John Ottman


2019 - Oscar for Best Achievement in Film Editing for Bohemian Rhapsody
2003 - Saturn Award Nomination for Best Music for X2
1999 - Emmy Nomination for Best Underscore for "Fantasy Island"
1997 - Declared one of Daily Variety's 50 People to Watch
1995 - Saturn Award for Best Music for The Usual Suspects
1995 - British Academy Award (BAFTA) for editing The Usual Suspects
1995 - American Cinema Editors (ACE) nomination for The Usual Suspects


Breaking In - Do, Do, Do!

"John as an Editor" (an essay and bitch-fest, by John Ottman).

"John as an Editor" (an essay and bitch-fest, by John Ottman).

There is an irony to film editing today: Just 20 years ago, the logical progression to becoming a film director was through being a film editor, a la Robert Wise and Edward Dmytrick. This made sense, being that an editor is called upon to solve every problem and shape or create every actor's performance. The editor, depending on his autonomy and relationship with the director, takes storytelling liberties and essentially "creates" the film. In the last 15 years or so, however, the trend has switched to the "writer-director" syndrome. Sometimes this has proven an artistic merit; yet too many other times these writers have no experience in filmmaking. Other times studios hire inexperienced puppet directors they can control. Herein lies the irony: After all is said and done, the film editor is left to make sense of it all, tell the story more effectively, and many times, "save the film."

This begins soap box issue #5b. (Hey it's my website!) Speaking for all film editors, considering their contribution and creative rank in the filmmaking process, they are severely under-compensated compared to other high-level positions in a film. As an example, film scoring is often the soul of a film, however, admittedly, it is not as important as the editing of the film. Yet a medium to top film composer is compensated three to four times as much in 3 months as the editor will make in 8 months or more. For everything a film composer goes through and for a composer's highly specialized contribution to a film, his fee, believe me, is more than earned; but an editor's hell is much longer of an endurance and should be recognized.

The Test Screening Process and Current Trends

Continuing the bitch-fest, the following is the unedited article I was asked to write on the hot-button issue of filmmaking trends and test screenings:


Current Trends and the Test Screening Process

It may be easy to romanticize the filmmaking environment of the past, but today the test screening process is like that little plant, Audrey II, in Little Shop of Horrors: an adorable little thing that turned into a monster, devouring everything in sight. There's indeed nobility behind the concept of test screenings. How the results are used, or abused, herein lies the crux of the problem facing the artistry of filmmaking today.

The merit of film is really at the mercy of a director's or filmmaker's wisdom, and whether he has the power to utilize it; the profit of film, never having been better, has unfortunately eroded the filmmaker's autonomy to use this wisdom. The short-term profit fix is now the ruler of a film's destiny, often assuring a film's short-term appeal, a la Mortal Combat versus Superman.

Understandably, from a producer's point of view, there is a cold calculated logic to maximizing the profit margin for certain types of films. For a producer or studio there is always the fine line between artistic reverence and what has to give. For some films, (like many December or independent ventures) artistic arguments are allowed their day and often triumph; for other films (like summer releases), there's more concern with a sure bet. And this is where the dreaded test screening process comes in. As an example the Halloween: H20 test screening points (scores) were stellar. From these numbers, there was a perceived projection of profit. As a producer of this kind of film you don't want to fool around with a sure thing, even if the artistic value of what is "working" is, well, weak. In walks the composer (moi) whose creative mission or delusion is to offer more to the film than the temp score. My bag of tricks skinned the cat in a different way from the temp, and after all was said and done, this was seen as too high a risk. The result was a severely edited musical score supplemented with music from the temp. Had there been time to test the film with the new score, I'm confident the test scores would have been unchanged or higher. The only difference would be a more unique score bringing out more from the film than was unexpected.

After Goldsmith scored Logan's Run, the filmmakers realized they also had a love story on their hands as well as an adventure - just because Goldsmith had seen this as a composer. Through his music he brought an enriching dimension of the story no one had seen before.

So musically, this is the tragic difference of films of the present versus those of yesteryear. Any magical moments or original stumblings that a composer may bring to a film too often hold less importance than the perceived bottom line. As Richard Kraft puts it (as only Richard can), "We are now in a period where every film score is the bastard child of another film score. Film music is starting to seem like the musical equivalent of a family in the Ozarks."

Studios often read test screening points (or scores) like politicians read poll numbers to determine policy. The result: More than ever a vicious circle of films being watered down to the lowest common denominator. It's also interesting to observe that, like political polls, spins are placed on results to elicit filmmaking decisions. As I've witnessed, sometimes test scores serve to exacerbate power plays between directors and producers, each interpreting the same score rating to support their own argument much in the same way biblical stories are interpreted to become firepower for present day arguments. It makes for a fascinating, often humorous, but ultimately destructive exercise for the film and its creative potential.

Not gone, but far fewer are the days where a filmmaker's hand and clarity of vision is evident throughout the films we watch. It's really this confidence and forethought on the part of an artist that keeps in check the integrity and proper function of editing, score and sound: the largest determinators of a film's final state of being. Can you imagine the fate of Patton, The Manchurian Candidate, Chinatown, even the original Alien had they been completely designed by committee and test screening scores? (Ironically Alien's brilliant score was quite edited and supplemented with some other music from Goldsmith's score to Freud; but these decisions were for artistic reasons, not test screening ones.)

But this is not an indictment of the temp scoring process. As composers, we jump to blame temp scoring as the evil here. Actually I see the temp score itself as an innocent part of a work print that becomes exploited as a result of test screenings. It is the lack of creative confidence to use temp scores as tools and not literal road maps that has gotten us into real trouble. Soon the picture is seen so many times with the temp that it becomes impossible for many to imagine an original score written for the film. Additionally a popular song which may give us goose bumps in 1998 may be used for this very effect or marketing reasons. This usually ensures that in 2008, the film will be laughable. There's no right or wrong here necessarily, but a director searching for a legacy of films which stand the test of time can destroy this notion by using one song from the present.

Temp scoring can be invaluable to an editor and director by helping their internal filmmaking progress. It can also give a composer the general idea of style or spotting. A temp score also allows the editor to help his scenes fly for the director, or moreover, help the director show the producers or studio the direction and feel of the film he is making. If used largely in that spirit, as in the past, temp scoring would remain a benevolent tool and not the cancer it has become to originality. It's rumored that for a test screening of Forrest Gump Robert Zemekis discovered that, against his wishes, score cards were being passed out to the audience, which he quickly had removed from their hands. It's not often that the director of a film has this sort of "pull", as it were, and the benefits are clear.

We had no real test screenings for The Usual Suspects, except one after the negative had been cut. I remember screening an early version for the execs, largely for marketing purposes. On magnetic film I crudely spliced together a temp score (butted together cue excerpts from scores in the style I envisioned it to be scored.) The first comment from an executive was, "I thought the score might be younger, more hip." To that, Bryan Singer and I looked at each other briefly, looked back to the exec, and said, "Good, because that's exactly what it's not going to be." The temp therefore set up our vision of the film's pastiche.

This brings up another funny observation about technology which has become an ironic enabler of this temp frenzy. Although these technologies have allowed our creativity to soar in some ways, in others it has rung the death nell of imagination that added to the magic of the filmmaking process: Musically, technology now allows a "composer" to hold down a sample button for a drum loop and another for an accompanying texture and call it a day. Pro-Tools has garnered flawless audio editing, and the Avids have ensured that workprints look almost like answer prints. So for filmmaking, new technology has created an environment where we no longer can imagine the film getting better and better: There's not as much room to go when a first cut looks and sounds perfect. For instance, Suspects was edited in my living room on a flatbed. Film was being dragged across the floor, the cat was getting his claws caught the sprocket holes, the flatbed would inevitably mutilate film from time to time, I'd cut my finger on the splicer and blood would streak across the film, and the sound was spliced together on one mag track so that the overlaps of dialog had to be imagined. The result was a workprint screening that looked and sounded like a work in progress! We could only imagine that the picture would one day look pristine (we looked forward to seeing our first answer print and doing the color timing; but this was a later concern); we could only imagine how the sound would be in stereo and with music and dialog that flowed. There was always so much further to go. This kept the creative attention compartmentalized for each phase and on story and performance, versus an obsession with getting a cross-fade just right so a test-screening would go well. Romanticizing? Perhaps. But there was just something in the evolution of a film that made magic happen.

"Assault editing", out-of-control sound effects, scores on steroids and source music frenzy are techniques used to compensate for story shortcomings. The apparent fear is that by allowing a film to breathe, audiences may leap from their seats and sprint out of the theater at the first sign of a pause, reflection or insight. Paraphrasing an LA Times columnist who hit it on the head, "Today, film is all climax and no foreplay."

The most enduring films employ peaks and valleys in their story-lines. But a film's timelessness and short-term profits are many times in conflict with each other. Many source music-heavy films date themselves quickly and lack the timeless potential of other films. Even a good film like Silent Running is uproarious today the moment Joan Baez begins to sing as the ship floats through space. For its day, the use of the song was poignant. In other films, the idea works as long as the source music is intrinsic to the story and it's nostalgia, a la The Big Chill. The entertainment value of many big source-heavy films of today may actually increase tomorrow because of the comic value the songs will supply alone. As a director, I would not want my film to be laughed at years down the line because of short-term musical goals.

The situation is both bleak or rosy depending upon which side of the aisle you preside. Despite the fact that it seems to be creating the self-fulfilling prophecy of limited attention spans, the new trend of MTV filmmaking is repeatedly "legitimized" by $100 million ticket sales domestically. Just don't pop them in your DVD ten years from now and expect to take them seriously.

Test screenings are a spawning ground for these trends. What's the answer? Only lessons from the past, and a little hope. Ok, it's bleak. But perhaps soon we'll realize that perhaps that little plant in Little Shop of Horrors just needed some pruning. Maybe then it could be our friend again.