6 Ways Film Directors Screw Editors

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.

2. Continuity

Introduction to Editing

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.

Shooting parallel

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.

Christian Bell

About Christian Bell

A graduate of the Metropolitan Film School, where he made short films about tortured misunderstood artists, Christian Bell now devotes his time to the Raindance cause in the hope that he can somehow make amends for his crimes against cinema.

At Raindance he handles all things tech and probably built the website you're using. Read more articles from Christian Bell

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13 Responses to 6 Ways Film Directors Screw Editors

  1. Conor Michael John Matthews December 6, 2012 at 10:34 pm #

    Number 3 is a big peeve for me. Most camera operators have no sense of timing, which is ironic considering most are good photographers too, especially when it comes to movement. Imagine a film as a band. The camera is the guitar, and bass and drums are the editing. Sure, riffs (composition) is awesome and make you go "ooooooooooo! pretty!", but you can point to any real work with timing. A documentary I worked on a few months ago had great shots, but it was like ZOOM IN! PAN LEFT! PAN RIGHT! TILT! DUTCH ANGLE! PULL FOCUS! aaaaaand cut! Like it really was a shame. It's like seeing a master piece painting being burnt. There's a sense of sorrow you feel over the thought you really can't do anything, and yet you are responsible for either a master piece burning or a mediocre painting saved. I would really advise anyone who wants to be a camera operator to film stuff and edit it yourself, and really understand the difference holding a shot can make.

    • John Z Wetmore May 2, 2013 at 1:14 pm #

      I feel I am a much better shooter because I have edited so much of my own stuff. It's something I advise everyone new on camera.

  2. Verity's Summer January 9, 2013 at 4:30 pm #

    All makes sense, unless you're Antonioni.

  3. Jesus M. Medina-Rodriguez February 4, 2013 at 5:37 pm #

    Number 3 and number 5 seem to contradict. Clarification?

    • Maarten Toner March 22, 2013 at 9:31 pm #

      If they stand up in the close up, make them standup in the wide as well so you can continue the movement, instead of just the moment they walk away from the chair. Eeh very basic stuff i guess :)

  4. Sophie Constant March 22, 2013 at 9:38 pm #

    point 1 is the difference between a 10 hour shift and the shift that never ends… ever.

  5. Radio Friendly August 6, 2013 at 6:55 am #

    With point 1 in mind I think it's time to revisit the shot list!

  6. Jason Mo August 20, 2013 at 5:58 am #

    I edit all my own stuff – and have pissed myself off more than once with some of these errors. Good article.

  7. Danny McIvor May 13, 2014 at 8:22 pm #

    This is why no one should be hired to Direct until they have been an editor for a few years.

  8. Brandon A English May 17, 2014 at 5:14 pm #

    I would have to say that #3 was my biggest annoyance with my previous short film, as I was forced to act in the movie after failing to find an actor on short notice. I spent too many scenes in front of the camera and I was constantly battling with the "experienced" DOP who loved wide shots and had no concept of front and back-end footage. He even got angry a few times when he asked "who started recording?" Well, I'm the one who has to edit and it drives me nuts when I can't do the fades or transitions that I want or need. I don't mind and I actually LOVE having a ton of footage to wade through. The digital age makes this so easy! And on top of that, it's like the above article says–it's GOLD DUST to me! In my current film, I gained several of these little gems that fit perfectly and I wouldn't have had otherwise if I hadn't been rolling.

    One of the other reasons why I idolize Akira Kurosawa is because he either edited his own films or was present when they were edited. This is me. I don't know anyone yet whom I would trust to edit my footage, and to be honest, I love doing it so I can't imagine shooting and then taking a break while someone else pieces it together. I know I can do a great job and I love it, so I would just prefer to direct the cameras and actors to get what I want and then edit myself.

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