The edit suite is where the story finally comes together in its polished and perfected form. In advance of EditFest London, Televisual asks five of the UK’s top editors about their creative approach
My process goes back to editing Super 8 films as a child. I work moment-for-moment so I work with my team to log as much as possible about each slate and take, so I can jump to any variance in line reading, gesture or character’s movement. It’s a lot of prep but makes the initial assembly come together in the most fluid way for me personally.
A film high on visual effects like my current project begins a year before the shoot starts, often long before the project is even green-lit by the studio. A more conventional shoot like my last film begins on day one of shooting. I like both routes as my enjoyment of the process is based upon the story and the talent around me rather than whether there are any visual effects involved. Also, I think every crew member thrives on the need for something new and different in a new job. Every film brings new creative, logistical, political and social opportunities.
Some directors will sit with you through dailies and give specific notes each day. Others will give more generic notes and wait to see what you put together. Either way has its merits and either way brings that variety that keeps us all fresh. Some directors like to sit through every scene, shot by shot while others like to give notes at the beginning of the day and return the next morning. I wouldn’t say that editing is part of the directing process but it is definitely an extension of the writing process. I often find I get on really well with writers. The producer of my current project, Steve Kloves who wrote most of the Harry Potter screenplays and wrote and directed The Fabulous Baker Boys has become a very good friend. We share the same passions but we’re included at opposite ends of the process.
The essential skills
If you can tell a good story then you have a head start. Beyond that I think the greatest asset any crew member can have is to respect the roles of all those around you. There are many directors who believe they are auteurs but the truth is filmmaking is a collaboration. Part of being a good editor is understanding what all the other departments do and plugging Editorial into that machine.
There are no rules to a good edit. For me it is simply the moment when the transition between one cut and the next takes life within the scene. The excitement of the work comes from stringing these individual moments of life together into something cohesive.
Each story requires a set of different stylistic choices. Some of the greatest single edits of all time are the most obvious ones. But just because they are obvious doesn’t mean they are any less powerful.
I never follow the same method for some reason. It always depends completely on the material. I try to submerge myself in the story and make every edit for that. Sometimes I’ll start with the moment I think is the heart of the scene and then build the rest from there. Sometimes I’ll just start at the first shot and keep cutting till I reach the end of the sequence. It kind of depends completely on what’s happening in the scene.
I organise the rushes as simply as possible. Like a kind of ‘Fisher Price’ approach, with visual key frames for each setup. Then I separate each take with a little red dot so I can see where each one begins! After that I make select rolls for key moments. I want them to be immediately findable because wasting time looking for anything is taking away time and energy from the film.
Come on board
It’s always different but usually it’s best to be involved at script stage. Producers want suggestions about cutting scenes before the shoot begins because they’re desperate to save money. It’s amazing how editors can help with that! I’ve worked with very ‘hands on’ directors as well as ones who have no patience for the cutting room and have given me total control. I think the best directors are ones who give the editor space to experiment while paying attention to the big picture. The director is most effective when he/she can judge things from a bit of a distance. Sometimes it’s hard to see the grand scheme when you’re chipping away at the details. The last thing you need is a director who is obsessed with a two frame edit.
When it works
The edit is the final stage of the writing process. The main reason I’ve had the confidence to move into directing myself is that I’ve learned so much in the cutting room. Ideally the editor and director are very tuned into each other. Some directors don’t have the patience for detail in the cutting room so it’s the editors job to make thousands of decisions on their behalf. Sometimes it’s easier for the editor to make these decisions because they weren’t on the set and have an essential and unbiased clarity on what is good and what isn’t.
You need patience, compassion, empathy, a love of music, an obsession with stories and storytelling, determination, good taste, a thick skin as well as extreme sensitivity (which is very hard) and above all, a sense of humour.
Most of the time editing is best when it’s invisible. However, there are times when a cut can be effective when it jumps out at you but only when it’s completely tuned into the story. For me there has to be a strong narrative reason for a noticeable cut.
The beautiful thing about an edit is you can’t irrevocably break something. The material and the performances are all in there somewhere, it’s just about interpreting it. Filming is expensive, editing can be done quite cheaply so you get a lot of freedom.
Get on board
If it’s been done well and the DoP’s fantastic, the script and the cast is good, what you’re presented with is already part way to being what it’s going to be anyway. The camera style will dictate the editing style to a degree and the rhythms in the script also. There’s such a creative momentum already when the editor steps in, if you’re perceptive you can dovetail into what’s trying to be achieved without going against the grain of that. It becomes a natural progression.
You never get the opportunity again to see the material for the first time. It’s vitally important you’re not distracted then. You’re trying to be with the actors as much as you possibly can when watching those rushes or you’ll miss that golden thing which is your first reaction. I’m very reactive to performance and levels of performance, anything that rings particularly true or is idiosyncratic and interesting in a human way, I’ll mark up and try to get into the scene at some point.
I feel myself to be a frustrated actor. If the actor is upset you need to feel as upset as they feel. If a joke is funny you need to be there with them to find it funny. Soul and perception of humanity is the greatest tool. To be able to pick out seemingly innocuous idiosyncratic behaviour is essential. Anyone with enough time can work out how to make edits on an Avid, but it really is about the communication of emotions.
Big screen, small screen
Whether it’s TV shows or features it’s essentially the same thing. Instinctively when you sit down in front of an Avid and you start pulling material together it just feels exactly the same. I’ve bounced between the two. I’ve just done a TV pilot and from shoot to lock it was four weeks and yet on Suffragette we were close to nine months editing. You look at these two scenarios and think how on Earth did we take that long on the movie and how on Earth did we lock that show in four weeks? But in terms of trying to figure out the differences I find it very hard. I approach every job with exactly the same determination, dedication and passion. When you hit the material it’s the same job.
I’m often sent a late draft of the script to see if I have thoughts and notes but generally I tend to avoid that. It will have gone through so many clever people before me it’s better for me to come to it as fresh as possible. My job is to be the viewer at home, the guy who’s sat on the sofa watching it. The less I know about pre-production and production the better.
I’ve had scenes where the director says ‘I wouldn’t look at the stuff we shot past 6pm, it’s not so good.’ But when you look at that stuff it’s fantastic. When you chat to them you realise that day it was raining, the food was terrible, they’d gone into overtime the day before and everyone was tired. That might have influenced the way they feel about it.
Get it together
I tend to make my assemblies as tight as possible. If you have them loose you’ll end up having to take time out of them anyway. I tend to not worry too much about the visuals at that stage; I radio edit what the best takes are. If there’s some clunky visual editing then I can worry about that down the line. It’s whatever’s funniest, but I did the same thing on Doctor Who? – does it work? Are you getting the ups and downs and flows in conversation and the building towards suspense? If you close your eyes does it still make sense? That’s what I’m really worried about when I’m doing assemblies.
Once the director’s in there’s always something that doesn’t work – a joke that doesn’t land, a scene that feels superfluous, setting up exposition that’s unnecessary, so you start taking things out. You’re then on a mission to make it as much like a finished TV programme as possible. You’ll watch an assembly but you see 100 things that need fixing, you become obsessed with getting these things fixed. It becomes like a DIY project.
Room to breathe
Knowing what’s funny is really good, but if it makes you laugh it’s funny and if it doesn’t, it isn’t. It doesn’t really get more complicated than that. What does help is an understanding of how much clarity you need when it comes to story. Every good sitcom has a good story underneath the jokes but if that story gets so complicated you have to take jokes out to make time for it then there’s something wrong. It’s about how few words you can use to tell the story to leave room for as many jokes as possible.
You meet the director to see if you’re going to be able to work together. Then you talk to them and they start telling you their ideas about the story. But if you’re working with the right sort of director who trusts you he wants you to bring something of yourself to it. What’s the point of just being a pair of hands and doing just what someone tells you to do, you’d just be a robot. You need to give him what he wants but give him something of yourself. You may find something in the material he never thought of. That’s the way I worked.
I will talk to the director while they’re shooting and find out what they want on the scene and I will bear that in mind once I start working on it. With Joel Schumacher on The Phantom of the Opera he said to me ‘I want you to edit the film. I’m directing and you’re editing and when you’ve finished it, show it to me and if there are things we don’t like we’ll work on them together but if it works okay we’ll leave it alone.’ That gives you confidence. Some wanted to put their fingers in the pie all the time but I never had that very much. I find directors are easy to work with if they trust you, that’s half the battle, that they know you’re working to make their film the best you possibly can.
No rough stuff
The terminology I cannot stand is rough cut. There is no such thing as a rough cut. The thing you do first if the most thoughtful cut you make. It may not work completely because it may have come out too long or one of the characters didn’t work and you need to develop it a different way. All those things happen afterwards but it’s never a rough cut. You spend a great deal of time getting the best cut you possibly can to show to your director and the investors, that’s the one everybody sees first. Once you’ve done that you can see then where it doesn’t quite work and that’s where you work on it together. When you get down to it together you can say ‘this is far too long it doesn’t work’, or ‘we’re outstaying our welcome in this particular scene’ and he either agrees with you or doesn’t and when he doesn’t you get a film that doesn’t quite work.
The eyes have it
For a good cut you’ve got to get beneath the surface of the subject and understand the characters. I loved The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. It’s a story about these sad people and you feel for them and that’s how you get beneath the surface of the subject. It’s got to be instinctive, you cut where it feels right. That’s why I love dialogue scenes. All the time I’m looking at the character’s eyes. It’s like when you’re talking to people you look in their eyes and you know whether they’re getting pissed off with what you’re saying or you’ve got them on your wavelength. It’s the same when cutting a film, you’re looking at these people’s eyes and one movement of the eyes says a page of dialogue.
The editors featured in this article will be speaking at ACE’s EditFest London on June 20, sponsored by Televisual – www.americancinemaeditors.org
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