Frame of Reference with Editor Nancy Forner

Nancy Forner is an editor with over 20 years of cutting experience. She has cut everything from Mel Brooks movies to her most recent credit The Vampire Diaries, a television show on the CW Network. Nancy was born in Germany, grew up in Israel and moved to the USA in 11th grade. She went to the Penn State University, studied film, and made a
student film that won a film festival. “Winning that festival was so easy it gave me the innocent naïve notion that working in the film business would be a piece of cake….so I moved to Los Angeles when I graduated….I did not know ONE person in the film biz….and little did I know what a piece of cake it would  NOT end up being….

What got you interested in editing?

I always wanted to be a writer. I love story telling. I took a class in college, by mistake, thinking it was a film theory course (AKA an easy A)…it turned out to be a film production class. I made a movie, it won a film festival. I was young and stupid and thought…”hey, this is way way easier than writing.” I will be a filmmaker instead. So I decided to move to Hollywood. Ahhhh the innocence of youth…. I sometimes think, without the innocence of youth, no one would ever have the courage to do anything….

How did you get started in editing?

Well, I drove across the country and in every big city I stopped and looked up film companies in the phone book. I called and asked each one if they had any apprenticeships for young filmmakers. Only one place offered me one (basically being a slave and working for free) and that was in Seattle Washington. So I stayed in Seattle for three years as an apprentice at FilmSmiths, a commercial film house. The free grunt work at this small film company turned into a real job where I started directing and editing industrial films. From FilmSmiths, I got a job for PBS in Seattle syncing dailies for a documentary filmmaker who then offered me a job in New York City being a real apprentice editor (which means you get paid) on another one of his movies.  So I moved to New York. I had never been to the city, did not know up town from down town and I did not know one person who lived there, but hey, I was, like I said before, young and naïve and full of youthful courage. Some could call that dumb, but I like to call it youthful courage. While there, I met a film editor who was cutting a real live movie directed by Philip Kauffman. (I can’t remember how I met him, Studio 54 maybe?) The editor offered me a job in San Francisco apprenticing with him there. So I moved to SF. CA. also knowing no one and having nowhere to stay sleep or shower…and the story is much longer and has some more interesting, bizarre and unusual experiences, but those I am saving for my book. So you will have to wait for the juicy details. Bottom line…. I apprenticed on this big movie and learned the ins and outs of a real live cutting room on a real live movie that people see in theaters.

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

AVID…there is no other editing system that is as fast and elegant and user-friendly. There are no other choices IMO. (and I had to call my assistant to ask him what a NLE was, FYI)

Give us a run through of your editing process

Get up…drink lots of coffee… you want more than that? Ok, OK….first thing I do is read the script. I use a highlighter and go through the  Script and underline important moments that I might think are well…. important. What is important? Things that further the story, things that are emotional beats, dialogue that is pivotal, stuff like that. Stuff I want to make sure I have in my mind when I am cutting the scene. Then I put the  Script away and get more coffee and hopefully a Danish. In scripted movies or television (as opposed to documentaries or reality TV) Whatever the production shoots one day is sent to me the next. My assistant gets my AVID all organized and pretty and ready for me and then I just jump in. To be honest, I have no process. I just look at the footage and start to tell the story. Some editors have a concrete scientific process. They have systems and procedures, but I don’t……I just dive in…. I liken it to an artist sculpting, molding the clay…. the sculptor has a vague idea what they want to create, but they find it as they go along. That is how I work. Ok, yeah, I start by kinda looking at the dailies, but in a cursory way. By the time I have finished the scene, tho, I will have looked at every inch of film….I discover it as I go…as I try to find the best way to put this piece of film next to this piece of film to tell the story in the best  and  most interesting way. To me most of it is intuitive…and every scene I cut, I approach differently.

What tips were you given that was really helpful?

Besides come to work early and stay late? Actually I was given no tips. I taught myself completely how to edit. I would watch old movies and old TV shows and take notes on how they were cut. I would watch how the dialogue was handled how the pacing was handled in a fight scene vs. an emotional scene. In film school I learned nothing, basically…..except theories and that being a film student is considered cool.…..Editing is not something you can learn without doing. You have to do it to understand how to do it.

How organized are you?

I am a ZEN master of organization. I am very organized and I ask my assistants
to be also. I cannot work in chaos. I knew a famous editor that insisted that his assistants put out sharpened pencils on his desk every morning at a right degree angle….if they weren’t positioned there perfectly like that every morning, he would fire the assistant. I am not that bad….coz I don’t use pencils.

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

Absolutely I could…but in the kind of work I have been doing (scripted television)
I am given a script and asked nicely by the producers to follow it. I have been asked by the producers from time to time to “JUST DO SOMETHING” with the footage because the script is not working. Sometimes the only thing written in the script is “and then they fight” or “And then they kiss.” Those are the times the director just shoots a ton of footage and will ask me to come up with my concept of what to make the story about and how to put it together. Those kinds of scenes are fun cause I will just design the way the Scene should look based on how I see the footage and how I think the story could be told. Of course, the Producer or director could come in and hate it and ask me to do it again….they are allowed to do that, cause hey….they are the bosses.

What is your favorite film? Favorite TV show?

Favorite Film “Gladiator” favorite TV show “Mad Men”

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

I have pretty much primarily cut feature films or TV shows…. action, comedy, drama, medical, procedural and all those that fall in between.

If you could meet any editor, who and why?

Pietro Scalia, he cut my favorite movie Gladiator.

What advice can you offer to get through complex edits?

I have no advice…because editing is a skill one has to develop for themselves.
To be an editor you must have the patience and tenacity of an anteater. You have to
just stay with it…keep plugging away. Editing is not a science it is an art…and art is found……within……art is discovered in the process. The sculpture is discovered while the sculptor has his hands IN THE CLAY. Getting through complex edits just takes time. But coffee does help.

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

I have no idea what a plug-in is…I will have to ask my assistant who
does all that technical stuff.

How does the director-editor relationship work for you?

On TV the director is barely involved. He shoots his footage then I cut it the way I
think it should be cut. He has NO input on how I take his footage and create the show while I am doing my first pass which is called the editor’s cut. After I have cut everything, put music and Sound effects and polished it so that it sings….then I give it to the director to look at. Usually in TV they will call me and give me some notes like “I think Scene 2 needs to be faster. Scene 5  needs to be slower. Do you have a better take for the leading lady in Scene 7 etc.” The notes are usually very small and brief. On a movie it is different. The editor does the same thing, makes a beautiful editor’s cut…then the director comes into the editing room for MONTHS and they create the movie together sitting side by side. IMO cutting television is much harder in certain ways than cutting some movies.. We TV editors have to cut tons of footage, all on our own, in one-tenth the amount of time a movie editor has to cut a movie. So we have to be really fast and know what to do right away. No time to play around or wait for someone to sit with us and help us.

How do you deal with problem clients/directors?

I am always polite and I know my place. Whatever they ask me to do I will do it. If I strongly disagree I might in my nicest voice suggest why I don’t like their idea…but, hey, they are the director or producer and my job is to do my editors cut then to do what they ask me to do….right or wrong….I respect the directors and the producers….it has been my experience that the directors and producers know what they are doing and the show only gets better with their input.

What’s your overall philosophy about editing?

Tell the story. Plain and Simple. And while you are telling the story, which is the most important thing to do….make it look and sound beautiful and interesting.

Name one thing that you would tell an aspiring editor

Watch movies, watch TV, read good books, understand story, look at art in museums and in books, listen to all kinds of music. Oh yeah, and take ballet lessons too…cause editing is all about movement, grace, music and rhythm with some dialogue placed in there too.

I would like to invite you to follow Nancy on twitter. She loves talking about editing and if you have any questions she is sure to reply.

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