[Frame of Reference] with Editor John Murphy

John Murphy

John Murphy is a freelance editor based in Dublin, Ireland. He has worked across Film and Television cutting documentary, drama, comedy and music. He has cut over 100 broadcast shows for television including award-winning documentaries “When Ali Came to Ireland” and “Rás Tailteann”. As well as TV work, he has cut several feature films including “King of the Travellers”, “Rewind” and the forthcoming romantic comedy “Standby” as well as the feature documentary “Showrunners”.

What got you interested in editing?

I guess I knew pretty early on I wanted to do something in the arts and while I may not have understood exactly what editing involved I was certainly drawn to working in film and so I chose it as my college degree. I also didn’t fancy the idea of doing a lot of written work!

How did you get started in editing?

We had a lecturer in the college who was covering for our regular editing lecturer during her maternity leave and he and I got on very well. He thought I could make a decent fist at editing. I had never really given it much consideration until that point. I started working for him doing bits and pieces that he couldn’t do and it wasn’t long before I realised it was the gig for me. I had up to that point been doing AD work, which I enjoyed but I think it would have killed me if I’d kept at it. When I was starting out as an editor, I took whatever work I could find, tried to make myself available as best I could. I was fortunate too that I was based in the West of Ireland, there wasn’t too many of us doing editing and very few freelancers so I was given opportunities to cut stuff at a young age that I would never have gotten in a bigger more mature market.

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

I started out and did my initial training on AVID and I will always prefer certain aspects of that work flow, but as a freelance editor I often edit on whatever platform the production company who hired me own. For the last decade in Ireland that has been mostly Final Cut Pro 7 and that’s the system I have at home and the one I’m most comfortable with. However, it’s really beginning to seem old and with that in mind I’ve been trying out Premiere which seems really good but I’m nowhere near as quick on it as I am on an AVID or on FCP7 yet.

Give us a run through of your editing process

It varies from project to project, but one constant is that I like to meet the director/producer early on, have a chat about the project and get a sense of them and what they want from the finished project. I then take some time to myself, get to know the rushes and organise the project in a neat fashion. Doing some housekeeping early on saves you so much time later on. I’m also a firm believer in getting material cut together as quickly as possible. Getting the scenes cut together in an A-Z fashion gives you an idea of what problems might exist in the film. You can then go back and totally rearrange scenes as you see fit but having a tangible film on the timeline as early as possible really helps. For this to work you have to cut a lot by instinct and that doesn’t always work out, but the more stuff you edit the better you get at this. From here you get into the bit I really love, when you are just refining and refining until you get to the point where the film starts to sing a little. I love the last period of editing when you and the director are hopefully thinking as one and time-allowing have the space to just take something you think is good and make it great. It doesn’t always work like that, but hey, when it does it’s really something.

What tips were you given that have been really helpful?

I was told early on by someone to treat each job with respect. Doing some corporate gig for little or no money for the local mattress retailer might seem as far removed from where you want to end up, but that doesn’t mean you should treat it with contempt. If you do a good job, no matter how difficult the circumstance, someone will notice and you can’t tell where that person will go and if they’ll need a good editor. Some of the best gigs I’ve gotten in recent years were the result of work and friendships going back 10 years.

From an editing perspective, I remember being told that in drama, if you start a scene in a mid shot it can give the impression that the scene has been going on for a while before we joined the action. That’s proved invaluable to me. Also I remember being told having a wide shot to establish geography of a scene is important but it doesn’t necessarily have to be early on. Wide shots can be used as a device to establish emotional distance as well as physical distance and if you only use the shot once in a scene, do it where it’s most emotionally powerful and not just because you need it for logic.

How organized are you?

I’d like to think I’m very organised but it’s an ongoing process. I love figuring out some new method to organise things and make my life easier. Same with keyboard short cuts, the day I figured out, several years ago now, that ‘shift-z’ does fit to screen on FCP is a day that lives long in the memory.

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

I think it’s important with drama not to be too bound to the script. Editing, as has often been said, is the last draft of writing the script and new ideas will emerge and they have to be explored. You have to keep yourself open to new ideas, new possibilities. It’s the moments that you might find from an actor’s performance that isn’t necessarily on the page, that’s where the magic is.

I think the biggest test any editor faces is in editing a feature documentary. Those things are really tough. There is no script and you and your director have to find the story and build a structure from the ground up. It’s a very demanding but incredibly rewarding process.

I also think there is a value in doing that with drama as well. Throw the script away and try using a different narrative structure: move scenes around, play with it. Chances are you will end up reverting back to the timeline you previously had, but the process will have given birth to new ideas that might solve whatever problem you had.

What is your favourite film? Favourite TV show?

It’s very hard to pick a favourite film but I’m a sucker for New York and I love the films of Woody Allen, Spike Lee, Scorsese and Lumet. I think any aspiring editor could learn a lot from studying any Lumet film, even the poor ones. “Serpico”, “Dog Day Afternoon”, The Offence”, “When the Devil Knows You’re Dead” are all superb. In the past, I’ve always said Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” is my favourite film but as this is for an editing website, I must throw a mention to “Hannah and Her Sisters”. The film is perfectly paced, beautifully written and few films have as much going on under the surface. It’s an incredible examination of what’s not being said and subtext.
In terms of TV shows, American drama leads the way. I think “The Wire” is the greatest achievement in TV history, one that’s likely never to be bettered. While most people correctly highlight, “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” and the like for this answer, I’m going to pick something out of left field. I do a lot of documentary work and I think one of the hardest things to do well in TV is to do factual shows in an entertaining manner. So, I’m going to highlight two BBC series. Firstly, “Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain.” This is a brilliant analysis of the last 50 years of the 20th century in the UK. What’s so good about this show is that it takes one small story at the start of each episode that encapsulates a whole era in British history and extrapolate from that a larger story and brings history to life in an engaging, entertaining manner. This is a very difficult task and it does it with great skill and some bravura editing. The second show I’ll pick is the BBC series “Who do you think You are”. This is a celebrity-led prime time lifestyle show. Every one of those words has at various times been a turn-off for me and yet this series manages to take some mid-level British celebrity, oftentimes someone whom I’ve disliked for years, and not only make me enjoy an hour in their company but actually learn and feel something about them as people. I often cite the series as an example of how to edit a TV show. It’s worth finding episodes on youtube and analysing it. Despite what could be seen as a rigid enough formula, look at how information is dispensed throughout the episode: the voice-over only ever simplifies the story, the main storytelling is done by the scenes themselves. The music serves as a subtle device for moving things forward. The protagonists are always in motion, learning new things and the producers/directors are very clever and confident in focusing on the part of each story which has the most potential. It’s not really about finding out as much as they can about a celebrity’s family; it’s about finding out what part of the celebrity’s family will connect most with the celebrity and ultimately with the audience at home. I defy anyone not to be moved by the Stephen Fry or Rory Bremner episodes, and since I’m on Twain’s blog, the Jamaican episode with Ainsley Harriet. Find them on youtube, they are brilliant. The US, Irish or Australian ones aren’t nearly as good but still entertaining in their own ways.

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

It’s mostly been documentary, drama and lifestyle. I’ve never really done much in the way of news, some current affairs/consumer affairs docs that were tight for time but I’ve never worked in that hectic newsroom environment. I’ve done some corporate work over the years but I’ve little or no experience of broadcast advertising. I cut a wedding video for a friend of mine once. It took me 4 years. I kept putting it on the long finger and swore I’d never do another one.
The market in Ireland, although small, offers great variety to editors. You are fortunate that there simply isn’t enough work for you to be pigeon-holed as one type of editor rather than the other. You take whatever work is going, and as you get better you can be a bit more selective, but you are still going from a music video one week, to a six-part lifestyle show, to an hour-long observational documentary, to a feature film. It means you have a much bigger and broader set of skills which you can employ across many genres. I lived in New York a few years back and some of the editors I met there found themselves somewhat typecast. It’s also much harder in a bigger market like the States or the U.K to have something you cut get onto prime time television. In Ireland, it’s still tough but you can build up those experiences a bit easier and each one makes you better. It’s the reason I believe why there are so many good Irish editors and camera people.

If you could meet any editor, who & why?

I’d have to pick Barry Alexander Brown and Sam Pollard, Spike Lee’s editors. I’m a huge fan of Spike’s work and Brown or Pollard have cut most of it. Very few directors have an understanding of the power of juxtaposition like Lee and he has collaborated with Brown and Pollard successfully across drama and documentary features. Not all of Spike Lee’s films work, some are terrible, but he has made several masterpieces, something I don’t say lightly. “When the Levees Broke” is an astounding achievement in long-form documentary storytelling and its power derives from how the films are paced: It’s just an astounding achievement in editing. “Do the Right Thing”, “Malcolm X”, “Clockers” and “Inside Man” are all great American movies across multiple genres and it takes great skill as an editor to be able to move from a biopic to a taut crime thriller. Even a poor film like “Bamboozled” has this incredible documentary-like montage at the end of the film that almost redeems the entire film. So I’d love to meet Barry or Sam and ask them about how their process differs on each film and how they have become masters of multiple genres.

What advice can you offer to get through complex edits?

Organisation is key in a huge project. It’s very important that you and the director have a clear idea from the start what you want to achieve and have the conviction to follow through on that. With a very big project, so much time can be wasted on trying hundreds of things out and going down blind alleys. If you have conviction and it still isn’t working then at least you haven’t wasted weeks trying ten different options out. You tried one option out and tried it well, it’s painful that it hasn’t worked but it’s a lot easier to go back to the drawing board knowing that.
The other key thing with complex projects is getting people to watch the film. Getting opinions from people, either in a test screening or just via an email is hugely important. You may not agree with what they say but if a consensus has formed then you clearly have something that needs to be addressed.
I also find that watching the film in a room with someone who is not the director is hugely beneficial. Oftentimes with a director during a screening, I notice small ‘editor’ notes. Take a frame there etc… but with a third-party in the room you’re forced to watch it as an audience would and its a great help with seeing the woods from the trees.

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

I don’t really use a lot of plug-ins, I’m still very much an offline editor. If I had to pick something, I’d say Automatic Duck has always been of great benefit to me. Anything that makes my life easier is good with me as long as it doesn’t crash the machine!

How does the director-editor relationship work for you?

Very well usually. It’s really important to find common ground with the director on topics not related to the project. If you share some interests and can understand a little about each other you are more likely to respect each others point of view when the chips are down.
My favourite type of directors are those willing to take chances but who also have a clear vision of what they want ultimately to do. Film-making is a collaborative process and fortunately most of the people I’ve worked with have not only understood that but welcomed it. I know I’m quite lucky in that regard.

How do you deal with problem clients/directors?

Ireland is small enough that people generally don’t bully each other. We are generally a pretty easygoing people and most people just want to get on with it. That’s not to say I haven’t worked with people whom I didn’t care for. Of course I have, but you just have to bite your tongue and move on. Chances are it’s only for a few weeks.

Notes from producers/commissioning editors/executives can be a pain but they are an important part of the process. You may not agree with the specific note but you have to acknowledge the fact that there is a note means that you aren’t quite achieving what you want. Of course, some people just like the sound of their own voice but you should never ignore a note completely.

What’s your overall philosophy about editing?

The hours can be long and the work can be tough but its important that you enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy it, you shouldn’t be doing it.

Name one thing that you would tell an aspiring editor

Do as much work as possible, don’t be picky, the more stuff you do the better you become. Editing is changing and in the coming years, editors will be increasingly expected to master complex graphics work. So for any aspiring editor I’d say expand your skill set, learn about compositing, 3d fx, colour correction etc… Give producers a reason to hire you.
You can learn a lot from watching films, often more from a bad film than a good one. Ask yourself why a film did or didn’t work. Talk with other editors but also get to know people working in the other crafts: directing, camera, sound and writing.

Check out John’s Blog or follow him on twitter.

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