[Frame of Reference] with Editor Joe Walker

LIAD Headshot

Joe Walker is best known as Steve McQueen’s editor having cut “12 Years A Slave,” “Shame” and “Hunger.’ Originally working in London, his editing on films such as “Harry Brown” and “Life in A Day” put him in the international spotlight. But it is his contribution to “12 Years A Slave” that brought him nominations at the BAFTAS, the EDDIES and the OSCARS. He has recently moved to Los Angeles where he is cutting the latest film from Michael Mann.

What got you interested in editing?

My parents were given an 8mm movie kit as a wedding present. They would project family films onto a white wall and there was always the unintentional lava lamp effect when the film got stuck in the gate and melted the celluloid.  When I was little I took to buying Keystone Cops films with my paper round money, projecting them at low-speed whilst playing Wagner 78s at 33rpm – and consequently feeling rather depressed.  At around the same time, there was a do-it-yourself-animation show on TV, and one of the episodes featured my hero Terry Gilliam.  That gripped me and I started making films of my Frankenstein models treading around the garden.  That was my introduction to the world of cement joiners. But then I flipped over to music and playing in bands as a teenager, so my focus detached for a while.

How did you get started in editing? 

I studied Music at York, writing orchestral stuff, then got a temp job at the BBC in London posting LPs around the world.  We’d queue for the tea trolley stationed in the BBC Music and Arts corridor, eavesdropping on all these amazing programmes being made for Omnibus and Arena.  The workers there were flamboyant.  One editor was cutting a series called Brick is Beautiful and rather than a name plate, he had a massive brick nailed to the door.  I managed to blag some work experience with a friend of a friend of a friend who was cutting a profile of Italo Calvino. That helped me get onto the BBC Trainee assistant editor scheme and eventually I found my way into Drama, first as an assistant editor then as a sound editor, and a long while later as an editor. I got busy at the BBC for 15 years, cutting crime shows, comedy series and music documentaries, leaving in the 90s to cut feature films.  I kept my music plate spinning, writing for all manner of children’s programmes, documentaries and even a big orchestral score for a BBC/HBO drama called ‘Dirty War’.  I was happiest writing cartoon music, supplying trombone slides whenever someone’s trousers fell down.

What is your preferred NLE(s) of choice? Why?

I started with sprockets, then moved through 3-machine Beta SP editing, Lightworks and ultimately AVID.  I was very fond of Lightworks but that fell into disrepair for a while and I moved on.  I’ve never cut on FCP. But basically, if the story’s great, I’d cut it on wet string.

Give us a run through of your editing process 

Well, on a practical level, one ritual I have right at the start, is to write a brief description of each scene onto an index card, ready to stick on my cutting room wall. It’s a great way to learn the script, and during shooting you can, at a glance, tell where your characters are at that exact spot in the story.  In ’12 Years A Slave’ for example, when Solomon is woken to play fiddle for Epps’ entertainment, it helps to know that he’d been beaten in the previous scene and would find it painful to rest on his back.  If you ever have to swap the order of scenes, later in the fine-cut, you can move the cards around on the wall without getting distracted by joining the scenes together on the AVID.  Here’s a picture of my cutting room wall on ’12 Years’ :

Joe Walker 12 Years

In the case of Steve McQueen’s films – because he shoots very economically – I can watch everything they’ve shot.  I try to keep distractions to a minimum while I’m watching.  It’s the closest I’ll get to an audience’s perception, until the end of the process.  I’ll keep the script supervisor’s notes at hand – it’s not always obvious why they’ve gone again after a great take.  I remind myself of the script beforehand, but blood is now running through its veins and it’s a living breathing thing, so I am more alert to what new subtexts have been brought into play.  I do remember an older editor telling me that anything that he saw screening dailies that really intrigued or moved him, you hope it will end up in the film.  I’ll talk to Steve a couple of times a day about the dailies, and what’s coming up in the schedule, and he’ll come over at the weekend to look through preliminary cuts and we figure out what might be worth adding to the shopping basket.

It’s impossible not to watch dailies and do the chess game in your head of how you’ll put it together, but it normally just comes together when you start cutting from a bin. Editing is really staying mindful of an imaginary audience – what you are tuning into is some kind of universal imperative, born of watching a gazillion films, to see or hear something at a particular moment in time.  Once you perceive it, you can choose to obey it or play against it.  Eventually, the film takes on its own rhythm and shape, and you begin to obey that instead.  As you can tell from Steve’s films, part of the game is trying to find ways not to cut.  It just hands you an enormous benefit when you do, cuts are as sharp as a Damascus sword.  I am often thinking of that during dailies – keeping up the momentum whilst getting around the scene simply.

When it’s time to assemble the scene, I spend way too much time finessing the sound.  I’ll volume graph dialogue in and out on separate tracks, record sound effects and work on atmospheres.  It just helps me find the rhythm of things to do it this way.  I envy editors who crash and bang things around, they probably have more imagination than I do and get their results with fewer mouse clicks.  But for me, intensely worked sound is my way in.  It also means that we can project test screenings straight from the AVID audio without any elaborate temp mixing, which costs you time just when you want to be at the coalface making important changes.

I try to avoid using music for as long as I can, except for some key moments which help start a discussion about what kind of score we need.  My friend Matthew Herbert says : “music is in an abusive relationship with film.”  There are so many pitfalls to using temp music.  We have to dance with the devil and use temp tracks in order to survive the screening process, but the dangers are twofold : you can often end up with the music disguising a lack of momentum in the edit and blinding you to its pitfalls, or you can end up queering the real composers’ pitch if you fill the movie up with unpurchasable music you end up addicted to.  That can end up with an unoriginal patchwork score and a frustrating experience for the real composer.  I do remember an action film I cut where I was bothered by how much we were relying on the temp tracks, and I asked the director to let me cut the film with the speakers off for just one day.  We didn’t actually make it through the whole day, but it was instructive.  If it doesn’t work as a silent film, it points to problems with the pacing and story-telling. My favourite working method would be to have a CD full of the composers’ ideas based on the script and their discussions with the director, something you can listen to in the car before you start filming, which gets adapted and developed once the fine-cut is starting to solidify.

Later in fine cutting, when the order of the film and the essence of each scene is already decided, I’ve started to use a new strategy.  You can often spend more time on the first reel of a film than anywhere else, and I’ve seen a lot of films where the last act clearly hasn’t been through the same workout as the opening.  So I write all the scene numbers onto small pieces of paper and put them in the box.  We pull these numbers out one by one, lucky dip style, and work for a while on that scene alone, looking at the dailies again and just seeing if we can discover any way of improving it.  There might be something in the dailies which you’ve forgotten about now that your requirements for the scene have shifted.  It’s good to go back to working on scenes individually, and out-of-order, like you do during the shoot.  I also tried using Brian Eno’s ‘Oblique Strategies‘ playing cards once - they’re very thought-provoking.  It reminds me of mixing in a music studio – sometimes when you step away from the speakers and hear the piece playing down a hallway, you have a fresh perspective.

What tips were you given that has been really helpful? 

I assisted a really inspirational editor, Ardan Fisher.  He truly developed my appreciation for editing. Ardan alternated between cutting these amazingly free arts documentaries at the BBC and cutting high-end drama.  Each would inform the other.  He cut the seminal series “Edge of Darkness,” but also Leslie Megahey’s great documentary on Orson Welles which is one of the best films about film-makers I’ve seen. Ardan’s choices were always gloriously perverse and interesting.  A lesson I learned from him was about not cutting. It’s not like I apply this rule to everything, but that’s where I learnt it.  He let me cut a scene which had been covered by a three-shot and then singles. I merrily got stuck into the singles after establishing where everyone was in the three shot. I was a pool of sweat on the cutting room floor after dutifully hitting every beat of the sequence, manipulating every reaction I could fold in.  He looked at it and said, “You’re not getting any more from the singles than you would from keeping it wide, and with the three-shot you have all of the reactions built-in, unforced.” I looked at the three-shot again and he was right, it was a great performance.  Better still, it was an ensemble performance, which in context was what the scene needed. The attitude was “Just because they shot it, doesn’t mean you HAVE to use it’. That was a real lesson for me.

How organized are you?

A normal level.  You develop a sense of anticipating things to take care of, ahead of time, like the Chinese plate trick of old.  I’m attracted to the organisational side of the job, but it’s the moments of flow when you’re trying things out and pushing yourself to accomplish something interesting that really excite me. On days like that I leave the cutting room thinking “.. and they’re paying me.”

Can you work without a script, finding the story and building it on your own?

‘Life in a Day’ had no script or blueprint.  We had no idea what people would shoot that day.  Kevin Macdonald used to say that if we were to try to force the film into some specific shape only we wanted, we’d be hacking our way through a jungle path and end up with aching arms.  Keeping alert to what people did shoot was so much more surprising and life-affirming than anything I could have anticipated.  Who’d have thought someone would choose that day to emulate an experiment in how to startle a snail?  That ended up as our end credits sequence.

What is your favorite film? Favorite TV show?

Too many to list.  I’m a big fan of Czech cinema from the 60s, and I love everything the Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmajer make.  There’s some amazing editing in those films. Check out ‘Dimensions of Dialogue’ or “‘Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies.’  Two, more commercial films I love watching over and over are Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen, and Milos Forman’s “The Fireman’s Ball.’  As for TV : I’ve just watched ‘True Detective’ which took me a while to get into, but boy did that pay off.

If you could meet any editor, who & why?

Being nominated for an Oscar meant I got to spend time with my fellow nominees, whose work I much admire.  One of these was Thelma Schoonmaker who I met at the BAFTAS. I love her work, so bold. There’s a grittiness and angularity to what she does. I watch her movies twice, once to enjoy and once to dissect. I’m a big fan of Christopher Rouse’s work.  He’s a master.

There’s one editor I’d love to meet  : Pem Herring.  He cut ‘Groundhog Day.’ I”m fascinated with how editing dances with time, and that is a great example of a story about time. Bill Murray’s character starts off bored numb by his endless day in a small town which brings no surprises, no escape.  But by the end, he hasn’t enough time to accomplish everything, to catch the boy falling from the tree, perform a Heimlich manoevre and save an old man from dying in the street.  I’d like to talk to Pem about one of the scenes they apparently ditched.  Once the Bill Murray character had realised there were no consequences to his behaviour, he gets a Mohican and destroys his hotel room with a chainsaw, only to wake up to Sonny and Cher the next morning and the hotel room back to normal.  But they dropped this elaborate scene and replaced it with the beautiful, simple device of snapping a pencil before going to sleep, and the pencil being whole again in the morning.  Same story point, completely different comic temperature, brilliant decision.  I’d love to know how that came about.

Manipulating time and the perception of it is one of superpowers unique to the art of film-making.  As Mark Cousins points out, there were no flashbacks in Shakespeare.  Here are some examples from things I’ve cut.  There’s a scene in ‘Shame’ where Brandon (Michael Fassbender) listens to his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) singing “New York, New York” as a slow blues number in a chic club.  There were only two shots during the song, more or less, and I cut them very very simply.  There’s a close up on Sissy, up to the point where she seems to look at her brother and sing the words “It’s up to you..” then the close up on Brandon, unexpectedly moved by hearing his sister – and then back to Sissy until the end of the song. Only that in the whole song, in the middle of the film. Here’s an odd contradiction : if I’d filled it with cuts between the two of them at a more ‘normal’ event rate, and not trusted the fascination of watching these characters engage with this song and chosen just one great moment to go across, it would have felt slower, and probably less meaningful.  Compression of time, also, that’s a great weapon.  After Sissy joins Brandon and his boss at the table – Brandon’s boss starts making a move on her and they order champagne.  Originally they shot a scene of the three of them rolling out of the club, worse for wear, and walking past ice skaters, to hail a cab.  It was beautiful, very ‘Jules et Jim’.  But we dropped it in the cutting room to bang straight from inside the club ordering “champagne” to a shot of Brandon looking through the cab window whilst Sissy and his boss snog in the back of shot.  From flirtation to tongue gymnastics in 1/24th of a second.  The audience fills in the steps, and it’s an enjoyable timejump.

Which plug-in(s) do you find most useful? Why? 

I make preliminary temp VFX shots using the usual tools on AVID like p-in-p, animatte and timewarp (I like using fluid motion).  Just enough to get the timing right.  My assistant Javier takes these over and perfects them in NUKE.  There’s a simple 7-band eq effect in the Audio suite which I use a fair amount.  But my favourite gizmo at the moment is MetaSynth – it’s not an AVID plug-in but a piece of software I run on my laptop.  Hardly anyone in editing knows about this one.  It was originally devised to convert images into sounds, but it’s an effect called grain I am crazy about.  Pete Tong the London DJ gave me a copy.  It enables you to freeze sounds, so that you can generate long, fadeable chords which help you come out of music early without having to loop or use cruddy reverb effects on a short chord or note.  It works best on music without sharp attacks, like choral or string music.  I’m no expert, and have yet to read the manual, but by pressing a few buttons you can quickly generate some amazingly spacey atmospheres.

What’s your overall philosophy about editing?

There are no hard and fast rules, it really depends on what’s shot.  We all have strong opinions, and we’re hired for them.  So long as you’re not a dick about expressing them.

Name one thing that you would tell an aspiring editor

One of my first big breaks in TV was when I cut a two-week clip show called ‘Queerspotting.’  I threw myself at it, had a great time, even shot a title sequence.  I didn’t know that the producer’s partner was an executive who noticed me just at the time she was looking for someone to cut ‘Jonathan Creek.’  So apply yourself to everything you do, you never know where it’s going to lead.

Go follow Joe on twitter @huckabaloo

[Frame of Reference] with Editor Eddie Hamilton

EH_IBC2011_2

Eddie Hamilton recently cut Universal’s Kick-Ass 2 for writer/director Jeff Wadlow, and was co-editor on 20th Century Fox’s X-Men: First Class (with Lee Smith) for director Matthew Vaughn. After 17 years in the industry Eddie has cut over 20 feature films (both indies and studio movies) in a wide variety of genres as well as TV dramas, documentaries and award-winning shorts. His enthusiasm for big screen storytelling is matched only by his total dedication to the craft of film editing, his world-class technical expertise and his undisputed love of chocolate. He has also given presentations on Avid Media Composer editing at NAB and IBC. Eddie is a member of American Cinema Editors and BAFTA, and was on the feature film panel at EditFest London 2013. Let’s get started.

What got you interested in editing?

This is a very simple answer. When I was seven I saw Star Wars on tv and I noticed the names at the end of the film for the first time and I thought that people must do this for a living. So I became a film knots from the age of seven. I then read as many books as I could and watch films and documentary about how films were made. I was never really taken to the cinema by my parents and I had to beg my friends parent to take me to see all the big movies in the 80’s like Radars of the Last Ark and Temple of Doom. I grew up in a very small town in the South of England where working in the film industry seemed like an impossible dream. So I read as many books as I could, listened as many film sound tracks and I watched a lot of movies. When I was about seventeen, I thought I would be a director at that point I hooked up 2 VHS machines and I basically edited little music videos and family holidays videos on 2 vhs machines and the hours would fly by in the creative process. I found that the combination of story telling and technology really suited my personality. Effectively we are professional storyteller and what I study is story telling. When I am not editing, I am reading books about story telling and I’m trying to learn how to be a better storyteller. And then I actually studied Psychology at university but that was because there weren’t many films school in England and they had a really good student film society at University College of London, which is where I studied. The guy who was the president of the film society, the year above me, was Chris Nolan and he went on to great success. he was an incredibly nice person and very intelligent, he was studying English Literature at UCL. There were quite a few people there who were very passionate about films and we use to hang out every day talking about making films. I spent about 4 hours a day editing student films, I mean about everyday through the 3 years of university I would spend  about 4 hours editing even though I was studying Psychology. I then applied to film school but back then there were only 3 or 4 film schools in the UK that were very good. I applied to them all and I didn’t get into any of them. So I didn’t get into film school but I still really wanted to do this so I got a job as a runner in an editing facility in central london and I taught myself how to use all the hardware and all avid editing software. I also taught myself how to use all the hardware machines and how to copy tapes and all the technical stuff that you need to know. Somebody was making a very very low-budget film and I asked if they had an editor and they didn’t so I went straight to where their production office was and I managed to persuade them to give me the job editing the film.

When I started in the first 2 or 3 years I did a lot of television and I actually spent most of my time editing portuguese and spanish sport programme and I don’t speak portuguese or spanish and I don’t really like sport. It was very pressured editing and it was very time sensitive. There were very hard deadlines so I had to work hard and fast so I got to learn the media composer very well in that time, but I really wanted to work in film. If you have a passion for something you need to single mindedly aim for it otherwise you will get sidetracked and end up doing something else and then its quite hard to get back on track, so you have to make sure that you are always aiming for what you want to do.

What is your prefered NLE(s) of choice? Why?

Working on a movie where people are collaborating, where you have an editor or 2 and several assistants Media Composer is the only choice, especially for a movie of a certain budget. I haven’t used the new Adobe Premiere very much. I’ve done 2 films on Final Cut Pro 7 and i find it not professional. I found that it was a struggle to work with it professionally and its very hard to work with for anything longer than half an hour.

Give us a run through of your editing process?

I’m one of these editors who work quite a lot with sound effects and music to polish what i do. So I normally bring audio and sound effects into the project straight away and set up a folder structure that works well for me. I’m very strict on quality control and I make sure that everything that goes into media composer is video legal and there is no illegal blacks or whites. I make sure the sound is perfectly synced. So I will get my assistant to check the sync on the sound and make sure its perfect. They will group multi camera clips for me so that I can switch between multi cameras if there is 2 or 3 camera filming a scene. Then they will lay out the bins for each scene with a certain structure that I like and that I have developed over the years. I like to have all the sound imported not just the editors mix tracks so that I can dip into the isotracks and make sure that I am using the best quality recording for each line of dialogue. What I’ve been doing over the last couple of years is that I won’t watch all the dailies before I cut the scene, what I’ll do is I’d watch a wide shot to get the idea of the pace and the flavour of the scene and then I’d just cut the scene quite quickly without worrying too much about whether I’ve got the best performance or anything. So I will just go through and I will just cut the scene so I’ve got like this framework. Then you’ll start to get the sense of what the strengths and weakness are within the scene when you’ve done that, you start to get a feeling of where the actors are struggling or where they are doing well and you will start to find out the problems that you need to solve to make the scene work well. Then I will sit and watch all the dailies and I normally load out the dailies in a single sequence on the source timeline and I will play it through and anything that i like or anything that strikes me as being good I’ll just drop it in my sequence that I’ve thrown together in roughly the right place. After I’ve watched like an hour or 2 hours of dailies or however much there is, I’ll have like a big sequence, which is all the best fits of the scene and then I can go through and refine that. It’s fairly quick but also once you’ve watched the dailies you then intimately know what the director was trying to guide the actors to do in each take. I will then go through and work on the sound for the scene and often spend as much time on the sound as I do on the picture because its half the storytelling. Sometimes I will cut with no sound and I will just listen to the sound after I’ve put the scene together. So I make sure that all the dialogue tracks are beautifully clean and I have my edit suite calibrated to a theatrical level so when I’m playing with sound back I know how it will sound in the theatre. I also like to work with 5.1 in my edit suite so that I know what is coming from the centre speakers, the  sides and back and the subwoofer. On the timeline I have 4 mono dialogue tracks, 4 mono effects tracks, 2 stereo effects tracks and 2 stereo music tracks. I have quite a detail soundtrack built up and for a simple dialogue scene you don’t use very much, you might use a couple of dialogue tracks and a bit of music, but when you get to the effects heavy scene you use all the tracks and the timeline gets very full. Then I’ll work on it and refine it and make sure that it is presentable and it looks and sounds great. Then lastly show the director. I’m one of those editors who must be left alone at the first assembly to watch the footage and figure it out and then ill let the director watch it when i think I’ve got something thats worth watching.

What tips were you given that has been really helpful?

It’s more of a kind of work ethic. I would say always try to do your best work everyday. Never settle for second best, set your quality bar very very high because your reputation is everything in the industry and if you have a reputation of somebody who works fast and hard, and completely reliable then you will succeed because producers need you to do your job and they need you to do it fast and well. Once you have all those qualities then people will want to hire you again. The main thing is always work incredibly hard and never turn in a work if you don’t think it’s as good as it can be.

How do you deal with problem clients/directors?

If the director is open to discussing the problem then we can find a solution but if they’re not open to discussing the problem then there isn’t much you can do. You have to let the director make the film they want to make and my job is to help the director make the film they want to make. So if they disagree with me then its their film and they get to make the final choice. All I can do is bring my storytelling experience and tell them what I think but if they disagree with me then there is nothing I can do.

What advise can you offer to get through complex edits?

The most important thing is to just get to the end of the scene somehow. don’t worry about the quality of what you are doing just get to the end because it is similar to when you are writing a script, you have to get to the end of the script and then you can actually start to refine it. If you get stuck on a scene just force yourself to go through it even though it is painful and then get pass it and then one of 2 things will happen, you either come in the next day and say hey thats not bad or you will look at it and you will be fairly clear on whats wrong and what you need to do. But you must have something so that you can start assessing whether you can turn left or turn right. If you just have a blank canvas there is nothing you can do. So my advise will be to just get through the scene, get to the end of it. If you need to take a break for 10 minutes then do that, if you need to take a walk or go buy an ice-cream or get a smoothie or something then do that but get through it and don’t waste time on the internet checking social media just sit and force yourself to get through it because once you get to the end it will be much easier to figure out how to get to the next step.

What’s your overall philosophy about editing?

The most important thing is the emotion of the story at that moment. The editor has to be puppet for the audience’s emotion. You have to understand what you are doing to the audience’s perception of the film when you make a cut. You have to understand what story am I telling here and then when I make a cut what story am I telling here and are the audience’s emotions going to alter. So effectively your job is to make sure that you manipulate their emotions in the best possible way. So you have to make sure that with every cut you are telling a particular story or inferring some emotion whether its tension, or excitement or action or love or fear or horror; every cut contributes to that. In my opinion, the editor is the master of emotions.

What advise would you give an aspiring editor?

I would say edit as much as you can because you only improve by doing the job. So get in touch with young film makers or directors and offer to edit their films for free and do as much as you can. The other thing I would say is working at a professional level as an editor is not just about storytelling and creativity, it is very technical and you have to be very meticulous and very organised. It is very important that you understand how the technology works intimately so that you don’t make technical mistakes that cost a lot of money to fix. So I would say strongly, if you want to be a professional editor you need to get professional experience somehow and that means getting a job in a post production facility and working there for 2 or 3 years teaching yourself how everything is done properly, so that you understand how every single piece of equipment works, you understand how everything is done, you understand how not to make mistakes. Then you can either get yourself a job as an assistant and watch the editor or just start editing and i did that, I just started editing very low budget and feature films and slowly built up from there and this process takes a long time, it will take a few years unless you are incredibly lucky and one of the films you worked on wins the palm door at Cannes, it will take quite a long time to get established. When you are working on studio/hollywood films you must have a strong track record and they prefer to hire older more experienced people that they know will do the job quicker and better than younger people who are inexperienced.

So the main thing is, edit as much as you can, and if you don’t have any footage to edit then go and shoot something on your phone and go edit and put it on youtube. Write a script on saturday morning, go and shoot on saturday afternoon, edit it on sunday and put it on youtube on sunday night. and if you do that for like every week for a year then you will be pretty good.

Bonus Insight

Be grateful that you are doing the job and don’t complain.  I meet a lot of editors who complain and I don’t understand why because you are doing the best job, you have one of the best jobs and you are very lucky being paid to do that. So even when it seems bad it’s no where near as bad as virtually every other job you could be doing.  So be grateful that you are being paid to do something that you love.

I feel like we have the best job because when you make a film you have many people working on the film to make the magic happen between action and cut, to get the images in the camera, teams upon teams of people such as art department and wardrobe, hair and makeup and special effects and visual effects and actors and camera teams, and then all the footage comes to you and it’s just you and you are the first person to see the film come to life before anybody else on the planet and thats a very privileged position to be in because you heard that a lot of people will see the film but you are the very first person even before the director so how the scenes are coming to life and how the actors are bringing the scene to life and that’s great and I love it, I never lose sight of that. I really treasure that every day.

Follow Eddie on twitter @eddiehamilton or his check out his website

[Frame of Reference] with Editor Tyler Cook

Tyler Cook

Tyler Cook began work as an Assistant Editor on Independent Features before transitioning to scripted television in 2009. After three years as an Assistant, Tyler was promoted and began editing full-time on the hit CW show The Vampire Diaries. Last March, he cut the pilot episode of The Originals (a spin-off of The Vampire Diaries), and is currently working on its first season.

What got you interested in editing?

I first became interested in editing in high school, when my friends and I started making short films together. I was really lucky to go to a school that would let you rent out a camcorder and a laptop loaded with Final Cut Pro (a super early version at the time) for the weekend. So we would sign the equipment out on a Friday, shoot all Friday Night and Saturday Night and I would edit the shorts all day Sunday. I taught myself how to edit this way and over time grew to really prefer it over shooting/directing.

How did you get started in editing? 

I majored in Filmmaking at North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, NC, which is an art conservatory connected to the UNC system. One of the great things about my alma mater is that it has an incredible alumni base who are very eager to pay-it-forward so to speak by hiring current students as interns on their films. After finishing my 1st year at the school, I worked as an Editorial Intern on Craig Zobel’s first feature Great World of Sound. That film was a combination of HDV and 16mm and I was brought in to digitize the video & organize it for the editor. When they needed a script supervisor for the film part of the shoot, I volunteered and they surprisingly let me do it, which was such a great experience to watch how a film is made and to be in charge of thinking about continuity and how a film will eventually need to be cut together.

And I can pretty much trace every job I’ve had from that first internship opportunity. The next summer I was hired by that crew to be an Assistant Editor on a low-budget feature. The editor I met on that show, a fantastic editor and great guy Travis Sittard, hired me again post-college to work on an indie called That Evening Sun. That got me into the union. I transitioned into scripted television and over the next few years worked my up from Assistant Editor to Editor.

What is your preferred NLE(s) of choice? Why?

I’m a firm believer in the old editor adage that the NLE is a just a tool and it really shouldn’t matter what piece of software or hardware you use. That being said, if you put a gun to my head I would easily choose Avid. That wasn’t always the case but I noticed when I finally made the jump from FCP to Avid MC it just felt more intuitive to the way my brain worked. I got hired to work on a FCP show for a short amount of time and I had a really tough time going back.

And sadly, I’m woefully behind when it comes to Adobe Premiere Pro. I need to pick it up and teach it to myself. I’ve heard such great things about it and I’m dying to see what all the fuss is about.

Give us a run through of your editing process

I tend to cut a scene three times.

The 1st time is basically getting a scene up on its feet. I watch the dailies in a very fractured way. I start by scrolling through each setup to just see what footage I have, does the camera dip down to grab an insert in a certain take, is this the designed shot the director wants me to start in, etc. It just helps me get a full idea of what coverage I have before I even watch a second of dailies or make an initial decision and it helps me form an image in my scene of what the scene will look like once it’s completed.

From there, I’m a firm believer that the best way to get started is to just put something on your timeline and react to it. You can get so inundated with all the variables and all the choices so getting your first cut down as fast as you can is the best way to go. So for my first pass I usually find the best take of the intended opening shot and lay it down and ride it until I feel like it falls apart or it loses my interest or I feel like it’s time to cut to something else. And I start building from there. As I go, I watch every line, every beat from every angle and choose what I think is the best option and then I ride that out until it falls apart. And I work my way through the whole scene that way until I reach the end. I watch the whole thing back, make any mental notes I have on things I want to fix, and put it away. I move on to the next scene.

After a few days, I’ll come back to a scene and I’ll watch it with fresh eyes. And I’ll start to rip it apart. Is that the best opening? Is there a better line reading for that line? Am I hitting this moment hard enough? Should I make more room for that reaction? I don’t believe this moment, how can I fix it? And the list goes on. I just put it through the ringer and try to make it the very best it can be.

The third time comes when I’m building the show. Usually, I’ll do this by Acts. I’ll lay out all the scenes of a given act back to back, build the transitions how I think they should go, and watch it. Here is where I’ll tighten things up if I feel like a scene is playing too slow in the larger context or slow things down if things are moving too fast and solve any problems that I couldn’t solve in the first two passes. I’ll then lay in music and sound effects, which inevitably causes some changes as well, and from there that’s basically my editor’s cut.

 What tips were you given that has been really helpful? 

I think the best advice I’ve ever been given involves how to collaborate with Directors and Producers. It’s pretty simple advice and sometimes it’s hard to follow but it boils down to this: Always say, “let’s try it.” As an editor you’ve been through the footage backwards and forwards and you have a really good idea of what you can and cannot do. So it’s easy to just say, “oh no that won’t work,” and you may be right. But if you say that every single time, you’re not going to have anyone that enjoys working with you. Besides, art is about exploration and you can find some incredible things through experimentation. Some of the best moments spring from, “but what if we tried this…” or I’ll get a note and I’ll try it and it won’t work but the simple act of trying it leads me to a third, even better option. Lastly, it’s easy to get too close to the material and be unable to see the forest for the trees.

How organized are you?

I try to keep my projects as organized as possible. You don’t have a lot of time working in TV and you’re always up against deadlines so being able to find things quickly and efficiently helps you get more done in a day.

But if you looked in my closet you would think I’m the most unorganized person in the world.

Can you work without a script, finding the story and building it on your own?

I can and I do often. I think it’s a great skill to cultivate. There’s often a difference between what they scripted and what they were able to achieve while shooting so you really have to analyze the film and build it yourself and make it work.

What is your favorite film? Favorite TV show?

Too many to name just one so I’ll give you a kind of short list. Films: Any Kubrick Film, Vertigo, Fanny and Alexander, Solaris (Tarkovsky), Thin Red Line, Seven, Almost Famous, Empire Strikes Back.

TV: The Sopranos, Deadwood, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Six Feet Under, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Scrubs.

I feel bad even limiting myself to those. There are probably so many glaring omissions.

What style of editing have you done? (Narrative/Documentary/News/Corporate/Wedding/Etc)

Pretty much exclusively narrative.

If you could meet any editor, who & why?

At this very moment, I would love to meet Cristiano Travaglioli, the editor of The Great Beauty, which I saw recently. From an editorial standpoint that film really invigorated me. It was so fast-paced but sure handed. What that film reminds me of is in when people put their hand flat on a table and take a knife and dance it between all of the spaces between their fingers but never cut themselves. The film was like that for me, dangerous but with such confidence and not a missed moment.

So I would love to talk to him about his approach and how he was able to achieve what he did.

What advice can you offer to get through complex edits?

Don’t look back, just keep going until you get through the first pass. Once you’ve got it up, look at it as often as you need to until it feels right. Trust your gut. Don’t give up until you love it. If you’re really stuck, come back the next day with fresh-eyes, the solution is usually easier than you think.

Which plug-in(s) do you find most useful? Why? 

The effects I use the most are resize and stabilize. I couldn’t live without those.

How does the director-editor relationship work for you?

In TV, it’s more of showrunner-editor relationship, a lot of times the director doesn’t have time to come into the editing room and will often give notes by email while they are prepping or shooting their next show. I’ve been working with my current show-runner for a few years now so we have a really good rapport. Mostly we talk story, what moments are working, what moments aren’t. She deals mostly in story, tone, & emotion and allows me to find the editorial solution to the problem unless it’s something simple.

How do you deal with problem clients/directors?

Speak your mind and fight for your opinion, but always do so in a courteous and respectful manner. Understand that being an editor is a service job, you are a conduit for someone else’s vision and you have to respect that. Know when to concede and learn how to pick your battles.

What’s your overall philosophy about editing?

Story above all. Find the most compelling way to bring a story to life given the footage and resources you have. There’s never one way or one style or one approach. You have to be flexible and multi-faceted to find what fits best for the given material.

Name one thing that you would tell an aspiring editor

Watch movies and make your own. Watch your favorite movie and try to figure out why they cut when they do, what makes your favorite moments so great. Take the things you are able to glean and try to apply them to the things you are making.

Follow Tyler on twitter for more insights on editing @tyleredits

[Frame of Reference] with Editor Michael Alfano

Michael Alfano

 

Having managed a successful freelance career for over 17 years, Michael has dedicated the last nine years primarily to the craft of editing. His experiences in production, along with many years as a musician, have contributed immensely to his skills as a storyteller, and have given him valuable insight into the art of collaboration.

Michael works for large corporations, small production companies and broadcast clients in and around New York City.  He lives in New Jersey and is currently co-producing his first documentary film titled “The Nuremberg Raid”

What got you interested in editing?

I became interested in editing while working my first job out of college as a production assistant for a corporate television facility.  I would deliver tapes to the edit suites and think how cool it would be to actually put videos together.  I was intrigued by the amount of equipment in the rooms, and that the editor had to know how to use it all.  I viewed the editors as half engineer and half artist and I knew it was something I wanted to do.

How did you get started in editing?

Starting out on the production side of the industry, it took me a while to find an entry into the post-production side of the business.  I was working as the in-house audio engineer for a large financial institution when I saw an opportunity to make the transition into post. I asked my boss if I could work after hours in one of the edit rooms to learn how edit.  He said “no problem” and encouraged me to learn as much as I can.  I purchased every book I could find on learning FCP as well as doing online tutorials, and reading manuals. For six months I worked at learning the software and understanding the basics of the editing process. Eventually the long hours and hard work paid off when I was asked to cut my first project.  When I finally moved on from that job I was managing five edit rooms.

What is your preferred NLE(s) of choice? Why?  

Being a freelance editor, part of my job is to stay current with the software my clients are using. At the moment most of my clients are either FCP 7, AVID or Premiere Pro.  I have all three on my home system and like them all for different reasons.  

Since I’m a longtime user of After Effects and Photoshop, Premiere Pro, was very easy to learn.  The feature I like most is the dynamic link functionality, which is a huge timesaver when incorporating graphic elements.

I have a soft spot for FCP since it was really the first NLE I used.  Obviously it’s showing its age, but there are still a lot of facilities using it.  I have not taken the leap into learning FCPX Yet.  I’m keeping an eye on its progress, and some of the features look really good.  When I start to get calls to work on it, I’ll learn it.

I’ve really been enjoying AVID the most lately.  It has so many great features, especially when it comes to multi-user shared projects.  I think my favorite feature by far is the trim edit mode, especially the four-up display during slip and slide edits.  This is crucial to the way I edit.  I use this all the time and it is amazing!

One final thought on software.  It’s easy to get caught up in the “which is better” debates, and there is always going to be debates, however at the end of the day the editing process happens in my head and the software is just a tool.  Software should help you to create and not thwart creativity!

Give us a run through of your editing process

I work on many different types of projects and the process varies slightly depending on the project.  One type of project that I really enjoy working on is the short 3-5 minute profile story.  I cut a lot of these for my corporate clients, and as an editor they are fun to work on and give me a lot of artistic freedom. Most of the concepts translate to other projects, so I’ll outline this type of workflow for you.

First I like to have a discussion with the producer/director about the project to talk about the goals and deadlines of the project. I’ll ask if there is a script, log notes, transcripts, outline or anything special I need to know that may impact my workflow.

Next, I’ll import and sort all the footage into bins according to content.  While I’m sorting I like to scan the footage to get an idea of what was shot and to get me thinking about coverage when I’m pulling the story together.  Viewing the B-Roll can also help me get a feel for how I want to pace the video.  Slow moving dolly shots give a different feel than handheld shots and this may play into music choices and pacing.

If I have a script, I will string out my clips in a timeline and see how it flows from a content perspective.  If I don’t have a script I will listen to my interviews and make a selects sequence based on story points, and then start to chip away and organize the sound bites in a way that makes sense to tell the story. Once the content is close I then try to listen to inflections, cut out any “ums” and see if there are any Frankenbites that need to be smoothed out. I’ll also listen for areas that I want to make my transitions or add “sound ups” and make some gaps in the timeline to add these elements.

By this stage I am starting to get a feel for the personalities of the interview subjects.  This is very important to me.  I like to see the personalities come through in the edit, and it’s often a challenge to do this.  I try to look for moments in the interview that I know will work well on-screen and let those play out.  Sometimes it’s a smile, sometimes it’s a pregnant pause, and sometimes it’s the moment that’s not supposed to be on camera, but it’s a real and genuine moment that needs to be included.

I like to bring music into the fold next and usually spend a lot of time trying to find the right tracks for the project.  I want the music to reflect the mood of the story and the personality of the interview subjects.  I will pull way more music than I think I’ll need, and then start roughly placing them in the timeline where I think they will work.  I’ll then listen to the cadence of the interview against the music track and see if they are working in unison or fighting each other.  I’ll also listen to the dynamics of a music track and see how I can use it to my benefit within the cut. Things like key changes or accents within a track, if placed properly can really enhance a project.

Once the music is in the ballpark, I move on to the B-Roll.  I’ll roughly block out sections of B-Roll first, not being super critical of the shots, just so I know what sections of the interview I want to cover.  Once I get the entire sequence covered, I start to refine the edit.  I’ll go into each scene and really start to tweak the shots, look at continuity issues, adjust pacing, and tighten up the overall flow. I want to get the sequence to a point where I can start watching it as a whole piece as soon as possible, because I feel this makes for an overall stronger more cohesive edit in the end.  I really enjoy this part of the process the most and will continue to refine the edit watching and tweaking, watching and tweaking some more as long as I can, until I’m out of time!

What tips were you given that have been really helpful?

One tip that has really been helpful to me over the years is to listen to your edit with your eyes closed.  If you listen to an edit and it flows nicely and makes sense, the visuals will most certainly enhance the story you are telling.  

The other tip, which I’m sure you hear from a lot of editors is, cut from the gut.  I like to interpret this as, follow your instincts and they will take you in the right direction.

How organized are you?

As an editor you have to be mindful of organization, and I think every editor will have his or her own way of organizing and searching media.  To me, the most important part about organization is that it should make you more efficient.  If your naming or sorting is overly complicated it could actually make you less efficient.

Another aspect of organization that should be considered is the environment you are working in and if you will be sharing your projects with other editors.  There is nothing worse than opening up a project someone else worked on and seeing five sequences all named Final or Final-Final or This-Is-The-one.  I want other editors to be able to open up my projects and know exactly what sequence is current and be able to start working straight away. Some facilities I work for have protocols and naming conventions that must be followed.  I really appreciate this and am more than happy to comply with them.  It ensures that any editor can open up any project and understand where the current cut is and where the media is located.   

Can you work without a script, finding the story and building it on your own?  

Yes Absolutely.  Quite often I’m given nothing more than a general idea of what the message of a video should be and a target runtime.

What is your favorite film? Favorite TV show?

I don’t think I can narrow it down to one favorite TV show or Film.  There are just too many that have influenced me over the years.  That being said, I’ll approach this question as “What is your favorite film and favorite TV show at the moment?

Currently one television show I am really enjoying is AMC’s “The Killing”.  There are so many things about this show that I like; characters, story, pacing, acting, writing, overall look, set design, music, mood. All amazing!

If I had to pick a favorite film, at the moment I would have to say Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. The cinematography, music, color pallet, and casting all work brilliantly together to create a quirky heartfelt story and characters you can connect with.  Whenever I watch this film I think to myself, wow, what a fantastic film.  

What style of editing have you done? (Narrative/Documentary/News/Corporate/Wedding/Etc)  

One aspect of being a freelance editor I enjoy the most is being able to work on different types of projects.  I could be working on a DIY home improvement show one day, and the next day cutting a commercial.  I have done promos, meeting openers, music videos, as well as web videos, and find them all rewarding in their own ways.  

If you could meet any editor, who & why?

I really enjoy talking to any editor who is as passionate about the craft of editing as I am.  A lot of time it’s the young student who is just getting started that I enjoy talking with the most.  Their excitement, enthusiasm and eagerness to learn as much as they can about the craft, reminds me of why I started editing, and gets me re-energized about being an Editor.

If I had to choose one editor to have a chat with, I would have to say Michael Kahn.  He has worked on so many iconic films and so many different genres I think it would be fascinating to hear some of his stories.

What advice can you offer to get through complex edits?

I’ve found the best way approach a complex edit is to simply break it down into smaller sections.  Figure out how you want to approach each subsection and start working.  If you approach your edit in this way, it will come together in no time.

If I’m faced with a problematic edit and having difficulty coming up with solutions, one thing I like to do is step away from it for a while.  I’ll put it aside and move on to something else, let it stew in my mind and come back to it later and take another crack at it.  Sometimes all it takes is a little time for the ideas to start flowing.

Another thing I like to do when I’m stuck, is ask someone to screen the cut with me. I’m usually working around other editors and generally they are more than willing to take a break from their work to watch something different and offer some advice. A lot of times the discussion that follows will help lead to a solution.

The important thing to keep I mind is to keep the story at the heart of all your editorial decisions.  If you do this, you’ll always come up with a solution to those complex or problematic edits when they pop up.

Which plug-in(s) do you find most useful? Why?

I don’t really like to use third-party plug-ins when it comes to editing software, however, when it comes to Adobe After Effects, I really enjoy the Trapcode Suite, as well as the Video Copilot products.  Something I find really useful is to carry a drive loaded up with royalty free assets.  It always helps to have an assortment of texture elements, film backs, graphic elements and sound effects that I can quickly access and use to enhance a project. I use these all the time on my corporate jobs and they have paid for themselves many times over.   

How does the director-editor relationship work for you?

I find that trust and respect go a long way.  When I trust a producer or director and they trust and respect my talents and opinions the collaboration is great, and I know we will turn out an excellent product.  It takes time to build up a trust and respect, but when it’s there, it’s amazing, and these are the people I want to keep working with.  

How do you deal with problem clients/directors?

A good friend of mine once said to me when we were dealing with a difficult client, “You start out giving them what they need, and you end up giving them what they want”. This stuck with me, and I always think about it when I find myself in difficult situations.

If I’m working on a project and realize that all my opinions are being dismissed, I unfortunately have to reside myself mentally to just being a technician.  I put my head down, let them call the shots, get through the project, and give them what they want.

At the end of the day, if the client is satisfied with my performance, and they got the product they wanted, I then have the option to choose if I want to work with them again or gracefully decline the next time they call me.

What’s your overall philosophy about editing?  

Work hard and find creativity within every project.  

If you work hard, your good at what you do and you’re easy to get a long with, I’m convinced you will always stay busy, and if you try to find something creative about every project you work on, you’ll satisfy you’re artistic needs and be happier at the end of the day.  

Name one thing that you would tell an aspiring editor.

Be generous with your time and advice, be nice to those you collaborate with, and never stop learning!

You can visit Michael’s Website or follow him on Twitter:  @maelstrompost