When you go to see a movie, you’re likely focused on the actors, the storyline and special effects. You’re immersed in a world where a story comes to life before your eyes. If it’s good, it’s hard to remember that the 90-minute feature film you’re watching was likely shot over the course of months, possibly even years. So how does so much footage come together in a way that seems so flawless?
Enter Michael Phillips, a Boston-based film and video-editing aficionado who helped to invent Avid Film Composer. If the words “Avid Film Composer” don’t ring a bell, try these movie titles on for size: “Inception,” “Avatar,” “Transformers.” Their editors all used Avid.
After its invention in the early 1990s, Avid Film Composer quickly became a standard for feature film editing, and Phillips, who will be a guest professor at CCRI this fall, was an integral part of creating the technology.
Phillips began his path to success at Montana State University, where he studied music composition. His brother was a student at Montana U and was majoring in filmmaking. Phillips would provide the music for his brother’s projects and those of his brother’s friends. But Phillips wrote more music than his classmates’ movies could accommodate.
“I had extra music that needed a movie,” he said.
So, on a whim, Phillips took a freshman film class and made a 10-minute short film crafted around his compositions.
“It was epic considering freshman requirements,” he said. The film was only supposed to be three minutes long, but Phillips wanted to create something that stood out.
“The professor just really liked mine, even though I broke all the rules,” he said.
In fact, the professor told Phillips that, even if his project had been his senior thesis film, it would still earn an A. That 10-minute short was the beginning of a working relationship between Phillip and his professor, who would work together on filmmaking techniques.
After graduating from Montana State, Phillips headed to the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he hoped to continue on his composition path. But he soon found himself back in the movie-making scene, teaching at the Boston Film and Video Foundation. In early 1990 Phillips saw “A Shock to the System,” a movie starring Michael Caine, and remembered seeing something unusual during the credits: “Edited electronically on Montage.” The words piqued his interest, since Phillips had only ever done traditional editing.
The process of traditional editing was, at the time, tedious yet straightforward. For film, or non-linear editing, editors had to cut and splice together the frames they wanted. Unused frames could literally end up on the cutting room floor, which is where the expression comes from. With video editing, or linear editing, editors could only edit together two frames that occurred in succession. By fast forwarding or rewinding the tape, edits could be made carefully, but the order of frames couldn’t be changed as they could with film.
So when Phillips heard of Montage, he had to know how it worked. It turned out that the two engineers working on the program worked across the street from the Film and Video Foundation, so he stopped by to see what they were working on. What he found was two men surrounded by walls of videotape.
“I went in and it was very geeky,” he said. “It wasn’t for me.”
Shortly after, he saw that the foundation was offering a class on Avid, a hard drive disc-editing program. He took the course and was impressed with what they were doing.
“It was very limited in what it could do at the time, but very freeing for a video editor,” he said.
The program combined the benefits of non-linear (or film) editing with video editing.
“I asked them at the time, what are you doing specifically for film editing?” he recalled. Those at Avid told him they were engineering a specification for a product for filmmakers. He took a look at their outlines and told them they wouldn’t make money with it.
“No one’s going to buy it because you’re making them go through too many steps that cost money,” he said. When those at Avid asked him how they could improve it, he answered with two simple words: “Hire me.” And they did.
What Phillips helped Avid with was a dilemma faced by film and video editors for years. In the U.S., video runs at roughly 30 frames per second, a number directly related to the 60 hertz of voltage on which the country’s electrical system is based. But film, which far predates video, runs at 24 frames per second.
“There’s what’s called a ‘match back problem,’” said Phillips, explaining that when film is converted to video to be edited, sometimes the finished product (which is converted back to film) wouldn’t come out the way editors intended.
What Phillips helped to figure out was how to avoid that “match back problem.” Avid invented the first 24-frame editing system, which digitized the media.
“Because you’re digital you’re not tied to any frame rates,” he said. “We digitized the media to be 24 frames on disc, even though it was coming from 30 frame sources.”
For Phillips, the numbers just came to him.
“I don’t know how to code, I can barely balance a checkbook,” he said, calling it a savant-like talent. “The numbers just clicked.”
Soon, Avid’s Film Composer, which officially came out in August 1992, became the go-to editing program for feature films.
“[It was] simple but revolutionary at the time,” he said.
In 1995, Phillips received an Academy Award for his work on Avid. In 1999 it was upgraded to an Oscar.
“It doesn’t pay the rent and it doesn’t get you a date,” he said about the award with a laugh. “I was always curious, what does this get you? Nothing.”
But on a serious note, he added, “It’s the greatest recognition you can get in the industry you’re in”
Phillips was with Avid for 21 years and now serves at the Chief Technology Officer for CineWorks, which just finished post-production on a new James Franco and Ray Liotta film. He will be teaching a class at CCRI in the fall on Avid and hopes his students will get the experience they need to be able to use the program in real-life settings.
In addition to teaching them about the editing software, Phillips said he’ll be teaching them how to distill a script, work with a director and put together a finished piece of film. To help him with these lessons, Phillips will bring in his friend and local director Michael Corrente. He hopes through his partnership with the well-known director, the students will also learn how to tell a story and create a product that both they and the director are pleased with.
He’ll also bring in a documentary editor from WGBH and a New York-based commercial editor. He hopes students will learn that there are many different opportunities in the media market, not just feature film editing opportunities.
For Phillips, who originally thought he’d be a chef, the journey to where he is today has been unexpected.
“I liked inventing things,” he said, a trait that translated well from food, to music to his career with Avid. “I liked creating technology, and at the same time I liked using it. That’s what got me into using Avid.”
He added, “I love to create and invent things that did not exist before.”
Though times have changed and Film Composer is no longer used, Avid is still around and is still widely acclaimed.
“Technology affects creativity and creativity affects technology,” said Phillips, who said film and video editing change at a rapid pace now. “It is a language and it continually evolves.”
Besides imparting practical knowledge on his students at CCRI this fall, Phillips also hopes to teach them that life can be surprising, sometimes in great ways. It’s a lesson Phillips learned himself, first hand.
“You go along for the ride,” he said. “What you think you’re going to start out as, you might not end up as.”