Frame of Reference with Editor Gordon Burkell

Today we get to go inside the head of Gordon Burkell. Gordon has worked in the film industry and as a film editor for 15 years. He started Art of the Guillotine in 2007 to help build a community for editors and to create a vehicle to help editors and film academics share their knowledge and expertise to improve the art form. He currently lives in Toronto, Canada where he edits and teaches film editing at Ryerson University.

How did you get started in editing?
I actually started out on set as a boom operator and disliked the hours waiting on the sets.  It was when I moved into post sound as an assistant that I met Alan Collins who had worked as an editor for Roger Corman and David Cronenberg.  I started assisting Alan to help with the new software learning curve and the two of us hit it off.  I continued assisting him for several years.  Eventually, he started directing documentaries and I cut them.

What got you interested in editing?
It was working with Alan Collins that really peaked my interest.  Before that I didn’t really know where I was going, just that I wanted to work in film.  I enjoyed the theories of Eisenstein, Kuleshov and Pudovkin and had studied cultural theory and philosophy in school and his knowledge in these areas facilitated engaging and thought-provoking conversations while we worked.  We rarely talked technology and almost always discussed how to affect the audience emotionally in a scene or communicate ideas persuasively.  It was quite possibly the most fun I ever had while assisting an editor.

What is your preferred NLE(s) of choice? Why?
AOTG.com has been keeping quite busy so I’ve been doing less and less editing myself and more on the web.  When I am cutting, I am actually quite flexible, at the moment I have Avid and Premiere on my systems and it really is dependent on the project.  If I am going into a lot of After Effects then Premiere, if I am helping the sound team with sound in Pro Tools then Avid.  Sometimes I get brought on after projects have been started or to fix things and if the cut was done in FCP, Media 100, Avid, Premiere, Lightworks I’ll really just jump in and get it done.

Give us a run through of your editing process?
When I am cutting, I work mostly in documentaries, as this is it is the nature of the genre, I usually find myself flooded with footage.  There may be an outline but no script.  Because of this the director and I really need to be on the same page so I usually have discussed their ideas and hopes for the project and make sure that I thoroughly understand them.  In the documentary world organization is paramount, if I am lucky enough to have an assistant, we work out our organization scheme.  Although, it creates more work for the assistant, I don’t like to label my clips with the reels, tape numbers or takes.  I give descriptive labels that may be followed by locations or content type, we usually generate a list and use the meta data to keep things organized for online.

How the doc is shot determines how I start to organize.  If it is verité then I cut things in the order they occurred.  This, of course, won’t stay this way but it gives the director a sense of what they shot and when, and the natural flow of events.  Then I start to chop out the unnecessary bits and move elements around.  I work to engage the audience and make the most compelling doc. that reflects the intent of the director and the rest of the production team.

If the footage isn’t shot in any particular order, then I begin by grouping shots and scenes based on similar content.  Event A, Event B, etc. OR by story elements or arcs.

Most of my rough cuts on docs come in well over the running time. Five hours isn’t uncommon.  After the initial cut we chizzle the footage more.  Remove characters, story lines, unnecessary content.

What tips were you given that was really helpful?
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and explore every path.  Your job is not to be an assembly line worker but to be analytical, inquisitive, and creative.  Question every element, how you can improve scenes, cuts, the character arcs.  I laugh because a lot of the time people state that directors and producers treat the editing room as a psychiatrists office and vent about others on the set or in the crew.  People have told me that this role is often evident in my questions, I will ask how does this scene make you feel?  Are you engaged in this character, do you want to learn more?

How organized are you?
In the cutting room I am beyond organized.  Almost to a fault.  Everywhere else in life is a different story!

Can you work without a script, finding the story and building it on your own?
I can and do! I don’t do much scripted work but when I do, if need be, I can go off script.

What is your favorite film? Favorite Tv show?
This fluctuates constantly and is being added to or shifted almost daily.  For comedy, I love Flight of The Conchords. Just the thought of some of the jokes make me laugh out loud.  For drama I am currently on a Sons of Anarchy kick.

As for films, it ranges, I repeatedly watch François Truffault’s, The 400 Blows, Planet of the Apes (The original), I also love Singing in the Rain, and my go to Christmas film is either Elf or It’s a Wonderful Life.  Of course, there are many many others.  Really if you ask me in a few months I could give you a completely new list.

What style of editing have you done? (Narrative/Documentary/News/
Corporate/Wedding/Etc)
I mostly focus on Docs but I have cut narrative.

If you could meet any editor, who and why?
I’ve actually had the pleasure of meeting some of my editing heros.  Malcolm Jamieson, Michelle Hozer, Michael Tronick are just a few of the amazing editors whose work blows my mind everytime I see it and my interactions with them in person were just thrilling.

What advice can you offer to get through complex edits?
Go home, sleep, take the weekend off.  You’ll be surprised how a problem you’re facing on a Friday has a solution Monday morning. Also, explore arts and entertainment outside of film.  We all love film, we all love going to the movies and being absorbed into the film world.  But go see art exhibits, go to the theatre, go to a sports game, the museum, go out and engage in life! You can’t translate emotions onto the screen unless you’ve felt them!  You’ll be surprised how art, museums, sports, etc. inspire you and give you ideas when you are back in the cutting room.

Which plug-in(s) do you find most useful? Why?
Funny, I don’t really go out of my way to purchase plugins unless I absolutely need them. I have BorisFX, Tiffen Dfx, Noise Industries stuff on my systems and I’ve used Plural Eyes to sync doc audio issues.

How does the director-editor relationship work for you?
Drastically different each time.  There are one or two directors who I have short hand with but I typically work through the footage with the director and try to come to understand their vision so I can execute it.

How do you deal with problem clients/directors?
I stand up for the project but at the end of the day it is the director’s head on the line.  I’ll present the case but if the director refuses despite a persuasive discussion then I move forward.  With tight schedules we don’t have days to fight it out.  I usually suggest we try it both ways and see what works best, then I have my version in case the producer doesn’t like the director’s version.  I have options to demo for the producers which makes them happy.

What’s your overall philosophy about editing?
You aren’t an editor until you learn when not to make a cut.  This was told to me by Michael Tronick and has really stuck with me.

The other idea that I follow is that you need to internalize theories, cutting techniques, ideas, and the technical aspects of the job.  Really have a deep understanding of all areas in the editing room.  Then when you are cutting, don’t focus on these things just cut, let it become a natural reaction to the emotions on the screen.  If you understand these ideas, the technology, etc. and I mean really understand them, they will become second nature and you will naturally apply them while working.

Name one thing that you would tell an aspiring editor?
Cut whatever you can get your hands on. Doesn’t matter if it is an infomercial, corporate video or a friend’s short.  Just get your hands dirty. Make mistakes, learn, and move on.  It worked for Kuleshov didn’t it?

You can catch up with Gordon on twitter or on AOTG.com.

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