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Should you edit a film you also direct

posted 5 Apr 2012, 03:08 by Ben Edwards   [ updated 5 Apr 2012, 09:57 ]
As part of the research I did for my MA, where I am specialising in Picture Editing, I interviewed several editors.  One of the things that was discussed was if it was a god idea for the same person to edit and direct a film.  The output of the research was fairly unstructured, below are some quotes from the editors and my observations.  Hopefully this is of some interest/use. Bear in mind that this is just a single section of the research and there are names in here and some ideas that may seem a bit out of context.
  • 'When I have tried shooting and directing my own stuff its really difficult to edit your own stuff, you need someone else to edit it.’ Steve Philips (TV Editor, David Attenborough).
  • '(in terms of the Reckless Eric Film you shot and have been cutting) ‘I think I need to get an editor to cut that film rather than I cut it myself cos I don't think you can cut your own film. I think you learn I might be a completely competent editor, I can tell a story, and I can join shots together, but when it is my own story or my own film, then you need somebody who is an editor, and the editor is not you.' Mark Atkins (Feature Documentary Editor, Nick Broomfield).
  • ‘(if you are directing something would you edit it as well?) ‘I have done that a few times now but if the budget allowed the next thing that I did I would have a editor to edit it that was someone other than me. That dialogue is very useful and as an editor you can kind of get stuck in your own head and you might obsess about something that was a very quick conversation to the director or somebody else, often times it might be the producer...I think the distance is helpful for the director, okay you shoot it, let the editor do his thing, and then when you’re looking at it you had a little time away from it and you respond to a little bit differently. If you’re both directing and editing you don’t really have that luxury. ’ Richard Hankin (Feature Documentary Editor, capturing the Friedmans).
  • ‘How am I supposed to know exactly what is going to work, what’s the best way to serve the material? It’s better to work with someone else and that's (the editors) specific role and where the training lies. I know these people, I know everything about them, I know how I feel about them but the audience does not know anything until they see the the editor helps you disentangle yourself from all that and try to see it objectively.’Conor Mccormack (TV Director, Christmas with Dad).
I have worked with directors in several ways, either will them in the room a lot and with them only around occasionally. All the directors I have spoken to have emphasised the need for a certain distance between the editor and director. This and my previous experience, has led me to develop a working practice where I try to avoid cutting while they are in the room, especially in in the early stages. Obviously it is the director who ultimately decides this but I think explaining how I would like to work and explaining why is a big part of this. 

With Taha I explained that I could get a lot more done when I could totally focus on editing and pointed out even if I could edit as fast with him there it was a bit of a waste of his time. This seemed to do the trick. I have found that having a notepad and making extensive notes while they are there works well. Firstly it makes them realise what they are saying is being fully taken on and also obviously it means I do not forget anything. When all the notes have been taken and everything discussed is also a natural time for them to leave. Obviously there is a balance here as I do not want to seem to pushy and I found with Taha that it was good to do the big, visible things first so he had confidence that this approach works well. So I plan on going through a cycle of showing roughcuts with director, making notes, editing and going back to showing a roughcut. Up to now my approach has been more organic and I think when working with a director it is important to agree what is being done for each cycle.

I have found that even if you start with a very hands-on director that may just be an initial stage before the director gains your trust. I certainly saw Taha back off considerably when I demonstrated to him I was experienced and knew what I was doing. As he saw my changes to his initial ideas working well I gained his confidence. In this way the relationship is not built my being a yes man, it is built on arguing your corner and demonstrating what you want to do works in the edit. I think this is why Sundlöf talks about not being afraid of conflict.

I also really like what Mark Atkins said about using posted notes to map the story visually, I have come across this idea before but as the assembly seems to be done in scenes this makes sense. It is a method I will try when I edit the Japan tsunami film with Greg Slater.

The other thing I need to concentrate on is discussing all major changes I do before doing them, as Mark Atkins said you don't want to give the directer any surprises. I am very used to working on my own stuff and I think this is a good way to ensure I am fully engaging with the director.

One thing this leads us to is the role of the director and editor in structuring the narrative.  I used to think that this was mainly the responsibility of the director but it is in fact a joint responsibility that often falls slightly more into the editors domain.  Obviously this depends on the director as ultimately it is there call but an editor needs good story telling skills.  Initially I have full and detailed conversations with the director to fully understand the story they are trying to tell and ensure as Richard Hankin said we are on the same page.  I would then want some time alone to screen the footage and after that is is very much a joint effort.  The director is ultimately responsible but as an editor I have to do much of the plumbing.