Editor Profile: Isaac Hagy
Posted by Doug Klinger on February 21, 2013 in Interviews
Chances are, if you’ve seen a music video made in the past three or four years, you’ve seen the work of Isaac Hagy. Editor of some of the most popular music videos for artists like Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt, The Weeknd, Bon Iver, and Foster The People (just to name a few), Isaac’s work has a way of getting in front of people. We talk to Isaac about his relationship with the directors that he collaborates with, working with big name artists, and how he is able to mange working on several projects at once.
Doug: How did you find yourself working as an editor? Was there something about editing that drew you to it?
Isaac: Being an editor was never something I aspired to growing up. I think like most nerdy, pimple-faced teenagers with a camera, I just wanted to do anything with film and video. I remember watching TRL after middle school and VH1 Pop Up Video after I delivered the paper route on Saturdays and just thinking that that - in its entirety - was something I wanted to do. I never quite grasped that these were collaborative jobs with distinct divisions of labor; I just wanted to make things. Truth be told, I would probably have been a musician if I had an ounce of musical talent. But seeing as I don't, film seemed like the next best thing.
My first actually experience came during a college internship. After seeing an amazing documentary by the Maysles Brothers called Gimme Shelter, I muscled my way into an unpaid position at the International Documentary Association (IDA). This lead to another - thankfully paid - job as personal assistant on a documentary film about war photographer Eddie Adams that was eventually called An Unlikely Weapon. I was hired to get coffee and log tapes, but somehow ending up both shooting and cutting the film. This was the first time I really awoke to the power of editing. I never thought of editing as a glamourous job, but especially with documentaries, I realized it could be a very influential job. That film - which was literally the first thing I ever touched - played in at least fifty film festivals and actually won me a few editing awards. After that, I feel like the spark was kind of set. Also, the cinematography was crap on that movie.
Doug: There are several directors that you work with frequently, like Hiro Murai, Nabil, and Ace Norton to name a few. Does your role in the process remain consistant from director to director? Or does it change depending on who you're working with?
Isaac: I have had the pleasure / torture of working over and over again with those fine gentlemen. Just to get the sentimental bullshit out of the way, one of the best parts of my job is working with people I like and those three guys are some of my closest friends. Working with friends makes it feel like less of a job and more of how it felt when I was running around with my friends in high school pointing cameras at things.
To answer your questions, I don't think it really does change much. For me personally, editing is half brain, half gut. A lot of the choices I make are mysterious even to me and I am not sure how I could change them if I wanted to. That said, I do realize that each director has his or her personal style and taste and I want my work to serve that. I know that Nabil will respond certain way to things, whereas Ace might feel the opposite. I like to think these guys keep coming back to me because they trust me to make decisions for myself and not cater to exactly what I think they may like. I have also worked with a bunch of other directors at one time or another - really talented people like Tim Nackashi, Isaiah Seret, Taylor Cohen, Alma Har'el, Honey, and Keith Schofield. It's always gives me crazy anxiety to work with new directors and usually for absolutely no reason at all. But there is always a period where you have to feel someone out to discover how open you can be.
Doug: I know you work out of Bonnie Brae Studio, as do a lot of the directors that you collaborate with. As an editor in an environment like this, are you just constantly being called in to contribute on projects? To the point where if a video gets worked on there, even if you didn't technically edit it, you still contributed to it in one way or another?
Isaac: Good Ole' Bonnie Brae - that office is pretty much my home away from home. Actually, I probably spend way more time there than at home. Just to clarify what Bonnie Brae is - it's an office in Hollywood that houses an amorphous collective of creative and somewhat unhinged individuals including Hiro, Nabil, Stephen Drypolcher, Eric Greenburg (another very talented editor), myself and Mark Steinberg and Pete Sauvey - two very talented VFX and color wizards who have started their own company called Varnish. That atmosphere at Bonnie Brae is very collaborative and everyone is constantly being asked to provide perspective and at times work on each other's projects. Sometimes Hiro will ask me for VFX advice on a random project or Nabil will ask my opinion on his choice of Instagram filter. I am also roommates with two of the guys who work out of the office. Its a very incestuous relationship we have there.
Doug: In general, how mant projects are you working on a one time? Have you found a way to manage your work flow, or are there a lot of sleepless nights in front of the computer?
Isaac: You know, I am getting better at that. Being entirely freelance, I often find the most difficult part of the job is actually managing my time and realizing what I am personally capable of taking on. When I started out I would be grateful for anything I could get my hands on. Now I am starting to understand the value of a good night's sleep. The more projects I take on at once, the more the work suffers. That said, last week was simultaneously working on three projects - a Bud Light commercial starring Justin Timberlake, Frank Ocean's background visuals for the Grammys, and an indie feature. It was stressful but I would have regretted turning any of those down.
Doug: A lot of the artists you edit for are pretty huge names. As the artist gets bigger, does their impact on the final edit also get bigger?
Isaac: The names have been getting bigger and bigger, which is the goal I guess. But yes, more money does often equal more problems. Obviously, the bigger the artist the more influence and ego that comes into play. But honestly, most of the stars are stars for a reason. Not only do they have talent, but they know how to control their image and commodify what they have. You have to trust that an artist's notes are coming from the same instincts that have led them to be a success. The problems really happen when bigger artists beget more management, handlers, and opinions that are not always as informed. That said, if the director and I are on the same page about a note we can usually make a good case to push back. It's always a game of choosing what is worth fighting for. Nonetheless, one artist did make my life a living hell last year. I will leave it at that.
Doug: In addition to working on music videos, you also have edited several commercials. As an editor, how does the commercial industry relate to the music video industry? Both in a budget sense, and creatively.
Isaac: I absolutely love commercials - they pay the bills. Honestly, that is the main draw of them for me. The budgets are astronomically larger than music videos or any of the features I have done. I would go so far as to say that working on commercials has funded the work I have been able to do on lower budget, potentially more rewarding jobs. Now that is not to say that there is not creative gratification to working on commercials. I still approach commercial jobs with the same mentally that I do any job: to do the best I can, to be experimental and not always take the easy road, and to do something I am proud of. You just have to realize that at the end of the day you are selling a product and you have the do the best job you can to that end.
Doug: Are you in the position to pass on jobs that you don't think you'll enjoy working on, or that you won't get the artistic freedom you want? Or can nobody in the music video industry afford to pass up on work?
Isaac: I would say that I am finally in the position to pass on jobs, but this is a relatively new development. In fact, at this point I probably pass on almost twice as many jobs as I take. That sounds like an ideal position for an editor to be in but I always second guess my job decisions. Way more than I ever second guess any editorial decisions. It keeps up at night because I never know what jobs will end up being satisfying, or which jobs will introduce my to new directors that I will love working with. Last year only I passed on a feature doc and a short film that were nominated for oscars, as well as many many great music videos. In fact, this morning I passed on an a-list music video because I wanted to keep working on an indie feature that has 1/10th of the editorial budget.
For me the decision to take jobs comes down to three things:
1. Who is doing it. Every time I turn down a job for a close collaborator I feel like I am letting them down. I have turned down countless jobs for Ace, Nabil, and Hiro that have turned out to be great videos. But if there are no scheduling conflicts I will never turn down a job for these guys. Additionally, there are tons of directors I love that I would jump at the chance to work with: Wendy Morgan, Keith Scholfeild, Mark Romenak to name a few. I want to work with people I can argue with and be in the trenches and learn from.
2. Who is the artist. Lately I have been lucky to work on videos for artists I really love: Bon Iver, St. Vincent, Frank Ocean, etc. These have all been great experiences because I feel like I am contributing something - however minor - to the music that I already love. Again, part of this goes back to wishing I had a modicum of musical talent.
3. What is the budget. As much as I hate to admit, this passion of mine is also a business, and as such I need to find a way to put bread in my mouth and Presidents in my wallet. All things considered, I will always choose a job for a director I respect or artist I love over a higher-paying job. But it is those bigger jobs - especially the commercials - that allow me to take on the low budget music videos and no-budget features.
In response to your last question about wondering if nobody can afford to turn down jobs in the music industry. I think it's difficult. The music video industry is not exactly rollin in dough right now and it doesn't seem to be getting any better. But i think it's important to exercise some restraint and choice amongst the projects you take - whether you be an editor, dp, director or producer. If you have no choice and don't care about the project you are putting effort into and loosing sleep for, it just becomes another job. The thing I don't want to loose perspective on is that I actually enjoy what I am doing and truly care about what the final video ends up being.
For more about Isaac, check out his website.
editor profile, isaac hagy
Doug Klinger is the co-founder/content director of IMVDb and watches more music videos than anyone on earth. You can find him on twitter at @doug_klinger.
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