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After spending three years filming a documentary about cattle ranchers in the high cold sagebrush desert, I moved with my filmmaking partner and best friend, Gwen to San Francisco because we needed access to editing equipment. Now, everything is electronic and you can edit an entire film on a laptop. Then, you needed a lot of expensive gear: a gigantic flatbed editing machine, a splicer, big bins with hooks on which to hang the strands of outtakes and lots of shelves to hold your rolls of film. I still miss the physicality of working that way.

When Gwen and I decided to leave the ranch for a place with reliable electricity and access to editing gear, we looked in Reno, which was only 200 miles from the ranches where we’d been working as ranch hands while we filmed. But the one guy who had that kind of thing was not willing to rent it to us. We could have gone to New York, another hot spot of independent filmmaking, but San Francisco was far closer, you
could still drive back to the ranch in a day to see your horses.

Gwen was the camerawoman; I was the sound recordist. My background was not in filmmaking and the ways in which I didn’t know what I was doing were infinite. Why didn’t I order some books from the library about how to record sound for film? It wouldn’t have been that hard, the local librarian was one of the few people in that ranching community who adored Gwen and me, because we had borrowed so many books, we’d pushed the library into a new category for usage! But I was too arrogant to believe all the technical things I heard about. I recorded sound “my way,” with a cheap, light weight recorder. In the edit room, we discovered that it would only run in sync with the picture for a couple seconds. The sense of realism we thought we were capturing didn’t exist. Wind? I didn’t learn to care about that till we got deep into the edit and discovered the wind drowned out the sound I thought I was recording!

I was in a film sound facility, transferring what I had recorded to “magnetic film,” so that we could play it with the picture on the edit machine. The mess I’d made was so epic, the owner of the company told me, “You need an editor.”

Gwen and I had only been in town for a week, I didn’t know any editors, didn’t even know what one did.

“Do you know any?”

He gave me three names. The only one who called me back, Kenji Yamamoto, told me he was Jewish, then laughed heartily. I didn’t know what kind of name Yamamoto was, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t Jewish.

That night, as I was falling asleep, I thought about that laugh and wondered, “Who is this Kenji Yamamoto?”

The answer to that question changed my life.

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