Get Someone to Help you with the Scissors

By , posted 3 May 2011

Apple have just announced that they're lowering the cost of Final Cut Pro software to $299 (probably the same in pounds). Given that the new generation of digital cameras bring the basic cost of the hardware necessary to shoot and cut a HD feature film well within a four-figure price bracket, it's now possible to be completely independent - to shoot and cut your film yourself on your own kit. Possible... but a bad idea.

"But I'm proficient with Final Cut Pro", I hear you cry, "more than that: I'm a good editor! Plus, I shot this film - I know how I want it to go together. Why should I find someone who I might even have to pay, take the time to explain to them what I want and sit there while they do what I'm perfectly capable of doing myself?" I can answer that question in one word: perspective. Believe it or not, the director is not always the best judge of their own work. You sit down in the cutting room with a clear image of what you meant a shot to mean burning bright in your mind. Unfortunately that isn't always how the shot comes across. There are many possible reasons why it can fail to strike twelve the way it does in your head: maybe clouds covered the sun when you went for a take, maybe the actor had a cold and just didn't deliver the line with enough conviction, maybe the camera wobbled at just the wrong moment. It's even possible that you're a fallible human being and you slightly misjudged it. Whatever the reason, I've not worked on a feature film yet where every shot works in exactly the way the director intended. No one's that good! The problem is directors don't always spot the difference between what they meant and what they actually got. That's one reason why you need an editor. Every film has redundant material: lines of dialogue, maybe even whole scenes. These were needed for the reader to follow the story when it was a script turn out to be superfluous in the shot version. Maybe we meet the charasmatic general for the first time and your lead actor does a great job of exuding calm authority. Instantly all those scenes explaining why people felt drawn to follow him can be scrapped - his manner tells us everything we need to know. But you loved those scenes, they've got some great lines and the way you shot them... doesn't matter. They gotta go and someone's gotta tell you that. Guess who? The editor brings their perspective to bear on the flow of the story too. We judge pace in relation to what we find interesting - if we're interested from start to finish, the film will appear to clip along just fine. However, chances are that the director (particularly if they're a writer / director) will be the most interested possible viewer. It's good to have someone in the room with no attachment to the material and a normal boredom threshold. Who you gonna call? The editor can also free you from your memory of how the shoot went. You know that you spent half the night standing in the rain to get that crane shot right; the editor knows that (perfect though it may be) it slows the story and is superfluous. This is one reason why most editors spend little time on set. Besides, it's better not to get to know the actors - we know we may need to delete the scene where they give the performance of their career! But an editor isn't just there for strict discipline and cold showers, they bring sunshine too. They can come up with ideas of which you'd never have thought. When you're working side-by-side they can give you ideas that even they wouldn't have thought had they been there alone. That's when it's really singing. My favourite moment in my short film Missed happened that way. My editor had spotted a smile from one actor and I'd seen one I wanted to use from the other. We put them together and an instant moment of chemistry between their characters was created. This hadn't been in the script, and hadn't really occured on set - each of them had only given that smile in one take - but for me at least that moment became the heart of the film and it could only have happened as a result of our collaboration. If you need further convincing I'd draw your attention to the incredibly small number of established directors who cut their own material. The only well-known examples are Robert Rodriguez and, sometimes, the Coen Brothers, who edit their own films in the persona of Roderick Jaynes. There are others, but very, very few. Would their films be better if they handed the scissors to someone else? Who can say? My guess is: probably. And do I practice what I preach? Absolutely, where possible I work with an editor when I'm directing, often the estimable and talented Celia Haining. Copyright Guy Ducker 2011

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