Why Our Students Are Starstruck: Q & A with Stephen Rivkin, Avatar Co-editor

Posted by on June 7, 2013

Noted Hollywood film editor, Stephen Rivkin, spent an evening chatting with Minnesota School of Business-Richfield’s (MSB) Digital Video and Media Production and Film in Society students. Stephen has worked on a few titles you may recognize—little films like “Avatar” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy. Stephen joined the students via Skype and took their questions for well over an hour. This Q&A was set up by MSB instructor Richard Grossman, who has been friends with Stephen since high school.

digital video and media production, Stephen Rivkin

Stephen Rivkin

“You are all in the very town where I started,” Stephen began.

Stephen has been an editor in the motion picture industry for more than 30 years.  He is currently vice president of the American Cinema Editors and serves on the Board of Directors for the Motion Picture Editors Guild.  He has worked for some of Hollywood’s top directors including James Cameron, Gore Verbinski, Michael Mann, Norman Jewison, Rob Cohen, and Mel Brooks. Rivkin was nominated for an Academy Award, a BAFTA Award and an ACE Eddie award for his work on James Cameron’s mega-blockbuster, Avatar, which he co-edited. He is also the chairman for The Committee for Creative Recognition and initiated a campaign to lobby film festivals and critics organizations, which honor Cinematography and/or Production Design, to add the Editing category to their annual awards.

Stephen’s live Skype feed was displayed on a projection screen in front of a standing-room-only audience full of eager and excited students and alumni from MSB. This was not a room of students required to attend the lecture of a guest speaker—these were students who clearly wanted to be there. How does a person recognize this? There was a distinct lack of cell phones—no texting, no games, no Facebook. Just a wide-eyed crowd of aspiring filmmakers and aficionados—silent and listening.

Students with questions for Stephen sat in front of the camera and asked him directly. Not surprisingly, most of the students’ questions surrounded the creation of Avatar—a film editing feat of epic proportions. Working on a film that was primarily an elongated visual effect was challenging in and of itself, but throw in the fact that most of the film team had never done 3D before—it was truly uncharted territory.

digital video and media production, Stephen Rivkin“With Avatar, everyone was in over their heads,” Stephen said. “No one had done anything like it before.”

Stephen talked to the students about the life of a film editor—the challenges, the rewards, the reality. For example, Avatar took three years to finish.

“You’re under a constant state of deadline,” he said. “Individual shots would take up to a year to complete. When you’re feature editing, you’re not juggling other projects. You work on one project until it’s done. They own you. You’re a high-paid slave.”

The room erupted in laughter on many occasions, this being just one example.

Students’ questions varied from the technical aspects of editing to Avatar sequels to changes in the editor’s role. Some of the questions were quite candid, and Stephen always responded with equally candid answers.

“How do you actually feel about 3D?” student Michael O’Halloran asked.

“It can be a very important addition to immersing an audience,” Stephen said. “But it shouldn’t be the star. The star should be the story.”

The Q&A was insightful, inspirational, educational and entertaining.

“I really wanted to know about the editing world in LA from a professional editor’s point of view,” said student Eric Chan. “It was a really great experience.”

One student, Ryan Risch, asked “What keeps you level-headed and down to earth?”

Without skipping a beat, Stephen said, “Minnesota roots.”


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