Frame of Reference with Editor Chris Witt

Chris Witt is a film editor residing in Los Angeles, California. His work has been acclaimed worldwide including Kavi (2009), a 2010 Academy Award Nominee and The Butterfly Circus (2009), an Internet sensation and the recipient of the 2010 Clint Eastwood Filmmaker Award. Between film projects, Chris also works in Reality TV including FOX’s Hotel Hell with Gordon Ramsey and CBS’s Dogs in the City that air this summer.

What got you interested in editing?
When I was a teenager, I started playing with a couple SVHS decks and a Video Toaster. The thing that got me hooked was I could affect someone’s emotions by the way I cut the images and the music together. I later learned that I was toying with the concepts of pacing, rhythm, sequence and that is what I fell in love with.

How did you get started in editing?
In 2001, I got a gig at a WB affiliate in Wichita, Kansas. I conformed the network materials for airing locally and produced/edited a bunch of bad local TV commercials. I loved it because they basically paid me to play around on an Avid Xpress.

What is your preferred NLE(s) of choice? Why?
Avid is my first real NLE language. I also learned on Discreet *Edit, fumbled around on Media100 and Adobe Premiere, then of course learned FCP because I had to. But Avid MC/Symphony is where I’m most comfortable and the fastest hand. Once I get the material on the timeline, I can type out the edit as though I’m writing a paper. Us keyboard centric editors seem to be dinosaurs, but in my opinion it’s the fastest and most efficient way to work.

Give us a run through of your editing process
It depends on what I’m cutting. If I’m cutting Reality or Docs, I first work the stringout they give me until it feels like I’ve lost all the bad bits and smoothed out all the rest. Then I add music that supports what’s going on in scene and do a pass of sound design/effects. When I cut film, I string out all the dailies of a scene or setup and then cut the scene with the sound off. Then I turn back on the sound and finesse the cut with sound. After that, I assemble all the scenes and dial it in with the director.

What tips were you given that was really helpful?
Every genre has its own feel and approach. Trying to cut a documentary or a reality show with the same workflow and pacing of a :30 second promo will probably get you fired. The pacing for a long form nonfiction project has more in common with a feature than with a promo or sizzle reel.

Also, making it in this business has more to do with who you know and pure luck than it does about talent. Talent won’t get you in the door, but it will keep you in once you have your break.

How organized are you?
Extremely. I’m happiest in my edit bay when I can move fast and efficiently around the project and around the cut. I have personal bins like SFX, MX, SLX, GFX, FX, CWYS, WORK, etc that keep my sound effects, music, selects, graphics, effects, cutaways, and render/title work, respectively. Many editors don’t break it down that far. But not only do I keep my personal work bins organized, I keep things laid out in the timeline very systematically. It drives me crazy when I inherit a timeline with music, sound effects, VO and SOTS (sound ups) all sharing the same tracks. It slows me down considerably trying to wade around in that mess.

Can you work without a script, finding the story and building it on your own?
With docs and reality, the string out often suffices for a script. Narratives almost always have a script. It’s really nice to have a stringout or script because it gives me the vantage of having a fresh perspective on someone else’s vision when I start. However, when a script or stringout is not provided, I can go in the raw and find the story–it just takes me a lot longer.

What is your favorite film? Favorite Tv show?
I actually don’t have either anymore. I enjoy going to the theater or getting into a dramatic series, but family life and my side projects have consumed most of my free time in the past few years.

What style of editing have you done? (Narrative/Documentary/News/Corporate/Wedding/Etc)
Features, documentary, shorts, reality, promo, music video

If you could meet any editor, who and why?
Walter Murch. I know that is totally unoriginal to say, but when I first moved to L.A., every time an editor brought up the name Walter Murch, I rolled my eyes. But then I read his books on editing and realized that much of what he suggested made a lot of sense to me when put in practice. Not everything mind you, but cutting without sound, for example, has become very useful to me. Yet, until I actually tried it, I thought it was a little far-fetched that it would make an improvement on my picture cutting. I first gave it a try with montages and found it helped me focus on the images, then I moved to actual dialogue scenes and found it did the same. I could imagine what they were saying so I didn’t get lost as I thought I might. Plus, the actors blocking worked like little mile markers. It actually really helps when cutting foreign languages I don’t speak. So for that alone, I’d like to shake Mr. Murch’s hand.

What advice can you offer to get through complex edits?
Break everything down to the lowest common denominator and get the bits that work and the bits you like on the timeline, even if it’s not in the right place. It helps sometimes just to eliminate all the bad bits so you can focus on what does work.

Which plug-in(s) do you find most useful? Why?
It’s a funny thing, with Sapphire and BCC, I only use like 4 for most everything I do and it usually has to do with a white glow, glint or flash across an edit or a film or bleach bypass look. I think less is more and while I would love to be an expert on visual effects in these two plugin packages in particular, in the work I do, I seldom scratch the surface. I know there are many plugins outside of those two, especially in the FCP environment, but I really haven’t used very many of them in my professional experience.

How does the director-editor relationship work for you?
I thrive in a collaboration. I am happiest when I get to tap into a director’s vision and come to the cut as a team. Although I love being the sole voice in the assembly, after that, I want the director to bring their vision to the table. And yet, I don’t always like it when the director tells me exactly how to change the cut. I prefer when the director tells me what feels wrong or where he wants to finesse a moment between characters, and I solve the problem of how to accomplish that. But usually, it’s a combination of the director raising issues that I can problem solve and the director giving me specific tweaks to make.

How do you deal with problem clients/directors?
In film, clients are often synonymous with the producer. In TV, clients are synonymous with the Network and directors are synonymous with producers. It can get confusing, I know. However, it’s imperative for me to have the direction/notes filtered through the director in film or producer in TV (unless the director leaves the picture as in a Producers cut). I hate being caught in the middle of two distinct directions, so when it comes from the director, I know the director and client have already worked out their differences and found a common ground.

What’s your overall philosophy about editing?
You should feel something in the footage and then use sequence, rhythm and pacing to encode the emotion into the picture edit that can be decoded later by the viewer. But to engage the viewer and keep them watching, you must cut out all the confusing and bad bits. But editing is also about the spirit of collaboration and being able to interpret different visions for the scene or project into the best possible reality.

Name one thing that you would tell an aspiring editor
Editing has many layers and complexities, it’s both creative and very technical. If you are pretty balanced between your left and right brain, you might be great in the hot seat. Whether you are going to climb the ladder within the studio system or rise with your peers, it can take decades to get to what you consider to be the top, so be patient and enjoy all the projects in between that will help get you there.

For more info on Chris you can find him on twitter or his website.

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