I recently came to an important revelation: For years I’ve been approaching my editing process completely in the wrong way.
It was only after editing countless narrative projects that I began to slowly develop a new method for approaching the edit… One that allows for a more intuitive process, creates a faster turnaround, and drastically improves creative results in every respect.
As filmmakers, we often step into the editing process with a very specific vision in mind. This is especially true for those of us that are editing material that we’ve also written or directed. We’ve visualized the story over and over, and can envision a life-like picture of what the film is going to look like once it’s all put together. Naturally, this vision is what drives our initial decisions in the editing room, and our instinct is to want to match the footage we’ve captured on set to the story we wrote on the page.
In reality though, this kind of approach can actually be detrimental to the editing process, primarily for one reason –
No matter what level you’re working on, many creative elements in your film will inevitably morph and change as you move through the various stages of the process. From concept development to the first draft of the script, things will change. From the final draft of the screenplay to principal photography, things will change. And from production to post-production, things will definitely change – whether you want them to or not.
In order for a film to be the best it can be, the filmmaker needs to be willing to break away from some aspects of their original vision, and use the material they have captured to charge forward in a new direction – Ideally, one that will offer something far better than they imagined.
Filmmakers, especially those early on in their careers, often treat the script as a literal roadmap which can never be strayed from. This inevitably leads to missed opportunities to let the film take on a life of it’s own… To let it grow and adapt and change for the better as it flows through each stage.
With that said, I do want to point out that it goes without saying it’s crucial for any film to have a consistent vision and tone that will exist throughout the entirety of the filmmaking process. You certainly don’t want to flip flop on elements like theme, character, and tone as you move throughout the various stages. However, the way in which to execute on these elements and to deliver the message of the film almost certainly needs to change and adapt as the film comes together.
This reality is most apparent during the editing phase. By far.
Personally speaking, I’ve been slowing learning this lesson and really trying to embrace the bottom line:
You need to listen to your material. Your footage will tell you how it needs to be edited, not the other way around.
Like most filmmakers, instinctively I almost always approach the editing process backwards. I start to take the footage that I’ve captured and force it into a format that most closely resembles what I’ve have in my head since the script was first developed.
The issue of course, is that I’m not editing the script. I’m editing footage that has changed in countless ways from what it once was in it’s infancy. If I make edits to my material today that are based on decisions that I made months ago before the film was even shot, I will almost definitely go down the wrong path.
That’s not to say you can’t edit a movie that way – I’ve done it before many times, as have countless others… But the point is that 9 times out of 10 (or more) your end result will be far better if you approach the edit as an entirely new process, completely independent of any bias or preconceived notions.
I’ll give you an example from my feature film which I have been editing over the past few weeks –
There’s a scene that takes place early on in the film where the main character hitches a ride with two strangers, and they get to know each other in the car. The scene was written carefully and purposefully, and there was a clear intention behind why it was written the way that it was. On set, the actors all performed beautifully, and we really had no major technical issues to work around… The point being, had I chosen to edit that scene exactly the way that it was written on the page, I easily could have.
And in fact, I did.
My first attempt at editing the scene was a very literal one. I cut it almost exactly to the script, and while the scene worked well on some levels, it didn’t have the spirit that I had envisioned during the writing process… And I definitely didn’t want to just settle on this first pass and move on, as I knew this particular scene had a lot of untapped potential. It just wasn’t hitting the mark quite yet.
So what did I do? I stopped forcing a square peg into a round hole. I stopped telling the footage what it had to be, and I started listening to it. I stepped back and started from scratch – watched every frame again, and selected new takes and shots that I liked without any bias or attention paid to how the scene was written.
I was just looking for the most interesting and relevant material.
I pulled completely new reaction shots, different cutaways, alternate lines of dialogue that were improvised, and even set aside some candid shots of the actors that were captured in between takes while the cameras were still rolling.
This left me with a bunch of jigsaw pieces. A ton of little clips that were all interesting in their own way, but didn’t really match what was originally written in the script… And that was the point. I was going to take these little pieces, shake them up, and see what came out on the other side.
The re-cut process involved mixing and matching reaction shots with footage from different takes, adding suspense by building out pauses and breaks that weren’t actually there to begin with, and even reordering the dialogue so that certain lines would play out in a different order.
In the end, the re-cut version of this scene was undeniably much stronger than original in every respect. Although the scene now played out on screen very differently than it was initially written, from a tonal standpoint it actually matched the spirit of the script far better than the more literal attempt at the edit.
The approach not only allowed me to cut a far better scene, but also helped solidify this fundamental truth about editing that I have slowly come to realize over the years: You need to let the material speak to you.
That’s all there is to it. So next time you are cutting a scene, do yourself a favor and try a version where you don’t even look at your script. Throw out any preconceived notion of what your scene should look like and let the very best and most interesting material drive those decisions for you… I know you’ll be happy with the results.