big bulky lights are far too hot and bright to have on for longer than you shoot for once everything’s set and ready to go.
Then the sequence goes “Lights up, camera rolling, action, cut, lights down please, thank you”.
Pretty much everything starts and finishes in the time it’s taken to write that sentence. In regards to screen time, the entire tabletop demo has only been given an average of 5 seconds (if you’re lucky) by the creative’s in the advertising agency who wrote the commercial and the sequence can sometimes contain 5 separate shots. All that together never adds up mathematically. Making all that work without speeding it all up doesn’t count unless you’re applying a speed ramp (fast motion smoothly dropped to slow for dramatic effect). So inevitably some of the most beautiful shots get dropped in the edit but everything that’s storyboarded is in the can. I’m frequently lurking in the background, listening to get a gauge on what the director’s and agency’s favourite shots are, the rule of thumb is that it’s usually the last or second-to-last shot but not all the time. I capture all the footage from the video playback or I’m given a tiff sequence to convert to QuickTime’s which I then edit from.
I’m always on-set nowadays as with digital there’s no excuse for me not to be but also I act as a safety net. Firstly there’s often no time allowed for the whole job as somehow the agency have been working on the commercial for maybe 6 months and left only a week to turn around the most important part of the ad, some action around what you’re actually selling and the final shot in the commercial that is the hero packshot. I’m editing it all as it’s being shot, as an offline edit might have to be approved that very evening or lunchtime the next day. Secondly somebody from the agency will inevitably come up with a new shot idea on-set after everything’s been signed off and approved to shoot, so when that happens the director turns to me to demonstrate right there and then on the stage floor that the message they want to convey is already working and there’s no need to waste everybody’s time or grab more shots to cover their backs.
That I think is where I really earn my money as that potentially saves thousands of pounds in crew hours and studio time setting up and testing something that nobody has planned for. The most nail biting moment for me is when I have to match separate passes of a dynamic motion control move of an action like a piece of a chocolate M&M (or lentil as they’re known) rising out of a chocolate lake. For a moment the whole set stops and turns to me, everybody waits while I put all the layers together and declare if it’s working or whether we’re going to have to start again. 99% of the time it’s fine as everybody is very experienced with what they’re doing and work on jobs just like this every week.
On the last job though for M&Ms I noticed they weren’t quite matching up though.
I tested it over and over again to make sure I wasn’t doing something wrong as my advice was potentially going to add more hours onto the already packed day of shooting. In the end we did have to redo it for various technical issues that meant the timings weren’t matching by a very slight degree but we got it working and I believe the commercial was featured in the American Superbowl Weekend half time ads. We film several versions of the same action with the lentil in various states of dress. Firstly completely soaked in chocolate rising out of the liquid chocolate, then the chocolate lake is taken away and a separate model of a solid, hard, ‘finished’, lentil is filmed doing the same action against green screen.
Then we shoot a few more shots of the dry chocolate disc doing the rising action each time covered with added brushes of liquid chocolate to ease the transition from wet to dry. The whole sequence lasts for maybe a second on screen and looks like one shot of a swirling pool of chocolate giving birth to one piece of what the client’s selling, rising out of it’s mother’s embrace and becoming the finished bite sized product that is then packaged up in small bags and sold by the millions.
Occasionally on set I find myself being in demand to do 3 things at once, capture the next shot, show the latest takes or edit to the creative’s and transcode a QuickTime to send to the post house so they can confirm everything looks good. Being clear with everybody exactly how snowed under you are and remaining calm and doing everything step by step not try and do everything once is the best way to stop yourself from unraveling.
The hardest thing about my job is the umpteen, endless amounts of versions of edits you end up with as the director will want to show a variation of edits using different preferred shots. Always show your preferred cut first, even if it’s wildly different to the approved storyboard. Then you’re inevitably asked by the agency to try lots more variations of exactly the same thing that no viewer is ever going to notice or has time to take in. You wouldn’t believe how many different versions of a 3 second sequence it is possible to do. And god help you if you lose track of all the different versions you’ve cut because the agency will come back and ask to see a cut way back at the beginning that they glossed over the first time and didn’t ask to set aside. They’ve managed to keep a careful record of everything they’ve asked for though and that they’ve seen and if it’s ever so slightly different and you try and get one past them, then somebody at their end will end up noticing. Overall you can’t get too attached to your preferred edit. Just cut the best thing you possibly can show off and be prepared for somebody to come along and completely screw it up, making it a shadow of it’s former self, that probably goes for all editing.
The comment I receive all the time from people looking over my shoulder whilst I’m editing is ‘you must be hungry all the time looking at that!” I am a big chocolate eater but my common experience is that whatever food it is we’re shooting at one time is the thing I feel less like eating in the world on that day.
Commercials aren’t where I desire my career to end up but it has taught me a lot. The most important is communication and clarification of an idea and delivering that quickly and succinctly. Best of all it goes back to the discipline of the very first motion pictures as pretty much all adverts are just very short stories and sequences told in pictures. That’s what I tell myself to get through the day anyway.
Jody Vandenburg – Senior Commercials Editor.
Tel: 020 7734 1286