Being an editor is tough. We have to work with what we’re given and as such the results we can yield are subject to countless limitations. We are surgeons as much as storytellers, hacking out what we can whilst trying to keep our patient from bleeding to death. But we shouldn’t have to save your film. The ideal for an editor is to approach the film as more of a cosmetic surgeon, where our role is to enhance, improve and tighten. But we don’t often have that luxury.
Here are 6 ways in which directors have screwed me.
1. Poor choice of coverage
Something I’ve noticed with new directors is an excessive amount of establishing / wide shots, when the fact of the matter is, I’m only going to use tiny fragments of any of them. The same filmmakers tend to film the whole scene through on the wide shot and then begin their close-ups part way through the scene, thinking “I’m only going to need the close up for this bit.”
Only direct for the edit if you know you can pull it off (and if you know you can, you’re most likely wrong.). If you only shoot what you think you’ll need you’ll be severely limiting yourself (and me) in the cutting room.
It’s the little things that will kill you in continuity. Now, I’m actually fairly lax about what I consider a continuity issue. A lot can be overlooked so long as your audience is engaged with the scene. But there are certain actions and scenes that cause trouble time and time again.
Say you have a character taking occasional sips form a drink in a scene. Say you have a wide shot, a close up and can still make out that the character is drinking in a reverse shot of the other actor. Let’s also say you’ve done multiple takes of each set up. You didn’t choreograph any specific points for the actor to drink. All of a sudden the cutting points are decided by the moments at which the action matches up. Eating and smoking have this same problem. It’s essential to block your scenes out. Often it is possible to cut around these issues but only by cutting at very specific points dictated by the continuity. Is that how you want to decide the pacing of your film?
3. Cutting too quick / starting too late
This is the digital age. Letting the camera roll for a second or two longer will do no harm to your budget and those extra seconds at the beginning and end of a shot are like gold dust to editors. Sometimes the actor waiting for the scene to start provides a better reaction than they do within the scene. Sometimes those extra seconds provide an essential cutaway moment. Sometimes it gives a useful handle to give the scene a little breathing time. If those cameras aren’t rolling then you’re missing out on a whole heap of potential goodness.
4. Not getting matching shots
Not one of the big rules like crossing the line but this certainly still looks odd and is something that new filmmakers do very often. If you are shooting two people talking, doing the standard over the shoulder style set up, the two shots should match. Your camera positions should be parallel to the line between the two actors. If they aren’t, the audience will sense that there must be a reason for the change of angle and they will be trying to figure it out whilst your scene plays. Due to confusion on this point, I have drawn a little diagram.
As your editor, I would try to avoid using the offending shot where possible but excessive avoidance is more likely to draw attention to it’s eventual usage. As with crossing the line, it’s fine to ignore this if you have some creative reason for doing so but make sure you don’t do it in error.
5. Starting shots static
I see this time and time again. A shot will begin with an actor standing stock still, waiting until the scene begins. This is completely useless in the edit and will make the ensuing scene very difficult to cut to. You should always begin your shot from the previous moment of action. If a character leapt out of their chair at the end of the last shot then they should leap out at the beginning of the next. If the movement is only shown in one shot then that means holding the other shot for longer, often beyond the desired cutting point.
6. Not being aware of proceeding and following scenes
A scene does not exist in a vacuum. As the director it is your job to be aware of the scenes place within the film. How does it fit into the story? What is the pace of the next scene? What is the pace of the previous scene? If you didn’t keep these questions in mind then your film will not form a coherent whole. It will be a series of stops and starts and self contained actions.
I dream of a day when editors and directors shall co-exist in peace…
Methinks I’ll be dreaming a long time. But please, prove me wrong.