Frame of Reference with Editor Shane Ross

Shane Ross

Shane Ross is a freelance editor living in Los Angeles.  He has edited documentaries for The History Channel, The Discovery Channel and National Geographic…narrative shows for MTV and Nickelodeon…and has worked on corporate and independent projects. He is a forum junkie and can be found on the Creative Cow and among many other editing forums.  When he is not editing or helping out people on the forums, he spends his time writing a blog about his editing experiences, riding his bicycle, and spending time with his wife and lovely three daughters.

What got you interested in editing?

Editing? That came late into my film making experience.  First I wanted to be a director. I started making films at age 11, super 8 film and stuffed animals. My dad edited the film with a razor and scotch tape.  Although I mostly edited in camera…shot in order, shots lasting as long as I pulled the trigger.  Then when I went into college and got the chance to direct, I realized I didn’t have the knack for it. I mean, I had to deal with the ACTORS! I didn’t know that. I thought that they just did their thing and I told them where to move. So then I figured that I must want to be a cinematographer, as I was able to picture how the shots should be framed, and how the camera might move.  But then I realized that I didn’t have the knack for that either. I couldn’t visualize what the lighting would look like when exposed to film. Because how you lit the set…painted with light really, looked different in person than it does on film. So, I didn’t have the knack for that.  But in directing and shooting I realized that I was picturing the whole film edited in my head…what shot went where.  And then when I watched other people’s projects, ones that I shot so I knew what footage we had, I’d see how they turned out after being edited and would always say “Oooo…I wouldn’t have made that choice. I would have done X, Y and then Z.”

I guess that was one of the really good things about film school.  I was able to try out several different hats to figure out which I was best suited to wear.

How did you get started in editing?

When I needed to cut a film that I directed due to the student slated to do it, had to go home due to a family emergency.  When I sat down to edit, I realized that I was assembling the final thing…I was making the final decisions. I was bringing everything together.  That to me is the final sense of accomplishment. As a camera person, my job was over when production was done…I didn’t get to see the finished product until someone else finished it.  As a director, well, I had to deal with those actor people, but also I too had to wait until someone else finished editing before I saw the final product.  As the editor….I was the one finishing…making the completed thing. I had the final touch…well, sorta. The director got to give his notes, but I finished them.  And then I moved on to edit other students projects, and the puzzle piece just fell into place.

But the funny thing is, I left college STILL wanting to be a shooter. But when I tried to get work in the market I relocated to (Phoenix AZ), I found out that people wanted a demo reel…something I didn’t have! They didn’t prepare us for that in college. So then I was out in the world with no demo reel, and no way to make one, as editing systems were very expensive and very rare. I did eventually ask a company if I could swap PA work for one day on their Avid to cut my reel. And they asked “you know the Avid?” Yes I do.  “Oh, well there’s a production in town that needs an apprentice editor, they are looking for a local hire.” That lead to my apprenticeship on Oliver Stone’s U-TURN.

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

Well, it WAS FCP 7. But that will get long in the tooth fast.

Why? Well, because of the way I could grab and move clips on the timeline, for one. It was more tactile…felt like I was actually grabbing the footage and moving it, re-arranging it.  And because of the way I could composite and layer footage on the timeline for two. Composite modes create great looks.  Doing picture in picture was easier than Avid by far.

And it is very powerful. Export multiple channels of audio, conform clips to slow motion with Cinema Tools, upconvert SD to HD with the aid of capture cards (my favorite being AJA)…make nice titles with Motion, create particles with Motion, very high end color grading with COLOR…all the tools that came with FCP made it a very capable app.  And there was a large community of passionate users…people who made free plugins, or cheap plugins. FCP has a HUGE user base, so plugins could be sold cheaply and still make money. With Avid we had Boris, that was powerful, but you needed to be technical enough to know how to use it, and we had Sapphire, but that was so expensive that most of us couldn’t afford to use it.  I have dozens of plugin sets, and all of them added together are cheaper than Sapphire.

Initially cost was a factor in choosing it, it allowed me to be able to edit projects and short films that normally I wouldn’t be able to do without begging places I worked at for Avid time after hours, and drive space.  But that’s not what kept me there.  The ease in audio mixing on the timeline with keyboard commands, moving clips around, compositing footage, plugins…it was just easy and fun.  That’s what it was…it was fun to use. Editing is fun, and FCP made it funner.

But that was then. Now I’m back on Avid and it has gotten a lot better. It has borrowed a lot of aspects from FCP that I enjoy, and found powerful. Select all forward from the current position, the ability to export multitrack audio, mixing audio on the timeline with keyboard commands.  And then the tools that it always had like the trim mode.  It’s gotten better, and I have fun cutting with it.

Give us a run through of your editing process

Well, that differs based on type of project being edited.  The process for TV documentary that has a script before it gets to me is different from independent doc where I only have footage and story points to hit. And that is different from commercial editing…and narrative editing.

What tips were you given that was really helpful?

Watch everything, if you can. Know what you have…that way you know what to use…it helps plot out the edit in your head.  When I look at a cut, or a script, and I know the footage, I can pre-edit in my head with footage I know I have…this, then this, then this.  And then execute it.

One big tip that helped is when a producer told me to get away from the desk and sit on the sofa…watch it from his perspective.  This happened when he said there was still something slightly wrong with the cut, the pacing wasn’t right. I didn’t see it. So he said “step back from the edit chair and sit back here. Watch it how I am watching it.” So I did. Sure enough, it worked. I saw what he was talking about.  When I was at the desk, I was “too close” to the material. When I was able to step back and watch the cut from a different perspective that I could see it the way an audience might.  It really helps.

How organized are you?

Aha! VERY organized. I am the king of organization…I am its biggest advocate. I authored a tutorial DVD on the topic…GETTING ORGANIZED IN FINAL CUT PRO.  I’m thinking of doing the same thing for Avid.

I believe it is the single most important part of editing…it is what allows you to know your footage, know WHERE the footage is, and allows you to edit quicker.  It helps you find the shot you want, instead of hunting all over for it. (“I know I saw that shot somewhere…where is it?”)  Separate bins for scenes.  Separate bins for interviews, for b-roll, for stills, for re-creations, for sound effects, for music. The more organized you are, the less time you spend hunting for footage. Proper labelling of footage is part of that, as much as where you keep the footage.

My organization stems from a few things. First it comes from my time as an assistant editor, where you need to organize the footage for the editor. But also from my time as an editor on shows that have multiple editors. There needs to be a unified system of organization so that all the editors would know where to look for footage.  The basic philosophy is simple…organize your project in such a way that if another editor had to take over, they could find things easily.

The reason I made my tutorial DVD is that outside of the realm of TV shows with multiple editors, I noticed that many editors had their own systems. And often those weren’t clear to other editors.  Case in point…I needed to take over an edit for a friend of mine who needed to take a week off to take care of family business.  When I opened the project I had no clue what was where. There was no organization. Clips were all just loose in the project, or there was a bin called FOOTAGE that had stills, and b-roll, and interviews. Another called AUDIO that had narration, sound effects, music…everything lumped together. I had a deadline to meet, so I had to work longer hours in order to meet it, because I had to search more for the footage. I ended up organizing the footage (thus familiarizing myself with what we had) and then editing went smoother. But it was a mess.  And not the first, nor last, time I witnessed the lack of organization.

Organization is a major part of editing.

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

Yes….that is a major part of independent documentary editing.  I’ve worked on several projects where I was just handed footage, and story points, and told to make it into something. Also worked on a doc that started out with one goal, but then the story changed part way through filming, so we had to change goals, and change how the project was shaped…going with the flow.  Honestly, it’s my favorite type of editing…I get to make the choices. It’s not dictated by a script. BUT, when you cut this type of project you need to be given the time to do so. This type of cutting takes a lot of time.

What is your favorite film?

Raiders of the Lost Ark. Then Sneakers and The Conversation.

Favorite Tv show?

Currently, Sherlock. But Twin Peaks is my all time favorite.  In the list is LOST, Monk and Breaking Bad.

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

Pretty much everything. While I am mainly considered a documentary editor (broadcast and independent docs), I have cut a feature-length short film, 4 short films, half hour comedies for TV, a handful of corporate videos, a couple of weddings, a feature doc trailer, TV promos, a couple of commercials, a news story for PBS.  And I also online and color correct shows as well. Broadcast TV and independent short films and docs.

If you could meet any editor, who and why?

Tom Rolf.  He edited Sneakers, Taxi Driver, Heat, The Right Stuff, Wargames. A lot of my favorite films.  Why? To find out his process…what he looks for in shots, how he works with the director…how he’s able to get the great dynamic between the actors to work. Sneakers had great chemistry…so did Heat. The Right Stuff had all…the right stuff!  It’s tough for editors to explain their craft, but if I could talk about how he edited Sneakers and Heat…I’d love it.

What advice can you offer to get through complex edits?

Take it one step at a time. Don’t get overwhelmed by the sheer mass of what’s ahead.  Take it in sections and work on that section.  When you finish that section, you have a sense of accomplishment, then move onto the next.  And don’t try to make it all fancy from the start.  First string things out…lay them in order.  Then lay out the music for pacing…then add b-roll. Then go back and do the fancy stuff.  Steps and layers.  One step at a time, one layer at a time.  Get the story and pacing out first, then make it all fancy and slick.

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

Hmmm…toughie.  The ones that help me tell the story. The ones that don’t distract from the story.  This is a tough one.  FX needs to be motivated…don’t just do something because it is cool.  Do something because it helps tell your story, helps make the point.  If it fits the language of the story you are trying to tell. Don’t use them unless they help tell the story.  I happen to use a lot of plugins, but not all at once. Different sets for different jobs.

How does the director-editor relationship work for you?

In documentary editing…it’s rare that we even see each other. They tend to direct, and then that’s it, it’s up to us and the producers. Now, if the producer directed, then they are more “in the mix” as it were.  If that is the case, we editors get first crack, then they give us notes and notes and more notes.  Not often are they in my bay. They will watch the cuts and give notes.  Only if something really needs attention will they sit while I work.

When I cut and assisted half hour TV comedies…the directors will still just hired hands. They barely have any say. They direct…and then we cut. And then they might get one day…two if they are lucky, to work with us and give us notes so that we can cut “the director’s cut” of the show. Then they are off to direct another show, and the cut goes to the producers, then the network.

But typically I get the first pass, and then the director gives notes, or possible re-writes if any are needed.

How do you deal with problem clients/directors?

Give them what they want.  Even if you feel it is wrong, do it for them so they can see it.  It’s always our job to try to give them what they want…to guess at how they want this edited. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we get to talk to them beforehand and they give us notes.  And we work from those.  But you are working for them…trying to give them what they want. So you do it…even if it feels wrong to you.  You can express your opinion, “I don’t think this works here,” but then you show them why.  Do the cut, and do it well. Don’t try to make it bad on purpose, that reflects badly on you.  Do what they want the best you can. If they like it…great. Even if it is wrong to you…the decision is ultimately theirs.

Anyway, it begins with communication. I don’t start cold…I first get their thoughts on how they want it cut…the style of the project.  Because as I said, it’s your job to give them what they envisioned.

What’s your overall philosophy about editing?

I edit mainly by instinct.  I make a cut because I feel like I want to see the other angle. Then I ask myself, “why did I want to see the other angle, or another shot?”  Because I wanted to see someone’s reaction, or because I wanted to illustrate what the speaker was saying by showing something related to what they say.  It’s tough to put into words why I cut sometimes. “it just feels right to me.” We might cut for a funny moment, or an emotional one. And my brain will tell me “I want to see this now,” so I follow its lead and cut to the other angle I want to see.

I’ll stick to documentary editing in this response though…as that is what I mainly do.

I don’t like a lot of what is called “see-say.” Meaning the narrator, or interview subject says something, and we show exactly what they are talking about. There are moments where that is needed, required actually. So I’ll do it. But a lot of the time, I want to tell a separate visual story than the audible one, but something related.  We are smart people…we can here one thing, see another, and process both stories at the same time.  Many producers don’t think that is so, so they want us to simplify things and do See-Say.  I feel they don’t give the audience credit. I like to show images that delve deeper into the topic when possible, or hint at other things related to that topic.

Name one thing that you would tell an aspiring editor

Sorry, I’m going to say two things…  Watch a LOT of programming.  See how things are cut, see how the story unfolds….how it is told. Editors are storytellers, so we need to know how to tell a story. Watch as much as you can so you can see how things are done.  See if your instinct on when to cut, and what to cut to matches how a show actually plays out.

Editing is hard.  Keep at it. You won’t pick it up right away…heck, as an editor I’m still learning. Still look back at my work and see what I’d do differently. But also, don’t be discouraged. This is a very competitive business, and you might not advance as fast as you’d like. Be patent…take the time to learn things in the position you are in. It will lead to a greater overall knowledge in that area.  But know that it might take more than 2-3 years to start editing. Sure, there are some exceptions, but starting out low and working your way up is a great way to slowly learn, on the job, all the tools you need to know as an editor.

You can visit Shane’s blog at or follow him on twitter @comebackshane

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