American Cinema Editors’ EditFest London 2019 took place in June at the BFI Southbank featuring panels and interviews with top editors from the worlds of movies, TV drama and docs.
Jon Creamer asked just a few of them what it takes to create the perfect cut

Lee Smith

Dunkirk, Interstellar, The Dark Knight, Spectre, Master and Commander, Inception, The Prestige, Batman Begins, The Truman Show, X-Men: First Class, Dark Phoenix, The Dark Knight Rises, The Way Back, 1917

Editing is very instinctual. The physical mechanics of cutting two shots together can be trained and learned but it doesn’t necessarily make you any good, it just means that you can join two shots together. That’s the least part. I’d say if I was exercising my brain on the film, probably only 10 percent of it goes to actually editing. The choices are far more important – the rhythm, the application of the music and sound effects. There are so many things that are involved in what an editor does.

Editing is also about your ability to listen to what other people say. In test screenings, an audience cannot tell you how to fix your film but they can tell you what is wrong with it. And you can’t argue with an audience. If an audience doesn’t like something and it’s very obvious on the [screening] cards, there’s not much point arguing. There is a problem but can it be repaired? Do we have the coverage? Do we have the scenes? Do we have the story? If not, can we reshoot and figure out how to do it? More often than not, you can fix many things. But you have to keep reminding yourself that sometimes you can take something and make a worse film.

Invariably if an audience is telling you that they got bored in the third act of movie, a lot of people’s reaction will be ‘the third act is boring.’ They’re always wrong. It’s undoubtedly the first act that’s boring. It’s cumulative. The third act could be absolutely pitch perfect but maybe you’ve brought the weight of a slack second act coming into the third act. Even though the audience are saying ‘we were bored with the end of the movie’, you have to be knowledgeable enough to know the end of the movie is very good, very solid and sound but that there is a definite lag in the first reel and a half. You just have to continuously analyse what those notes are.

The main thing when you’re working on features is assembling and editing everything that comes in on a daily basis. Even if scenes are only half done then I’ll half put them together because the job of the editor is to inform anyone if we’re missing something or something’s not working. They’re heavily reliant on you to be that person because obviously these features cost between $300k and $400k a day. You don’t want to find out you need something else after they’ve left the set or basically demolished it.

You’re the voice of reason. Sometimes they call me The Voice of Doom. But it’s best to take your medicine when you can do something about it. You’re watching for everything – performance coverage, coverage problems, technical problems – all of these things have to be assessed. If there’s a technical problem, is it salvageable? Can I make a considered guess as to whether a shot can be resurrected through digital effects? You do that on a daily basis. You’re trying to make sure the film is working even though it’s still being built in front of your eyes. You do your best to make sure that the film is going to work because as soon as they finish shooting, they finish shooting. You have to stay up to camera. You can’t be a week behind the camera because you won’t be giving them daily updates if they need to do anything different.

With vfx heavy films you’ve got to know what you can get, know the process and know how to get there and then imagine it. That just comes from working on a lot of these films. I would highly not recommend it to people starting out. You start out by editing drama and editing things that are in front of you. Then learn about the vfx process because there can be some pretty big sequences and you just have to imagine them. There’s not much point imagining what can’t be done. But as much as everyone thinks visual effects can do everything you still have to have the basis of a narrative story. You still have to have actors performing correctly with the correct eyelines. All these things have to be working.

The great thing in this industry is you never stop learning. Every film is a learning curve without exception. You come out of the other end having done and seen things you didn’t do on the last one. It’s what makes it such a fascinating job to be in. There are things that are common between films but, my goodness, there’s a lot that isn’t.

Pia Di Ciaula

A Very English Scandal, The Crown, Tyrannosaur, Belle, Stuart: A Life Backwards, Bert and Dickie, Journeyman, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Hideous Kinky, Blood and Oil, The Street, Dirt Music, Hope Gap

While I assemble, I don’t re-read the script because I want the rushes to reveal the narrative. I only refer back to the script if there is an issue but I find that at this stage, the material is transforming the script into something new. Assembling is a difficult stage because I usually have many hours of rushes and it can feel overwhelming but it’s also very valuable because it’s the only time I will be alone with the footage and create my unbiased cut using my first instincts.  Sometimes I have to find a moment that I connect with emotionally in order to begin editing.

Besides the shape, rhythm and performances, choosing a point of view is also important. Revealing the subtext and finding the heart of the scene is key. Discovering how someone is feeling or what they’re thinking is part of the art of editing because it can often be the opposite of what a character is saying. We sometimes have to dig deeper under the surface through body language or the actor’s eyes to show the inner state of the character to find emotion.

Most directors don’t brief me, they want my gut reactions and unbiased opinions. They want my fresh instincts because I’m not aware of any issues they may have had on set so it’s strictly about the material. They want to be surprised and shown the most interesting way to tell the story. Stephen Daldry gave me free reign on The Crown and wanted to watch assembled scenes every night from the previous day’s shoot. Despite the constant pressure, it allowed us to collaborate closely, discuss any pick-ups and be completely up to date.

Working with Stephen Frears was just as brilliant but the opposite experience because he didn’t watch any cuts on A Very English Scandal until after we had wrapped. We spoke every day during the shoot. After viewing rushes I would comment on what struck me, what moved me and if we needed any pick-ups.

The biggest misconception I had before I worked with Stephen Daldry and Stephen Frears was that these multi-award winning directors were going to micromanage me but I couldn’t have been more wrong. They both gave me space and freedom to create something special but I also felt completely directed and supported. Their trust was liberating because it allowed me to be bolder and more creative. Every director works differently and I love collaborating with them but it’s essential to have thinking time independent from each other.

Editors need to tell the story in the most succinct and interesting way. You can’t impose a style but allow the material to dictate it. You have to embrace the director’s vision and the cinematography but should elevate both to a new level. You could create visual associations that the director may not have thought about and restructure scenes to reveal the best version of the story. You need to ensure that everyone in the cast and crew are shown in their best light while still getting the highest production values. Editors also have to be strong yet sensitive, resilient, sympathetic, diplomatic and patience is definitely a virtue!

Will Gilbey

Bros: After The Screaming Stops, Mo Farah: No Easy Mile, Rise of the Footsoldier; White Island, Golden Years, The Wee Man, Angel

On a film like Bros, you don’t really start finding the story until the last month in the edit. To begin with, there was a very different idea of what it was going to be. The last third of it was going to be a concert film in the initial conception but then Matt and Luke were so incredibly open and un self-aware, you realised there’s something really exciting here.

In documentary, you end up with thirty times as much footage as you would do on a feature. In the edit suite the amount of work is staggering, just to get the footage actually cut down let alone even starting to edit. I used to get frustrated when someone would do eight takes on a scene in a feature but then in a doc there’s seven hours. I don’t know what I was complaining about.

To begin with in a documentary like Bros the production team is out in the field. You’re getting sent through the footage every day and at that stage more important than cutting is just logging everything and marking everything up. In three months time you’re going to need to find this footage. It’s so important to be completely boringly organised about everything so you know where everything is. You’re creating a sequence of every subject they hit in an interview – every time they talk about their parents, I’ll take every good clip from every interview and drop it in to that sequence. Every time they talk about their relationship as twins, I’ll do the same. Any time we want to do a piece about that subject there’s a clip of them talking about it. Other people probably have dozens of assistants typing in the metadata, but I have to watch everything. I don’t trust anyone to mark stuff up in the same way I want it.

If you’re editing a documentary, your editing is going to be exactly as good as how much time a director is willing to spend with you in the edit suite. I’ve worked on other projects where the director goes off to another project and you’re sat there hoping you’re getting it right. You’re finding the story in the edit so much that to be able to bounce your ideas off someone else is obviously incredibly valuable.

Editing is so much about having an eye and that really builds as you put the hours in. There’s reams and reams of stuff going past you. For the concert footage on Bros I had clips from 16 cameras. You’ve got to go through each camera’s three or four hours of material plus the rehearsal stuff and more. You tend not to watch that at normal speed so you have to develop an eye for picking stuff out that could be useful.

There’s a period on any project when I’ll say to my wife ‘I don’t know how to do this one, I’m completely stuck.’ About two years ago she said, ‘you always say this.’ Now I know not worry, this is a minor road block.




Staff Reporter

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