Editing Feature Films – Craft Insights
In this post I’ve brought together three detailed interviews with editors cutting feature films, two of which are interviews I’ve conducted myself, one of which is a web-wide round up. All in all there’s a plethora of great insights to be gleaned, so go grab yourself a cup of coffee, and come back to enjoy this long read at your leisure.
Editing Bad Education The Movie
Bad Education The Movie is British editor Peter Oliver’s first cinematic feature film, but by no means his first feature with many years of broadcast and film editing under his belt, editing some of Britain’s best shows. Bad Education is originally a British TV series, that’s a bit like School of Rock but for teenagers, and without the music, and with far more inappropriate comedy, staring a (frequently naked) Jack Whitehall.
I had the good fortune to chat with Peter recently and among other things we spoke about the complexities of editing comedy, collaborating with ‘the talent’, and how to handle test-screenings for best results.
On Editing During Production:
We were down in Cornwall for five weeks cutting along side production and it was just eating, sleeping and working. It was hard but it was a really good experience.
They shot on the Alexa with usually two or three cameras a day, so there was lots of footage coming in. There was a DIT on set who was creating the synced rushes but it’s much more down to the editor to watch through everything, checking for both technical things like focus and creative things like consistent performance.
I always watch everything, in all drama you get selected takes but I just ignore that, as you might miss something, like a reaction in take 1 or 2, that wasn’t in the selected takes. It takes a lot longer but at least you know your rushes then.
We’d have marked up scripts and continuity and I’d read through those, and see if there were any notes from the director and just starting putting it together. I’d also phone the director every night, sometimes I’d talk about performance – this person could have more energy etc. Discuss through the camera movement and touch base with him.
But it can be very overwhelming to do a feature because you’ve got 90 minutes to get through and the first scene if always the hardest because you start to question your editing abilities!
Usually I would deliver a weekly assembly to the directors and producers, but with this they were just popping in all the time, and so you had to make sure you’re just on your game all the time, and have everything looking as good as it can, because you never knew when someone might want to see it.
On Editing Workflow and Craft:
Every scene is a different project for me, and I’ll concentrate on it as if it’s the whole thing, so I’ll work on that scene and keep working it through until I’m happy with it and then come back to it the next day, which is important, so you have fresh eyes to see what you really think of it.
My big thing in editing is movement, if the characters have stopped I want to know why they’ve stopped. If there’s pauses I’ll want to know why. I love it when either the camera’s moving or the character’s moving or both. Because it’s “moving pictures” so why would you have a locked off shot? Unless it’s for a reason, obviously. But I get very annoyed if things stop.
I don’t really believe in a rough cut so I’ll make its as tight and as smooth as possible. I put in a lot of guide music, more than would be in the finished film, just to help everyone see what I’m going for. I try and make it as watchable as possible at all times, adding in sound effects and skyscapes because you never know who’s coming in and when.
I think with a feature film you want it to be similar to the series but more grown up, in everything from how you edit, to the music to the performance. And so I’d run things by the music supervisor, and he would send me things he thought were clearable and I’d have a discussion with Jack whitehall and the director and producers. But they were very kind to me because they knew how much footage was coming in each day during production, and so didn’t really get into the music until the fine cut. But because some of the tracks were hugely expensive I had three or four alternative tracks up my sleeve for each one.
On Staying Fresh to the Jokes:
We were cutting over 6 months, which is very quick for a feature, and to stay fresh to the comedy you just have to trust your initial instincts. As an editor there’s so much you have to watch, it’s not just the comedy. It’s the performance, the pace, the music, the technical aspects – focus etc. And with the jokes it’s just a matter of trusting it.
And Jack Whitehall was very good at re-working the jokes. His kind of comedy is very fast, and so it’s cut very fast. We had the editor from the In Betweeners take a look at it and he said cut it fast, fast, fast.
Someone once asked me in an interview “How you cut comedy?” And there’s no real answers it’s just bloody hard work!
Each individual joke is different, you just go over it, and amusingly as we went on in the edit suite you’d get less and less laughs as you’re just watching it over and over again, and everyone is so used to it.
I think you have to trust that it’s funny and then move on.
On the difference between TV and Cinema:
What you have to realise is that you can hold shots a lot longer, because the screen’s so much bigger. You can hold a wide shot longer, you can keep a two shot longer than you would on TV.
We had two test screenings and it’s very nerve wracking to see it on a screen that size, because I had a big TV in my edit suite, but it wasn’t that big! So when you go out there it’s like WOW. So it’s healthy to see it on a bigger screen when you can.
In general you can pace it out slightly slower because people have paid to see it, people won’t turn off, you can keep people sitting there because they have an interest already – that’s why they’ve come to see the film, so you don’t have to be as nervous as you would on TV about holding people’s attention by moving it on so quickly and having immediate reactions.
And so you have to work out different ways – over the length of a 90 minute feature film – to hold people’s attention for that long.
Because it was a feature there was a lot of juggling structurally – scenes coming out and then going back in, because it was coming out slightly long at first.
A lot of the time you get people who say ‘’Oh I don’t like this character’’ and you really have to interpret that note, because what it might be is that ‘oh this person’s not happy enough throughout it’ and so if you just change two or three of their reactions then people suddenly say ‘’Oh that character is much better now, you must have worked really hard” -and you haven’t but a few small changes can make a big difference.
So that’s the character pass and with Bad Education there’s so many characters to work on. Jack would have a lot to say about the restructuring, because if Jack wasn’t happy with a joke he would ask for it to be cut out. And we’d have a debate about whether it was strong enough to stay in.
But he was very good about cutting himself, and he’s still in his twenties but he’s very very intelligent and from the writing all the way through to the editing he was always trying to make it funnier.
On collaborating with directors and producers:
There were a lot of people in the edit suite – there were four people in the suite for the final two weeks. And that’s the way they wanted it, rather than coming and going because Jack wanted to play with stuff himself. He didn’t have an ego about it, he just wanted to make the film funnier and make the jokes work harder.
But it was hard having four people in the suite and you had to manage things so that you didn’t have four people telling you what to do at once because you’d be half-way through changing something and then they’d change their mind and you’d have to undo, undo, undo.
As an editor I think you have to take everyone’s opinion on board, because everyone has ideas and so you have to take on the very best of everyone else’s ideas and then keep it all in your head and somehow make that work. It’s a collaboration at the end of the day.
As a result I had a lot more sequences than I usually would, so clear labelling came into play in order to keep track of everything, because someone would mention a change from two weeks a go and I’d have like 60 sequences to look through. It can get stressful but I think you just have to keep on going and think ‘I’m doing the job the best I can’.
On test screenings:
It was brilliant seeing it at both test screenings. We had one with about 30 industry people and that was nerve wracking as comedians were watching it, other editors came, other directors, people from Tiger Aspect. And they also had a few kids from a sixth form in, and everyone was listening out to see if they were laughing or not.
But it terms of pace, we recorded the laugh track, and someone went through and said they laughed here, here and here. And you know what it’s like when you watch something by yourself in an edit suite that’s one thing, but if you watch it through with someone else sitting there, you see it through their eyes and you start to think did they understand that, oh no that doesn’t work, and so it’s brilliant to see it from their perspective. And so when you’re doing that with 30/40 people you’re really scrutinising it. So no matter how well it goes it’s dreadful because you’re sitting there thinking I wish this was tighter, or I wish I’d fixed that, but it’s brilliant a few days later.
There was two weeks in between the two test screenings and we did a massive amount of work before the next one in which they had about 400 kids in I think, and we did a Q+A afterwards. The whole thing was brilliantly useful.
Editing Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Possibly the best action movie I’ve seen in quite some time, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation was a joy to watch, largely due to Christopher McQuarries involvement and the incredible action sequences – that motorbike chase in particular was seriously intense. Editor Eddie Hamilton has seemingly cemented his position as a Hollywood-Blockbuster-Tent-Pole-Movie-of-The-Summer editor. In this post I’ve drawn together some of the interviews he’s given on other sites, and from everything I’ve read, watched and heard from Eddie in the past, he is seemingly one of the hardest working editors out there!
There have been a fair number of interviews with Eddie posted online and I’ve brought together the best of those in this blog post. You can jump to the direct links below as well as get a taste of each interview in these selected quotes.
Inside the Edit creator Paddy Bird, interviewed Eddie in two parts over on No Film School, covering everything from how Eddie got started in the industry to what he looks for in a trainee assistant editor through to working with a team and cutting complex action sequences. This really is a brilliantly in-depth interview and well worth a read!
The biggest break I had was probably working on a film called Mean Machine that Matthew Vaughn was producing. The way I got that job was through a friend of a friend who knew somebody who was associated with the film and I heard on the grapevine that they were looking for someone. And I got someone to phone someone and they phoned someone who got through to Matthew and said this young editor wants to meet you. “He’ll work for virtually nothing and sleep on the cutting room floor.”
That’s how I ended up working on Mean Machine and I’ve worked with him on several other films. I’ve recently just finished Kingsman: The Secret Service. But that’s twenty years from when I started as a runner to now. A very, very long time. Slowly, slowly, climbing up the ladder of the industry to where I am today.
A good action sequence only works if you understand the stakes of what is involved and if you understand what the characters need out of the sequence in order to succeed or fail. So you need to know who the hero is, who the villain is, and for example one of them is going to die, so there are real stakes.
But within that you need to know exactly what is going on in all the beats of the action. At no point can the audience be left in the dark or confused about the action. So if you cut fast it’s really important that you are making sure that the eye is being guided around the frame so they will understand the incredibly quick story you are telling in terms of who is on top, who is holding the knife or who is holding the gun, or who has just been hit, or who is doing what.
Filmmaker Chris Jones interviews Eddie in this podcast in which they cover topics like “delivering your very best every day, the value of relationships (both at home and professionally) and having a sense of gratitude for every opportunity.” 46 minutes of time well spent!
The Avid Media Composer and Pro Tools Blogs also have some nice interviews with Eddie and the audio post team, which are also well worth a read, focusing more specifically on cutting and mixing Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation on such a tight schedule.
Tom Cruise is incredibly hands-on in the editing process. He would join us in the cutting room whenever he was available, and when he was on the road he would call us every afternoon to have a detailed conversation about the progress of the film’s edit. He wanted to be kept in the loop about every little editorial change and decision. – Eddie Hamilton
Every filmmaker has their own style, and in the case of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, [Director] Christopher McQuarrie was very passionate about adding ‘real sound’. He doesn’t like artificial designed and augmented sound effects. So for us it was quite a challenge to get the impact and sense of power by using natural sounds and not over-stylizing them. – James Mather
Last, but by no means least, is Steve Hullfish’s excellent and very long interview with Eddie, (which for some reason isn’t formatted particularly well) over on PVC, but is still a great opportunity to listen in on an interesting and detailed conversation between two experienced editors.
From the moment we watch the first assembly of any movie I’ve edited, we are constantly thinking of ways to improve the flow of the story and the way the audience engages in the story. We had a few casualties on Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation where we felt there were similar story beats in scenes, so we lost one of the scenes. There was a whole eight minute section in the middle of the film that we completely removed and during our two days of pickups we shot a new scene which allowed us to remove that chunk exactly where it needed to come out, because we were getting notes from the audience that the film slowed in the middle (which films often do) so we removed those eight minutes and the notes went away.
— Steve Hullfish (@SteveHullfish) September 5, 2015
Check out Eddie’s favourite books on screen writing and storytelling, as mentioned in Steve’s interview, here:
Tips on Editing Your First Feature Film
Editor Stephen Beard kindly took the time to answer some of my questions about this experience of editing his first feature film – Dead Cat, which is now available on demand on Vimeo.com.
How did you come to edit your first feature?
The director, Stefan Georgiou, and I were on the same Film & Video degree course at what was then called The Surrey Institute of Art & Design in Farnham. We didn’t work together during the course but admired each other’s films and after finishing Uni and starting our careers, Stefan asked me to edit a short film. We’ve been collaborating on shorts ever since, as well as our first feature, Dead Cat.
What research did you do to prepare or did you make it up as you went along?
In terms of technical preparation I researched and tested a RED/FCP7 workflow, RED being the best balance of budget and quality for our production at the time. I edited with ProRes Proxy files transcoded from the RED masters, working off of USB 2.0 media drives. We were trying to keep the post budget down so couldn’t stretch to FireWire!
For convenience I edited on my 2006 Macbook Pro, which performed remarkably well considering, although it gave up the ghost shortly after the film was completed. I was able to plug it into an external display and sound system at the office, or my HDTV at home, giving me more flexibility.
I also read or re-read some editing books, like Behind the Seen, which was an invaluable insight into the complete post production process for a feature, particularly as that film was cut on FCP. It was inspiring to re-read In the Blink of an Eye too, and have Walter Murch’s ‘Rule of Six’ in the back of my mind while editing.
Otherwise I just relied on the disciplines I’d learnt from editing commercials and shorts, and instinct of course.
What were the biggest challenges?
Time, or lack of it, was the biggest challenge. Back then I was employed at an edit house in Soho so the film was cut in evenings, weekends, or in downtime. We were very lucky that the company’s owners were so supportive and allowed me to use the office and equipment.
Another challenge was cutting down the story. The first assembly was 2hrs 28mins long – that was every scene that was shot – and we knew we had to be bold if we were aiming for the 90min mark. We started off by losing some of the comedy scenes that were funny but didn’t drive the narrative along.
Then it got progressively more difficult as we continued dropping or trimming scenes to keep the balance of character, narrative, comedy and drama. At one point we realised that we were losing identification with our female protagonist, so pick up scenes were filmed to re-address the balance with her male counterpart.
We finally reached just over the 90min mark when I wondered what effect it would have to take out the first two and a half minutes – it worked! Suddenly the narrative was more focussed, we got to the action quicker, and our initial perception of the male protagonist changed for the better.
Coverage was also sometimes an issue due to shoot time and budget. Often the bare minimum was shot to cover a scene quickly and move on. Sometimes scenes were covered in one or two shots to avoid further set up time. In most cases this worked out OK, but occasionally I had less options than I would have liked. That’s low budget film making though; finding creative ways to solve practical problems.
What was the most satisfying part of the process?
The most satisfying part of the process was definitely being in some of the festival screenings and experiencing the reactions of an audience. After working so closely on something for so long, with only a handful of people involved in the edit, it’s a fantastic (though still very daunting) feeling to share the film with so many people and hear or feel their reactions; those reactions you were hoping for from the beginning. After the first few laughs from the audience (in the right places!) I remember being able to forget my nerves and settle in for the duration, enjoying the film along with everyone else.
Any tips on working with directors? How did you work with yours?
I think most editors would agree that a big part of the job is diplomacy. Filmmaking is a collaborative medium but it’s likely that a director will have invested many hours of thought, planning, blood, sweat and tears long before an editor gets involved. You have to respect that and be tactful if you think something isn’t working. Of course you have to be honest too and fight when necessary for what you believe will serve the film better – to a point anyway, as ultimately it is the director’s vision. As long as there’s discussion between director and editor then you can usually come to an agreement that works. Luckily we had that kind of working relationship!
How did you interact with other depts?
I was able to work closely with our composer during the later stages of editing, which was invaluable as his music and my edit evolved together. We were able to tweak timings and emotional beats right up until something like a couple of weeks before picture lock, so the score really felt one with the film.
Due to work commitments I wasn’t able to attend the grade or sound mix, but I did all the prep for both and was on call throughout. I was impressed with the results – particularly the sound. Dead Cat was 100% location shoot with all the background noise that goes with that. The team at Sound Disposition ADR’d practically the whole film and mixed it seamlessly. The grade, conform and VFX were all done at Ascent Media.
What did you learn that you would apply next time?
Have a deadline and keep to it. And if there isn’t one, set one yourself. There wasn’t a deadline at all for Dead Cat until very late on when deals with post houses were being discussed, and editing late nights and weekends and working around job commitments meant it was difficult sometimes to keep the momentum going without that focus on a finish date.
Any advice to first time feature editors?
Get an assistant or three! I had two assistant editors who both doubled up as DIT as well. It was invaluable to have so much prep done so I could start editing with confidence. Along with a third assistant editor they also assembled some scenes early on but unfortunately they all had other work to go on to.
Also, be organised. Find a system that works for you and stick to it throughout. You can quickly get overwhelmed by the amount of material you get for a feature so take it scene by scene, and always know where to find everything.
After awhile I found it handy to keep a written record too; of changes I made, notes from viewings etc. Finally, cut your scenes tight from the assembly stage, don’t leave them too loose or you end up with a long and bloated first assembly. You’re going to have to tighten everything anyway so you might as well do it from the start.
Any advice to someone wanting to cut features, who wants to find one to cut?
Build up good working relationships with directors by cutting short films or anything else they throw at you – one of those directors may eventually go on to make a feature and want to bring you with them on the journey.