The Way of the Scissor People

How to Work with an Editor ☛

I wrote some time back encouraging directors to work with editors, rather than cutting their own material. My colleagues in the cutting room report that they are working with an increasing number of directors who are using an editor for the first time. Needless to say these first collaborations don’t always go smoothly. So, how best to work with an editor?

My advice relates to editing drama, which is what I know best, although some of it may also apply to cutting documentaries and other types of film. I’ve edited for a great many directors, including many who have not previously worked with editors, and worked with a number of editors as a director. I’ve also, in the past, edited my own work: I’ve come at this issue from all angles.

Woody starts his editing process before the film has even been exposed.

One of the big questions is how much room you give your editor? Approaches vary: Woody Allen, I’m told, sits with the editor from the earliest stages of the cut. I once worked with a Russian director who used to sit at the back of the room saying “This shot: three frames more; that shot: two frames less”.

At the other end of the spectrum, John Ford would rarely attend the edits of his films at all; he saw his job as being to direct the shoot, and would be calling ‘action’ on the next one before there was a first cut of the movie he’d just shot. Shooting first and not asking questions at all. During the golden age of Hollywood, many directors would never enter the cutting room, watching the film instead in a viewing theatre and giving the editor notes in real time as the reels played.

There’s no one way to work with an editor: it depends on the director, on the editor, on the project and on at what stage of the production process the editor is starting. But if there is one piece of advice to offer, it would be: give your editor space.

Like actors or any other creative collaborators, different editors have different temperaments and different approaches to their work. Some will be no-nonsense and bullish, others charming and diplomatic. Some will want to be left to their own devices to come up with something to show you, others will want you around as much as possible. It’s a process of negotiation; you need to talk to your editor to find out how they like to work, see how that sits with you. Are you happy being that hands-off, or hands-on? You are the director, so it is up to you. But you will get more out of your editor if you can adapt too.

John Ford, not a fan of the great indoors.

Traditionally on features and TV dramas the editor will be working during the shoot and putting the film together as you go along. I strongly recommend this method of working: it means that the editor will be able to spot if there’s any material missing while you’ve still got a crew, actors and location at the ready. No waiting around for pick-up shoots that end up not happening because the money’s run out.

If you cut during the shoot the editor will also be able to make more general requests: they might notice that you’re low on exterior shots, or that one of your actors is not coming across. As someone who is generally not on the set and usually hasn’t met the cast, the editor has the objectivity to see things you might well miss while you’re in the thick of it. Having the editor on board from the start also gives them a good opportunity to get to know the material, and means that you will often have a first assembly to look at a week or so after you’ve finished shooting.

Lower budget productions these days often wait until the shoot has finished to bring an editor on board. This is sometimes due to budget: transporting rushes to an editor on a daily basis can get expensive. But is more often due to the fact that the producer hasn’t had the head-space to organise post-production during the shoot.

If you find yourself starting the edit after the film has wrapped, I’d generally recommend giving your editor time to cut a first assembly on their own. It may feel like you know what you shot and that it would be quicker for you to show your editor what goes where, but part of the point is that the editor needs to get to know the rushes for themselves. They need to develop a working knowledge of what raw material is available: where the gems are to be found and where the bodies are buried.

Some directors with editing experience have taken to cutting the first assembly themselves, and then bringing in an editor. This can work but often doesn’t. It tends to create a certain competitiveness in the cutting room, a place which should be about collaboration. Too often, directors who have cut their own films will see each change that the editor then makes as a implicit criticism of their own editing skills. The dynamic becomes about who will win the argument, and the director will win most of these battles – he or she will know the material better and will always have casting vote. But too often these arguments are won at the expense of making the film better.

It is also becoming increasingly common for editors to come to a project replacing a previous editor, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes bad. In these situations the dynamic is different again; most of the time the new editor will have an established cut to work with and often a specific brief – make it pacier, improve the action sequences or whatever. This means that there’s far less need to know the rushes inside out; most of the time the new editors is coming in as a fresh pair of eyes and will work with the cut as they find it. In this situation leaving the editor to it initially is the only sensible approach: if they are to have value as a fresh pair of eyes, they need to be free to be innovative in their approach.

Both as a director and as an editor I tend to favour what you might call the ‘iterative’ approach. I leave the editor to come up with their own 1st assembly – a cut containing all the scenes that were shot with nothing removed – which we then discuss. Out of that discussion comes a set of notes, which I leave for the editor to work on alone. I come back to see the next cut and then repeat the process. As the cut progresses the visits to the cutting room will get closer together: a gap of a week at first, then three days, then perhaps one or two. Eventually, as the process draws to a close, I will be in the cutting room all the time dealing with specific points of detail.

The virtue of this method is that it gives you fresher eyes on the project. While the editor, who is the fresh pair of eyes on your work in the first instance, will gradually lose their objectivity as they get closer and closer to the material, it helps if you can get further away. The danger of working in the room with the editor at all times is that when you get lost, you both get lost.

However you choose to work with your editor, the most important thing is that you listen to them and take their ideas on board. In the age of digital editing any idea can be road-tested quickly and the original version restored at the touch of a button; don’t be afraid to let your editor try out what might sound like crazy ideas.

Oh, and don’t grab the mouse without asking. Editors hate that.

[The following clip is slightly off-topic, but still an interesting insight. Especially since Woody shoots mainly in master shots, so I’m surprised that he has this much flexibility in the edit.]

Next time I’ll be discussing the same question, but from the other angle: how editors should best work with directors.


Copyright © Guy Ducker 2015

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge

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