Frame of Reference with Editor Alan E Bell

Alan Edward Bell

Alan Edward Bell A.C.E. has over 25 years of experience in the film industry and has worked on projects including GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and a slew of others. Alan currently resides in Los Angeles with his wife, two kids and 14 chickens.  Alan is an autodidact, which means he is self-educated.

We had a chance to sit with Alan and talk about his Post Process.

What got you interested in editing?  

When I was in my twenties I was a Rock Climbing Guide, and Instructor, I also led backpacking trips and pretty much had a life of adventure.  I never really wanted to get into editing I just sort of fell into it I guess. A friend of mine was an Assistant Editor and he would tell me stories and things about the movies he worked on.  Sometimes I would meet him and the crew he worked with for lunch and various parties so I knew a bunch of editors socially. I’ve always loved movies but I never really had a burning desire to get into the business at first. I used to take lots of hollywood types out to the rocks and they paid the best so when I got tired of being poor I started thinking about hollywood and what I might be able to do here. Editing peaked my interest because naively I thought it would be easy.

How did you get started in editing?

One day I just decided it was time to make a change and asked my friends how to become an assistant editor. They didn’t take me seriously at first. Frankly I wouldn’t have either if I was them based on the type of life I had been leading. They put me in touch with Nancy Beyda an editor who introduced me to Norman Hollyn who was cutting a film for Roger Corman. I got a job working as an apprentice with him on a picture called Daddy’s Boys. It was a no pay job. I worked hard, learned a lot and was fortunate that Norman hired me on a paying gig afterwards. I did three pictures as the apprentice/2nd assistant editor with him and then moved into the first assistant position with another editor.

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

I am working with Avid Media Composer at the moment. Taking a very strong look at Premiere though. I am cutting on Avid because of the collaboration tools. Shared project workflow is good and that’s why I am using it at the moment.

Give us a run through of your editing process

Well I watch all the dailies first, before I do anything. I usually watch them once they are organized in a visual frame layout in the bins. I have various ways of marking the clips I like and things I like and dislike about each take etc. Then I read the scene in the script. Next I look at the script notes to see if there is any information the director told the script supervisor I might need to know. Then depending on the type of scene I get going. I don’t always do it the same each time but I have two techniques which I’ve named for myself. The first is what I call cutting forward. I pick a place and start cutting forward making sure each cut is good and smooth picking through all the performances to get the bits I want. With this method I’m mostly thinking about what I want to see next and trying all sorts of things as I string the shots together. It’s like I’m cutting it as if I won’t have a chance to go back and clean anything up. So that’s one method I use.

The other method which I use often I really enjoy. I call this one speed cutting. It harkens back to the way old-time editors used to work with a moviola. I go pick the pieces I want in order and mark the in and out point then straight cut them into my timeline. I do not watch a single cut until I have the whole sequence together. Sometimes what you end up with is total garbage other times it’s really good. The thing about this method that I love is it makes me think about the in point and the out point and I’m focusing on performance not matching and all the things that can tangle you up in a sequence and get you lost.

Once I have a version that I like no matter how I start it off I usually fine-cut and do quite a bit of sound work. I tend to work with many tracks.

What tips were you given that was really helpful?

A couple of things that people have said to me I found helpful. “If it takes them a day to shoot it, then it should take you a day to cut it” This really helped me stay up to camera and use my time wisely. “Don’t anticipate the cuts” This helped me a great deal when I was just starting out. Another tip that I had to learn early on was to look at the footage objectively. You have to see if for what it is and not what you want it to be. Cut the scene according to script and get the best performances out of the dailies first. If you know what the Director’s intent is for the scene do your best to serve that.

How organized are you?

Very organized.

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

Yes of course but I prefer not to. To a certain extent that’s what we do after we have a first assembly.

What is your favorite film? Favorite Tv show?  

I really love Apocolypse Now as it’s a movie that in many ways tells the subtext of Joseph Conrads story better than Conrad did. It’s hard for a film to achieve that in my opinion. As for Tv I enjoy “The Walking Dead” a great deal. And I think the second season of Justified is wonderful.

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

I have predominately done Feature Film Narrative and some documentary films.

If you could meet any editor, who and why?

I don’t know really. I am fortunate to have so many talented editors as friends that I can’t think of anyone off-hand that I am dying to meet which I haven’t. I can say that I would like to talk with a lot of editors about their process and how they handle politics in the studio system as that’s something that many of us just don’t do enough.

What advice can you offer to get through complex edits?

I think the best advise when it comes to complex edits is to start simple. Most things if you get down to the basics are easier and more powerful when you strip them down to the core. Stay focused on the intent of the scene. What’s the point of each cut. Follow your gut feelings about it. Don’t ever walk away thinking to yourself that’s good enough. It’s okay to put something down knowing you’re going to go back to it but don’t ever accept mediocrity from yourself. Complex edits are made up one cut at a time. Plug away and you will get there.

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

I use tons of different software in my day-to-day editing. Unlike many editors that I came up with I am also very skilled at compositing and certain types of visual effects. I coined a term called Performance Enhancing Visual Effects. What that means is I will do all sorts of crazy splits screens, morphs, speed ramps and even some 3d work to create and change performances from actors to improve the story. I have a BLOG which is dedicated to this. My favourite software for compositing at the moment is Eyeon Fusion and it’s connection plug-in which works with the Avid. I also like Cinema 4d for all my 3d work and any motion graphics and previz that I do from time to time. I use Syntheyes for 3d camera tracking, Iclone for previz work and Photoshop to name a few.

How does the director-editor relationship work for you?

It is the most important relationship in the cutting room. The Director and I must want the same thing for the film. We don’t always have to agree but at the end of the day it’s his or her vision of the film that trumps mine. So it’s nice when our taste is complimentary. Naturally it’s best when we feed off of each other and the film gets to a higher place.

How do you deal with problem clients/directors?

I try not to work with those people.

What’s your overall philosophy about editing?

I think when it comes down to it, emotion and connectivity are the most important bits of glue you can use to put a story together. I want to feel something when I watch a movie, that’s where the magic is for me. Every film is different and the editing must support the style of the film as well as the emotional potential of the story.

Name one thing that you would tell an aspiring editor

Are you sure this is what you want to do with your life? If you really want it, then get to it and remember no one owes you anything. Luck has nothing to do with your success or anyone else’s, only losers use that as an excuse. Don’t be afraid to get it wrong, it’s what you do next that defines you. If you choose to compare yourself to others you will always be disappointed. Ask yourself what can I learn from my peers, listen and try new things. Learn to take criticism, you are going to get a hell of a lot of it. When the inner voice tells you “Dude you suck!” use that as determination to prove it wrong! Oh and one other thing, plan of constantly learning and studying new things, change is good, it’s what we do. Practice it in your life always and it won’t destabilize you.

To keep up with Alan you can find him on his Blog or on Twitter.

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