Five Lessons from Bill Pankow, ACE

Each six-week intensive class at MEWShop welcomes its own individual Artist in Residence -- an accomplished editor who sits in with the class for two sessions to screen student footage, offer constructive feedback, and share stories and wisdom from their own, often long and storied careers. For the six week class ending today, July 29, that editor was Bill Pankow, ACE. Pankow’s career spans decades and genres, beginning with assistant editor positions on Kramer vs. Kramer, Scarface, and Wise Guys, all the way up to recent action comedies like American Ultra and Let’s Be Cops. His other credits include The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way, and The Money Train.

This time around, the students screened two of his more recent films, American Ultra and Mesrine Part 2: Public Enemy #1. Here are five things we learned during his time at MEWShop:

  1. Cutting film in another language, as he did on Mesrine, isn’t easy. French wasn’t his first language - “I’m barely conversational,” he said - but Pankow had English translation script and a bilingual assistant. Despite his loose handle on French as a language, he didn’t know idioms and colloquialisms, and two particular scenes (the courtroom scene and kitchen scene) were so nuanced that they necessitated hiring another editor.
  2. “Pictures have to tell the story first,” according to Pankow. As an editor, he relies heavily on visual storytelling, and only delves into dailies for the best performances from each actor once he’s confident the story has been adequately communicated through images alone.
  3. When asked for a crash course on editing action films, this was his advice: First, get the audience engaged. It’s nice to start with a close-up shot (a gunshot, a single person) and then go wider to communicate the scope of the scene. The audience must understand the geography of the scene above all else -- they have to know where the characters are at all time and be able to follow the storyline as well as the action. Movement is key, and Pankow advises on keeping the camera moving in the POV of the main character. Fast cutting serves the energy of the picture, but it can’t be too fast or too random. Finally, keeping the object of interest in the same part of the frame and maintaining that frame position through longer shots or fast cuts makes an action sequence feel cohesive.
  4. One student asked for advice on working closely with directors. Pankow’s take: Lay scenes out in order according to the script, and don't move them around until after sitting with the director and working it out. Directors will give you room to work if you establish a creative flow with them.
  5. You do better work if you take a lunch break and actually leave the edit bay.

Pankow also shared a look at his line script from Snake Eyes:

Truly fascinating to see the annotations provided by the script coordinator and supervisors so as to hasten and ease the process of translating the director’s decisions on set to the editing room.

Our next Six Week Workshop starts September 12. You can find out more here.