How to become a Movie Editor

Now there’s a title, this isn’t one day, and of course it isn’t all about film either, not any more. Its about a job where everything has changed in the last thirty years, indeed much has changed in the last thirty months. Its also about a job where maybe not that much has changed at all.

Aberdeen - BBC Scotland - August 1980

I climb the stairs to my domain in the roof of a large house in the elegant west end of the city that had a fittingly grand name, Broadcasting House. The cutting room where I’m editing Landward, BBC Scotland’s fortnightly farming programme is airy and spacious, as it happens, the best I’ll ever work in. On my left, just beyond the telephone, which has its own booth, is a Steenbeck, a viewing and editing table for 16mm film. In the middle of the room is a film bin where the first shots of the sequence I was part way through cutting when I had to stop to cut a story for the evening news are hanging waiting to be assembled. That’s done using a picture synchronizer or pic-sync for short, made by a British company, Acmade.

1980's Editing film is a hands-on, tactile experience. Its very limited, even a simple dissolve between shots has to be done at the laboratory, but its also very flexible.  The producer is away filming for the following programme, he’s left me a short but detailed script, intended voice over and slate numbers, interview in and out words and timings. Much is left to my initiative, film editing is non linear, if I have a question I can phone him in the evening, and move onto the next scene.

When we view the first cut, shots can be changed, and with slightly more manual dexterity from me, whole scenes can be swapped around or removed.  Straightforward changes are done when viewing on the Steenbeck.  Anything more complex is done on the assembly bench, where the film passes from a reel through the pic-sync to the take up spools. Looking at the film stretched across the bench, the line of frames are clearly visible, 25 for every passing second of time, though it will be ten years or more before I can put a new name to what I’m seeing - a timeline.

Richmond - my home - August 2010

Stumbling downstairs to the edit suite, my office next to the front door of the house. Today’s job may be for web distribution, but its been shot XDCAM EX, with a Nikon prime lens fitted in front the Sony’s zoom to minimize depth of field, lit with Kino Flo Diva Lites and yes the look is outstanding. Its my job to make the edit look just as slick. I’ve never met the client apart from in cyberspace. The script is clear though and there’s a whole booklet on house style. I check the fonts, the logo, the Pantone colours, their RGB values. I phone the client, find out that many of stills and diagrams already sent to me will have to be replaced. I find out that the changes are for style rather than content, so I can proceed.

The shots - indeed all the media is on a 7200rpm Firewire Drive, the app is Final Cut Pro, the computer is a 17” MacBook Pro, with a second screen, stereo sound from the same monitors I used for most of my career at the BBC. I choose some music merely as a guide, the client likes it and we keep it, and for every animation of the pictures, add a whoosh from Soundtrack Pro. Five days later five minutes of video is complete, not a single still, diagram or logo remains from what I started with, but the timeline, the animations, the video and the sound are almost unchanged from my first cut. Waiting for media hasn’t caused me any problems, I had two other jobs to be getting on with.

So two days, thirty years apart, the equipment may have changed completely, though the craft, editing, just like camera and sound, hasn’t changed so much. Understanding your role and value to the creative process is the key, so is knowing how much control to exert when a deadline or a budget is tight. Listening and talking to the director or the client,

understanding the story and what each scene and shot brings to the movie is the key. Always remember that editing is a non linear process, avoid cutting action sequences until you’ve got the main structure of the movie in blocks on the timeline, understand the story and you’ll get the pace. As for the equipment and the application you use, practice, practice, practice until its invisible, just there to display the results of the creative process. This means that if you’re working freelance ask to get to look around a new workplace before you start a job. Try to talk to the systems manager, get to know how the company stores their media and their projects. Make sure you know how to use their video router.  Ask about output, file formats, compression, tape back ups. Some systems may seem antiquated to you, don’t criticize them, but do exchange information when the time is right.

Remember though that the real skill - the craft - is editing, I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to learn either. The hardware has never been cheaper to buy, neither has the software - and the means to realize your creative ambition in a thoroughly professional way has never before been so readily available.

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