Frame of Reference with Editor James Miller

James Miller

Not having a television in the house until the age of 12 was always going to cause deep-seated issues for James, once there was one, he became slowly fascinated by how these images could cause an effect on people. Upon discovering you could actually connect two video recorders together and change the order of shots, that was it, the path was clear; ignore school completely and focus on inane trivia relating to Film and TV, eventually someone would recognise the worth of this trivia and give him a job making films. Or something.

This didn’t turn out to be exactly true, so instead he got a job at  local video store upon leaving school, developed an intense hatred of the general public and began plotting world domination through the medium of film. He hasn’t quite achieved all those goals yet, but is well on the way, with hundreds of TVCs, Corporate Promos, a dozen or so TV Documentaries and is currently finishing up on two Independent Features.

What got you interested in editing?

I was aware of it as a concept from reading BTS books (I’m old, that’s what we did before DVDs and twitter) then I was introduced to a real live edit suite when I was about 8 or so, an old family friend used to do corporate videos in the 80s, I was amazed at the ability to shape stories, even simple corporate stuff. After that, I just had to wait about 12 years until NLE software was available. Which was frustrating.

How did you get started in editing?

I did some tape based cutting and a few bits and bobs here and there, fair bit of shooting, wasn’t really getting much done, so I saved some cash, quit my job, bought a mac and a copy of FCP 1, and taught myself. I call it “the deep end” technique. We were quite poor for  a few years, but if you want something badly and you’re prepared to work, you’ll get it. And I did. I got a few small gigs early on just from friends of friends and that kind of thing, then I started working for a local company doing corporates and kiosk stuff for museums. They were great because they’d pitch ideas and then ring and say “can we do that?”, which keeps you on your toes…..

Then some TVCs and some low rent docu stuff for TV, then got a great break doing a docu with a budget! I’ve also somehow developed a reputation as an edit paramedic if you will, I get  a lot of gigs where someone else has already butchered a cut. It’s frustrating, but lucrative. Few shorts here and there currently working on two low-budget features concurrently, which I wouldn’t recommend. I remember about a year ago I was in the kitchen getting a coffee or something and it just suddenly occurred to me that I’m paid to do stuff I love. This made me happy.

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

I really don’t want to sound flippant, but I’d say my brain. By that, I mean that I play scenes in my head, alter the order of shots, imagine what I’d like to see as it were. Now that I’ve said that, it doesn’t sound flippant. It sounds pretentious. It is true though. In terms of software, been a long time FCP user, I’m currently cutting some gigs in FCP 7, some short form stuff in FCPX, and everything else is looking increasingly like Premiere. Given how much I used to truly despise Premiere, I think it’s a tribute to Adobe that it’s improved so much, especially the last couple of versions, it’s like, well, it’s like the first 4 or 5 versions of FCP; they’re hungry for this market and they’re giving people stuff they want. Premiere does seem to tick most of the boxes these days, it’s fast, the interface has improved massively, (though there’s still some weird choices…plus cancelling a render shouldn’t ditch everything you rendered before you cancelled!!!!!!) and with the cloud thing, it’s kind of hard to beat price wise.

What I loved about FCP was that there was 5 different ways to do most stuff. Which is also what sucked about it. Premiere, I ‘ll get back to you on, still early days. I have no meaningful comment on FCPX, except to say I’ll be interested to see what it’s like in a few years, but I think it’s a little immature now.

Give us a run through of your editing process

That’s a broad question……Not sure if you mean physical process or my thought process, so I’ll answer both.  On a big job, I usually transcode everything to a low res offline, start making notes, watching material, marking fave takes etc, spending a day or two to organise the project into bins and get familiar with the footage as I’m doing it. That’s one thing tapeless has really ruined for me, there used to be a time as you captured to get  a handle on stuff, now it’s done in an instant and there’s no time for watching rushes! I’ll stay in offline until the last draft, switch over to whatever the primary deliverable is, and go from there.

I actually really like offline cutting, I’ve tended towards it to encourage discipline, otherwise I start getting carried away with FX/grades etc. Offline is fantastic, because it’s just about story. Wow, could that sound any more trite? It’s true though! The other thing about offline is the sheer speed. The pictures might not look great, but my god you can go fast, which matters to me, I’m fairly impatient.

As to my mental process, obviously I start with the script, I’ll make lots of notes, share them with the director/producer and talk about styles/feel, what their intent was in particular scenes and basically try to get to know my collaborators if I don’t already. It really helps if you’re on the same wavelength as the director. If you really find you don’t gel, it’s probably a good idea to think about leaving the project, because you’re going to be spending some time together…….

What tips were you given that was really helpful?

Learn how to learn. Sounds simple, but the ability to take something away from every experience and apply it to future projects is easily the most useful thing I ever learnt. Specifically relating to editing, look at the end of shots to see if there’s anything good after cut was called, can’t tell you how many times it’s that stuff that ends up in the cut.

How organized are you?

I have slight O.C.D. I’ve yet to meet a successful editor who is not pretty well organised, at least in terms of project structure. On the other hand, I’ve met some who spend more time moving files around than actually cutting, continually refining the workflow instead of letting the work actually flow…….

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

Absolutely, a lot of projects I’ve worked on the script has kind of “evolved organically”, or as I like to call it, not been properly written…..You have to be able to make decisions about scenes that work or don’t, sometimes the answer is to change the story to fit what’s been shot. On narrative stuff, I will read the script once or twice, make notes and then I try not to read it again, which some directors find irritating, but the thing is, the script usually changes, continually referring back to it leads one to become bogged down trying to achieve something that may not be there in the footage.

In documentary, that’s the name of the game really! You’re looking for material that supports the thesis of the docu (or indeed, you’re looking for the thesis!) and it’s often a really simple moment that ties it all together.

What is your favorite film? Favorite Tv show?

I can never answer this one…… Alien, Blade Runner, Being There, Withnail & I, Life Of Brian,  many others…..TV, I’m not that big on, but I enjoy Matt Smith’s Doctor Who, Game Of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, that sort of thing. I love a good docu, probably because that’s where I cut my teeth and I like to see how others visualise these stories. I’m always watching stuff trying to find new ideas and ways of telling stories, be they fictional or real, the notion of favourites is a bit odd to me, it depends on my mood.

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

All of the above, though I gave up on weddings after doing two or three, I couldn’t bear to basically tell the same story again and again…..I guess I’ve done most kinds of things, I’d get bored cutting the same stuff all the time, so I’m happy doing lots of different things to keep it fresh.

If you could meet any editor, who and why?

Terry Rawlings, not just because he cut Blade Runner, though I’d certainly want to ask about that…….. He’s the quintessential cutter, he’s the dude the big guys call when stuff isn’t working. He must have some fantastic stories to tell.

What advice can you offer to get through complex edits?

Be patient. It isn’t always possible, but I try to build in some time to walk away from the edit for a week or two (or  a day or two, whatever time you can take), come back with fresh eyes, you always see stuff you didn’t before, plus often you find things you were really worried about aren’t the massive problem you thought they were. Also, save often.

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

Not really all that big on plug-ins really, aside from Pluraleyes I guess, but it’s not exactly what I’d call exciting. I don’t feel the need to cover my edits with flares, leaks, cine grain or any of that other crap, I use a new technique called “the right cut”. /sarcasm.

How does the director-editor relationship work for you?

Very much depends on the director.  With a good director, there should be a fair amount of back and forth about the cut, with some you get notes like “cool” or “awesome”, which isn’t really helpful. I find totally brutal unflinching honesty to be the best policy. If I think something is crap, I’ll just say so, but I’ll also explain why. I expect the same in return, I find it’s faster than dancing around people’s emotions. Some people are a bit taken aback with this approach in the edit suite, but it saves so much time to just be able to speak your mind about the scene/project when there are issues. I think most smart directors find this useful, even if it occasionally makes them uncomfortable.

How do you deal with problem clients/directors?

Extreme violence. Seriously, I spend time up front making sure that I work with people I’m on the same wavelength as. I can deal with anyone really, but the worst ones are either indecisive or they do the “what do you think?” routine. I find getting the client to sign off on various milestones a valuable ass saving method. I print DVDs with mini contracts on them, they watch the DVD, sign it and give it back. Then, a month later when they want to change something, I pull the disc out and say “remember when we locked the edit?”  I’m told I’m becoming a grumpy old man, so I’ve found just research is best, make sure you work with people who aren’t dickheads basically sums it up.

The only ones I can’t deal with are the ones that say “I’m really visual, I need to see it”. No, dickhead, if you were really visual, you’d be able to visualise it. Those I dispatch with an axe.

What’s your overall philosophy about editing?

I suppose I’d say figure out what the story is (and that applies just as much to a 30 second ad as it does to a feature) and try to find something within it your audience can relate to or “connect” (I hate that word) with or what’s the point, regardless of how many shallow dof slider shots there are? Also, save often.

Name one thing that you would tell an aspiring editor

Just edit. Lots. Then do some more editing. Make mistakes, learn from them, eventually, you get pretty good at it, but only if you do it a lot. In fact, why are you reading this, shouldn’t you be cutting something? I know you only asked for one thing, but I’m special, so I’d add that looking at other mediums like novels, theatre, painting, whatever, try to learn as much about communicating ideas as you can. You’re here for 80 years with luck, or even less, so pack as much info in as you can and use it. Also, save often.

You can follow James on twitter.

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