[Frame of Reference] with Editor Michael Alfano

Michael Alfano


Having managed a successful freelance career for over 17 years, Michael has dedicated the last nine years primarily to the craft of editing. His experiences in production, along with many years as a musician, have contributed immensely to his skills as a storyteller, and have given him valuable insight into the art of collaboration.

Michael works for large corporations, small production companies and broadcast clients in and around New York City.  He lives in New Jersey and is currently co-producing his first documentary film titled “The Nuremberg Raid”

What got you interested in editing?

I became interested in editing while working my first job out of college as a production assistant for a corporate television facility.  I would deliver tapes to the edit suites and think how cool it would be to actually put videos together.  I was intrigued by the amount of equipment in the rooms, and that the editor had to know how to use it all.  I viewed the editors as half engineer and half artist and I knew it was something I wanted to do.

How did you get started in editing?

Starting out on the production side of the industry, it took me a while to find an entry into the post-production side of the business.  I was working as the in-house audio engineer for a large financial institution when I saw an opportunity to make the transition into post. I asked my boss if I could work after hours in one of the edit rooms to learn how edit.  He said “no problem” and encouraged me to learn as much as I can.  I purchased every book I could find on learning FCP as well as doing online tutorials, and reading manuals. For six months I worked at learning the software and understanding the basics of the editing process. Eventually the long hours and hard work paid off when I was asked to cut my first project.  When I finally moved on from that job I was managing five edit rooms.

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

Being a freelance editor, part of my job is to stay current with the software my clients are using. At the moment most of my clients are either FCP 7, AVID or Premiere Pro.  I have all three on my home system and like them all for different reasons.  

Since I’m a longtime user of After Effects and Photoshop, Premiere Pro, was very easy to learn.  The feature I like most is the dynamic link functionality, which is a huge timesaver when incorporating graphic elements.

I have a soft spot for FCP since it was really the first NLE I used.  Obviously it’s showing its age, but there are still a lot of facilities using it.  I have not taken the leap into learning FCPX Yet.  I’m keeping an eye on its progress, and some of the features look really good.  When I start to get calls to work on it, I’ll learn it.

I’ve really been enjoying AVID the most lately.  It has so many great features, especially when it comes to multi-user shared projects.  I think my favorite feature by far is the trim edit mode, especially the four-up display during slip and slide edits.  This is crucial to the way I edit.  I use this all the time and it is amazing!

One final thought on software.  It’s easy to get caught up in the “which is better” debates, and there is always going to be debates, however at the end of the day the editing process happens in my head and the software is just a tool.  Software should help you to create and not thwart creativity!

Give us a run through of your editing process

I work on many different types of projects and the process varies slightly depending on the project.  One type of project that I really enjoy working on is the short 3-5 minute profile story.  I cut a lot of these for my corporate clients, and as an editor they are fun to work on and give me a lot of artistic freedom. Most of the concepts translate to other projects, so I’ll outline this type of workflow for you.

First I like to have a discussion with the producer/director about the project to talk about the goals and deadlines of the project. I’ll ask if there is a script, log notes, transcripts, outline or anything special I need to know that may impact my workflow.

Next, I’ll import and sort all the footage into bins according to content.  While I’m sorting I like to scan the footage to get an idea of what was shot and to get me thinking about coverage when I’m pulling the story together.  Viewing the B-Roll can also help me get a feel for how I want to pace the video.  Slow moving dolly shots give a different feel than handheld shots and this may play into music choices and pacing.

If I have a script, I will string out my clips in a timeline and see how it flows from a content perspective.  If I don’t have a script I will listen to my interviews and make a selects sequence based on story points, and then start to chip away and organize the sound bites in a way that makes sense to tell the story. Once the content is close I then try to listen to inflections, cut out any “ums” and see if there are any Frankenbites that need to be smoothed out. I’ll also listen for areas that I want to make my transitions or add “sound ups” and make some gaps in the timeline to add these elements.

By this stage I am starting to get a feel for the personalities of the interview subjects.  This is very important to me.  I like to see the personalities come through in the edit, and it’s often a challenge to do this.  I try to look for moments in the interview that I know will work well on-screen and let those play out.  Sometimes it’s a smile, sometimes it’s a pregnant pause, and sometimes it’s the moment that’s not supposed to be on camera, but it’s a real and genuine moment that needs to be included.

I like to bring music into the fold next and usually spend a lot of time trying to find the right tracks for the project.  I want the music to reflect the mood of the story and the personality of the interview subjects.  I will pull way more music than I think I’ll need, and then start roughly placing them in the timeline where I think they will work.  I’ll then listen to the cadence of the interview against the music track and see if they are working in unison or fighting each other.  I’ll also listen to the dynamics of a music track and see how I can use it to my benefit within the cut. Things like key changes or accents within a track, if placed properly can really enhance a project.

Once the music is in the ballpark, I move on to the B-Roll.  I’ll roughly block out sections of B-Roll first, not being super critical of the shots, just so I know what sections of the interview I want to cover.  Once I get the entire sequence covered, I start to refine the edit.  I’ll go into each scene and really start to tweak the shots, look at continuity issues, adjust pacing, and tighten up the overall flow. I want to get the sequence to a point where I can start watching it as a whole piece as soon as possible, because I feel this makes for an overall stronger more cohesive edit in the end.  I really enjoy this part of the process the most and will continue to refine the edit watching and tweaking, watching and tweaking some more as long as I can, until I’m out of time!

What tips were you given that have been really helpful?

One tip that has really been helpful to me over the years is to listen to your edit with your eyes closed.  If you listen to an edit and it flows nicely and makes sense, the visuals will most certainly enhance the story you are telling.  

The other tip, which I’m sure you hear from a lot of editors is, cut from the gut.  I like to interpret this as, follow your instincts and they will take you in the right direction.

How organized are you?

As an editor you have to be mindful of organization, and I think every editor will have his or her own way of organizing and searching media.  To me, the most important part about organization is that it should make you more efficient.  If your naming or sorting is overly complicated it could actually make you less efficient.

Another aspect of organization that should be considered is the environment you are working in and if you will be sharing your projects with other editors.  There is nothing worse than opening up a project someone else worked on and seeing five sequences all named Final or Final-Final or This-Is-The-one.  I want other editors to be able to open up my projects and know exactly what sequence is current and be able to start working straight away. Some facilities I work for have protocols and naming conventions that must be followed.  I really appreciate this and am more than happy to comply with them.  It ensures that any editor can open up any project and understand where the current cut is and where the media is located.   

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

Yes Absolutely.  Quite often I’m given nothing more than a general idea of what the message of a video should be and a target runtime.

What is your favorite film? Favorite TV show?

I don’t think I can narrow it down to one favorite TV show or Film.  There are just too many that have influenced me over the years.  That being said, I’ll approach this question as “What is your favorite film and favorite TV show at the moment?

Currently one television show I am really enjoying is AMC’s “The Killing”.  There are so many things about this show that I like; characters, story, pacing, acting, writing, overall look, set design, music, mood. All amazing!

If I had to pick a favorite film, at the moment I would have to say Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. The cinematography, music, color pallet, and casting all work brilliantly together to create a quirky heartfelt story and characters you can connect with.  Whenever I watch this film I think to myself, wow, what a fantastic film.  

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

One aspect of being a freelance editor I enjoy the most is being able to work on different types of projects.  I could be working on a DIY home improvement show one day, and the next day cutting a commercial.  I have done promos, meeting openers, music videos, as well as web videos, and find them all rewarding in their own ways.  

If you could meet any editor, who & why?

I really enjoy talking to any editor who is as passionate about the craft of editing as I am.  A lot of time it’s the young student who is just getting started that I enjoy talking with the most.  Their excitement, enthusiasm and eagerness to learn as much as they can about the craft, reminds me of why I started editing, and gets me re-energized about being an Editor.

If I had to choose one editor to have a chat with, I would have to say Michael Kahn.  He has worked on so many iconic films and so many different genres I think it would be fascinating to hear some of his stories.

What advice can you offer to get through complex edits?

I’ve found the best way approach a complex edit is to simply break it down into smaller sections.  Figure out how you want to approach each subsection and start working.  If you approach your edit in this way, it will come together in no time.

If I’m faced with a problematic edit and having difficulty coming up with solutions, one thing I like to do is step away from it for a while.  I’ll put it aside and move on to something else, let it stew in my mind and come back to it later and take another crack at it.  Sometimes all it takes is a little time for the ideas to start flowing.

Another thing I like to do when I’m stuck, is ask someone to screen the cut with me. I’m usually working around other editors and generally they are more than willing to take a break from their work to watch something different and offer some advice. A lot of times the discussion that follows will help lead to a solution.

The important thing to keep I mind is to keep the story at the heart of all your editorial decisions.  If you do this, you’ll always come up with a solution to those complex or problematic edits when they pop up.

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

I don’t really like to use third-party plug-ins when it comes to editing software, however, when it comes to Adobe After Effects, I really enjoy the Trapcode Suite, as well as the Video Copilot products.  Something I find really useful is to carry a drive loaded up with royalty free assets.  It always helps to have an assortment of texture elements, film backs, graphic elements and sound effects that I can quickly access and use to enhance a project. I use these all the time on my corporate jobs and they have paid for themselves many times over.   

How does the director-editor relationship work for you?

I find that trust and respect go a long way.  When I trust a producer or director and they trust and respect my talents and opinions the collaboration is great, and I know we will turn out an excellent product.  It takes time to build up a trust and respect, but when it’s there, it’s amazing, and these are the people I want to keep working with.  

How do you deal with problem clients/directors?

A good friend of mine once said to me when we were dealing with a difficult client, “You start out giving them what they need, and you end up giving them what they want”. This stuck with me, and I always think about it when I find myself in difficult situations.

If I’m working on a project and realize that all my opinions are being dismissed, I unfortunately have to reside myself mentally to just being a technician.  I put my head down, let them call the shots, get through the project, and give them what they want.

At the end of the day, if the client is satisfied with my performance, and they got the product they wanted, I then have the option to choose if I want to work with them again or gracefully decline the next time they call me.

What’s your overall philosophy about editing?  

Work hard and find creativity within every project.  

If you work hard, your good at what you do and you’re easy to get a long with, I’m convinced you will always stay busy, and if you try to find something creative about every project you work on, you’ll satisfy you’re artistic needs and be happier at the end of the day.  

Name one thing that you would tell an aspiring editor.

Be generous with your time and advice, be nice to those you collaborate with, and never stop learning!

You can visit Michael’s Website or follow him on Twitter:  @maelstrompost  

2 thoughts on “[Frame of Reference] with Editor Michael Alfano

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