Get Someone to Help You with the Scissors

Why Everyone Needs an Editor ☛

Apple have just announced that they’re lowering the cost of Final Cut Pro editing software to $299 (probably the same in pounds). Given that the new generation of digital cameras bring the basic cost of the hardware necessary to shoot a HD feature film well within a four-figure price bracket, it’s now possible to be completely independent – to shoot and cut your film yourself on your own kit. Possible… but a bad idea.

FCP X can now be used by really tiny editors

“But I’m proficient with Final Cut Pro”, I hear you cry, “more than that: I’m a good editor! Plus, I shot this film – I know how I want it to go together. Why should I find someone who I might even have to pay, take the time to explain to them what I want and sit there while they do what I’m perfectly capable of doing myself?” I can answer that question in one word: perspective.

Believe it or not, the director is not always the best judge of their own work. You sit down in the cutting room with a clear image of what you meant a shot to mean burning bright in your mind. Unfortunately that isn’t always how the shot comes across. There are many possible reasons why it can fail to strike twelve the way it does in your head: maybe clouds covered the sun when you went for a take, maybe the actor had a cold and just didn’t deliver the line with enough conviction, maybe the camera wobbled at just the wrong moment. It’s even possible that you’re a fallible human being and you slightly misjudged it. Whatever the reason, I’ve not worked on a feature film yet where every shot works in exactly the way the director intended. No one’s that good! The problem is directors don’t always spot the difference between what they meant and what they actually got. That’s one reason why you need an editor.

Redundant material on the floor where it belongs

Every film has redundant material: lines of dialogue, maybe even whole scenes. These were needed for the reader to follow the story when it was a script… okay sometimes they weren’t even needed then, the point is that they turn out to be superfluous in the shot version. Maybe we meet the charismatic General for the first time and your lead actor does a great job of exuding calm authority. Instantly all those scenes explaining why people felt drawn to follow him can be scrapped – his manner tells us everything we need to know. But you loved those scenes, they’ve got some great lines and the way you shot them… doesn’t matter. They gotta go and someone’s gotta tell you that. Guess who?

The editor brings their perspective to bear on the flow of the story too. We judge pace in relation to what we find interesting – if we’re interested from start to finish, the film will appear to clip along just fine. However, chances are that the director (particularly if they’re a writer / director) will be the most interested possible viewer. It’s good to have someone in the room with no attachment to the material and a normal boredom threshold. Who you gonna call?

All this can count for nothing

The editor can also free you from your memory of how the shoot went. You know that you spent half the night standing in the rain to get that crane shot right; the editor knows that (perfect though it may be) it slows the story and is superfluous. This is one reason why most editors spend little time on set. Besides, it’s better not to get to know the actors – we know we may need to delete the scene where they give the performance of their career!

But an editor isn’t just there for strict discipline and cold showers, they bring sunshine too. They can come up with ideas of which you’d never have thought. When you’re working side-by-side they can give you ideas that even they wouldn’t have thought had they been there alone. That’s when it’s really singing. My favourite moment in my short film Missed happened that way. My editor had spotted a smile from one actor and I’d seen one I wanted to use from the other. We put them together and an instant moment of chemistry between their characters was created. This hadn’t been in the script, and hadn’t really occurred on set – each of them had only given that smile in one take – but for me at least that moment became the heart of the film and it could only have happened as a result of our collaboration.

The glimmer of a smile from Sara-Jane Potts in "Missed"
Frame-botherers Joel and Ethan

If you need further convincing I’d draw your attention to the incredibly small number of established directors who cut their own material. The only well-known examples are Robert Rodriguez and, sometimes, the Coen Brothers, who edit their own films in the persona of Roderick Jaynes. There are others, but very, very few. Would their films be better if they handed the scissors to someone else? Who can say? My guess is: probably. And do I practice what I preach? Absolutely, where possible I work with an editor when I’m directing, often the estimable and talented Celia Haining.

Tune in next week when I’ll be telling you, once you’ve caught your editor, how to work with them without either of you crying.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011

7 thoughts on “Get Someone to Help You with the Scissors

  1. As a film director who wants to do everything and have total control on my 4 features shot, I second this.
    Especially important is for someone to know when something has already been expressed well enough, without the following 5 minutes of narrative explanation.
    The director is maybe like a map-maker drawing the lines of a country from earth, and the editor is up there in a satellite doing the same – with such a much clearer overall view.

  2. I completely agree with the comments on ‘Perspective’ but add that I feel the most effective way to edit as a director (corporate), is to edit the content, all the specific material that needs to go in, and the prettier stuff that looks really good and takes the story from A to Z.
    At this point I feel the editor can get involved and bring the sparkle to the assembled cut, not to the assembly which, as many say is double the work for the director.
    A complete change of edit, fundamental reversal of edit decisons, new effects and techniques are then tabled to best use the budget and make the project sing. I have found that most editors appreciate this approach to use their time creatively and their perspective. It makes economic sense to boot.

    Pat Bowens

    1. I’ve not done any corporate work, so I don’t know how that world works and can’t comment on that workflow, save to say that I’m pretty sure it would not work for drama. The director starts at an advantage to the editor in that they don’t know everything that was shot and for what it was intended. This is why the editor need to watch the rushes, make their notes and read continuity sheets – they need to catch up. It’s also best for the editor to have the first shot at the material, this gives them a chance to try out their own ideas. Importantly, it also evens out the balance of power with the director – they must decide on the destination and should advise on the route but they shouldn’t grab the wheel.

      While I’ve not seen your process at work, it does strike me as problematic that you’re essentially challenging the editor to undo the work that you, the director, have done. While some, more confrontational, editors might be happy to do that, I know many more who would hold back. After all you’re the director, if you want it that way who are they to argue? With this system wouldn’t there also be the danger that editor ends up changing things just to justify their paycheck?

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