Frame of Reference with Editor Laura Quigley

Laura Quigley is a short form editor based in London, England. For the past 4 years Laura has been working for a marketing agency that specializes in producing trailers, television spots and promos for feature films and television shows. Some of the projects she has worked on include the film Life in a Day and the TV shows, The Walking Dead, The Killing and American Horror Story.

What got you interested in editing?

When I was 16 I took a Film Studies class and one of the first films we were shown was Run Lola Run.  I hadn’t seen anything remotely like it before, with its mixture of animation and live action and the non linear narrative.  It really drew my attention to editing and how it can be used to explore the possibilities of how to tell a story. It’s a film I still come back to when I need some inspiration.

How did you get started in editing?

I studied Film & Television at university and several of the study modules included film-making. Working on short films gave me my first opportunity to edit narrative pieces and confirmed for me that editing was the career path I wanted to pursue after graduation.

My first job in the industry was as a runner for a large post production facility in London and I worked my way up the ladder from there, working as a technical operator, assistant editor and finally editor.

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

Since I have been working professionally, I have solely used Avid Media Composer for cutting and I don’t see myself switching to something else unless I absolutely had to.  I have gradually developed an Avid short hand that allows me to work quickly and a strong familiarity with the software means I can better troubleshoot if I come across a problem.  Although I have some familiarity with Final Cut Pro, Avid will always be my first choice NLE.

Give us a run through of your editing process

“Don’t you just watch a film, pick out all the good bits and put them together.”

When I tell people what I do for a living, it’s not uncommon to hear responses similar to this – but the reality is not quite that simple.

The very start of the process is the most important – the client brief. This informs everything I’ll do going forward with the edit and will specify how I approach the material to go about selling the film or TV show in the way the client wants. Then it’s onto the creative…
If I have enough time, I like to watch the film / TV episode for the first time without touching the Avid, sometimes making notes of key scenes or great pieces of ‘trailer dialogue’.  I will then watch it again and put together a selects reel, which I suppose is the part of the process where I do “pick out all the good bits” – useful dialogue lines and the best shots (either for action, character, or establishing locations).  Once I have a selects reel, I will set about creating a structure for the piece, working out what smaller story to tell from the larger story told in the film.  It’s at this point where I will often sit with a copywriter and discuss possible scripts – copy cards and voice over (the famous trailer man voice) are the best way to put across story information in a short space of time.  I think one of the biggest differences between the type of editing I do and long form film editing, is how early I will bring music into an edit.  Creating a story structure, writing the script and incorporating music happens almost simultaneously as the trailer is edited.  Once the overall structure is locked, I will spend time tidying the edit and building up the sound effects. Finally, the cut will be presented to the client for feedback. Changes are made in conjunction with the client until final approval is given.

The editing process I use differs slightly depending on the type of job.  TV spots have strict time constraints of 10, 20 or 30 seconds whereas trailers and promos allow for greater flexibility.  Trailers are also being released earlier and earlier so it’s becoming more common to be working on a project when the film or TV show is still in production. Instead of sitting down to watch the film, the process will start with watching, sorting and assembling rushes and reading the script so I know how everything is intended to fit together. Working from rushes is also how things that don’t end up in the film can appear in the trailer!

What tips were you given that was really helpful?

You can never hit ‘save’ too much! This probably seems pretty obvious but I remember editors saying it to me over and over when I was working as an assistant. There is nothing worse than that sinking feeling you get when your machine crashes and you restart to find your sequence is missing the work you did over the last couple of hours. Avid has an auto save feature, but I always feel better when I know I am taking responsibility for saving my work frequently.

I was once given a great tip for cutting TV spots that I always keep in mind when working on a TV campaign: Listen to the cut without the picture to make sure you are making the most of every frame available. Without picture, holes in the audio become more obvious and you may find excess space that can be used for an extra sound effect or piece of dialogue.  This isn’t to say that TV spots should never have gaps in the sound bed but if I’m having trouble fitting everything into a spot, I’ve found this a useful technique for finding spare frames.  Good TV spots will often resemble radio spots with picture.

How organized are you?

Very. A tidy project and a tidy timeline (and although unrelated to editing, a tidy desktop!) help me to work more efficiently and I like to know I can find assets easily within a project, whether it’s a voice over recording, a graphic or a sound effect. I work in an environment where, more often than not, there will be multiple editors working on a single project, so it benefits everyone to keep things organized. The same bin names are used by all the editors to keep things uniform across projects and to help editors if they join projects mid way through.

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

I will often work without a script when trying out ideas. It’s not uncommon for the copy on a trailer to be changing constantly during the editing process as ideas are discarded or story structures change.  For a feature film, the script will often inform the footage that is shot, however, for a trailer, the script will be written as a result of viewing that footage – this reversal means as ideas change or develop so do the scripts.

What is your favorite film? Favorite Tv show?

I don’t have only one favorite film, there are too many to choose from. My favorite filmmaker is Alfred Hitchcock so many of his films are among my favorites, such as North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder and Psycho. My favorite TV show that is still on the air is Mad Men, with two of my long time favorites being The West Wing and The X-Files.

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

In university I worked on fictional and documentary shorts but professionally I have only worked in the short form sector.

If you could meet any editor, who and why?

I would love the opportunity to meet Michael Kahn. As a long time collaborator of Steven Spielberg’s, he edited many of the films I spent hours watching again and again when I was growing up – The Goonies, Hook, Jurassic Park and the Indiana Jones trilogy to name a few. It would be great to talk with him about how he sets about approaching an edit as he has worked across so many different genres and it would be interesting to hear how his long time collaboration has worked to help (or hinder) his editing process. Plus, I don’t think I will ever forget the first time I saw the opening 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan.

What advice can you offer to get through complex edits?

Have patience.  If I’m getting stuck with an edit, I find the best thing to do is to stand back and take a break for 5 minutes. Leave the edit suite and make a cup of tea (very British I know) or go for a walk; something that doesn’t involve looking at a screen.  When it comes back to editing, I think you need the patience to just keep working at it. Working in the short form sector means it’s easier to try out multiple ideas in a relatively short space of time. I might end up cutting 2 or 3 different versions of a TV spot and then call on another editor to get their opinion on which is working best. I find that seeking the opinions of those around you, who will have ‘fresh eyes’ to the edit can be very helpful.

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

Plug-ins aren’t something I have the need to use on daily basis.

How does the director-editor relationship work for you?

I don’t work with the directors of the films or TV shows I work on. My client is most often someone from the marketing department of the studio releasing the film or the TV channel airing the show. The client may pass on notes from members of the production team (a producer or the director) but it’s extremely rare to hear from them directly.

I often say to people, working in film marketing is like working for a secret society. Like Don Draper once said on Mad Men: “There are no credits on commercials.”  We have the privilege of seeing films and TV shows months before they are released but we work outside the realm of the film’s production. My client will be the ‘middle man’ between the team working on the film and the team working on the creative to market the film.
 
How do you deal with problem clients/directors?

This will depend on the client but most of the time it comes down to compromise.  If there is a shot, dialogue line or piece of music that I think is working particularly well or is vital to the storytelling that the client doesn’t like, then I will make a case for keeping it. Most problems can be resolved with a simple discussion. Being as familiar as possible with the material you have is really important. I don’t want to be in a situation where the client is making suggestions and I don’t know what scenes or shots are being referred to.
 
What’s your overall philosophy about editing?

For me, editing is all about creating a reaction or emotion, within the larger framework of telling a great story. Trailers are often built around moments – making you jump in a horror trailer or making you laugh in a comedy trailer. How you go about creating these moments involves trial and error and doing your best with what you have to work from. I was recently at Edit Fest in New York and one of the editors on the documentary panel (I can’t remember which one!) said something along the lines of “Editing is like writing with the senses” and I think this is a great analogy.

Name one thing that you would tell an aspiring editor

Don’t give up!  This probably sounds clichéd but I really believe that if you want to get somewhere in this business you must have the determination to put in the work and see it through. When I joined the industry as a runner, there were days when it felt like I was going to be making tea and collecting lunches forever but if you take the time to show interest and ask questions it’s likely an opportunity will come up to move up the ladder. Another thing I would say is make the most of the experience of those around you – the best advice I have been giving hasn’t come from books but from the great editors, sound mixers, colorist and other creatives I have worked with.
 

Catch up with Laura on twitter.

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