Shooting has finally wrapped, and now the film can officially move into post-production! This is my favourite part – though obviously I’m a little biased as an editor!
Getting the Footage to the Editor
Back in the film days, the exposed reels would be taken to a lab, where they could be developed. A work print would be made from the negatives, and those reels would be given to the Editors and their Assistant Editors to start sorting through.
These days, this process can go a few different ways depending on the production’s budget. For most productions, the Digital Imaging Technician (or DIT), organizes and backs up all the footage onto hard drives every day as they shoot on set.
On big productions, those drives are taken to a Dailies facility, who will transcode all the raw footage that the camera shot and turn everything into files that are easy for the Editor to edit. On smaller productions, Assistant Editors will usually do that job instead.
Learning the Footage
Once all the footage is prepped into a work-friendly format, the Assistant Editor will start organizing the footage by scene, shot, and take. If they’re using a software like AVID Media Composer, they can take advantage of some cool tools like ScriptSync, where they can link up clips to a pdf of a script.
They’ll compare the footage to the Script Supervisor’s reports to make sure it’s all accounted for, and add metadata, notes, and sync up the audio with the video as appropriate. The more organized they are, the better – because big projects can have hundreds if not thousands of hours of footage that the team will need to be able to watch and search through easily.
For example, the first feature film that I ever cut was a documentary called “Citizen Marc”. We had over 150 hours of footage from all sorts of formats and places, including footage we’d shot as well as newsreels, stock footage, and archival material. To be able to make a 90 minute movie that made sense from all of that, meant that I had to have a very detailed and clear system at my fingertips to be able to pull up whatever the director wanted to see at a click of a button.
Once it’s all organized, the Editor will watch through all the footage, and make notes. These notes could be technical, as in “Shot 6C take 4 is out of focus”, or creative, as in “this performance made me cry”.
The Editor now can start assembling scenes. Every editor works a little differently in how they choose takes, but generally speaking they want to find the clearest and most emotional way to tell the story. I’m going to take a page out of one my favourite editor’s handbooks to explain what most editors look for when they’re working, in order of importance:
1. Emotion – the impactfulness of the shot, performance, and the scene as a whole
2. Story – the clarity and entertainment value of the film as a whole as well as all of its parts.
3. Rhythm – the pace at which things are cutting compared with the emotion and performance of the shot, both from an acting and a shot perspective
4. Eye Trace – where the viewer’s eye is at any given point (or where do you want them to look?)
5. Two Dimensional Space – Does the order of shots follow the 180 degree rule?
6. Three Dimensional Space – Is the staging within the scene following continuity?
*The 6 Rules of Editing as outlined by Walter Murch, ACE
They say that a film is re-written three times: while making the script, while shooting, and while editing. This means that the Editor is responsible for the final re-write of the film. This comes with a lot of responsibilities.
The Editor is the advocate of the final viewer – he or she needs to be able to look at the film objectively, and make decisions that accurately convey everything that’s happening to the widest audience possible. But at the same time, the Editor has to stay true to the Director’s vision, and sometimes the Producer’s decisions.
This means that there a lot of people to keep happy and the politics can turn into a bit of a dance, but great editors will find ways to pose questions and discuss potential issues with the team with the intent to find solutions. Sometimes it can be brutally hard – for example, a shot you really need just doesn’t exist and it’s not possible to do a re-shoot! Here’s where creativity and knowledge of storytelling fundamentals are key.
It’s not uncommon for scenes to go through many many versions – sometimes even up to the hundreds! But once you find it, that feeling is amazing, and the final product is better for it.