Finely Sliced: David Warren
Having studied fine art and graphic design, Dave found himself working as VFX assistant at Rushes before realising that his real passion was editing. One of the original Nomad-London editors, he has worked for some of the world's biggest brands as well as collaborating with directors on commercials, music videos and short films. He recently teamed up once again with Great Guns’ Director, Meena Ayittey, on the award-winning film ‘Mama’. Dave's work includes a strong emotional quality and great storytelling...but he also has a childlike exuberance for cutting car ads!
The first cut is the deepest: how do you like to start an editing project?
As early as possible to be honest! I find it really useful to discuss the project with the director before the shoot if there is time. If I'm not editing on location, I make sure I gather all the on-set notes and arrange another call with the director in case anything has changed. Before looking at any of the footage, I like to make my own notes on the script as to how I initially imagine the overall pacing to be and how the scenes cut together. Next is to watch everything! Once I am familiar with all the rushes I pull my selects. Only then will I consider starting an edit. I ideally like to have some time on my own to play with the footage: it gives me the opportunity to be creative and to experiment with my own ideas. The goal here is to create a very rough assembly edit of the film in time for the first attended edit session with the director. This process acts as a launch pad for the project. My ambition is that it allows the director to see an idea or approach to the film that they hadn’t thought of. Additionally, and maybe more importantly, it helps identify what isn’t working. You have to be able to make mistakes and identify what doesn’t work to be able to move forward. From that moment on the edit really turns into a collaboration with the director - which for me is the best part.
Non-editors often think of editing just in technical terms but it’s integral to the emotion and mood of a film. How did you develop that side of your craft?
It’s a constant process of learning and research, I think. Luckily in our industry 'research' is pretty good fun. I try to watch as much as possible. I am constantly pausing a film or the TV whenever I see a scene that I think works. I will pause, rewind and step through it to try and analyse why it worked - it drives my wife mad! I sometimes go a step further and load the scene into the edit suite to really pull it apart. There are many editorial, sound, and camera techniques available to help convey emotion but I believe more than anything its down to pacing and timing. People talk a lot about about 'comic timing' but I think each emotion has its own unique pacing. Whichever emotion you are looking to convey as an editor, you have to at some point trust your gut feeling and back your own pacing instinct. If the scene is making you cry, laugh, or if it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, I would suggest you are on the right path. Having an arsenal of film examples to draw upon from good research is as important as a good vocabulary is to a writer.
How important is an understanding of story and the mechanics of story?
To quote Andrew Stanton; ‘Telling a story is joke telling. Knowing your punchline or ending and having the understanding that everything you are saying is leading to a singular goal”.
You have to be able to understand the mechanics of your story to be able to tell the story to your audience in a manner that will captivate them. Once you understand the story and your end goal this will enable you to create the journey that the audience will take to get to the punchline. To make the story successful you must then make sure the audience is captivated and emotionally connected; “Make the audience care”.
Rhythm and a sense of musicality seem to be intrinsic to good editing (even when it’s a film without actual music) – how do you think about the rhythm side of editing, how do you feel out the beats of a scene or a spot? And do you like to cut to music?
There are times I use a ‘cutting track’ but I find myself being pulled too easily into cutting to the beat. Which leads to a dull and metronomic edit. I generally prefer to start an edit without music. I let the shots and scenes find their own natural rhythm, cutting away from the shot once it has conveyed all that it can. This builds a natural and unique pace to the edit, based on the camera language of each shot. Easy to read shots cut faster than more complicated ones, which need more time to understand. If the silent edit holds my attention it is starting to work. If my attention drifts it’s a signal that it needs more work. Once I have completed the silent film I will introduce music tracks and tweak the edit to fit the emotional rise and fall of the track. I find this stage magical. How simply laying different music tracks against the edit will create totally different emotional responses. Also it can provide what I call ‘happy accidents’ where at times the picture and audio sync together perfectly. Some of these ‘accidents’ often get carried forward in the final film.
Tell us about a recent editing project that involved some interesting creative challenges.
I have recently just finished up on my first feature length documentary called 'Black Creative' for Great Guns director Meena Ayittey. It’s a documentary discussing what is it like to be Black and working in the UK advertising industry. Originally Meena had intended this to be a ‘short’. But we had so much great footage and the opinions expressed were so important that we decided to give it the time it needed. Because the nature of the film was to be intimate and direct, Meena had shot the film using an interview talking head style. The challenge editorially was to make the interviews feel like a conversation, intertwining their answers. Changing the film’s duration from a ‘short’ to just over an hour gave us the challenge of not only perfecting the pace of the conversational dialogue but also to make the film as visually interesting as the interviewees’ answers. Meena and I created a whole series of animations that supported and emphasised the topics and opinions being expressed through the use of motion graphics. This created a new, engaging visual language for the audience. The resulting film I think works brilliantly and is unflinching in its approach to addressing the important issue of diversity.
How important is your relationship with the director and how do you approach difficult conversations when there is a creative difference of opinion?
The first editor I ever assisted said “an editor’s job is to help the director realise their vision” and it’s always stuck with me. Of course this allows an editor the scope to bring their own creative ideas and opinions to the project. These opinions could very well differ from the director’s, but that is no bad thing. Those moments in an edit suite when you are throwing ideas around with the director and at times turning the whole film on its head are for me the best bit of being an editor. That’s when the real magic happens and a more powerful idea is born out of the difference of opinions. Of course an editor’s relationship with a director is massive. Ultimately it’s the directors film and it’s their vision so these relationships are built on trust and respect.
What’s harder to cut around – too much material or not enough?
Too much definitely! It’s definitely harder but also better as long as you are afforded the time. When you don’t have enough material your hands are tied and there is only so much you can actually do. If you have too much material the possibilities of how to construct a scene, for example, are almost limitless so refining down to the exact hero takes and camera angles requires more work and time.
Which commercial projects are you proudest of and why?
I am proud of all my work. The Ford Mustang commercial ‘Performance and Efficiency’ directed by Martin Bennett, was my first car commercial and being a bit of a ‘petrol head’ I remember being as excited as a little child on Christmas Eve to be able to work on that and think the resulting film is still brilliant. I’m hugely proud to have worked on award winning campaigns for the iconic brand Apple. ‘Festival Moments’ for iTunes and ‘The Beautiful Game’ - shot on iPhone, are two of my favourite spots. However, there are a few films that I am particularly proud of. These are films which carry a socially or morally important message. I truly believe that the advertising industry can be such a powerful tool to help and start positive change.
I’ve recently finished working on a mental health spot for Network rail. Directed by Great Guns’ Duncan Christie, it was shot really beautifully and the finished film looks great. But most importantly, it is for such an important cause. Mental health is still such a taboo in our society so not only am I technically proud of the film but, even more importantly, I am proud to be associated with the campaign helping to raise awareness.
“What future will you choose” for the Climate Coalition. An advert made to highlight and tackle our biggest crisis yet - global warming. I feel proud and privileged to be able to try to help tackle this issue by working with director Richard Paris Wilson.
I am especially proud of the award-winning short film ‘Mama’. Directed by another brilliant Great Guns director Meena Ayittey. It’s a personal response to the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, cataloguing the murders of innocent people in a way that doesn’t shirk away from the violence affecting society. Its an incredibly hard hitting and shocking film but that’s the point!
There are so many different platforms for film content now, and even in advertising something can last anything from a few seconds to a couple of hours. As an editor, are you seeing a change in the kind of projects you’re getting from brands and agencies?
The importance of social films in campaigns has obviously exploded. When I first started out broadcast was the main priority and at the end of the job you might be asked to create a cutdown for a social site. But it was all rather an afterthought. Currently, campaigns seem to be designed more specifically with the social platforms at the very centre. It’s such a powerful medium that the many different aspect ratios required for the social channels are now being considered and incorporated during the filming of the main film. Research into focus groups and user data of how these social platforms are being used are also having a direct impact into how adverts are being made. The click through rate percentages are putting a huge amount of importance on the first 10-15 seconds of an advert in order to grab the attention of users scrolling through social apps, which obviously has an affect of the mechanics of how to tell a story.
Who are your editing heroes and why? What films or spots epitomise good editing for you?
Even before I knew who he was, his work, or knowing anything at all to do with making films, I’ve always loved Walter Murch. Dragonslayer, Apocalypse Now, The English Patient are some of my favourite films. Some of which I fell in love with as a child, having no clue about how films are made. Now finding myself working as a video editor and having read his book “In the blink of an eye”, I find Walter Murch’s approach to film editing really resonates with me. The concept of “the invisible art” is sublimely demonstrated in the film The English Patient. I find that film so beautifully constructed that it’s completely immersive.
How does editing in the commercial world differ from the film world and TV world?
Schedules and time is a big factor. Films often allows you the time to really explore every take, camera angle, or the different ways to build a scene. Which is something not often afforded in the otherwise tightly-scheduled commercial productions. I find films are true passion projects, creativity is king and all who are involved naturally become emotionally invested.
Have you noticed any trends or changes in commercial editing over recent years?
Recently due to COVID-19 there has obviously been an increase in the use of animations and stock footage, due to the production side of the industry being unable to film. But overall I have noticed the traditional TV advert being forced to evolve, due to the increase of “On-Demand” streaming content providers. In the digital streaming world where you can binge watch entire TV series’ without ever seeing a single advert, Broadcast TV no longer has the monopoly over its target audience with the 3min long advert breaks. Not to say that the advert break is any less important that it always has been, quite the opposite, but the ‘TV commercial’ is now a part of a bigger digital campaign. The standard 30sec advert is often a cutdown of the main longer film that is only available online. It’s supported by additional films and cut downs hosted on every social and digital site possible. All driving traffic back to the main campaign. I’ve definitely seen a change in the construction of an adverts “storyline’. The campaign tag lines and logos at the start, along with an increased use of motion graphics, animating big bold text, hammering home key words of the campaign, in an almost subliminal fashion. The need to grab the attention of the consumer ever faster, as they scroll through the sea of content on the social platforms is altering the commercial storyline structure. We seem to be starting with the punchline.