To Infinity and Beyond: The New Age of Editing
Give them a chance and a pint of beer and older editors will quite happily reminisce about the days when they honed their craft using scissors and glue. Things have moved along quite briskly since then, of course. Every film student has a copy of Final Cut Pro on their computer and the big beasts like Avid get more and more powerful. But one of the biggest changes that editors are facing these days is that digital cameras and storage formats mean that directors are free to capture hours of extra footage – all of which still needs to be cut down to a 30-second spot or a three minute film.
“The amount of footage we receive increased significantly when the transition happened from film to digital,” says Leo King, an editor at Stitch. “I think this is because of a few reasons. Firstly film is expensive. Therefore as digital doesn’t really cost much more, the more you shoot, the more relaxed the crew are about letting the camera just roll. They can keep it rolling for creative reasons, or just because they forget to turn the camera off! Secondly because of the availability of cheaper digital cameras, you can find that what would have been a traditional one camera shoot on film, suddenly becomes a camera camera shoot as they have an Alexa, a 5D and three GoPros for example. Thirdly with 35mm, you had a maximum of a four-minute roll before they had to reload. Now as you have bigger and bigger flash cards, each take can be 20 minutes long or more.”
And it’s not just the proliferation of digital formats and cameras that have generated extra hours of rushes; these days it’s incredibly cheap to have different kinds of cameras and rigs running in order to capture more angles. Now that drones present an affordable alternative to helicopters or cranes and GoPros allow directors to get a worm’s eye view of the action, a two-day shoot can easily generate up to ten hours’ of footage.
Asking around editors at various edit houses it seems that while editors generally to have about two to three hours’ worth of footage to play with on a 30 or 60-second spot, these days they can see anything up to 10 or 15 hours’ worth. There’s a great deal of variance – one of the most extreme examples we came across was at Stitch where the team had 170 hours’ of rushes to process, although it was for 23 30-second ads.
The increased volume of footage that editors get through their doors creates extra pressure, particularly as time scales are shrinking. The very best and creative editors want to make sure that they don’t let any nuggets of gold slip away, says Final Cut editor James Rosen. “Watching and selecting through everything that’s been shot is crucial to getting the best result possible, but it’s not always easy and not always possible in the time allocated. So you sometimes have to make other arrangements to compensate. I always push to receive dailies so that I can keep up with camera, avoiding huge amounts of footage from several days being dumped on my desk in one go (plus of course being able to respond to what is being shot and give feedback to the production team). I may also enlist the help of other editors and assistants to do initial selects.
“Whatever the strategy, every clip needs to be watched and processed. It’s a guarantee that skipping through this part of the job will compromise the project," he adds. "Your job as an editor is to maximise the potential of the film and to do this you need to consider everything, even outtakes!”
Tim Page, the managing director at The Quarry, outlines the very strict process that his team has to go through to make sure that everything has been examined thoroughly. “We tend to work on the basis of ‘3x’. That is, if there’s 10 hours of material, it takes 30 hours to properly assess, organise, and be ready to cut. However, there are exceptions to this rule. If the camera is simply running between takes, we can give that particular chunk of media out to an assistant to spin through and pull out useable action. In this scenario two hours can quickly become 10 minutes. Although relatively easy to deal with it’s a bit of a waste of manpower since the original two hours would have needed to be transcoded, broken down, synced up and organised, as well as backed up at the end of the project – and with budgets increasingly tighter, man power is a key asset for edit houses. However, if there’s a load of potentially great material, that’s coming in from a bunch of different angles, that really does take some editorial organising to ensure nothing of potential falls through the cracks.”
All of this processing can put pressure on editors, leaving them and the directors less time to really explore their options and play with the edit. “In the edit it’s very important to have the time to try things out and experiment with ideas,” says Sam Jones at Cut+Run. “The most fruitful part of the edit is working with directors and having the time to push the edit as far as we can. With valuable hours eaten up by working through the rushes this does put a strain on having enough time to give the edit all the love it requires.”
The upshot is that it means that editors can often find themselves working longer days to meet increasingly tight deadlines and to make sure that the creative aspect of the cut is given the care and attention it requires, says Gramercy Park Studios’ head of editing Vee Pinot. “The biggest challenge is time. The deadline doesn’t change just because the amount of rushes has increased. An editor is often working to already squeezed deadlines so it’s all about managing your time efficiently,” she says. “If the amount of rushes is significant and the number of days allocated to the edit is short, it can be challenging. It often means longer days so that the creative side of the edit isn't affected and we can still deliver a beautiful film that reflects the director's vision.”
Fortunately, it seems that editors are creatures that love a bit of extreme organisation – more than one of the people we’ve spoken to at edit houses have used the phrase ‘organisation freak’. Morgan Bradley is an editor at Beast, San Francisco, and for her the key to making the most of and keeping track of hours of rushes is to combine organisation with communication. “I’m an editor that thrives on structure and organization. When things are in place, then I can relax and be creative,” she says. “With that in mind, I rely heavily on a strong producer and assistant editor to help me manage all the variables on the front end. We can only control what we can control; so long as our communication is streamlined, and they're clear on exactly how I need things organized ahead of time, then I am relaxed and have a clear head to dive into the footage and work through it as efficiently as possible. The team is key for me.”
Over at London-based ENVY, senior offline editor Nick Armstrong agrees. “Being thoroughly organised is key. I have a naming convention, I keep notes on the takes in my edit system and I use a colour-coding scheme. Having the time at the beginning of the edit to establish this structure is therefore paramount.”
Another way to tackle the growing volume of rushes is for editors to sit on set and scan footage as it’s being shot, says Gramercy Park Studios’ Vee Pinot. “More and more frequently, I am going on set so I can go through the rushes as it’s being shot and organise the material there and then. I work closely with the director to understand his or her vision and usually I know the rushes inside out by the end of the shoot. So back in the edit suite my time is spent editing and crafting the film. Being on set also allows me to spot problems or to suggest things if necessary.”
There are times when that extra footage can save a job, particularly when shoots have not gone exactly to plan. Perhaps your big budget celeb has put in a Razzie-worthy performance or an on-set disaster has meant that the crew have not had time to set up all the desired shots. In these cases it’s always handy to have a little extra to play with.
“There's nothing worse than not having what you need in an edit. I'd take hours of footage over missing moments any day,” says Beast’s Morgan Bradley. “That said, for me, the ideal situation is still when a director seems to shoot just enough for me to build the edit, with some good options to solve any problems that arise down the line.”
What’s more, all that extra footage can be particularly useful on documentary-style projects where it’s all about capturing spontaneous, magical moments, says Cut+Run’s Sam Jones.
“The more options we have as editors, the more ways we have available to tell the story; we love a variety of shots, we want directors to get any extra coverage that they are interested in trying,” he says. “With something that has a more documentary style, natural moments can be captured, the long takes with digital give the space for these ‘real’ moments to happen in a way film doesn’t allow for. I recently worked with Leila & Damien de Blinkk on the latest Scottish Widow campaign. The only way to shoot the three real stories that made up the campaign was to keep the camera rolling. They found the truth within the personal accounts of the three individuals’ stories by allowing the space for these non-actors to be themselves, which in turn meant shooting a lot of footage. I think we had nine hours of footage and it did take time to work our way thought it. This is a really good example of how we were really empowered by the wealth of material and the richness of the moments they captured.”
But Stitch founder Tim Hardy cautions editors against getting too carried away. “It’s always good to have more options but you have to be ruthless you can’t put everything in,” he says.
Of course, the transition to digital formats isn’t exactly new, and editors have had time to get acclimatised to the shift and refine their processes and organisation.
“Shooting digitally began to take off while I was still assisting. There was definitely a sudden change in the way people shot and the amount of footage. At the start people really did leave cameras running, sometimes just putting them down on the floor and walking away. I think that as time has gone on the better productions have brought back some of the discipline, realizing those hours of no slates and no continuity can slow down the editing process,” says Whitehouse Post editor Charlie Harvey, who is currently based in London but is moving to LA later in the year. “I would say on average about ten hours for a 60 and five for a 30. I'm used to getting so much these days, when I get less it makes me a little nervous!”
For Erik Verhulst, an editor at The Ambassadors, working this way has become second nature and, ultimately, is a good thing for creativity. “I’m a kid of the digital age so I know no better. No, but seriously, commercials have been shot in digital formats for some time now. We’re trained to work in this environment. I do think that more the detail-obsessed directors are flourishing now that you can just keep the camera rolling.”
But as the rushes flooding into edit houses are increasing in length so too are the lengths of films commercial editors are being asked to cut. As well as 30 or 60-second spots, there are online films and projects that range from a couple of minutes to over an hour.
And though one might expect that these kind of jobs put more time pressure onto editors, we found that many of those we spoke to found them to be surprisingly liberating and creative.
“Often TV commercials have had more planning so are more structured and scripted. From a production point of view budgets on longer form are always less although the process is exactly the same and often they are more edit heavy. On the plus side editors enjoy these longer form and content films, as they often offer more freedom and creativity,” says Lisa Kenrick, Executive Producer at Whitehouse Post London.
These kinds of jobs often require a different kind of skill – and when there’s no strict running time to stick to, editors often have to be even more self-disciplined. “If there’s no time limit to your film, you are free to make it as long as you feel it can be without losing the audience’s attention,” says The Ambassadors’ Erik Verhulst. “Knowing what’s interesting and what’s not is often a matter of trying things out, and this takes time. I guess the main difference lies in the fact that the there’s often less client politics involved.”
One post house that is in an interesting position when it comes to fast turnaround, longer format jobs is ENVY. They also work in the broadcast world, cutting weekly shows like Gogglebox, which means they’ve honed a handy set of skills for advertisers looking to create different kinds of branded entertainment. “These shows require a constant 24/7 service with absolutely no room for error or delays. Having these resources and constant cover in place, helps us provide a better service to advertising and branding clients as we are always available to meet changing schedules or last minute demands.”
It’s an interesting time for commercials editors; the days of messing about with scissors and celluloid are long gone. It’s not just the formats that have changed. Budgets and time scales have shrunk since the recession (and, realistically, are unlikely to return to their former levels), the volume of footage being produced on a single shoot has grown and the editors of adland have to be just as comfortable working on a half-hour documentary as they are on a 30-second TV spot. But what’s really great is that when you start to speak to the very best editors is that you’ll find that they’re very probably the most mentally organised, detail-orientated people in adland – as well as being wonderful storytellers. Pressures may be growing but they’re craftsmen (and women) to the core.
Main photo credit: Deutsche Fotothek