How To Edit Your First Feature Film
Chris Hunter has worked as a First Assistant Editor and Assembly Editor on numerous television shows and feature films, including DaVinci’s Demons, Strike Back and Any Human Heart, but who has also just cut his first feature film, Alleycats.
I had the chance to email Chris some questions on the experience of cutting his first feature film, and I hope his inspiring and informative answers will help you out when you come to edit your own first feature.
Chris is now represented by Dench Arnold and you can follow him on Twitter as @framehunter
Special thanks to Ben Mills for initially putting me in touch with Chris! Check out my interview with Ben on How to be a VFX Editor here.
It’s interesting to note (see image above) that Chris also uses the Razer Naga Chroma programmable gaming mouse to edit with, which is a firm favourite of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, editor Eddie Hamilton, where Chris also worked as a pre-vis editor. It seems it’s appeal is infectious!
How did you get started in the industry and in what role?
I did an A level media studies course. We had a really excellent teacher, John Keenan, who really opened all our eyes and ears about film and television production. He had interesting theories about the future of film and television and it’s interesting to now see those ideas realised. Many of his teachings remain with me to this day.
At the time, working in film seemed like an unrealistic career path, so I focused on my other interest: sound.
I came from a music and DJing background, so sound engineering seemed like the natural path. My education specialised in music and sound technology, from then I went on to a film and broadcast course degree, of which editing was one of the modules.
At that point, I had more of an interest in sound design, or location recording. I did the odd production running job in between College and University terms and my initial roles, other than running, were as a boom operator/sound assistant.
My first proper role as an assistant editor was on Alan Yentob’s music documentary, “Imagine: Sweet Home New Orleans”. It was a real eye opener.
Allen Charlton was the editor and I learned so much from him. What was interesting to me was the amount of music and sound editing Allen does, he’s an all encompassing editor. His music edits make the final mix.
That job and future jobs with Allen showed me the potential of what an editor could do. He’s a master in his field, I was incredibly lucky to work with him.
How did you come to edit your first feature?
I’ve cut all kinds of genres and formats: short films, trailers, music videos, promos, even corporate gigs; a lot of it for free and in spare time.
I would try to get experience on anything, really. I felt it was best to “practice” and make mistakes this way. Or practising cutting alternate scenes from shows I was working on in my day job.
It’s best to make these experiments and take these risks on smaller gigs, as you don’t want to make big mistakes with someone else’s multi-million dollar investment!
There have been numerous points in my career where I have wanted to cut a show or feature. But looking back, I feel it’s best to keep getting experience on decent shows, with talented, experienced people, then transfer that over to when one is sitting in the big chair for a whole feature.
The experience I was getting leading up to Alleycats, which was the first feature I cut, just seemed to fall into place. I was the Previsualisation Editor on Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and the Assembly Editor on Da Vinci’s Demons series 3.
The pre-vis action sequences I cut on Mission Impossible were great experience for the bike races in Alleycats, both in terms of editing and pre-production planning with the stunt co-ordinator.
Da Vinci’s Demons was a great run, particularly for ensemble dialogue scenes with multiple lines of action and eye-lines. I’ve worked in some capacity in most technical departments: sound, music, lighting, camera.
My mother is a children’s book author, so storytelling has always played a part in my life.
What research did you do to prepare or did you make it up as you went along?
We extensively watched and researched actual Alleycats races. They are crazy. This is a really interesting underground racing subculture, filled with compelling characters and immense athletes.
Our references were more in documentary format, as there hasn’t been much fictional dramatisation of races of that nature. We had a lot of “inside knowledge” and were diligent in our research. We setup the cameras immersed in the middle of the races and it’s shot in a raw non-staged feel i.e. there isn’t take after take of the same setup, per normal action direction.
There were all kinds of small cameras attached to the bikes, as well as camera action vehicles, so it’s a nice mix of camera placements. That in itself was a huge challenge to cut, to make a cohesive, flowing sequence.
What we referenced and what we have is raw racing. We’re told by people within the courier and alleycat racing scene that the race sequences are very realistic and they found the characters totally believable.
The supporting cast racing in our action sequences are real-life couriers who participate in these races for real. They look and act the part.
How did your experience as an assistant editor help you cutting your own feature?
Organisation, sound and VFX work were all handy skills. Having been involved in several productions across different budgets helped.
We didn’t have a VFX editor as there wasn’t a huge amount of shots, however there were a couple particularly tricky shots which had to be temped in Avid for storytelling purposes.
All the work I’ve done with sound and visual effects helped with the storytelling, particularly planning and executing some of the big climaxes in the races.
I’ve worked on some very complicated multi-format jobs such as Britain in a Day/Japan in a Day, which I also conformed, so this really helped plan usage of the different camera formats.
Did you have an assistant?
Yes, I was really fortunate Tom Henson-Webb was around as assistant editor, I couldn’t have done it without him!
I’ve worked with him several times before and having someone I trust in the cutting room for such a high-pressure situation was key.
It’s a multi-format film, Alexa being the primary camera. There’s a ton of different cameras that were used on the bikes, Go Pro, Codex, C300 for example. This made the conform a bit more tricky, but easily done with proper planning and workflow discussions.
Tom was involved in testing the conform, so it was great to be able to rely on him for that and making sure all the rushes were in order.
What did you cut on and how did it hold up to all the formats?
Nathan Snoddy was our DIT, who ran all the rushes through a Resolve to Avid Media Composer MXF conversion pipeline. We did this with all camera formats, Alexa, Go Pro, Codex, etc.
Diego Rodriguez (DOP) didn’t have time to grade rushes with him every day, so it was a very streamlined process in Resolve, adding LUTs and tweaking for a basic look.
Tom then synced picture to our polyphonic BWAV production sound in Avid. I cut with the mix track and match back to ISO mics when needed.
Media Composer is flawless for feature films. I’ve used a few different NLEs for all kinds of different projects and camera formats. It’s still unbeatable, particularly for shared media and projects on feature films and episodic TV.
What were the biggest challenges?
The budget limited how we could approach certain scenes, certainly the action. But quite simply because of the nature of the film, shot all over London, that means the crew have to continuously move unit base, which means less time on actual setups. So that in turn means that you have to fit much more into a tight schedule.
As far as the story goes, it was a tricky balance of blending genres and keeping the ensemble cast alive and believable.
Other than that, the races were, of course, extremely tricky to shoot on a low budget, but I think the spirit of alleycats races has been preserved.
What was the most satisfying part of the process?
We were struggling to get the opening sequence right.
This part of the script had to be rewritten before filming. We’d tried a few different versions and we didn’t feel like they were working. We kept scratching our heads and we came up with “A Day in the life of the courier”.
We gave a camera to a courier, Matt Rucola, who features in the races. He went about his real-life day job, dropping off packages for a week and what we found was a remarkable insight into his life, the typical life of a courier. The places he goes, the people he meets, the packages he collects.
It’s also an insight into the diversity of London and its locations. Matt filmed for a whole week and what we have is the opening sequence condensed into a few minutes, which was a great intro to our character Chris: who he is, what he does and the first main plot point of the film.
I cut that sequence to Lee Dorsey’s “Working in a Coalmine” which is a classic, and so apt. We made that up in the cutting room and it’s very satisfying to see that work from an editor’s point of view. I also felt it was an excellent sequence in the film as it introduces Chris’ camera as an important prop and story point from the first frame of action.
Another satisfying bit of trivia – some of the couriers were set to lose their jobs for real, because of a corporate merger. They felt inspired from working on the film, and set up a company of their own. They took the company name our characters work for in the film, Omega Couriers, and took ownership of the logo to set up their own company with the same name and logo and now they are their own bosses!
Any tips on working with directors? How did you work with yours?
Everyone’s different. I think you have to remember to play a guiding role, firm but fair, but ultimately your role is to help someone else’s vision come alive. Even if that means telling someone in the best possible terms that a scene, beat or idea isn’t working.
Be objective and think of your audience.
Be aware of interdepartmental politics, fight fires when you can but don’t get burned by someone else’s behaviour. I think we’ve all heard of unfortunate situations where the editor can be caught between the director’s vision and what the producers or studio wants, so that can be a fine balance, trying to please everyone. Leave your ego at the door!
I think, ultimately, you should work on your relationship with the director. Be their friend, their confidante. They have to be able to trust you. Hopefully, that would lead to being re-hired in the future.
I was in a very fortunate position this time, where Ian Bonhôte (Alleycats Director) and Andee Ryder (Alleycats Producer) and I get along and work together very well. I speak to them both all the time.
How did you interact with other depts?
I was involved in every stage of the creative process, except the initial script writing. We had several pre-production meetings where we had to plan set piece stunts and action sequences. It really was invaluable to be part of that.
I knew the limitations of VFX and what could be achieved in the cutting room and we had very productive planning meetings with the stunt coordinator.
I think it’s best to get the editor involved as early as possible and to give your thoughts on the script. Bouncing ideas off a group and other departments is key.
It also puts a human face to the department, as editorial can feel quite removed from the rest of the crew. If you’re friends with everyone from the get-go, I feel filmmaking is a more productive and enjoyable experience.
What did you learn that you would apply next time?
Simplify wherever possible.
We cut out a whole storyline and streamlined some characters. We think the film is better for it, as we focused on our main characters.
Doing that gave me confidence for future films, don’t be shy and again: be objective. Do what’s best for the film, not someone else’s ego. Even your own ego!
Any advice to other first time feature editors?
It sounds obvious, but watch all your rushes, again and again and again. After you’ve cut the first assembly, go back and watch the rushes again.
You may pick up on nuances in performances which hadn’t occurred to you until the film has been assembled.
Stay organised. Experiment.
Is there another way into a scene? A way out?
Should this scene be in a different place in the film?
Can you explain why you have made a certain decision?
All roads do not lead to Rome. You may find yourself going back to the first assembly after several versions of the film have already been cut. But it’s the journey which confirms your instincts in the first place.
Don’t get frustrated when it seems like you’ve tried everything and you’re back to square one. Watch films, read books and study your craft.
Now that it has been purchased by Universal Pictures, what does that mean for the future of the film and those involved?
Alleycats was picked up by Universal Pictures and distributed across all platforms, worldwide and has been dubbed in French, Spanish, German and Portuguese. A financial success, recouping investor’s premiums.
Only 14% of UK films attain distribution deals. That means 86% of FINISHED films just lie around on shelves!
We’re very pleased with it in that respect. I’ve heard so many stories of films either falling thorough, or not get the finance the stories deserve.
I have had a lot of interest from various agents since the film was released and am currently in conversation about a few opportunities.
Ian sold his share in Pulse films (he was a founding member), to set up Misfits Entertainment with Andee. You may see us all working together again.
Will it be going to the festivals?
The film premiered as the opening Gala Film at the East End Film Festival, which went down really well. It was an exciting start to the festival and the life of the film. After that, it was in the studio’s hands for distribution.