Get Someone to Help you with the Scissors, pt.II

Some Thoughts on Working with an Editor ☛

Assuming my last post convinced you that an editor is someone you never realised you couldn’t do without, how do you work with them?

The basic unwritten contract between editor and director is this:

  • The editor promises to make whatever changes the director asks of them, to cut the film any way they like.
  • The director promises to listen to the editor’s advice, let them try out ideas of their own and respect the cut that’s agreed upon (no sneaky changing things after the editor has locked the cut – if you want to change something, tell them).

I once worked with an old-school European director who sat on the sofa at the back of the room through the whole edit saying “this shot, five frames more. That shot eight frames less”. Bringing an editor on board purely as someone to press the buttons for you is a pretty unrewarding way of working. If you do that I hope for the editor’s sake that you’re paying them well!

It helps too if the director keeps their hands to themselves. I’m not talking about groping, although I’d certainly discourage that: I refer instead to the number of technically savvy directors who can’t help but grab the mouse to show their editor something. Don’t do that. Would you adjust the aperture on the camera without asking the DP? Not if you know what’s good for you.

How closely do you work together?

You’ve got yourself an editor because you want their opinion – the best way to get this is to let them do an assembly. In the industry the editor usually starts work when the unit starts shooting and cuts the rushes as they come in day by day, so that a week after the end of shoot the director can come in and see a rough cut (assembly) of the whole film. Even if you’re unable to work this way, it’s well worth allowing the editor time to get this assembly together before you set foot in the cutting room. This allows them time to familiarize themselves with the material and respond to it in their own way. However, it can also be useful to give them written notes on your intentions – selected takes, favourite bits – before they start working on the footage.

You get to the cutting room to watch the assembly, what do you find? The film’s between 30-50% too long and the editor’s misunderstood much of what you meant. This is not going to work! Relax – this is normal. The first assembly is deliberately over-length in order to show the director all the material they’ve shot in context. Inevitably much will be cut as you go through the process (hopefully about 30-50%). The editor will have suggestions about things that they feel aren’t working, some of which will be right on the money, others may be off-beam because they didn’t understand your intentions. Talk it through, then give your notes. The best notes at this stage tend to be broad brush: “the opening’s feeling a bit slow”, “it’s all feeling a bit claustrophobic”, “I’m not getting a strong enough sense of the hero’s fear in scene 10”. These are all good notes that will help an editor to help you.

Whether you then leave your editor to get on with it or sit with them during the edit depends on their temperament, what will get the best out of them. My own preference is for the director to go away and come back to watch the next pass. It can be very useful for the director to keep their eyes fresh. If you sit with your editor all day, every day you both get too close to the material. As always with filmmaking, two people doing the same job work half as fast; whereas two people performing a task that’s been divided into two different jobs are twice as efficient.

You’ve got a cut with which you’re happy: time to get your producer’s feedback. Another fresh pair of eyes is a valuable thing – don’t waste them by showing something on which you’ve still got ideas. After you’ve tackled their notes and they’re broadly happy, you might want to do a test screening (see Testing Testing) especially if there are any issues on which there’s disagreement.

Not withstanding any curve-balls that the producer or the test audience bowl you, each round of notes should be more and more detailed as you polish the cut. Try to leave the “just a few frames more” comments until the last possible moment, if at all. There’s no point in giving a scene a fine polish if it’s going to hit the floor. Once you’ve locked picture don’t forget to get your editor’s input on music and sound design, they may well have roughed out ideas that will need explaining to the relevant parties.

Nic Roeg's "Bad Timing" - editing doesn't get much better.

Of course there are different approaches and everyone has their individual tricks. I’m told that Nic Roeg bans the shooting script from the cutting room after the assembly is done, the principle being that you shoot the script then cut the rushes. Once the script is shot it’s redundant and a distraction from the unplanned opportunities within the material you’ve shot. Other directors don’t even have a script, which requires a different practice again.

Editing - best done with swords sheathed.

And each film is different to edit. Some take forever to get right, you take wrong turns, having constant arguments and getting lost in the labyrinth. Others fit together easily and offer few alternatives. But the nature of the edit is no indication of the quality of the film one way or the other. The Warrior, on which I assisted eminent film editor Ewa J. Lind, was a simple script but a complex shoot and a tricky edit, involving much disagreement (not in this instance between director and editor). The end result won the best British Film BAFTA and bagged Asif Kapadia a well-deserved Best Newcomer award; glory all round. It’s not always plain sailing and you need to be prepared to put in the hours.

Finally if you come out of the process feeling like you’ve found the right editor, hold on to them – they’ll learn your taste and the process will speed up from film to film. You’ll learn from them too. They’ll be your best ally and will never tell anyone about your mistakes!

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011

5 Responses to “Get Someone to Help you with the Scissors, pt.II”
  1. ivan says:

    What mistakes?

  2. guyducker says:

    I was talking about other filmmakers’ mistakes.

  3. Yoko says:

    Nice summary! It’s a delicate relationship and many get it wrong or creative sensitivities (from both players) get in the way. Some of the best work comes from a little bit of a battling (with the producer throwing a few punches too!).

  4. VideoKlik says:

    A very helpful summary with cool tips. Thanks a bunch!
    I’ve got one question for you. What literature would you recommend to learn or improve film editing?
    Thank you!

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  1. […] in next week when I’ll be telling you, once you’ve caught your editor, how to work with them without either […]

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