Blog entries by Chris W

In my previous blog post, I mentioned that you should start cutting with music first:

Getting started with editing... | - The Best Film School Reviews & Forums

Learn to make the edit work WITHOUT music and effects... because if it works dry... then it'll certainly work when scored.
Well of course there's always an exception to the rule.

Without a doubt the scene should be able to work and tell a story dry. If it doesn't... then you have a problem. BUT there are times when a piece of music will inspire you and you can use that inspiration to cut a scene.

Sometimes I'm pouring through the mountains and mountains of tracks that we have to work with and I come along a track with a certain rhythm, tempo, or musical hits that just inspires me. Since I have poured through hopefully most of everything that was shot at this point one starts mentally placing the images up against the music as it plays... and before you know it... sometimes you have a vision for how to cut a scene or a montage.

Then, by all means, please do use a bed of music to cut to as your inspiration.

As a side note, the show I"m cutting now is using songs and lyrics at the start and end (or even middle) of the scenes and it's quite refreshing as the lyrics speak to what the character or characters are thinking. It's a very interesting way to do it... and it becomes almost a music video at times.

Anyways... editing is a blast. It's amazing what two images juxtaposed can say. Keep cutting people.

Fire away with questions in the comments.
An AP (Associate Producer) where I'm editing now asked me for advice on how to start editing and what he should work on... should he download footage from YouTube and do music videos? Should he do this or that?

Well I told him, it's pretty simple... editing is basically storytelling. There's a reason Avid's slogan used to be "Tools for Storytellers" (They should have kept it as that - it was a good one)

The most important thing while editing is to tell a cohesive story. Flash wizbang effects are nothing. Anyone can do that. Not everyone can tell a good story. That is what you need to work on and get better at.

A scene should work WITHOUT ANY effects or music. If it doesn't.... the story isn't there and the scene doesn't work.

So how should one get started?

Well in this case in all seriousness... start cutting scenes after hours. We are sitting on mountains and mountains and mountains of footage here... So start cutting some together into scenes to start seeing how to make them work.

How to best use the Avid will come in time. It's actually a little harder to learn the Avid and it's not as straightforward for beginners... but everything makes total sense as an editor. Avid was designed by editors. FCP and Premiere was designed by computer people. But regardless... a tool is a tool. I've edited VHS to VHS and by cutting film. Being able to tell a story is what counts and what is the most important.

I've worked with editors who are great finishing editors and can whizbang with the best of them and polish up edits very well... but if they were given a mountain of raw footage they wouldn't know where to start. Being able to take completely raw footage and make a cohesive story is a skill that is highly sought out so that is what you need to concentrate on working on.

If you work somewhere where there is a lot of material to work with, check with the higher ups if it is okay for you to stay after work to practice editing with the mountains of material that is in the systems. Show initiative and work hard and learn.

Most editors are also able to offer advice and tips (but please don't overstay your welcome if we're busy).

Assistant editors today don't even work side by side with editors anymore - they're off in another room syncing and doing whatever assistants do these days. When I was an assistant I used to do changes and work more closely with an editor.... it's a shame that isn't done as much anymore... at least in reality TV. I actually wouldn't mind assistants taking a stab at some scenes for me. I don't mind teaching at all as long as it doesn't get in the way of the work that I have to do.

But the point is - if you want to cut... then start cutting! Find footage and learn how to work it together to create cohesive stories.

Three shots can make three different stories depending on how you cut them together. Learn to make the edit work WITHOUT music and effects... because if it works dry... then it'll certainly work when scored.

I hope this wasn't too much of an incoherent ramble. :)

I just locked my cut though - so I had some time to write. I should probably get back to work now on the new episode I'm cutting. ;)
Yay! I locked my most recent episode on Friday. :)

For this show there's:

  1. Rough Cut 1
  2. Rough Cut 2 (not in this show's case)
  3. Fine Cut
  4. Locked Cut
And that's it.

But this network likes to do notes on the Locked Cut.

Wait why am I saying this network... almost all that I've worked with do notes on the locked cut. It's almost like they don't know what that word is... maybe there should be a fine cut 2?

Oh well.

But it's locked! (unless they come back with notes... knock on wood... but they already came back and said no notes) And the graphics guys are already doing their thing and they want to ship before this coming Friday so they better have no notes. :)

I'm just about finishing locking up an episode for a certain series that I'm working on. The network had an idea of what they wanted a certain scene to be. It wasn't how I originally planned the scene or really what actually happened but they wanted it anyways.

So what do you do? You watch everything. Again. This time with a new mindset.... a new thing that you're looking for. You see shots that can be cheated to tell the story that wasn't there before. Eyelines. Shrugs. Little moments between takes where they look offscreen or sigh or rub their shoulders.

I remember one cheat I did for a film was one of the actors looking confused... although in reality he was listening to the director's instructions off camera and made that look. (haha)

But how do you find these cheats? You watch every frame. Before takes... after takes... when the camera is just running. You listen and relisten to audio in new ways with a new frame of mind.

Things will jump out at you. It'll start to come together and you can make it work.

Since I had watched most of the footage the first time around... I remembered where a lot of things were and doing the changes didn't take as long. I rewatched my original selects for a scene to look for audio that I pulled before... then I watched through all of the picture for the scene... looking for things that'll work with the new direction.

Cutting images together to create an entirely different scene that what was originally intended. It's the Kuleshov effect in action.

It's a big puzzle. And I love it. :)

Kuleshov Experiment Giffed.gif
There are a million ways to edit something and a million ways to go about the process of editing... but it was something an "old school" editor taught me that really made things click and has greatly influenced how I edit today.

Now I'm not talking about the hardware, software, and mechanics of editing - that can change. I've edited tape to tape, by physically cutting film, and on non-linear editors such as Avid Media Composer. Those are the tools. I'm talking about the process of using the tools to tell the story that you want to tell. The tools will change but storytelling doesn't. (Avid's old motto was "Tools for Storytellers" - wish they kept it)

While in Film School and after while I worked at Avid I made it my goal to learn Avid Media Composer inside and out and I did. After moving to Los Angeles in 2001 I worked as an assistant editor (mainly in music videos) but I also taught Avid at Moviola since I was also a certified Avid Instructor.

One of my students once was an "old school" film editor who hadn't edited for a while (he detoured into the music business) and now wanted to get back into editing. He was used to cutting and splicing physical film. He knew how to edit and tell a story but just needed help learning the new tool.

For a while I worked for him as an assistant editor as well. One day while he was cutting a short film for somebody he let me take a stab at it and I edited for a while as he observed. Then he asked how I went about editing.

I said something to the affect of... "Oh I just start cutting the footage and throwing clips into the timeline until I like it."

He then explained that this was completely the wrong way to go about doing it. Before I even cut one clip into the timeline I should know exactly what I was trying to do.

The reasoning for this makes complete sense... after all when he was editing many years ago every edit was a destructive edit. You physically cut the film and taped it together. Putting back those physical frames you removed was hard and I know... in film school when I cut physical film I learned that very quickly. So because each edit that you made was destructive... you had to be pretty sure that that was the edit you really wanted to make before you made it.

So what do you do? You watch your footage. You watch your footage a lot. You watch your footage many times and take notes. You watch your footage and you edit the film in your head. You know what you are going to edit before you even cut a frame.

This process is still very important today even though all of the editing systems today are completely non-linear & non-destructive. (editing on film is non-linear but destructive - editing tape to tape is linear) If you just threw things down into your timeline wily nilly it gets very easy to create a mediocre edit. You can easily find yourself getting "stuck" with shots that you just cut in with no real reason at all.

The process of watching your footage (and re-watching and re-watching) allows the film or scene to slowly form in your mind. You find yourself discovering new ideas and new ways to cut a scene each time you watch and you are able to test everything out in your head before you even make an edit. The shots you choose should tell a story and have a purpose behind them. This is a process I still use today and his lesson has vastly improved my editing.

Converting this method to non-linear editing, what I do today is create "Selects Sequences" from the raw footage for each scene. These are usually broad selects that I make while watching the footage. Then from these "Selects Sequences" I create what I call the "Selects of Selects Sequences" and further whittle down the footage and I organize the placement of the clips in this new sequence into different sections based on the moments of the scene that I've blocked out in my head.

For example I'd have a section of the sequence where all the best opening moments are... where all the best cutaways are... where all the best middle moments of the scene moments are... best ending moments... best cheats...etc etc ... it depends on the scene that you are cutting.

Once I've created these sequences I've watched the raw footage a bunch of times and I have a pretty good idea what the scene is going to look like. This process takes a good day to a day and a half depending on the complexity of the scene. Then once I've watched all of the footage the actual edit takes a couple of hours tops.

I find it amusing when a producer asks me how a scene is going a couple hours in to me "editing" a scene. It's going great.. but I have nothing to show anyone as it's all in my head. :)

I hope that you find this tip helpful... again there are many ways to edit but I've always found this to be sound advice from an "old school" editor that I've shared as often as I can. Please be sure to let me know what you think and any questions you may have in the comments.


Cover image credit:

Steenbeck 16mm flatbed ST 921 (6498601571) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (Creative Commons — Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic — CC BY-SA 2.0)], by DRs Kulturarvsprojekt from Copenhagen, Danmark, from Wikimedia Commons
Everyone's "How'd you Break In" story is different... here's a quick version of mine.

I went to BU's College of Communication and graduated in 1999. I made a bunch of student films while I was there but I quickly learned that my love for filmmaking was behind the camera... way behind the camera... in the editing bay. I'd always enjoyed editing. I even had a tape to tape Hi8 controller setup for editing Hi8 movies while I was in high school.

At BU we shot our films on 16mm. First I edited reel to reel using a splicer. Then we upgraded to a Steenbeck flatbed and we edited with sound. I still remember an all nighter trying to finish one of my student films the day before it was due in a rented out editing bay in Allston... and trying to tape back a couple of extra frames back onto an edit that I wanted to undo. Welcome to the world of destructive editing. I'm really glad I don't have to do that anymore... the frame f-er that I am.

But I think the nail in the coffin for me where I decided that I didn't want to be on set or "in the field" was one all night shoot I helped a friend out with. It was long... exhausting... and frankly boring as everything took forever. My all night bender cutting my film was certainly long and exhausting... but I was never bored - I was fully engaged.

My first forays into the glorious world of nonlinear editing was on an Avid Xpress and a Media 100. Avid Xpress was a dumbed down version of their infamous industry standard Media Composer.

Avid happened to be headquartered around 30 miles outside of Boston so I applied for an internship there during my senior year. That internship led to me being employed in tech support there for 2 years after graduation. I basically used that time to absorb everything and anything about the Avid. I became a certified instructor and technician. I got to know that program inside and out.

Then in 2001, I drove out to Los Angeles. Before I got here I sent resumes to every post house I could find in the LA411... (does that exist anymore?). For weeks I called places and didn't get much of a response until one day the post house I called seemed very excited that I called and asked me to come in. They also had Avid troubles that day so I was able to use my connections to get them help quick... and then I was hired as an assistant editor.

I later found out that the guy I replaced was fired for accidentally erasing an original tape. Yeah - don't do that.

This post house happened to be a music video house and I was quickly sucked into that world. I worked hard and assisted for a bunch of editors. Soon editors began to request me specifically... One of those editors brought me to another post house where I soon began to do changes for editors on music videos and also to cut the free and no budget videos that came through. Soon lower budget videos came through and then all of a sudden this happened and I had a pretty steady editing career and I stopped assisting.

Through other contacts I had I did some independent films and then somehow I stumbled into unscripted TV.

Unscripted TV is a blast to cut. You're usually given a pile of footage... and then you have to make a scene out of it. Often you're making things happen that didn't really happen or if they did happen of course the cameras weren't rolling. The editor in unscripted basically writes the "screenplay" for the show and it is a lot of fun.

I did find the short documentary I did in film school the most enjoyable thing I did so maybe that has something to do with it. Unscripted TV can be like a documentary... at least the shows I try and work on. Thankfully no Kardashians yet.

So that's a quick rough and tumble story of how I got into editing. I think if I remember correctly I arrived in LA in 2001 and was able to edit full time and stop assisting around 2004?. So it took 3 years for me. I know some editors in LA who never ever were assistant editors. So they're many paths to breaking in.

If you have any questions feel free to ask in the comments.