A talented actor and an imaginative director are only part of what makes a horror movie so terrifying. Where would scary flicks be without the clever cuts and camera angles that make us jump in our seats?

Recent festival hit Splinter, a movie about a parasite that turns its victims into blood-lusting hosts, is a perfect example of how editing affects audiences’ reactions. Editor David Michael Maurer, an Emmy-nominated master of his craft, took an inventive approach when collaborating with director Toby Wilkins. Experimenting with camera angles, anticipating viewers’ expectations and getting into the characters’ heads has resulted in a truly spine-tingling experience.

Just days before Splinter took home six awards (Best Editing and Best Picture among them) at Screamfest, MovieMaker spoke with Maurer about his process and what inspires him to do what he does so well.

Kristin Forte (MM): Editing plays a key role in making a horror movie both suspenseful and frightening. What was your approach to Splinter to create a truly horrifying experience?

David Michael Maurer (DMM): We utilized a variety of editing techniques that involved significant collaboration with the production team. Shot with the ARRIFLEX D-20 digital camera, I had an incredible amount of footage to choose from within the Avid timeline. The film’s scares are a combination of great camera work, direction and clever editing/pacing in scenes.

Director Toby Wilkins and I talked a lot about playing with audience expectations, making certain creative decisions around the film’s editing structure in order to manipulate viewers’ reactions. Using the toolset within Avid’s Media Composer software, we relied on speed effects and frame selection to create a fishbowl experience where the audience watches the characters as if they’re trapped inside this claustrophobic environment.

Splinter takes the audience on a roller coaster, exploiting a variety of situations that evoke fear. Wilkins and I tried to get inside the heads of the characters in order to determine what kind of scare would be best. If we did a traditional jump scare, we might intentionally preempt the next one with a shot containing negative space; you expect something bad to happen and when it doesn’t, your heart beats a little faster and the scare is bigger when it finally arrives. Once a style of a particular scare was established in the film, breaking our rules became a fun device to keep the audience on their toes.

As another approach, we used different point-of-view shots to make the audience a part of the event. For example, in the roadside kidnapping scene, the character Dennis [Shea Whigham] approaches the car and knocks on the window. We had several options for how the audience would see this: A wide shot with Dennis lingering in the brush; an interior shot from the front seat so he walks up as a surprise; or a handheld wide shot from the tail of the vehicle. However, more than just the surprise of his arrival, I wanted the audience to feel part of the scene. Ultimately, Wilkins and I found this strange angle from the right rear passenger seat that was really obscured and tightly framed. We used a few seconds of the shot and it‘s scary because the audience feels trapped in the car with the other characters. If we were sitting in the backseat and saw this man walking up, there would be nothing we could do. We’d want to warn the other characters, or run, but it all happens too fast. It makes the audience feel powerless and it’s far more terrifying than just a jump scare.
In total, we had reels more than 120 hours long, each with a matching cross convert and down-convert. One of the benefits of using a fully digital, Avid workflow is the fact that, with no film to scan, we could freely select any shot from the film that we wanted to tweak or enhance, and flag it as a visual effect without significant budget implications.

From a technical standpoint, we evaluated whether to use Avid or Final Cut Pro, but Avid’s software was the only reliable and cost-effective solution that could handle the complexity of this project, while providing multiple editing workstations—all on the independent film budget. We used Avid Media Composer 2.7 software on a Mac, and our assistants used Avid Xpress Pro on two Mac Pro laptops with extra hard drives. The Avid systems handled the entire workload, including more than 250 digital enhancements, large and small, with an additional 250 optical shots by the end. Most importantly, the set-up enabled us to review all the material, edit scenes in the field and effectively communicate with the production team to request specific shots. With the film’s fast-paced production, the ability to talk with the crew about incoming elements was critical.

MM: You’ve done a lot of work in reality television. Do you prefer editing reality or fiction? How does your editing process differ from one to the other?

DMM: I enjoy both for different reasons. Reality is in some ways an “editor’s medium,” which is a thrill as the editor has the great responsibility to not only tell the story though visuals, but also to create it in post-production instead of having a full script in the field. The scale of reality is tremendous as well, you screen hundreds of hours of dailies on the Avid and have to be able to recall pieces of shots anywhere on the timeline from memory, it’s very taxing and not for everybody. I’ve had many late nights where a solution pops up in my head on how to fix a scene from a shot that was disconnected by days or even weeks. It’s a tremendous challenge as shots don’t always work together, and events don’t always happen perfectly, so you and your producer are constantly being tested on how creatively you use the footage available. It can be very rewarding when it works.

On the other hand I love doing fiction because I get to focus on the subtlety of performances and experiment with visual style. Although I do get to shape the story, there is a finished script before shooting ever starts and the shots were directed and photographed to be edited. That is bliss for me. I enjoy collaborating with directors and helping them tell the best story they can.

MM: Aside from being an Emmy-nominated editor, you’ve served as an actor, director and producer as well. Which of these roles do you prefer? Do you have any plans to concentrate on more acting, directing or producing anytime soon?

DMM: I studied acting mainly to help my editing and to try to understand what makes or breaks a performance. That said, I enjoy directing a lot because working with actors to me is one of the best parts of the job. I’ve been silently working on behalf of actors to look their best from the edit bay. I’d love to direct a project in the near future to really showcase some great acting performances.

MM: What movies and editors do you admire or look to for inspiration?

DMM: Christopher Rouse is one of my favorite editors; the work he did on The Bourne Ultimatum was incredible. I think Jill Bilcock is so talented and I love what she does with performances and pacing. I also have so much respect for Michael Kahn and his legacy. He’s edited so many of my favorite films and gives me inspiration.