Frame of Reference with Editor Alex Elkins

Alex Elkins

Alex Elkins is the Senior Editor & Colourist at Post Blue, a London-based post-production facility, where he spends most of his time in a dark room with minimal human contact. Surprisingly though he’s in fact relatively socially competent. “When I’m not working I’m generally cooking steak, or out and about enjoying live music and sampling the many fine ales available in London. I’m almost certainly the biggest Hitchhiker’s Guide fan under thirty. Capable of teleportation when intoxicated. Sometimes found sleeping on staircases.”

We speak with Alex today about his post process.

What got you interested in editing?
When I was about 14 my granddad taught a friend and me how to edit our skateboarding videos using a Hi-8 camcorder hooked up to a VHS recorder. I would press play on the camcorder and then hit record on the VHS until the take had ended. Then we’d spool to the next clip and repeat the process. It took forever and the videos were pretty terrible but I absolutely loved it! Even then it taught us things like the importance of recording handles when you shoot. By the end of it we were even experimenting with special effects! It wasn’t until a few years later that I actually realised you could do that as a job.

How did you get started in editing?
I took a media course at college and like every student I started out thinking I was going to be the next superstar director. I quickly realised though that my strength was in editing, so I was doing as much as possible both in college and in my spare time. I got a job as a cameraman while I was studying and eventually the company I was working for offered me a full-time editing position. Seven years on I’m still with the same company.

What is your preferred NLE(s) of choice? Why?
I’m fastest with FCP, but that’s really just because I’ve used it for so long. What I find though is every time I use Avid for a short spell I end up tweaking the way I work in FCP to be more similar to it. I think Avid is the NLE that works the closest to how a lot of editors think. Premiere CS6 looks promising too.

Give us a run through of your editing process
The most important part of the editing process is tea; I literally can’t function at work without it. After that it’s a case of reviewing the rushes and working out how the cut will develop. Often I work without a script, so I add text slugs in the timeline to indicate what scene might come next. It’s an excellent way of getting a general overview of how the piece will work structurally. By the time I’ve watched through the material I tend to have a pretty good idea of how the finished edit will look before I’ve started cutting.

What tips were you given that was really helpful?
Justify every cut you make.

How organized are you?
My mind is a complete mess of disorganised to-do lists, but on the computer everything is completely regimented. When it comes to an edit my philosophy is that if I had to be replaced tomorrow another editor should be able to start working on it without any problems. Things like folder structures inside the project – every project I work on contains the same bin structure and sequence naming conventions, which is then mirrored as closely as possible in the finder. Another important thing is to keep an archive with older versions of sequences as you invariably have to go back at some point to pull something in from an old version.

Can you work without a script, finding the story and building it on your own?
That’s the main part of my job. It’s very rare that I’m given the luxury of a script other than on films and bigger corporate jobs. Even on projects where we do use a voice-over script, quite often that’s written after I’ve outlined the edit.

What is your favorite film? Favorite Tv show?
As an editor or as a consumer? I can’t fault Raging Bull for its editing; I watch it in complete awe. Purely from an entertainment point of view I’d probably have to say Withnail & I. A Clockwork Orange is right up there too.TV is a bit harder – I love the BBC Natural History stuff. Shamefully I’ve only recently got around to watching The Sopranos, which is just staggeringly good. Long-running dramas are brilliant because they allow so much time to subtly develop plots and characters over time.

What style of editing have you done? (Narrative/Documentary/News/Corporate/Wedding/Etc)
All sorts. I’ve done quite a number of music videos, which is what I really love. A lot of my day-to-day work is corporates, commercials and sports. I work on the occasional short film as well. I’d love to do another skateboarding video at some point.

If you could meet any editor, who and why?
Thelma Schoonmaker. I’d just want to watch her and Martin Scorsese at work. I think they’re the best editor-director team in the business and have been for a long time now. Their work is a master class in pacing.

What advice can you offer to get through complex edits?
I had a job recently where I was really banging my head against a wall; it was quite an arty short film, very low-budget with a non-actor and there just wasn’t enough quality material to achieve what the filmmaker was intending. There was this eureka moment where I realised that to do what was right for the project we just had to change the idea! It became a series of very short ‘moments’ that worked really well as a kind of micro-series (is that a thing?) along the lines of a much cheaper version of Coffee and Cigarettes. So I suppose the advice I’m offering here is to ignore what the director tells you to do. I’m joking… kind of.

Which plug-in(s) do you find most useful? Why?
I’m not really much of a plug-in fan. Cuts and fades are generally all an edit should need and I colour correct in dedicated software. The fancy effects I leave up to the animation geniuses.

How does the director-editor relationship work for you?
Where I work we have in-house producer-directors who oversea the process, but I tend to have a lot of control over my work. Generally I’ll work from a rough brief and send the client or agency versions to review. That said, I love working closely with directors who have a clear vision of what they want. Good directors are always open to suggestions, and likewise, good editors are too.

How do you deal with problem clients/directors?
I think the important thing is to always articulate what you’re doing. It’s easy to forget that most people who sit in on an edit with you have no idea what you’re doing half the time. The hardest thing for inexperienced directors and clients seems to be them coming to terms with the fact that they aren’t needed for much of the editing process. Being clear about each step helps them to understand what you’re doing, and they come to see that if you’re not asking them questions then you often don’t need their input.

What’s your overall philosophy about editing?
Everything is a story. Even the most simple corporate video has a story to tell. Find a reason to cut from one shot to the next, one scene to the next, and the edit will become something worthwhile.

Name one thing that you would tell an aspiring editor
Don’t fall in love with your own work as it can always be improved. Review it in a month’s time and be honest with yourself about what would make it better. Accept your conclusions and move to the next project a better and more experienced editor.

For more on Alex, you can find him on Twitter or his Website.

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