'Earth to Echo' Editor Carsten Kurpanek Reveals His Journey Breaking into Feature Editing
Have you ever had that particular project come along that completely turned your career around -- a break-out job after lots of hard work, that lead to more projects you loved working on? I FaceTimed recently with editor Carsten Kurpanek, who just edited his first wide-released feature Earth to Echo (in theaters now). Carsten was kind enough to provide some keen perspective from his own career thus far, some insights into the future of NLE technology, and even some recommendations and advice to those new to editing.
NFS: How did you end up editing features as a career?
Carsten Kurpanek: It was definitely a conscious decision. I worked as a tax officer in Germany for 6 years, and kind of felt stuck. I didn’t even have what compares to the high school diploma in America. I always loved movies, so I went back to school, got my high school degree, and started studying Film Studies at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. And Mainz had a foreign exchange program with Muncie, Indiana, and Ball State University. A couple of my friends went there, and they made these awesome short films, and it got me really excited. So I said, "Great -- let’s go there!" That’s where, for the first time, I really edited a lot. I just loved editorial --there’s something about it that fits my personality, turning chaos into order. The process of seeing everything come together and work is wonderful.
I met my wife in school, and without her I wouldn’t even be in America. I wasn’t thinking of becoming an editor in Germany -- I thought I’d be a journalist. We wanted to be together, she wanted to be (and presently works as) an actress, and I wanted to be in Los Angeles as well working in film. The thing that gave me the most pleasure was luckily the most viable career option, editing. So I researched everything -- that there’s a guild, and that there’s the American Cinema Editors. I Googled and messaged everyone I could, trying to find an in. I had no contacts, so I literally turned to the internet. There was a Yahoo! Internet Avid user group. It occurred to me that it couldn’t be possible that none of these users had Avids, so they must be in a facility that has Avid. So I posted, “Listen guys, I just came to town, and I would love to be an unpaid intern at any of your facilities if you need someone as a P.A.” And a company called Alpha Dogs in Burbank wrote me back. I worked there for free for over three months as a runner, and learned as much as I could from the assistants there.
Later, I was hired as the American Cinema Editor’s intern in 2008, and that taught me what to do next, how to get into the union. It gave me a glimpse into the real Hollywood. And after the internship was over, Alpha Dogs hired me on as a night assistant, and that was the beginning of it!
Carsten Kurpanek: The idea is that you take care of everything that comes into the cutting room, and you take care of everything that goes out of the cutting room. You are there to support your editor so he or she can make their best edit possible. You build trust with your editor over time, and they will also give you other tasks over time -- and in the best case scenario they will give you mentorship, even letting you cut a scene first, giving you advice. I often say the job of an assistant is to figure s%#* out (please bleep me). It’s all about organization and communication.
It’s a very technical job, a lot of troubleshooting. Especially nowadays, there’s a new camera every week -- there are upgrades. A lot of codecs and systems. You have to be a little bit nerdy -- pixel aspect ratios, or the different formats and frame rates. It’s a global world, and that goes for filmmaking too. You have to figure that out, to communicate to the proper departments, to anticipate problems before they happen. Your job is to be on top of that, and to be the support for your editor in any way possible.
NFS: Can you describe your typical workday as an AE on a feature?
Carsten Kurpanek: Features have a very linear approach. On the first day, you set up the editorial, make sure the equipment works. Talk to the editor, see where he wants the couch, where he wants the Avid -- all the little things. You talk to all the vendors, say hi, say send me your spec sheets and stuff like that. Once the shooting starts, you make your coffee (or your P.A. if you have one), and then you get the dailies from the post house. There’s a lot of parts to that, it’s not just the footage. You get a lot of paperwork, like from the camera assistant’s reports. There’s a continuity supervisor, who provides you with a line script and a facing page. And she marks down on each facing page with lines to denote which cameras were rolling. And if the director likes a take, she would circle it, and it becomes a circle take. Nowadays, since everything is shot digital, we get everything anyway. It used to mean more when the film was printed, because what wasn’t circled wasn’t printed.
So you go through your footage, and you import it into your NLE, and crosscheck your paperwork with the footage that you have. One of the most important things as an assistant editor is to make sure everything is there. When you hand off a scene to your editor, and you say it’s complete, it has to be complete. This is a fireable offense. It’s very important you makes sure everything is accounted for, and that goes for audio, music, and VFX, too. Everything has to be up-to-date.
So it’s a lot of managing, but it’s also a lot of fun. It’s kind of funny in that it’s an office job, but it’s not. I always joke that that’s like my tax officer days! But then I get to stare at Daniel Craig and Brad Pitt all day, and it’s certainly more creative and special.
NFS: What has been your greatest professional hurdle thus far?
Carsten Kurpanek: I have to say I’ve been really blessed. It’s not all luck. People say you make your own luck, and that’s a half truth. Often a door will open, and you have to be ready to step through those before they close. So the biggest hurdle -- [laughs] I get made fun of for my German accent when I provide temp ADR! People chuckle and I get a little embarrassed. But seriously, life’s been very good, I can’t complain about any hurdles now.
Obviously if you’re a tax officer, and you go to America, getting your foot in the door is the first hurdle, you know? But there is a hurdle every time you switch fields. You work for free, you be the best P.A. you can be. You can only switch your career paths every so often. So if you want to work in television, and work for, say, HBO shows, you have to work for that specifically. You have to start saying no to jobs. I’m at that point now, I have to start saying no to AE jobs now, as I have four features I just cut. Obviously it’s a good job to have, and if I can’t find work as an editor, I can fall back, but hopefully I won’t have to. People sometimes ask me questions like, “How do you transition from reality to features?” And it sounds mean, but I tell them, “Well, first you have to quit your job.” The jobs won’t come to you. You’re only working in a system that will give you reality jobs, a network for that matter. Every time you switch you start at the lower rungs again, and start at the bottom of the chain, even as a P.A.
NFS: On the flipside, what has been your greatest professional triumph thus far?
Carsten Kurpanek: I know how hard it is to get an editor credit on a movie that is released by a studio -- that is a wide release. Not many people have that. So I am incredibly proud of Earth to Echo. It’s an achievement and it’s something I can build a career on.
There’s moments that happen that make you want to pinch yourself. Like when I was an AE on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo sitting in the screening, and I saw my name crawl up, it was like, “Wow, my name’s on a David Fincher movie!” I remember sitting in the German theatre watching Fight Club, and if someone from the future walked up to me, and told me, “Dude, you’re gonna work on a David Fincher movie. Just give it a decade,” I wouldn't have believed it of course. I couldn’t be happier how the last seven years have turned out.
NFS: If you could edit one movie slated for production, what would it be?
Carsten Kurpanek: Well, my first instinct is the new Star Wars, or Jurassic World! I have to admit I love blockbusters, big movies, action films. It was what I was raised on. But I also love anything exciting, fun, and hopefully smart.
NFS: What are your career goals as an editor?
Carsten Kurpanek: Um, no one would ever say no to winning an Oscar. [laughs] I love to entertain. I have watched every kind of film, from French art films, silent films, to big movies, I really like to watch everything. As long as it has a great story, great characters, and good pacing, and is smart. That’s the great thing about cutting features -- how it works to an audience. I like the smart Sci-Fi -- when commerce meets intelligence in artistic reach, like in films like Gravity. That’s when I’m happiest as an audience member, and that’s something I’d like to work on as well.
NFS: What NLE do you use most frequently? Is there a workflow you prefer?
Carsten Kurpanek: Most of the time I use Avid. In feature Hollywood, that’s the standard for sure. On smaller indies I used Final Cut 7. I most recently got into Premiere for a few days, I really liked it. And of course you hit the wrong keys for a few days, but I like learning something new. If I could make a mashup of Avid and Final Cut 7 and Premiere, I would be so happy. There are pros and cons to them all. They’re all tools. Storytelling is what it’s all about. It really depends on the project. I like to be software agnostic.
I do think Adobe is doing something interesting integrating software into one another with the Creative Cloud. Along those lines, I can see a future where we don't hand off the edit to departments like sound, color, VFX, but everyone is working at the same time with the same timeline. Someone is color correcting your dailies while you're editing them, and someone updates a VFX in the timeline you're working with.
NFS: Have you ever edited a “found footage” film like Earth to Echo before? What challenges did it present?
Carsten Kurpanek: Well first, it’s not really a “found footage” film. That’s usually more associated with horror I think. It’s sort of more of a very professional looking home movie. [laughs] One of our lead characters, Tuck, is a YouTube generation kid, and the kids like this are all like producers in many ways. The conceit is that within the movie's reality, he is the director and editor of the film itself.
Because it has that first-person documentary style to it, it has as many challenges as it has freedom. When you edit a traditionally shot sequence, you can’t just jump cut close-ups, because it’d be jarring to the audience. Documentary has a different visual grammar -- we could jump cut to different takes in the same shot size. So that’s freeing. My wonderful director Dave Green kept finding ways to push the movie and make it better, like with Google Earth transitions, and iChat sequences, stuff you can’t always do with traditional narrative. Sometimes you don’t see someone speak on the POV camera, so you can switch out the dialog and insert new ADR. There’s infinite options. It was really fun.
NFS: What advice would you give to others who wanted to become a feature editor?
Carsten Kurpanek: The biggest step, is making the first step. Be focused, and know what you want in your career. If you have a year to spend to try things out, that’s fine, but the problem is that in L.A., just because you have a degree doesn’t mean you don’t have to find your way from the bottom up. You will have success over time, it doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t feel entitled. You have to be excited and you have to put in your time -- “paying your dues” as they say. People have to like you, too.
Also, understand notes. It’s a team sport. If you get a note, welcome it. Don’t take it personally. It means that something threw something off, and discovering that has value. People can’t necessarily articulate why something throws them off, but that’s your job as an editor to figure out. That’s where you can shine.
And I have to promote the America Cinema Editors Internship Program, which everyone can find on the ACE website. It’s an annual program where they pick two interns each year to visit real life feature, television, and reality tv editorials. It’s geared at recent college graduates. I got my start there. It opened many doors, and it taught me a lot.
The program's director for the last 20 years, Lori Jane Coleman, ACE and Diana Friedberg, ACE, wrote a book together called Make the Cut, which is about how to make a start in Hollywood, and can be purchased on Amazon -- plug plug!
And finally, I’m honored to announce that I’m taking over the ACE internship program starting this year with my good friend Tyler Nelson. We’re very honored and proud to pay it forward to people who will get their start in the industry.
NFS: Who is your favorite editor, and why?
Carsten Kurpanek: There is incredible talent out there, and so many to choose from. If I have to be put on the spot, I’d have to choose Chris Rouse, who is Paul Greengrass’ editor. He did all the Bourne movies, and United 93, incredible work. And recently Captain Phillips. And I like these kind of movies -- entertaining, but also intelligent, and impactful.
I was lucky enough to assist him once, and just seeing what he did with the material was just magical. He just gets it. There’s an event every year in L.A. called "Invisible Art Visible Artist". It’s the day before the Oscars, and the Oscar-nominated editors speak at the Egyptian. It’s free for the public, and he was there and talked about Captain Phillips, and showed the end scene, and basically said it was his first cut -- it shows how well he understands emotion, the drama, and the visual impact. That is something to aspire to.
Then there are all my incredible mentors who taught me so much, Richard Halsey, ACE (Rocky, Edward Scissorhands), Lori Jane Coleman, ACE (Picket Fences, Dawson's Creek, Covert Affairs), and Matt Chesse, ACE (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland, World War Z). They are all my favorite editors, really.
NFS: If I were to choose just one film to watch to learn about the edit, what film would you choose, and why?
Carsten Kurpanek: There are many movies that teach you many things about the edits, but I would say the Back to the Future trilogy. And not just because it’s one of my favorite movies of all time, but it has it all -- comedy, drama, action, chase scenes, cross cutting. That’s a good one to take on an island.
NFS: How would you recommend a novice editor to learn the craft of editing?
Carsten Kurpanek: There are a lot of sayings like “cut on action!” and “beware continuity!” I think you should learn the theory of editing. And I think you should learn about the past. Learn about Eisenstein (montage theory) and how The Great Train Robbery invented cross cutting. You should look up the editors of films you like and know them.
See things with the critical eye, and try to see the craft. Watch a film you like, and then watch it with the sound off. I was flying to Germany, and The Bourne Supremacy came on. I had on my iPod, so I was watching the film without dialog and sound and music. That’s a great way to learn editing dynamics -- watch without sound. Or, the other way around -- just listen to it. On Earth to Echo, we often listened to how the dialog flowed, and adjusted as needed for pacing.
There is a DVD out there for the movie Big, the Extended Edition, and it has a bonus feature where the deleted scenes are cut into the movie. Like 30 minutes of deleted, extra scenes. When you watch that, it doesn’t work anymore. The overall pace of the movie is thrown off. The scenes individually aren’t bad or edited in poorly, but it’s just that sometimes a good scene in the wrong place can throw the audience’s experience out of sync. You can’t yell at the audience at all times. It’s an ebb and flow system -- you pull the audience along, and keep them engaged.
Challenge yourself, be focused, be informed, and show enthusiasm. When you watch a movie like Inception and you freak out about the cross cutting, try to figure out why. If you want to do something so much that you want it to be your career, you should be as informed as possible. There’s this incredible documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It wasn’t just about cooking, but it was about being the best at what you do. That’s how you should look at your career.
Stop by Carsten's IMDB page to see more of his work, or visit his website. And be sure to see some of his other feature editorial work -- Squatters (2014), Diving Normal (2013), and Fort Bliss (2014).
NO FILM SCHOOL SUPER B-B-BONUS: If you have any questions for Carsten, please comment below -- he has agreed to answer everything he can!