Finely Sliced: Ellie Johnson
Ellie Johnson began her career as an editor at Speade, where she was mentored by critically acclaimed talents Sam Sneade and Leo Scott. Throughout her time there, Ellie built relationships with directors such as Sam Pilling, Joe Connor and Emil Nava and made a name for herself as a hugely creative and widely sought after editor.
In early 2018 Ellie joined award-winning edit house, tenthree, where she continues to tell stories and create memorable commercials and music videos. Whilst at tenthree Ellie has won a Gold and Silver British Arrow, a Gold Creative Circle, a D&AD Pencil, named UK MVA's Best Editor, ranked as #2 in Televisual's Top 10 Editors honour list and in 2021, announced as a partner of the company.
To Ellie, filmmaking is an important tool for change, which has the power to increase representation of diverse cultures in the public eye and lead the way for gender equality in the workplace. So as long as she is contributing to those causes and working on projects that go against gender stereotypes and taboos, Ellie is one happy editor.
The first cut is the deepest: how do you like to start an editing project?
Well this might sound terrible but I try to clear my mind of everything I know about the project so far and just dive into making selects. It’s the most gruelling part of the editing process, but to me it’s crucial to watch every frame, feeling what I respond to and making note of any ideas which start to form. If I know exactly what I’m looking for I’m not keeping my mind open to find those little unexpected moments which could grow into something powerful. The first round of selects is when the film is beginning to take shape in my mind, when I can start to see what it might become.
After selecting I’ll speak with the director to discuss how they’re feeling post-shoot. If we haven’t worked together before this can be quite a lengthy chat as I’m trying to learn about them, how they communicate and like to work to make our time together as fruitful as possible. I try to adjust myself and what I’m creating to be true to the directors vision, but then my first assemble is usually quite a selfish interpretation of that - those first few days working alone are my opportunity to explore the film from only my viewpoint which is the most valuable thing I can offer to a director (which I’m sure is terrifying for them!). I’ll always make sure they know I’m happy to throw out that first assemble and we can start with a clean timeline if I’m totally off the mark, thankfully that’s only happened twice in the last ten years!
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?
All creativity benefits from having good quality ‘inputs’, for me that’s films and TV but also reading. I love the craft of editing, so have a lot of books focussing on the topic, and because the influence of the editor is often hard to understand I look out for interviews with editors which give great insight into their process and experiences. It’s also really valuable to listen to those around you; I’ve been fortunate to work with really skilled directors and have great relationships with other editors to go to for advice and support. It’s a craft that you need to have experience in to really grow, you have to experiment with different ideas and approaches to push yourself and develop.
How important is an understanding of story and the mechanics of story?
Editors at their core are storytellers. We have to know how to manipulate the flow of information to guide your audience and create an effective viewing experience. As I’m working every decision, every cut I make is being driven by ‘the story’, even if there is no narrative in a classic sense there’s still an emotional journey you’re inviting people on. Those I work with know I have a reason (or excuse!) for everything I do, but I find holding myself to intention means the film is provoking emotion and creating a mood with every frame.
But in terms of the mechanics of story… that’s interesting. I don’t think you can edit ‘by the book’. It shouldn’t be a paint-by-numbers process, that doesn’t feel exciting, an editing algorithm could do that. Great editing is kind of… finding the life in the material you have to work with, reacting to what you’ve put down on the timeline, it’s problem solving. So yes, we know building to a close up is a clear way of connecting to a character at an emotional point in the scene, but couldn’t a wide be more disarming and engaging? Is playing the moment on another character in the scene more challenging, gives the audience something extra? What we try to get an audience to feel isn’t always the same, and so the mechanics of how to do that can’t be the same.
Rhythm and a sense of musicality seem to be intrinsic to good editing - 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?
You definitely learn what’s pleasing for you and your internal rhythm, editing should feel like dance working ‘with’ the music not ‘to’ the music. It needs variety, moments of explosive energy and moments of rest, builds and drops. And the rhythm you create isn’t solely because of the cutpoints, the action within the shots is also contributing. I usually work by finding my key moment, emotional or otherwise, and build around that for most impact, I have to understand when I’m asking the audience to lean in and invest themselves and when I’m giving them a break.
Cutting with music is a joy and can be incredibly pleasing, but because music is the quickest route to emotion (and can be used to dress up a sub-par edit), I find I have to be quite careful not to be enticed by it. So whilst I’m building a cut I tend to use quite neutral music to make sure I’m creating a strong base, and even once music comes into the edit I often review without it to make sure my edit isn’t taking a back seat!
Tell us about a recent editing project that involved some interesting creative challenges.
This last year has thrown so many creative challenges at us all but I’ll avoid the remote working elephant in the room and talk about something more positive! I’m in the midst of something fun - good script, director I have a great relationship with, really exciting rushes, but there’s a lot of ‘down time’ built into the edit working around schedules. So for the first time I feel spoiled with the amount of time and space we have to really explore options, to do all the indulgent processes we so rarely can in commercials; fully explore different narratives, character development, really enhanced sound work, try every music track ever created. When you’re jumping from job to job you become used to the tight schedules so having an opportunity to really explore the footage has been wonderful and reminded me how much I enjoy my job. But of course more possibilities create more challenges; I’ve now fallen in love with a four minute version of this sixty second advert… lots of hard work may end up on the cutting room floor!
How important is your relationship with the director and how do you approach difficult conversations when there is a creative difference of opinion?
Building a strong and honest relationship with directors you work with is so important, even if it’s the first time you’re working together you have to create a safe space for you both to be vulnerable, to explore and discuss ideas and be constructive together. You need to be able to challenge ideas and when challenged be confident in defending your approach. I’ve learned to embrace creative differences because they push me to grow and develop and try to understand a different viewpoint, most of the time the argument will elevate the film in some way. Everyone involved in the editing process is beholden to the film and executing it in the most effective way, and hopefully we align on what an effective film looks like (if we’re not, then we’re in trouble!). And if we do arrive at an impasse I either need to sleep on it to gain a fresh perspective or perhaps find a solution to my issue (which works 95% of the time), or I accept we’re building something different to what I think it should be and I need to embrace that and commit to executing it in the best way possible.
What’s harder to cut around – too much material or not enough?
Too little. Too much is hard to deal with in the early stages but having options in how to tell the story and being able to explore different ideas is so valuable. If there’s too little footage the film has to be perfect because there will be little to no flexibility in the edit if something isn’t working, and I absolutely hate not being able to offer up solutions for any problems which may arise.
Which commercial projects are you proudest of and why?
I’m really proud of the two Department for Education films. It’s exactly the type of filmmaking I like, the rushes were extremely fun to work with and I really feel the films show off the skills of the directors; they took a leap of faith in bringing me that first one so I’m glad it paid off! Working on projects which can show off editing, whilst being emotional and being able to connect with so many people is VERY rare, so I feel fortunate to have been involved.
Who are your editing heroes and why? What films or spots epitomise good editing for you?
I will always hold a deep respect for the two editors who had the most influence on me, Sam Sneade and Leo Scott. Both are incredible editors, brilliant to work with, and were so generous and encouraging with their time and talents. Sam cut some of the most iconic spots in advertising; he has such a raw kinetic approach to his edits which can be so powerful and engaging. Leo is so incredibly artistic and hardworking, constantly pushing and challenging himself to get the best cut possible. Having been in the editing room with them both I’ve clearly seen the influence they have on the projects they take on, and being able to watch both of them work really shaped me as an editor.
I was also really invigorated by the editing in The Queens Gambit, which as a whole I loved but the editing was fascinating. That Michelle Tesoro approached every chess game differently, keeping us as viewers engaged in the matches whether or not you understood the details, and also sometimes using visual gimmicks like in the Ohio tournament (usually not my thing but super effectively used here) was really inspiring, and shows that big narrative projects can also have the ability to explore different editing styles to elevate the storytelling.
How does editing in the commercial world differ from the film world and TV world?
Turnaround and variety! In commercials you may be cutting 2+ projects a month, spots from different genres, is it dialogue or montage driven, maybe a music video, maybe something documentary. You’re constantly changing and having to pivot what you’re creating in these very intense 10 day bursts with different collaborators, and giving the same level of attention and care to every job. With long form you have the luxury to really focus on a single job for months at a time, but the editor is wrestling with pacing, character and story arcs, creating an overarching mood and tone which needs to sustain for a longer period of time. But at its core editing remains the same regardless of the medium; bringing the footage a team of people have worked hard to create to life, and give the film the best chance of success through your craft.