Marlena Grzaslewicz, assistant professor of media arts, sciences and studies, is an Emmy-award winning sound editor. She has collaborated with documentarian Ken Burns for over 20 years, most recently working as the dialogue editor — a type of sound editor who deals only with dialogue in a film — for “The Roosevelts: An Intimate Story,” airing on PBS.
Grzaslewicz graduated from the Lodz Film School of Poland and, in addition to teaching at Ithaca College, owns and operates an editing company in New York City called 701 Sound with award-winning sound editor Ira Spiegel.
Contributing Writer Matthew Radulski sat down with Grzaslewicz to discuss her work at the college, her work on the documentary and what advice she would give to students.
Matthew Radulski: You’ve won an Emmy Award. How did that feel, and did that help your career?
Marlena Grzaslewicz: Nomination is more important in a sense than winning because winning is just somebody decides who out of five projects has the best sound. Being recognized is a nice thing because we who do sound, we are craftsmen. So in one respect it is a pat on the back, a sort of nice thing to do. It’s a conversational topic, but it doesn’t really change, because I think this usually comes as a surprise. This award doesn’t really do anything to affect my career. I am not sought out more than I was before. I am not paid more. I’m as vulnerable as before I won the Emmy. All [five] nominations are for working with Ken Burns, and his projects are always recognized in the film and television awards.
MR: Is there any particular favorite project you’ve done with Ken Burns or elsewhere?
MG: “Frank Lloyd Wright.” It was a beautiful project because Frank Lloyd Wright is such an interesting character, so there is a lot of drama just written by life. So the film has a lot of dynamic, there’s different music being used than normally Ken uses. Every project brings something very different. It’s very difficult to put them all in one bag and to say you know, this is my favorite.
MR: You’re the dialogue editor, so will you work with strictly dialogue, will you work with scripts or will you work more with the sound editing after it’s done? Particularly when Burns is working on it, what’s your role there?
MG: What I do is essentially cutting out the blemishes of people’s speech. There is a very technical skill which I have to have to be a dialogue editor. I always say that anyone can cut effects but not everybody can cut dialogue.
MR: Did you learn anything when working on “The Roosevelts: An Intimate Story”?
MG: I am an immigrant, so I sort of have the best job ever. As I learn American history, they pay me. So every time I work on Ken’s films, I always learn something.
MR: What’s the most rewarding part for you?
MG: When I was much younger, just the fact that something that I work on is on television and a hundred thousand people watched it had a meaning. Today it means something also, I mean, it’s my work. I’ve worked on 140 plus films. I love what I do, and it’s a job. I want to perform the job to the highest ability of my own professionally, but it’s a job. I cannot give love to every project. I’d be dead by now if I gave this much love.
MR: What advice would you give yourself when you were starting, and to students at the college looking to get into sound editing?
MG: I think, like everything in life, you have to actually believe that there is a value in it. And this value has to be mostly for you, and then for the others. If you bring your expertise and your focus on the project only because somebody hired you and you want to please them, sooner or later in a profession as competitive as working in film, it doesn’t matter what the capacity is, you will burn out and you will lose the motivation to keep pleasing other people. You have to please yourself in a sense. I have to be my best. Whether my director or producer is happy or not. Maybe they don’t like it, which is their right, but I did not slack off.