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Questions for the Editor

In my 25 years as an emerging filmmaker, I've worked with many film editors - some experienced, some not so. Some newbies who would rather be directing and others born with a burning desire to cut film. One thing is for sure - all editors approach editing differently.

As a director, I think it's polite to ask how a person likes to work - whether they have a tried and true process or not. "How do you like to work?" I ask. In many cases, the question is met with a blank or even perplexed stare. "I usually get the footage and start cutting," comes the (often embarrassingly predictable) reply. "What other way is there?"

Obvious? ... Maybe. But we directors have to listen carefully to our creative accomplices, which often means learning to read between the lines.

Here are a few other responses an editor might give you.

1. Process? Just give me the script and the original footage.

This always works well with very experienced editors. Hand the script and the footage over.

I once had the opportunity of working with Tim Wellburn - an Australian feature film editor with over 40 years of feature films to his credit. He knew how to read scripts and get to the core of the character via editing. As a general rule, it's always polite to leave the experienced editors to do their thing. There's no need to look over his/her shoulder.

You might get the same reply from an inexperienced editor. Perhaps let them have a go at it and see what they come up with. But make sure they know that you will, ultimately, want final say and that it may have to be done again ... and again ... and again (and in my case ... again).

2. Give me the footage. I don't need the script.

Okay. For me - this answer rings alarm bells. The story (providing the Director has captured it on film) should be in the script. It's the blueprint. It's what attracted the actor/money in the first place. Something there has already worked - especially if you are in production.

Respect the script!

Having said that - many beginner editors have shown me new and interesting things when I've left them to it. I try not to hover. In most cases, we eventually come back to the screenplay. If you have an iconoclastic editor on your hands, it might be a nice idea to see what they come up with. Sometimes the Director's intentions weren't manifest on the day and throwing things up in the air like this may be a good way to solve coverage problems.

3. I dunno. What do you want?

Good. Here is an editor willing to open lines of communication. Or - they might be tired or suspicious because they've heard this question before - hearing it as I'd like you to do it my way. And there's nothing more annoying for an editor than a director looking over your shoulder while you make - every - single - cut!

Be sensitive, Directors. Or - choose an editor who (you think) is better than you are at editing in the first place.

In other words, Directors, find a way to trust your editor. Editors should be adding something to a work - maybe even fixing director's mistakes!

4. I have no idea what I'm looking at. I need your script, notes, camera sheets etc.

The admirable answer. This editor knows that his time will be cut in half if he gets inside the director's head. In most cases, directors don't know what they want. Giving the editor as much information as possible cuts time and frees up the editor. You want your editor involved! Although this answer will mean more work for the director.

5. Let's have a cup of coffee.

Another good answer. But beware. It could be another alarm bell.

Getting along with your editor doesn't guarantee great work. Even though an afternoon coffee may turn into an all night pub-crawl and finding your new best friend, it doesn't mean that you are both on the same page. The first rough cut will tell you that.

Make sure, if you do have coffee and biscuits with your editor, that you talk about the film. Don't talk too much about life and philosophy. The person you are talking to may not be a good listener - or what you are hearing makes sense in a different way to what your editor intends.

You really need to get into the cutting room after the editor has had a go at the film.

Whoever said that a director's job finishes at "It's a wrap"?

NB: The knife cuts both ways. An editor might ask the director how he/she likes to work. Each and every film - whether drama or documentary comes with its own cutting-room challenges. Ask the right questions, be nice to people and don't treat your editor like a splicing machine.


Zane Dickens said…
Wow interesting perspective. I am (although a student filmmaker) both an editor and a director, my abilities and interest seem to see-saw between the two.

This is definitely a worthwhile approach to take. I have been the editor that has the director sitting on my back and vice versa. I really agree with "find an editor that you think is better than you", I often over direct in the edit because I don't trust them with my 'baby'.

I'm not sure if it would be much use to you but check out my site/blog it is also about filmmaking, tips, tricks and articles.

Would it be okay for me to re-publish this on my site with a link back to your home page? "Article written by".

Thanks Z.

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