[Frame of Reference] with Editor Freddie Smith

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Freddie Smith is a passionate offline/online editor and assistant from London, with a keen sense for pace and style and a particular interest in character-based drama.  As a freelancer, Freddie enjoys travelling with work and is now looking for projects in Copenhagen.  Back home, he is currently cutting the Independent, British feature, ‘Fraternity‘ and is the assistant editor for Horror web-series, ‘Bloody Cuts‘.

What got you interested in editing?
Initially, when watching skateboarding videos as a teenager, I recognised the effectiveness of matching the rhythms of skating to the music as well as leaving a dramatic pause after particularly impressive tricks – it made such a difference.  For me, a lot of the excitement came from the introductory montages, the pace and the storytelling, rather than the talent.  Many of these techniques still inspire my editing today, and I always remember the time I first saw them in action.

How did you get started in editing?
I started experimenting with VHS machines, then discovered NLE software and produced short narratives on DVD with two friends, an actor and a writer.  I settled in the editing dept. only after exploring many other roles, including focus puller, spark, producer, 1stAD and continuity and I still regularly find that experience useful.

What is your preferred NLE(s) of choice? Why?
I use Premiere Pro a lot at the moment as it has great native workflow options for RED.  I also like the slick timeline navigation, search options and customisable user interface.  The option to replace a clip with an AE sequence is extremely useful for graphics-intensive edits, and CC seems to have stylishly closed the gap between PPro and FCP.

Give us a run through of your editing process
Here’s my editing process with narrative drama:
– I start by re-reading the script, then syncing audio and familiarising myself with all the material that has been approved by the director, while marking notable moments in each take.
– I create an Assembly by layering and syncing all of the video and audio, taking my timing from the Master, or any MW where the actors have equal on-screen presence.  I then chip away at the layered block, disabling unused clips to save them from deletion.
– The Assembly timeline looks like a giant chequerboard, so I flatten it, tweak it and roughly mix the audio to create the first Editor’s Cut (EC1).  Every cut is made from a combination of function and intuition, and is entirely subjective.
– I’ll revisit the scene after a few days to add it to a longer timeline of scenes (up to 20 mins) for context and pace, then re-watch and tweak further, creating EC2.
– I export the EC2 of the whole section as an H.264 and send to the Director.  Hopefully I’ll get a promising txt!  I’ll visit him to hear feedback and create DC1 on the spot, including placeholder shots if needed.
– DC1 is usually revisited a fortnight later to add in the newly shot placeholders and to measure the pace as objectively as possible, then shown to a private audience for feedback until locked and ready for the Online.

What tips were you given that have been really helpful?
My face lit up when I was first shown how to ripple delete hundreds of gaps in FCP7 – create two slugs on the above track at the start and end, then hold the delete key in the space between.  Magical!

How organized are you?
Meticulous…  When working with hundreds of scenes, each with several different cuts, it’s a huge waste of time not to be organised.  I liaise with the script supervisor and keep all the information I need on spreadsheets.  Also, as a freelancer and assistant I’m used to sharing project files with other editors, so I think it’s rude not to be clear with a handover.

Can you work without a script, finding the story and building it on your own?
The script is so rich with subtextual notes, I wouldn’t want to work without it.  However, during a six-minute foreign language scene (with an English script), there was little choice but to sculpt it intuitively from the footage.  Sometimes it is important to work without the constraints of a script, for example when creating city establishers, action montages or feeling states – there’s so many golden nuggets you could inadvertently miss out.

What is your favorite film? Favorite TV show?
Recently I saw the beautiful, French film, The Intouchables (2011), which admires the relationship between a wealthy, disabled aristocrat and the pitiless working-class man from the street he employs to become his carer.  The storytelling, the humour, the pace and the highs and lows of the characters all combine to make this an immersive treat…  I can’t wait to see it again.  Christopher Cain’s Young Guns (1988) is also an old favourite of mine.

On TV, I was gripped and inspired by David Yates’ State of Play (2003), edited by Mark Day who won a BAFTA for it.  Since then I’ve really enjoyed Mad Men for its subtlety, production design and dangerously good script.

What style of editing have you done? (Narrative/Documentary/News/Corporate/Wedding/Etc)
Most of my early work was in corporate video, which taught me clarity of delivery and where an audience’s focus lies on the screen.  Cutting mini-documentaries shifted my attention to building up a character’s on-screen personality.  I then began feature-length wedding films as a challenge in cinematically unfolding a story, maintaining momentum and exploring feeling states and tonal montage.  I am now most interested in independent narrative drama where there is tremendous freedom to sculpt the characters and dialogue and unlock even greater meaning from the script.  It took me a while to feel comfortable enough to begin cutting drama but there’s no way I’d hold things together if I’d taken a shortcut.

If you could meet any editor, who & why?
I’d love to ask Michael Kahn how he sculpted the Omaha beach landing in Saving Private Ryan, and how much planning of such a scene he recommends making before the shoot.  I like to make a verbal or written first cut of a scene in my head, with the director in pre-prod, though I’ve wondered what an optimum amount of planning might be to still leave creative room in the edit.  Omaha beach is utterly inspiring when I consider the thought process of editing before shooting.

What advice can you offer to get through complex edits?
– If you have the luxury to choose, begin editing with the easiest dialogue scenes.
– Create a spreadsheet to keep track of progress for filming, importing, audio syncing, Assembly and your Editor’s Cuts.
– Take care of details in a scene while the edit is fresh (continuity, correct level of emotion) before bringing them into the context of a larger chunk of scenes, when you can take a step back and carve out the arc of character and pace.
– When faced with a difficult scene, look for moments of change that you can use to split the scene into sections, à la Omaha beach.  Tackle each section individually to reduce the intimidation of rushing through the whole scene in one swoop.
– Lay down the main characters/elements first to direct the timing before introducing minor characters/cutaways.

Which plug-in(s) do you find most useful? Why?
I don’t really use plug-ins at the moment, but I know there are some great workflow solutions like Automatic Duck.  The only minor problem solver I use at the moment is AlphafromMaxColor.pbk in After Effects to cleanly remove white backgrounds.  I also do some colour correction with Colorista II, which works a treat.

How does the director-editor relationship work for you?
For best results there has to be a friendship beyond the professional link, coupled with the comfort to be brutally honest with one another.  I like us to be able to inspire each other regularly and continually build upon each others’ ideas.  When ideas don’t unfold smoothly, I talk about them away from the edit suite where there is an equal chance to explore solutions.  It’s also important to enjoy some time away from the film and reinforce the friendship – the director I’m working with on the feature, Fraternity, is a guitarist so I often bring my fiddle to the edit and we’ll chill out by bashing through a few songs!

How do you deal with problem clients/directors?
I try to distinguish which choices are made by the client because they must be, and which are their creative decisions that are perhaps flexible.  Then I pitch my edit that both ticks the boxes and wears my own creative stamp, and I back up the pitch with reasons as to why it works for their audience.  Sometimes clients need persuasion to try a fresh idea.

What’s your overall philosophy about editing?
As powerful and versatile as editing can be, don’t let it get in the way of telling the story.

Name one thing that you would tell an aspiring editor
Learn to solve problems in the edit rather than just discover them.  An editor who can save production costs is valuable.

You can follow Fred on twitter @fredstreads or his website

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