The Perfect Match (Cut): Why An Extra Set Of Eyes (and Scissors) Could Be The Key To Editing Your Indie

A no-budget indie often demands that the director be his or her own editor—getting two for the price of one.

At first blush, one person wearing both hats may seem cost-efficient, but the loss of a second pair of eyes offers no collaborative advantage and is actually a disservice to the film.

Just because you can doesn’t mean that you should. A director can be too close to a project, from concept to production, so an editor provides the much-needed objectivity. After accounting for all the footage actually shot (rather than relying on what a director “remembers”) a veteran editor will open up creative options yet to be considered.

So, does your budget allow for another warm body and a reasonable production schedule? Then here are some traditional protocols and etiquette for a healthy collaborative relationship between director and editor.

Meeting Each Other’s Minds

Have you ever experienced a particular incident with a group of people, only to have each person describe it differently afterward? This is because each of us interprets a situation with our own personal set of values, history and experience, and it’s something to keep in mind when pairing director and editor. Moviemakers whose creative tastes complement each other are of tremendous aid to any project.

If the old cliché that a film story is told three times is true—first in script, second on set and third in the edit—then a common groove between director and editor is vital, particularly in setting nuances in tone, pacing, subtext and character development. In other words, team up with someone you already hold in high regard. If you respect this person’s past work, it shouldn’t be a chore to decide on a creative direction on your current project.

Actress Brianna Knickerbocker on the set of writer-director (and veteran editor) Dennis Ho’s A Better Place. Courtesy of Digital Jungle Pictures

The Director’s Checklist

Dark room contempt can bloom quickly if a director delivers footage without any regard for the editor. Here is a fairly ubiquitous list of industry expectations.

  • A few precious seconds between “quiet on the set” and “action” could work wonders for a scene. So get your actors in character and framed up before the camera rolls.
  • Don’t yell “cut” right after the last line. Instead, let it breathe a bit, then Again, there could be some precious frames here.
  • Get adequate coverage. Don’t lock the editor in with your perceived cut.
  • Be mindful of continuity, especially with medium shots and close-ups, to match the master.
  • Avoid starting takes on a static shot. Have your actor(s) move into the scene, especially if the editor has to match the previous cut.
  • Watch out for vectors. If you do cross the line, provide a bridge shot.
  • After principal photography, head to Maui and stay out of the edit bay. Let the editor have first crack. Trust him or her. Why deny yourself the only opportunity to be surprised and (fairly) objective when seeing your film’s first cut? You can always dick around with it later.

The Editor’s Checklist

Likewise, a director’s patience will wear thin if stuck in an edit suite with someone who is not a creative equal. Consider the following points.

  • Be passionate about the project. (Do I even need to say this? Yes, I do.)
  • Even if you have an assistant editor, screen every frame of footage yourself. How else will you find that obscure 10-frame shot that salvages an entire scene?
  • Check your ego. Defend your work, but take every criticism as an opportunity to create anew.
  • Treat every revision as challenge to see the number of narratives you can actually create from the same footage (especially beneficial if you’re being paid on the clock).
  • Have access to a good sound effects library and a wide selection of soundtrack scores for rough-cut temps.
  • Rely on the producer as the neutral in resolving creative differences.
  • Remember, you’re a storytelling creative equal, not a paint-by-numbers tech head. If a director wants to treat you as such, then you have permission to ignore this editor’s list and assume the role of button-pusher for the director. (Let the director defend his cut to the financiers.)

It goes without saying that the above checklists assume both director and editor are technically proficient in their craft.

Actor William Knight and Ho on the set of A Better Place. Courtesy of Digital Jungle Pictures

Measuring the Temperament

I would be remiss if I didn’t take into account the importance of pairing personalities that are congruous at working long hours in small, dark caves. It’s fascinating how subconscious personal habits and quirks reveal themselves over time in a closed environment.

Trust, both creatively and professionally, is a fundamental factor in this partnership. It’s like a marriage: Once you’ve found someone who puts up with your less-desirable traits, you still have to find a way to keep it working. The industry is replete with examples of career-long relationships between director and editor. Starting with those at the top of the food chain: director Steven Spielberg with editor Michael Kahn; director Clint Eastwood with editor Joel Cox; director Lawrence Kasdan with editor Carol Littleton; director Martin Scorsese with editor Thelma Schoonmaker; director Ron Howard with editors Dan P. Hanley and Mike Hill. The list is long and speaks to the strong creative bond between director and editor that’s necessary for great cinema to be achieved. When you’re lucky enough to find this kind of relationship, you’ll want to nurture it. This is a profound alliance with far-reaching implications, and the sooner you find your match, the sooner it will pay off in rich professional dividends. MM

Dennis Ho has been a director, editor, writer and producer of both short- and long-form projects for the last 30 years. An alumnus of ABC, he is a founder and owner of a post-production facility and the creative production company Digital Jungle Pictures, both in Hollywood. His film A Better Place debuted on DVD and online platforms October 25, 2016.

Illustration by Nicole Miles.

2 Comments

  1. James Mayfield

    June 21, 2017 at 2:26 pm

    Mmmm, some solid advice. I do like the emphasis on actually taking your time to shoot things. Feels like there’s a naturally urge to just rush through, but as mentioned, just a couple extra seconds here and there can add quite a bit.

  2. Tom Lucs

    January 5, 2017 at 7:42 pm

    Love this post. I’m a firm believer of deligation in filmmaking. Im gearing up to direct my first fantasy horror short film and this helped a lot, thank you.

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