[Frame of Reference] with Editor Joe Walker

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Joe Walker is best known as Steve McQueen’s editor having cut “12 Years A Slave,” “Shame” and “Hunger.’ Originally working in London, his editing on films such as “Harry Brown” and “Life in A Day” put him in the international spotlight. But it is his contribution to “12 Years A Slave” that brought him nominations at the BAFTAS, the EDDIES and the OSCARS. He has recently moved to Los Angeles where he is cutting the latest film from Michael Mann.

What got you interested in editing?

My parents were given an 8mm movie kit as a wedding present. They would project family films onto a white wall and there was always the unintentional lava lamp effect when the film got stuck in the gate and melted the celluloid.  When I was little I took to buying Keystone Cops films with my paper round money, projecting them at low-speed whilst playing Wagner 78s at 33rpm – and consequently feeling rather depressed.  At around the same time, there was a do-it-yourself-animation show on TV, and one of the episodes featured my hero Terry Gilliam.  That gripped me and I started making films of my Frankenstein models treading around the garden.  That was my introduction to the world of cement joiners. But then I flipped over to music and playing in bands as a teenager, so my focus detached for a while.

How did you get started in editing? 

I studied Music at York, writing orchestral stuff, then got a temp job at the BBC in London posting LPs around the world.  We’d queue for the tea trolley stationed in the BBC Music and Arts corridor, eavesdropping on all these amazing programmes being made for Omnibus and Arena.  The workers there were flamboyant.  One editor was cutting a series called Brick is Beautiful and rather than a name plate, he had a massive brick nailed to the door.  I managed to blag some work experience with a friend of a friend of a friend who was cutting a profile of Italo Calvino. That helped me get onto the BBC Trainee assistant editor scheme and eventually I found my way into Drama, first as an assistant editor then as a sound editor, and a long while later as an editor. I got busy at the BBC for 15 years, cutting crime shows, comedy series and music documentaries, leaving in the 90s to cut feature films.  I kept my music plate spinning, writing for all manner of children’s programmes, documentaries and even a big orchestral score for a BBC/HBO drama called ‘Dirty War’.  I was happiest writing cartoon music, supplying trombone slides whenever someone’s trousers fell down.

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

I started with sprockets, then moved through 3-machine Beta SP editing, Lightworks and ultimately AVID.  I was very fond of Lightworks but that fell into disrepair for a while and I moved on.  I’ve never cut on FCP. But basically, if the story’s great, I’d cut it on wet string.

Give us a run through of your editing process 

Well, on a practical level, one ritual I have right at the start, is to write a brief description of each scene onto an index card, ready to stick on my cutting room wall. It’s a great way to learn the script, and during shooting you can, at a glance, tell where your characters are at that exact spot in the story.  In ’12 Years A Slave’ for example, when Solomon is woken to play fiddle for Epps’ entertainment, it helps to know that he’d been beaten in the previous scene and would find it painful to rest on his back.  If you ever have to swap the order of scenes, later in the fine-cut, you can move the cards around on the wall without getting distracted by joining the scenes together on the AVID.  Here’s a picture of my cutting room wall on ’12 Years’ :

Joe Walker 12 Years

In the case of Steve McQueen’s films – because he shoots very economically – I can watch everything they’ve shot.  I try to keep distractions to a minimum while I’m watching.  It’s the closest I’ll get to an audience’s perception, until the end of the process.  I’ll keep the script supervisor’s notes at hand – it’s not always obvious why they’ve gone again after a great take.  I remind myself of the script beforehand, but blood is now running through its veins and it’s a living breathing thing, so I am more alert to what new subtexts have been brought into play.  I do remember an older editor telling me that anything that he saw screening dailies that really intrigued or moved him, you hope it will end up in the film.  I’ll talk to Steve a couple of times a day about the dailies, and what’s coming up in the schedule, and he’ll come over at the weekend to look through preliminary cuts and we figure out what might be worth adding to the shopping basket.

It’s impossible not to watch dailies and do the chess game in your head of how you’ll put it together, but it normally just comes together when you start cutting from a bin. Editing is really staying mindful of an imaginary audience – what you are tuning into is some kind of universal imperative, born of watching a gazillion films, to see or hear something at a particular moment in time.  Once you perceive it, you can choose to obey it or play against it.  Eventually, the film takes on its own rhythm and shape, and you begin to obey that instead.  As you can tell from Steve’s films, part of the game is trying to find ways not to cut.  It just hands you an enormous benefit when you do, cuts are as sharp as a Damascus sword.  I am often thinking of that during dailies – keeping up the momentum whilst getting around the scene simply.

When it’s time to assemble the scene, I spend way too much time finessing the sound.  I’ll volume graph dialogue in and out on separate tracks, record sound effects and work on atmospheres.  It just helps me find the rhythm of things to do it this way.  I envy editors who crash and bang things around, they probably have more imagination than I do and get their results with fewer mouse clicks.  But for me, intensely worked sound is my way in.  It also means that we can project test screenings straight from the AVID audio without any elaborate temp mixing, which costs you time just when you want to be at the coalface making important changes.

I try to avoid using music for as long as I can, except for some key moments which help start a discussion about what kind of score we need.  My friend Matthew Herbert says : “music is in an abusive relationship with film.”  There are so many pitfalls to using temp music.  We have to dance with the devil and use temp tracks in order to survive the screening process, but the dangers are twofold : you can often end up with the music disguising a lack of momentum in the edit and blinding you to its pitfalls, or you can end up queering the real composers’ pitch if you fill the movie up with unpurchasable music you end up addicted to.  That can end up with an unoriginal patchwork score and a frustrating experience for the real composer.  I do remember an action film I cut where I was bothered by how much we were relying on the temp tracks, and I asked the director to let me cut the film with the speakers off for just one day.  We didn’t actually make it through the whole day, but it was instructive.  If it doesn’t work as a silent film, it points to problems with the pacing and story-telling. My favourite working method would be to have a CD full of the composers’ ideas based on the script and their discussions with the director, something you can listen to in the car before you start filming, which gets adapted and developed once the fine-cut is starting to solidify.

Later in fine cutting, when the order of the film and the essence of each scene is already decided, I’ve started to use a new strategy.  You can often spend more time on the first reel of a film than anywhere else, and I’ve seen a lot of films where the last act clearly hasn’t been through the same workout as the opening.  So I write all the scene numbers onto small pieces of paper and put them in the box.  We pull these numbers out one by one, lucky dip style, and work for a while on that scene alone, looking at the dailies again and just seeing if we can discover any way of improving it.  There might be something in the dailies which you’ve forgotten about now that your requirements for the scene have shifted.  It’s good to go back to working on scenes individually, and out-of-order, like you do during the shoot.  I also tried using Brian Eno’s ‘Oblique Strategies‘ playing cards once – they’re very thought-provoking.  It reminds me of mixing in a music studio – sometimes when you step away from the speakers and hear the piece playing down a hallway, you have a fresh perspective.

What tips were you given that has been really helpful? 

I assisted a really inspirational editor, Ardan Fisher.  He truly developed my appreciation for editing. Ardan alternated between cutting these amazingly free arts documentaries at the BBC and cutting high-end drama.  Each would inform the other.  He cut the seminal series “Edge of Darkness,” but also Leslie Megahey’s great documentary on Orson Welles which is one of the best films about film-makers I’ve seen. Ardan’s choices were always gloriously perverse and interesting.  A lesson I learned from him was about not cutting. It’s not like I apply this rule to everything, but that’s where I learnt it.  He let me cut a scene which had been covered by a three-shot and then singles. I merrily got stuck into the singles after establishing where everyone was in the three shot. I was a pool of sweat on the cutting room floor after dutifully hitting every beat of the sequence, manipulating every reaction I could fold in.  He looked at it and said, “You’re not getting any more from the singles than you would from keeping it wide, and with the three-shot you have all of the reactions built-in, unforced.” I looked at the three-shot again and he was right, it was a great performance.  Better still, it was an ensemble performance, which in context was what the scene needed. The attitude was “Just because they shot it, doesn’t mean you HAVE to use it’. That was a real lesson for me.

How organized are you?

A normal level.  You develop a sense of anticipating things to take care of, ahead of time, like the Chinese plate trick of old.  I’m attracted to the organisational side of the job, but it’s the moments of flow when you’re trying things out and pushing yourself to accomplish something interesting that really excite me. On days like that I leave the cutting room thinking “.. and they’re paying me.”

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

‘Life in a Day’ had no script or blueprint.  We had no idea what people would shoot that day.  Kevin Macdonald used to say that if we were to try to force the film into some specific shape only we wanted, we’d be hacking our way through a jungle path and end up with aching arms.  Keeping alert to what people did shoot was so much more surprising and life-affirming than anything I could have anticipated.  Who’d have thought someone would choose that day to emulate an experiment in how to startle a snail?  That ended up as our end credits sequence.

What is your favorite film? Favorite TV show?

Too many to list.  I’m a big fan of Czech cinema from the 60s, and I love everything the Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmajer make.  There’s some amazing editing in those films. Check out ‘Dimensions of Dialogue’ or “‘Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies.’  Two, more commercial films I love watching over and over are Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen, and Milos Forman’s “The Fireman’s Ball.’  As for TV : I’ve just watched ‘True Detective’ which took me a while to get into, but boy did that pay off.

If you could meet any editor, who & why?

Being nominated for an Oscar meant I got to spend time with my fellow nominees, whose work I much admire.  One of these was Thelma Schoonmaker who I met at the BAFTAS. I love her work, so bold. There’s a grittiness and angularity to what she does. I watch her movies twice, once to enjoy and once to dissect. I’m a big fan of Christopher Rouse’s work.  He’s a master.

There’s one editor I’d love to meet  : Pem Herring.  He cut ‘Groundhog Day.’ I”m fascinated with how editing dances with time, and that is a great example of a story about time. Bill Murray’s character starts off bored numb by his endless day in a small town which brings no surprises, no escape.  But by the end, he hasn’t enough time to accomplish everything, to catch the boy falling from the tree, perform a Heimlich manoevre and save an old man from dying in the street.  I’d like to talk to Pem about one of the scenes they apparently ditched.  Once the Bill Murray character had realised there were no consequences to his behaviour, he gets a Mohican and destroys his hotel room with a chainsaw, only to wake up to Sonny and Cher the next morning and the hotel room back to normal.  But they dropped this elaborate scene and replaced it with the beautiful, simple device of snapping a pencil before going to sleep, and the pencil being whole again in the morning.  Same story point, completely different comic temperature, brilliant decision.  I’d love to know how that came about.

Manipulating time and the perception of it is one of superpowers unique to the art of film-making.  As Mark Cousins points out, there were no flashbacks in Shakespeare.  Here are some examples from things I’ve cut.  There’s a scene in ‘Shame’ where Brandon (Michael Fassbender) listens to his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) singing “New York, New York” as a slow blues number in a chic club.  There were only two shots during the song, more or less, and I cut them very very simply.  There’s a close up on Sissy, up to the point where she seems to look at her brother and sing the words “It’s up to you..” then the close up on Brandon, unexpectedly moved by hearing his sister – and then back to Sissy until the end of the song. Only that in the whole song, in the middle of the film. Here’s an odd contradiction : if I’d filled it with cuts between the two of them at a more ‘normal’ event rate, and not trusted the fascination of watching these characters engage with this song and chosen just one great moment to go across, it would have felt slower, and probably less meaningful.  Compression of time, also, that’s a great weapon.  After Sissy joins Brandon and his boss at the table – Brandon’s boss starts making a move on her and they order champagne.  Originally they shot a scene of the three of them rolling out of the club, worse for wear, and walking past ice skaters, to hail a cab.  It was beautiful, very ‘Jules et Jim’.  But we dropped it in the cutting room to bang straight from inside the club ordering “champagne” to a shot of Brandon looking through the cab window whilst Sissy and his boss snog in the back of shot.  From flirtation to tongue gymnastics in 1/24th of a second.  The audience fills in the steps, and it’s an enjoyable timejump.

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

I make preliminary temp VFX shots using the usual tools on AVID like p-in-p, animatte and timewarp (I like using fluid motion).  Just enough to get the timing right.  My assistant Javier takes these over and perfects them in NUKE.  There’s a simple 7-band eq effect in the Audio suite which I use a fair amount.  But my favourite gizmo at the moment is MetaSynth – it’s not an AVID plug-in but a piece of software I run on my laptop.  Hardly anyone in editing knows about this one.  It was originally devised to convert images into sounds, but it’s an effect called grain I am crazy about.  Pete Tong the London DJ gave me a copy.  It enables you to freeze sounds, so that you can generate long, fadeable chords which help you come out of music early without having to loop or use cruddy reverb effects on a short chord or note.  It works best on music without sharp attacks, like choral or string music.  I’m no expert, and have yet to read the manual, but by pressing a few buttons you can quickly generate some amazingly spacey atmospheres.

What’s your overall philosophy about editing?

There are no hard and fast rules, it really depends on what’s shot.  We all have strong opinions, and we’re hired for them.  So long as you’re not a dick about expressing them.

Name one thing that you would tell an aspiring editor

One of my first big breaks in TV was when I cut a two-week clip show called ‘Queerspotting.’  I threw myself at it, had a great time, even shot a title sequence.  I didn’t know that the producer’s partner was an executive who noticed me just at the time she was looking for someone to cut ‘Jonathan Creek.’  So apply yourself to everything you do, you never know where it’s going to lead.

Go follow Joe on twitter @huckabaloo

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