Working With Your Editor, Part 2

Snowball Because pictures of cats are always good to post

In the last entry (wow, that month went by too fast) I talked a bit about the alchemy of editing and the director/editor relationship, and got as far as the rough cut. This time around I’d like to talk a bit about how to get from the rough to the final cut.

The Dead Spots

As I mentioned before, I have a hard time going back to the big picture after a screening. I get caught up in the atomic structure of the film, especially the dead spots. I’m always afraid of boring the audience, or myself. My first instinct was to cut cut cut. Dan never lost his sense of the big picture. He warned me about cutting too much too soon, because we ran the risk of losing the moments that were buried in the middle of the dead spots.

He was correct. The first thing he did after the rough cut was to simply go through the film and trim out small bits from many of the shots. This meant cutting a few frames from the head and tail of a series of shots in a scene, to keep the tension from flagging. Sometimes it meant getting out of a scene a little sooner (again, just a few frames). Sometimes it meant starting a scene a little later, so that the actors were already warmed up or in the frame. These small changes can make big improvements, without requiring you to rethink the work as a whole.

Just by making these kinds of cuts, Dan trimmed about six minutes out of the film. The result was much, much tighter. During this time I made suggestions but mostly stayed out of Dan’s way (at least, that’s what I recall). I started working on putting rough F/X composites and titles together, and thinking about music.

When To Bring the Music In

On Caleb’s Door, I started working with a temp score only towards the very end of the picture edit. Dan suggested bringing music much earlier into the process. This made a lot more sense, particularly given the somewhat extreme state of the character’s realities, and the pacing of the chase/action scenes in the film. Also, as Dan said, a shot that seems overly long without music can sometimes seem fine with it.

Fortunately, we both found common musical ground. Dan’s a big fan of Egyptian music, and I’d been thinking about a scoring around a particular instrument – the oud. The oud is a stringed instrument that produces a very bluesy sound, and in some musical forms plays a role similar to that of a guitar in rock music. So we started dropping in temp tracks from an Egyptian composer he’s worked with, and I looked at a bunch of different sources, including artists like Stellamarra, Rabih Abou-Khalil, and others. The initial idea was to use a Middle Eastern theme to underscore the idea that that this film was taking place in an altered version of New York.

I should tell you now, DO NOT GET TOO ATTACHED TO YOUR TEMP SCORE. Chances are that unless your composer has specifically written it for you, that you’re not going to be able to afford it. I’ve seen it happen more times than I care to recount. The record labels and publishers are only too happy to give you a great deal on a festival license, because they know that you’ll be back once a deal is on the table. At that point they’re counting on you being in a terrible bargaining position – you’ll cave into the time pressure to deliver the film to a distributor (before you see any money) so you’ll ransom your cats or your unborn grandkids to pay for the score, rather than lose both money AND time to on a sound remix.

How Often To Meet

On Found In Time Dan and I generally met a couple of times a week. My ‘homework’ in between meetings was to put together rough F/X composites and titles, and pick out temp tracks. Having things to do in between meetings helped keep me from getting too obsessed. During the actual sessions we’d drop in my temp material, look at cuts that Dan had made, and run the film through (usually from start to finish). We focused a lot on the first half-hour, since that was the most problematic part of the film.

We generally worked for three or four hours during the week, and then a longer session on the weekend. Working this way, we averaged about one cut of the film per week. With each cut we got closer to the target running time – about ninety minutes. We stopped and talked a lot during the process. Not just about the film, but about life, love and film. Far from distracting us, these chats strengthened our working relationship, and helped me get over my anxiety and deal with the film in smaller chunks.

The Feedback Screening

After about nine weeks, we had a feedback screening. It’s an important part of the process, but the feedback should not be taken too literally. There are two important factors: inviting the right people, and taking the right attitude.

You want to invite people who will give you honest, direct feedback, and are willing to get specific. A mix of film and non-film people is good. A small group is better than a bigger one.

The right attitude to take is to be open to everything, to withhold your defensiveness and feedback until after everyone’s gone. The best response to criticism is ‘can you elaborate on that’ or ‘that’s really interesting. What else?’ No matter how ridiculous the suggestion or feedback, look at the person and try to take it seriously. You may know out of the gate that what they’re asking for is impossible – you can’t afford reshoots, you don’t have the material, it would create too many problems in the third act. But what they’re responding to is a real problem that may have a solution that IS within your reach. Plus, these people are spending their precious time with you, so do them the courtesy of being polite and encouraging.

What you’re looking for are patterns. If one or two people have problems with something, then they may be more perceptive than everyone else, or they may have differing tastes than you. But if everyone has issues with the same scenes or characters, then you have an actual problem that needs to be addressed. Often good sound design and music can get people more involved in the story – watching a fine cut without corrected sound is a lot like looking at a really great sketch for a painting. Adjusting the pacing can solve a lot of problems.

What became apparent to me was that the first act was too slow. It took too long to get into the story, and Chris’s problems were over-commented on. So this is where Dan and I concentrated our efforts over the next two weeks.

In the next blog entry, I’ll talk about the transition from picture to sound editing, and how best to think about your score.