How To Become A Commercials Editor – Interview with a Pro
James Rosen is a sought-after commercial’s editor working at boutique editing house Final Cut, in the heart of London. James and I sat down for a long conversation about how a commercial comes together and his own journey from starting as a runner at Final Cut through to being a senior editor today.
The full interview can be found in the second edition of Art of The Guillotine’s excellent, and free, The Assembly, which you can download free on Android, OSX and as a PDF here. I’ve previously posted about the first edition of The Assembly here.
So, read that first and then pop back here for several spill-over questions that couldn’t fit into The Assembly, but hopefully still make for interesting reading! Scattered throughout are several of James’ favourite commercials from his reel.
JE – How do you personally manage the internal thing of the dance of going from: “I’m making this the best I possibly can, and so taking ownership to it’s actually their film and their brand.” And often towards the end I sometimes feel like I don’t really care – it’s your film, I’ll do whatever you want. Yet at the beginning I care about this cut because I think it works. How do you navigate that transition?
JR – No it never gets easy. It’s really difficult part of the job. Because your job is to be creative and put something together in a creative way, and the only way you can do that is to really care about it and to feel like you’re doing the right thing and what feels right to you , and then suddenly you’re told to do something that doesn’t feel right to you. It’s really hard.
You always start off with what you feel it’s right, and then – the goal post analogy is what it’s really about.
At first your goal posts are put where ever you want to put them because you’re on your own. And from the footage and the project you know where they should be at that particular time. You’ve got free reign over everything, so you’ll naturally gravitate towards the footage that you feel works the best for whatever reason you feel is important.
What we do is focused on communication isn’t it – ideas and making sure a particular idea is communicated in the best way. We’re not necessarily thinking about it in the same way a director would for example, who might be much more focused on their own particular intentions, along with solving the hundreds of issues that come up during the production process. We see things away from all that noise.
But I think for us (editors) I think that alone time is about trying to make decisions on behalf of everyone else before they come in and work on it together – trying to communicate those ideas in the best way possible. So you try to get to the point where you feel you’ve got it. Testing it on people. I often grab people in the office. Anyone who hasn’t seen anything or doesn’t know anything about what I’m working on.
Then the director will come in – and then it’s about you and the director. So you work on what you both feel is the best. The best you can possibly do with what you’ve got. Then the director will start to move the goal posts based on what they want to achieve.
So lets take a very simple situation, where you’ve chosen one take you feel is the best one, the director feels like another take is the best one. Then the creative discussions begin, which is great fun.
You might suggest why you feel it’s the best one. I mean the ‘best’ is starting to get subjective/objective nightmare. So you have to try and stick to what’s the best for the idea. Balance that against your own personal preferences.
The director will also explain why. You know it’s the director’s project and at the end of the day you do have to be loyal to that. After all, you are serving their needs, serving the needs of the project, the people making the project. So you have to kind of be fairly subservient to all that stuff – try and understand what is needed or wanted and do the best with that. But at the same time you can’t be an effective tool in that process, unless you have an opinion.
JE – One of the directors I work with calls it loyal opposition. Loyal to their side, but provide a bit of push back that you believe in. But not so much pushing your agenda. Being an effective voice in that dynamic.
JR – And sometimes I may not have understood what they mean. And I may not have got it and I want to know. I want to know what it is they want, why do they feel that take is better. There’s always a really good and important reason which can be used to move things forward.
I do like to challenge people but it’s about understanding, making sure your reasons for choosing a take are understood.
Once that’s done, I’m totally happy for someone to say “I get it. I’ve heard why you think that. But I don’t want that take, I want this take.’’ I’m like ‘ok’. Then it’s like how do I use that take in the best way possible. Again they’ve moved the goal post a little bit.
You work with the director and you get to the point where you’ve got something the director is happy with. Then you take that to the agency and then the group opens up. And then three more people step in the process of getting this thing working the best it can.
With you, the director and the agency, the discussions start again. You all move together – hopefully – with what you all feel is the best possible outcome. Then you take that to the client. And then they step in.
It’s like a constantly widening circle, a widening circle of participants in this process. And obviously the more people there are, the more complicated it can be. Often with different agendas being balanced. But I always think understanding what’s needed for editors, helps you to let go of things, because sometimes there is a particular favourite shot, that might be hard to get rid of, but if you know it’s just not right. You get rid of it.
JE – What made you want to get into editing and how did you get to where you are now?
JR – How far back do I go? I mean I’ve always been quite interested in the creative process. So I did an art and design foundation course, went to Art School. I just loved making stuff.
I found I wasn’t particularly good at drawing – so I gravitated towards photography. So I was quite into compositional, photographic medium.
I did my first editing at the Art and Design Foundation course, for their end of year show, cutting two cameras, one up on the balcony and one at the front of the stage. And I instantly fell in love with it. I just thought there was something quite exciting, about cutting. Instantly jumping position. A very unique art form. There’s nothing like it.
Choosing where you are going to force the viewer to watch from. The privilege of seeing the raw footage. And the executive decision making about where we’re going to make a cut and what you are forcing the viewer to see. There’s something quite interesting in that. Every cut I made I just got a thrill out of. It felt like I was making a movie! When really I was just covering the show from two angles.
That stayed with me. I did a media production degree. Where I was able to try pretty much everything. Lots of different art forms – from fine art, installations, typography, graphic design, video, sound design…
And just found myself very excited about the prospect of sitting in front of a video machine editor and cutting stuff together. I also really enjoyed sound design. Loved being in a suite. At that point we were still using two machine video editing.
JE – Which is the hardest type of video editing there is!
JR – Yeah ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. I can’t understand how anything was done with them. It’s linear. Film is non-linear. So if you want to make a change at the end. You’ve got to re-record everything back.
So I just tried to make sure what I was doing was right the first time! Which is probably quite a good discipline to get into, really thinking about what you’re doing. Auditioning it and getting the audition right and then actually pressing recording and laying it down to tape.
I also worked on 16-track magnetic reel, sound studio, which was great fun as well.
So I just tried lots of post production, found myself happily staying through the night to get something done. Just absolutely loved it. That’s when it started to become what was intended in the first place. I found that a very thrilling part of the filmmaking process.
It felt like the most important part of the process, maybe I’m biased, but to me it felt like the single moment where it became everything that it was supposed to be. Or maybe it didn’t become what it was supposed to be, but that was like the moment of truth, quite a nerve-wracking stage.
And then I pursed that and did a video production post-graduate diploma as well. Where I was able to do more digital work. Worked on proper NLE and digital editing and digital sound design.
JE – What were your first editing apps?
JR – Optima, which was on the Acorn Archimedes. Which was pretty good actually. I was able to work with just 1 hour of footage, on Jazz drives. And yeah, it introduced me to the trim tools, in/out. It was all there.
And then sound design was on Soundscape. Which I’ve seen is used in the industry a lot. A pro tools-like program. Non-destructive audio editing.
And then I graduated and through researching the industry – through the courses that I was doing. For some of the essays that we had to write, we had to interview professionals.
So I already knew I had to start as a runner. That’s the first thing I did, got a job as a runner. I worked at various companies for a year in London. I was very lucky to live at home as I grew up in London. And my parents were able to support me while I was basically earning no money. An incredibly lucky position to be in.
I worked in various companies, felt like I was en-route to work in Flame and the finishing side, which I was also very interested in – visual effects. That’s where I found myself, and thought I’d stick this out and see where it takes me.
And then I got a call from a company called Final Cut, who offered me a job as a runner and I thought yeah, actually editing was always the preferred choice, so I took that. And I started again.
And I have been there for 15 years. Worked up through assistant editing to editing.
And it was at Final Cut that I was trained in the art of commercials editing, because that’s what they did there. As with most things, you get better at what you do most.