BERKELEY -- When Superstorm Sandy knocked out plans for film editor Sam Pollard to make a "Behind the Scenes" visit last November to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, directing did what it always does: cut, take two.
Pollard's return in late June allowed the editor, producer and teacher -- best known for his collaborations with Spike Lee -- an opportunity to discuss his 40 years of experience and introduce screenings of "Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks" (director Craig Rice) and "Clockers" (Lee).
Pollard was 21 when he became involved in the editing craft. The assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. prompted a public television station to put out a call in 1968, hoping to involve more minorities in television after finding few African Americans available for production of a King documentary. Pollard answered, earning a hands-on opportunity to learn filmmaking and finding a career path.
But it was Orson Welles who first planted the seed that became his life's passion, he told the lecture audience.
"It was this clip," Pollard said, calling for the lights to be dimmed. "The Million Dollar Movie house would show a film from their vault -- five days a week, all day, same film over and over."
The scene from the 1941 Welles masterpiece "Citizen Kane" showed Xanadu, the private estate of newspaper baron Charles Foster Kane, in black and white splendor. Turrets were constructed, the animal kingdom was brought in by cranes, headlines flashed past, and the deep, resonant voice of an announcer, barking over moody, mysterious music, described intrigue and a fall from grace.
"Unconsciously, years before I learned the craft, I saw this and wanted to be a filmmaker," Pollard said.
He apprenticed with Victor Kanefsky, a leading film editor who ran an informal training course from his midtown Manhattan offices.
"He'd sit me down behind a flatbed and show me the cuts on movement. He taught me how to use a dissolve, when to let a movement play, how to find the important part of a dialogue," Pollard said.
Eventually, a template for editing documentaries and feature films was imprinted in his mind. Pollard's first film was "Gamma 696," which he called "one of the worst movies in the history of cinema."
That failure taught him more than later successes about making films come to life. "Even if I improve a film 1 percent, that's important to me," he said.
Pollard said the biggest editing challenge is deciding what to leave out, especially in this day of shooting tape, instead of costly film. He recently was given 450 hours of raw footage to edit for a Serena and Venus Williams documentary.
To tackle the enormous obstacle, he cut the film without sound, then searched through transcripts to find voice-overs emphasizing the visuals.
"None of this happened this way," he said with a laugh, "but rhythm and pace are what keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. You can make the material soar or you can fall flat on your face."
Pollard admires classics like "Citizen Kane," but also more recent films: a bathroom fight scene in "The Bourne Supremacy" is a particular favorite. He said sound is used "beautifully" without its becoming a jumble. An editor is like a jazz musician, he suggested, nimble, improvisational, and attune to juxtapositions. But the editor is also a storyteller, with a command of narrative arc and character development.
Audience questions asked about his relationship with directors.
"When I was young, feisty and combative, I would scream at directors and say, 'You're ruining my film,'" he recalled. "There were a few times I put my foot down and ended up with it in my mouth. I've learned to calm down."
Pollard asks directors to shoot all the scenes, then go away for two months and allow him to shape the film. Via editing software he takes five hours of material down to one hour of final shots.
He said there are more people of color in editing today and that the students he teaches at New York University help him keep up with the industry's changing technology.
Pollard is currently producing and editing a film about playwright August Wilson that will air on public television's "American Masters" in fall 2014.