I want to thank director Neil Oseman for inspiring this post. Neil recently wrote a blog discussing our work editing his short Amelia's Letter. I’m immensely proud of our work on the film. You can read his post here.
It left me thinking about film editing as whole. I joke to my friends that when you boil it down, film editing is just gluing pictures together. What is it about this act which has caused me, a relatively extravert outdoors type person, to spend their entire adult life in doors staring at a computer?
What is it that has kept me fascinated? I’ve missed parties, nights out, conversations, been late for stuff. All because I wanted to make one last tweak. Or to get a scene just right. Perfect even. I’m not a competitive person by nature. But this is the thing I want to be the best at. Something subjective where there can never be a ‘best’ and where, if you’ve done a good job, your work should be invisible.
I’ve always wanted to make films. Getting hold of a video camera back in the 90’s was easy. Editing - that was hard. You had to record all the sequences of your film in the order you wanted to see them in. If you messed up a take you had to rewind the tape to the exact spot you started the take and record it again.
There was an alternative. You could get two video recorders. One to play and one to record. This way you could film multiple takes. Choose the one you wanted and record that onto a fresh tape. The timing had to be exact. If you made a mistake you would record over the end of the previous clip. Then you would have to start all over again.
Now this is where it got geeky. If you had a computer you could bypass the sound of the camcorder and record sounds from the computer to your film. I had a few disastrous instances early on which my friends still find hilarious to this day. This is where it gets complicated. If you had a friend who was a DJ you could use their mixer to get extra sound channels recorded to your film. This means that you could combine music, sound effects together with your film's original sound. It all had to recoded live. In time with what was happening on screen. If you made a mistake - back to the beginning.
When I start thinking about all this I wonder if I should have spent more time kissing girls on the mouth.
If you’d seen my room in the 90’s it was always a mess. On days when I was trying to do this it must have looked like a mad professors lab. Equipment stacked all over the pace. Wires and cables everywhere.
Seems a bit much doesn’t it? The more conversations I have with editors the more I realise I wasn’t alone. Everyone had their crazy method of creating their film.
Then it all changed. One day when I was in 6th Form. A friend of mine came home from college with a piece of software. Adobe Premiere 5. Digital editing software.
It. Was. Magic.
You could take clips and place them in any order. If you made a mistake you could just undo. This felt like filmmaking. If I was’t hooked before - I was now.
At the time I didn’t realise what was happening in the wider industry. The change that the digital software represented. I was unwittingly part of a new breed of editor. One that would never touch a piece of film, never smell developing fluid, never use a grease pencil. A generation for whom the phrase “left on the cutting room floor,” would only be a metaphor.
The editors of old worked standing up. Cutting was both a physical and tactile experience. Something you did with your hands. You picked up the film. Found the In Point. Marked it with a grease pencil. Cut it with scissors. Discarded offcuts and adjoined the pieces together with sticky tape.
Not all filmmakers have embraced the change to digital. Spielberg reportedly brought up all the remaining Moviolas editing machines in Hollywood. So he would have spares for the rest of his career.
This new digital software, referred to as NLE (Non Linear Editing) was conceived from a project helmed by George Lucas. Lucas, himself an editor, felt that computers could be used to organise clips and make the process of editing easier. His company developed the Edit Droid in 1983. A computerised bay that took up an entire room. It was the beginning. Paving the way for all the software to come.
I’m pleased I missed the physical side of editing. I’m terrible with my hands. If editing had been more akin to crafting something with your hands I would have been useless.
So what is it that keeps me nailed to my computer?
Editing is about context. Its about the image, the image that preceded it and the image that follows it. Its about problem solving, meditation, repetition, focus, play, curiosity, and experimentation. What happens if I put this bit here? How does the meaning of this line change if we see them say it. How will it change if we watch a character react while the same line is said? There is no right or wrong. There is only 'this way' or 'that way.’ Or even more exciting - how can I use this clip in a way it was never intended? Films are littered with creative edit decisions like this. The triumphant Tusken Raider in A New Hope thrusting his Gaffi Stick into the air is a very cheeky piece of editing. The actor originally only raised the stick above his head once. The editor took the footage and rocked it back and fourth to create the illusion that the celebration had gone on much longer. At the end of Serenity Joss Whedon felt he needed to see all the soldiers at the end of the film put their weapons down (something that was never shot). When Joss shouted 'cut' luckily the cameras were still rolling. The actors naturally lowered their weapons. The editor was able to use that portion of the recording in the actual film.
Its impossible to argue which is the most important element of filmmaking. Ultimately it is a collaborative art. It has been said a film is written 3 times. Once on the page, again during filming and finally in the editing room.
I never enjoyed directing. A long laborious process. Often I would shoot for the edit. Getting lots of coverage. Offering little direction. Just getting plenty of variation ready for the edit. That is where I would make the film. I’m pleased to say I don’t feel that way any more. I love directing and being on set. It's one my favourite places in the world.
I still get the most pleasure from editing footage I have directed. That will never change. Its why, when pressed, I will always describe myself as an Editor/Director and not the other way round.