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C.J.  Lazaretti is an editor who has worked on a variety of projects including documentaries, short films and music videos. He has recently found success with his directorial debut, the animated short “Cosmico”.

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Photo credit: Sin Bozkurt

C.J. Lazaretti is an accomplished editor whose work includes documentary shorts, music videos, commercials, and featurettes. Last month, we featured his directorial debut “Cosmico” in The Spread and discussed its controversial religious themes. This month, we spoke with him about his career as an editor, his recent transition to writing, directing, and animating, and his latest production as an editor, the mockumentary short “Leaving Stockholm”.

When and how did you start editing? What drew you to the craft?

I’m now in my third year of professional film editing, after years of experimenting with it in my free time. My background is actually the written word: English degree, journalism, copywriting. But I always enjoyed working with images as well, and one day found out that it brought me more satisfaction.

As a kid, before I even knew what editing was, I expected directors to edit their own films. I soon found out it’s not the way it was done, and was shocked. Once you’re aware of it, though, it doesn’t take long to understand why directors delegate that crucial part of the creative process: the additional perspective from a dedicated editor is essential to make your film sharp, fresh and fully developed.

The responsibility of balancing the flow of the film, carrying it through every shot and every cut, can be daunting. It’s intense, meticulous, and certainly not for everyone. But if the challenge doesn’t scare you, it’s a powerful creative outlet. And very rewarding.

Are there editors, or styles of editing, that have had a great influence on you?

Editing is an invisible art. The editors that get under your skin and shape the way you understand film are most likely to do it without you even noticing it, early on in your life. As a practitioner of that art, I’m enthralled by the seamless weaving of films that mix fiction and non­fiction. What Susan Morse did with Zelig (1983), or Christopher Tellefsen with Blue in the Face (1995), probably qualify as magic according to anthropological definitions of the term. They make it look easy. I’ve worked on two documentaries and two mockumentaries myself, so I know it’s not.

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Photo credit: Matthew Buxton

How much creative control does the editor typically exercise? 

The craft of editing is defined by its boundaries: at the end of the day, it’s the director’s film, not yours. But post­ production invariably reveals unexpected problems, and they call for unexpected solutions, first and foremost at the editing stage. Some directors are more receptive to their editor’s input than others, but the best never micromanage. I’m always excited and eager to explore the possibilities of the raw footage, to develop the vision of the film to its fullest, clearest potential. I’ll always be limited by the amount of freedom you give me, but however much that is, I’ll take it, and use it fully.

Do you have a personal style of editing that you bring to each project?

Film is an illusion, prestidigitation of the most basic kind. The frames and sound don’t really belong together. To trick your audience into thinking they do, you need the same sleight of hand that magicians use onstage. That’s a big part of my editing style. Many of the problems you encounter in a film can be solved with the smoke ­and­ mirrors techniques of the early days: the cutting and splicing, the overlapping, blurring something here, reversing something there.

Sound depends even more on that kind of trickery: the most spontaneous, natural dialogue often turns out to be grafted out of different sources, in unexpected places, with accidental noises working so well as placeholder sound effects that they end up in the final cut, not replaced by artificial effects. It’s an exhilarating challenge for an editor.

Creative manipulation of your source material can solve problems more organically than additional reshoots can, and I love doing it. More often than not, it also saves a lot of time, especially now that you can fine tune it with NLE systems like Avid. It’s surprisingly smoother than it sounds. Once it’s done, it feels natural to watch, as if it had been shot that way. But if I told you how I did it, it’d probably sound more like carpentry. Or surgery.

What is your editing program of choice? Why did you choose it?

Avid. It’s the industry standard, so professional editors need to know it, even if they prefer other softwares. I don’t. Avid feels more robust than Premiere, and doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel like FCP X. I’ve used it so much it’s become second nature to me. It’s like driving: once you know what you’re doing, you don’t think about it. You think about where you want to go.

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How big of a jump was it to dive into animating and directing with “Cosmico”? 

As a child, I would play with animation a lot – all my school textbooks had flipbook-­style doodles on the margins. Later, in my teens, back in the days of MS­DOS, there was this program called Animator Pro, which allowed you to draw, and also import GIF images and make animations with them. I scanned loads of comic books and CD covers to use as material. Very simple stuff: Iron Maiden’s Eddie coming out of a grave, Lady Death licking her lips and crossing her legs. I drew some from scratch, too. Not all of them were appropriate for underage audiences, though my teenage friends seemed to have no complaints. No sound at all, but that was for the best: the adults couldn’t hear it, so they didn’t know what we were watching.

Cosmico was so different from those early vignettes that it felt totally alien to me. This time, I was making it frame­-by-­frame on Photoshop, and then importing and finalizing it on Avid. We recorded some sound effects, and got others from online libraries, as well as the music. It took me two months to finish it, which is not bad for a three­ minute animation with a crew of two. But a three ­minute live action film would have taken a fraction of that to shoot and edit.

Was it a significantly larger workload than editing someone else’s film, or just a different workload?

The workload of animation is definitely heavier. Editing requires focus, precision and patience, but animation requires even more. Live action filmmakers take frames for granted; it’s only natural. Animation has taught me otherwise. I feel a bit like those football players in Brazil who spend their teens playing futsal, indoors, and then make the transition to outdoor pitches. They need a lot more control and precision to play on a hard floor. Once they’re playing on grass, they have more control than what is needed, and apparently they move more easily, more fluently. Hopefully I’ll go on to earn their kind of salaries as well.

Still from "Cosmico"

Where did all those big ideas about Duke Cosmico consuming religious energy come from? Was it a spontaneous inspiration, or something that developed over time?

I’m an atheist, but religion fascinates me, from a cultural perspective. So much of our culture and art – even our laws and systems of government – are direct consequences of spiritual beliefs, theological dogmas and religious taboos. Think of marriage, for example: it’s essentially the state regulating a religious ritual. Religion has shaped us to the same extent that we have shaped it. Like love, ethics, sex and death, it is a timeless topic, both universal and inexhaustible. Cosmico is not the first time I approach the topic creatively. It probably won’t be the last time, either.

You’ve travelled to numerous festivals and received many award nominations with “Cosmico”. What have you learned along the way about film, the industry, and yourself?

The most important lesson I’ve learned: filmmakers can’t rely on the merits of their film alone. You can make the most brilliantly shot, engaging and thought-­provoking film ever, but if no one knows about it, a weaker film by someone else will get all the audience, the festival acceptances, the awards and the distribution deals that had your name on them. As far as the sale is concerned, is not what you sell, but how you sell it.

Does that mean we should all be making shoddy films and spending all our budget on marketing? Of course not. You want to make an impression, and rushed, underdeveloped films don’t do that. But as far as finding an audience is concerned, the importance of both is shared fifty/­fifty. Making a lot of noise about your film will get people to watch it, but once the bums are on the seats, it’ll be forgotten quickly if the film doesn’t live up to their expectations. It’s no use finding an audience if you cannot keep it.

As far as the festival experience itself is concerned, you want to be remembered. Short film festival attendees have to sit through anything from eight to 40 films in a row. If yours is a genuinely engaging, self­-contained and concise film, it’ll stand out. They’ll discuss it, look for it online, give you feedback, spread the word. Humour always helps, and controversy sparks passionate debate. It’s happened to me, and it’s been both useful and fun.

Producer Hamish Graham with Lazaretti at Contravision

Producer Hamish Graham with C.J. at Contravision

Tell me a little about the latest film you edited, Leaving Stockholm. What were some of the highlights of working on it?

Leaving Stockholm is a mockumentary about an abuse survivor who invites a TV crew to her house to document her recovery from being abducted as a child and spending most of her teens in a basement. The TV crew’s intrusion leads to much friction with her mother, and things start to spiral out of control. Rather than relying on graphic depictions of violence or abuse, the film focuses on the tension between the girl and the mother, slowly unveiling the troubled relationship and tense emotional baggage that snowballs in the aftermath of her release from captivity.

It was a joy to work on. It’s intensely character-­oriented, which is my favourite kind of movie. All the strengths of the story and of the dynamics between the characters were evident in the script, and they came to life beautifully with a very convincing non-­fiction look that permeated the whole footage. Veronica Quilligan, who plays the mother, is a British veteran who’s worked with Ken Russell, Neil Jordan and Sean Connery. In fact, the performances were consistently great. This was the first film I edited with an actor crying on cue – to come across footage like that unexpectedly, while going through the rushes, is something special.

On the technical side, it also helped a lot that Leaving Stockholm was shot primarily with the Canon C300. That’s my favourite camera, from all the ones I’ve worked with so far. The picture looks like a million dollars, and it integrates quite naturally with Avid.

Congratulations on getting a nomination for Best Editing at the St Tropez Film Festival for your work on Leaving Stockholm! What was your reaction?

I don’t know what surprised me more, the nomination itself or the existence of a film festival with an award category for best editing of a short film. Aside from Best Editing, Leaving Stockholm was also nominated for Best Leading Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Screenplay at the 2015 St. Tropez International Film Festival. I didn’t win in my category, but Quilligan did in hers (Best Supporting Actress). I’m thrilled for her, and for our nominations as well. The film has won awards at other festivals in the US and Indonesia. Having seen the work that went on both sides of the camera and the effort that all the cast and crew put into it, I feel overjoyed to see that talent recognized internationally, and honored to be a part of it.

From an editing point of view, the film required a strict look, in order to convince you that it is a real documentary. That handheld feel may seem spontaneous and haphazard, but it actually has to be shot and edited very precisely. Still, at key moments, I had the chance to go a bit bolder and introduce unorthodox elements to heighten the emotional tension of the characters and their mental states. Perhaps that was what led to my nomination.

What do you think people think of when they hear “Best Editing”?

As for people hearing “Best Editing”, I’m not sure the phrase would even register. Audiences are largely unaware of what we do. Filmmakers and critics know what editing is, but as far as the civilian masses are concerned, you might as well survey their feelings about the Best Achievement in Geological Dredged Sedimentation Management award nominees.

Daisy Ward and Veronica Quilligan in “Leaving Stockholm”

What projects are you working on right now? Do you plan on directing and/or animating another film in the future?

I’m in the last stages of finalizing another short as we speak. It’s called The Flight of Iro and Casper, written and directed by Paul Herbert. The story follows a man who sees a woman instead of his own reflection in a mirror, and becomes obsessed with her. It’s part comedy and part low-­brow sci-­fi, and also shot with the Canon C300. I’ve got a good feeling about that one, it’s quite slick and ambitious.

As for directing other films, I’ve got a big cache of ideas, going all the way back to my first flings with film studies in 2008, in Austin, Texas. A finished script of my own is currently under development by another director, and I have a few additional first drafts that I might direct myself at some point. Not much planned in terms of animation, but then again, I didn’t plan much for Cosmico either. The inspiration just hit me suddenly for that one, like a bolt from outer space.

How has your experience with Cinema Jam affected your film career?

Cinema Jam is a unique gem in a sea of film networking events. I’ve been to more than my share of those, and found no other with such a clear scope and focus. I’ve actually found work through connections I made at Cinema Jam. And I had a great time when I didn’t. There’s not much else you can expect from a networking event.

As our focus is on comedy this month, what would you say are your favorite comedy films and/or filmmakers?

Compelling dramas draw most of their pathos from character, not plot. In comedy, the same happens with humour: if it doesn’t stem from character, it feels flimsy and shallow. A great example is Analyze This (1999). In that film, it’s not so much the many banana peels that make you laugh, but the choices that bring those peels into the characters’ lives, and how they turn out to be the most dangerous (and ultimately the most rewarding) accidents that could happen in their lives. Much of that is revealed in dialogue.

Speaking of that, I can think of no master of dialogue more consistent than Woody Allen. I like a clever dark comedy, and his are always darker than they seem on the surface, even when they’re already pretty dark, like Deconstructing Harry (1997) and Zelig (1983). Some of them don’t even have happy endings. Think about it. If you can make people laugh without a happy ending, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish with your craft.

Find out more about C.J. on his website

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Posted on Jun 1, 2015

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