In advance of EditFest London 2017, three top film editors tell Jon Creamer what it takes to create the perfect cut
The Martian, Gladiator, Alien: Covenant, Good Will Hunting, Black Hawk Down, The Amazing Spiderman, Stealing Beauty, Kick Ass, Memoirs of a Geisha
The director editor relationship is a very close one. The early meetings are about what appeals to you about the story and character. You share ideas and themes and you see if you’re talking in the same way. You establish a rapport by how you respond to the material. With directors you’ve had a relationship with like myself with Ridley [Scott], a lot of the time we would talk about ideas or colours or paintings that would come to mind. You share with all the creative people and you have a meeting of minds.
When they start filming and you start getting material now it’s real. You see the colour, the light the director has provided. You see what the actors give you. You react to the material. That first impression of the material when it comes into the cutting room is a very important critical stage. Now it’s not abstract. Before we screen dailies with the director and cinematographer I have my own reactions as a viewer and I make mental notes that I will use later when building the scene. Those initial reactions are very important.
After that stage you start building with all these thoughts in your head. You know what the dramatic beats are of a scene and you build towards that. You could take the analogy of the way painters use a canvas. You don’t start building by minute details, you work the canvas with large brush strokes. You try to feel the shape and movement so you don’t get bogged down and hung up on the details. Yes, you will fine tune but you need to feel the flow. The reworking and re-editing and fine tuning carries all the way through the process of building the film. Every decision is based on how efficiently and succinctly you can focus the story and the character to get the most emotional impact from an audience.
We are very good manipulators in terms of making things work on an emotional level but at the same time you don’t want to manipulate to the point where it doesn’t feel real. That’s the worst kind of manipulation where it relies on all the worn out clichés. It’s about finding what’s truthful. Part of the editing process is to make that which is artificial feel real. Yes of course everything is fake but you always have to be truthful to the material and the emotions.
After the shoot has finished you screen the editor’s cut to the director. At this stage it’s pretty much everything that was shot and is in the script. Seeing the film for the first time is another big milestone because at that stage you don’t know what the film is. The accumulation of scenes or the script is not the film. The first stage is the shooting and the assembly of the first editor’s cut. The second phase is the director’s cut phase and that’s the most creative part for an editor. That’s where you find the film. You reach the length of the picture, you move entire scenes, sometimes you can drop an entire character but you basically build the film. At the end of that time you need to show the best possible film that you have right now to the studio. That’s where the third and final stage begins. You start screening it to the producers, the studio and maybe family and friends and get some feedback. This is the stage where the marketing parts come in. You get into a whole stage of previews and feedback and at the same time you now work towards completing the film. You do temporary mixes to preview the film, you get temp cues from the composer, vfx are delivered and the movie is taking shape. It’s a trying time as all the pieces need to come together. However, when you are in the final mixing stages the one thing to remember is, is that what I wanted in the script? Because now there are so many voices and it’s very hard to hear your initial voice.
The Fifth Element, Leon, Catwoman, Cezanne et Moi, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Un Petit Boulot
Generally I’ll talk with the director before the shoot about the overall shape of the film, its rhythm, its meaning, the message it has to deliver. That makes it possible to get to where they want the film to land and to look like.
I generally start to cut at the beginning of principal photography. It is useful to collaborate with the director throughout the shoot, both for me in the editing room and for him on the shoot to implement the shot list of specific scenes. The great thing with editing is that there are as many ways of approaching it as there are films and directors. Some directors need to have a daily discussion about the film, most of them are so immersed in the shoot they have barely any time left for anything else in their life.
The crucial starting point is to intensely watch the dailies. That is the only moment I have to digest every single frame, the intentions and subtleties of the actor’s performance and every incident that can be used somewhere in the film. The goal is the get the best out of the dailies.
I work as closely as possible with the director. This is the interesting part of the editing process – sharing ideas, finding tricks, reinventing the dailies, shaping the film and tirelessly challenging the cut. You must reconsider what has been done to be sure that it was the right thing to do for the film. Editing can also be seen as a continuity of the writing process. That is the best part of the process I think. I look at editing as like a painter who puts colours together to make a painting. The editing is visible because otherwise you won’t have a painting but invisible in that you can’t see the way it has been done.
How long you get to edit a feature is something that depends on the film and the budget. Let’s say that 14 weeks is standard but it can go from 12 weeks to a year. An ideal time would be twice the shooting duration plus one month. The time you get for editing is changing. It tends to get shorter, sometimes a bit too short for some films, which would benefit from a bit more thinking to reach their right shape. Timing is the main change to editing. Every film is different and needs a different amount of time to build it. Also the number of people you have to deal with has changed. Sometimes the editing room gets filled up with people you’ve never met before in the process.
I would say that there shouldn’t be any difference between editing movies and multi-part series because what matters is the story. And yet there is a big difference, working with a group of editors all going in the same direction, sharing ideas. Dealing with a TV channel and their objectives is another element to have in mind.
A good edit is one that gives birth to the characters and touches the audience. To be a good editor you must challenge yourself tirelessly; challenge your work all the time, get the best of the actors’ performances and shape the film with the best of it.
Brooklyn (pictured), Starred Up, The Riot Club, Pressure, Trespass Against Us, Hell or High Water, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Skins, Misfits
Usually you get involved a few months before filming starts.
I’ll be sent a script. If I’ve not worked with the director before then you meet up, they describe their vision and you give them your thoughts, what struck you about the script, the things you really liked, themes that resonated etc. If you know they’re still working on the script you might offer a few thoughts about areas that you think need work. If it’s a shooting script and they’re heavily into prep then it’s probably best to keep quiet and try to fix them in the edit.
Before I see the rushes I have no preconceptions of how a scene will be cut, whether it’ll be slow or fast, jagged or smooth, nothing. As I watch the material a rhythm and a structure will start to form in my head. This may change several times over the course of viewing as each new angle usually sheds fresh light so you discover the material as it unfolds in front of you. By the end of viewing I tend to have a fairly firm idea of how I think it will fit together only to find, once I start the assembly, that things I thought would work don’t. So you’re constantly revising the plan but certainly by then I have a clear feel for the pace of the scene and that rarely alters dramatically right through to the finished film.
During the shoot the direction comes through the rushes. It should be fairly obvious how the director sees a scene by the way they shoot it. If you get given three angles chances are they don’t want it very cutty, twenty seven you’re probably expected to use most of them, though by no means all. Occasionally when they see your assembly they might say that they had a completely different intention but usually you aren’t far off. Sometimes they had a completely different intention but prefer yours. Sometimes you can see the way they want it go but you have a radical idea in which case I’ll do two assemblies.
Once the shoot is over you tend to work very closely with the director. You work together to constantly refine and reduce the cut until you distill the narrative, emotions and themes into the tightest, most powerful film you can. This is a collaboration rather than a dictatorship. As an editor you’re constantly employing your own taste yet you also adapt your style to a particular director. Some hate to be very cutty, others insist on it. Some hate it when you chase dialogue sync (always seeing the actor who’s speaking lips move), others struggle with any line that isn’t delivered to camera. Some don’t like performances that are too emotional… You get the idea. The point is that the film that results from the collaboration between the director and any given editor will be entirely unique to that pairing.
All the editors featured in this article will be speaking at ACE’s EditFest London on June 24th, sponsored by Televisual. For more information please go to: www.americancinemaeditors.org