Friday, August 03, 2007

Writing with slug tape

When I was in film school about five or six thousand years ago, I learned how to edit film—actual celluloid film—by using a flatbed. Flatbeds were pretty slick machines. You started by taking the film track (the reel with just the images on it) and running it from the reel-holder on the left side through the tapehead to another reel-holder on the right side. Essentially, it was like sitting inside a massive tape cassette. You remember those, right? Before CDs?

Once you had your film track properly threaded, you could lay down your sound track [sic] in one of two reel-holders. Typically, one reel-holder was reserved for a dialog track and the other for sound effects track, although that was strictly a matter of preference. You could, for example, put music in the other reel-holder or even another dialog track.

In the editing process, we used something called "slug tape", which was exposed film tape. It was meant to be filler, to take up a certain amount of the reel—either for image or for sound—until you knew what you could swap it out for later on. All three reels would roll in sync and you'd start out with a complete reel of slug tape for your sound effects track and slowly chip away at it, removing a few feet of slug at a time so that a special effect would play at precisely the right moment. When done, you'd usually have a music or dialog reel spliced with only small bits of slug tape here and there.

Writing is perfectly epitomized by slug tape. When I write, my inclination is to get it on paper exactly as it is in my head which has led to years of frustrating idleness. Thus, I have been forced to accept that, for at least the first time around, everything I write is almost always going to be slug tape. Over time, I'll yank out a clunky word and slide in a better one, snip out an awkward phrase and replace it with a more fitting dependent clause... writing is exactly like editing with slug tape. I even started writing my feature script 62 Blocks to Battery Park by slapping together 120 blank pages with two brads and slowly replacing each blank "slug" page with a finished page. Even though the first draft was wretched, the "slug tape" would slowly be replaced with better "footage". Eventually, it gets hard to tell where the slug tape is at all (arguably, that is why authors will always need editors).

Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot cleverly use a verbal cue to remind themselves, and each other, that their initial writing suggestions aren't carved in stone, but start as slug tape: "Okay, this is the bad version..."

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