For a film student — my thoughts on editing.
I recently got an email from a student in the UK asking me some questions about my career and experience in the film industry.
Even though I always believe I’m not the most qualified person to answer these, I figured I might as well publish them in case other film students find this inspiring or useful in other ways.
One thing I love about the age we live in, is how easy it is to reach out to people and artists you admire to ask questions, learn from their experience, and get some first-hand accounts on what it took to get where they are.
So here it is.
I see from an interview you had with Imperial College London in 2013 that you studied Computer Science, and then went into Performing Arts for a while. You then had your first job in the film industry at Framestore. What motivated you to get into film and how did you get into the industry?
I’ve always dabbled in photography and video since I can remember. From being a young child, I learned photography thanks to my Dad who always carried around a camera, and early on taught me the basics of photography. I constantly filmed everything in my life as video cameras became more accessible and affordable, to the dismay of my family who had to put up with me pointing cameras at them all the time.
So in a way, I guess I always had it in me which was something very natural. I just honestly never thought I could ever make a career out of it, let alone work in some of the biggest and most successful movies ever made.
My second biggest passion were computers. I was obsessed with my parents Mac, and had been playing around with Macs ever since the first one had come out in 1984, and I was only 5 years old. I still remember it to this day, how magical it seemed that I could draw squiggly lines with a mouse on MacPaint. It’s an incredibly vivid memory for me.
So when time came for applying to college, I had to choose between being an artist or being a computer scientist, and of course the natural and more obvious choice for the future seemed Computer Science. But even though I loved computers, what I quickly realized through my studies, is that I actually loved computers more as tools for creating art, rather than tools for programming. As soon as I was about to graduate from Imperial, I had this internal feeling that I had just spent years studying something that I didn’t want to make a career out of.
And one day, while waiting for an interview to start at one of the biggest consultancy companies in London, I “quit”. I decided I didn’t want to be in IT, and that I should really go for what had always been natural to me. Cameras. Filming. Photographing. Telling stories.
I basically spent a lot of time on my own studying at home everything I could about CG graphics, playing around in Maya, and eventually had the opportunity to do a quick crash course in animation at Escape Studios, which had just opened in London. And before I knew it, I had enough material to land me a starting position in Rendering at Framestore, working on Harry Potter 3.
Not a bad start. I couldn’t have been happier then.
Did you have any unexpected hurdles when entering the industry?
Not really. I started very much at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to the film industry, so you had to be ready to work an insane amount of hours all the time, and when I started on Harry Potter I was actually assigned to the night shift. So for a few months I was basically the only person working through the night, from 8pm to 8am, throughout the week making sure the creative work being done during the day by the other artists was going through the renderfarm without any hitch.
It was incredibly tough of course, since my social life disappeared, and the pressure to do good work for the day artists was incredible, but I was loving so much what I was doing and for the opportunity to work in a film like Harry Potter, that I gave it all no matter what.
I also took advantage of the fact that since I was alone through the night, I could open all the compositing scripts and files that FX artists were working on during the day, and play around with them on my local machine to learn what they were doing, and how they were doing it. So you could say that the real experience came from that opportunity, which was a pretty great way of schooling myself in how to create images for film.
Looking back on your experience, is work for editors mostly freelance or long term contract based?
I think it’s still pretty balanced between both, but there’s definitely a lot of project-based editors in the industry, and most of the film editors I know are freelancing and contracting on a per-project basis.
If you work at bigger creative agencies or studios, you might be part of an editorial team so you’d get a more permanent contract or status with benefits and all the joy that comes with a more stable position.
But with better tools, larger internet bandwidth and more, it becomes easier than ever for editors to become successful freelancers and be able to work remotely with clients all over the world. Platforms like frame.io or Shotgun make client reviews easier than ever, no matter where you are working from. And that’s pretty exciting.
I know that you are well known for your work in lighting for Pixar. When you opened Sutro how did your day to day responsibilities change?
It’s a completely different ballgame for sure. Working at Pixar you’re part of a well oiled machine. It’s a big studio, with big budgets, and there’s hundreds of people working on each project. There’s a system in place, there’s a pipeline, there’s technical support. Everything you could possibly need to be successful in creating stories is internal to the studio, and at easy reach if any problem occurs.
Quitting that, to try to create my own business was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. I’m still not sure where it’s going to go, and every year since I left Pixar has been an enormous challenge and a roller coaster ride – sometimes it feels like the best decision of my life and insanely fun and rewarding, and sometimes it feels like the end of the world is fast approaching.
It’s definitely not for the faint of heart. Whereas before I didn’t have to worry about the business side of things, now all of sudden not only am I doing creative work, but I also have to think about how to prioritize things, how best to interact with clients for reviews, how to pitch projects and budgets, how to run a business. When to invest in software, when to invest in hardware, how to manage debt, or how to make profit, these are things that as an artist in a big studio you never really have to worry about.
So as you can imagine, it’s a very different kind of adventure. It’s insanely rewarding though, and you have to be OK with the absolute fact that you *will* fail at some point. Possibly many times.
What differences are there between editing for animation as opposed to live action?
I’ve never edited for animation, but I do have an understanding of it from my experience at Pixar. I can’t speak as an animation editor, of course, but I can share my own personal thoughts on this subject.
One of the main differences is that an animation editor will be working constantly from beginning to end of the production. And I mean, right from the beginning. Ideally the story will be tied down with storyboards in editing before the animation process even begins, that way you get the timing and the flow of the film without having to actually animate multiple shots several times. It would be extremely expensive otherwise. It’s much quicker to figure out timing and flow in animation using story sketches.
The editorial team will then work very closely from the beginning with the story team and the director of the film. Let’s say a sequence is ready and solid enough in terms of story. An editor can then jump in and start creating the right flow for that sequence, and using scratch voices or other material to help create the right feel for the storyline to succeed. When that sequence is approved, animation can go in and start creating their assets which would then be passed on to the editorial team again to be incorporated into the sequence.
At some point in the process, you have a complete mix of storyboards, sketches, scratch, final voices, animated, maybe even some lit shots, all edited together as one reel or film. That’s why the editorial team is constantly working from beginning to end, and it becomes one of the most important departments in animation.
It’s a total marathon.
In your opinion, what is in a good editing show reel / portfolio?
Like any other reel, the basics should still apply: keep it short, only show your best work, and front load the best work as much as possible.
A more experienced film editor would probably be able to answer this more cohesively, but I would say that to be a successful film editor you need to show that you understand how to cut scenes together to tell a story, create a visual language, or a smooth flow throughout.
So as you work on your reel think about this. Notice when cuts you create are jarring, rather than smooth, and think of creative ways to be able to cut between different movies, different projects, without it becoming confusing to the viewer.
Show that you understand the language of film and the principles of editing, where cutting between shots is absolutely crucial to guide the viewers eye and tell a strong and engaging story.
And be yourself.
What makes a successful editor? Do you think there are any traits or ways of thinking that are particularly beneficial in editing?
In my view, some of the most powerful editing jobs are the ones that go unseen. If as a viewer you start asking questions or get confused by the storyline, or get lost in the frame, then probably it’s not a good edit.
And I say probably, because sometimes as an editor you do want to also confuse the viewer, but it *always* has to serve the story. And that’s what a good editor would be, someone who understands how to serve the story the best, to keep viewers engaged, and maintain the right level of emotion through the narrative arc.
Editing is a very complex art form in my opinion, and there’s no easy answer to this. It comes from watching and observing many many films, and trying to understand what it was done in terms of pacing, of visual language and montage. It’s intricate, and it’s subtle, and it’s stunning when done properly.
My recommendation? Watch as many films as possible. And when you are engaged, ask yourself why. And try to understand what was done to make you feel that way. And watch more films. And when you get confused, ask yourself the same questions. And re-watch it. And learn.
In your opinion, what technical skills are most in demand, and what can we do to distinguish ourselves from others.
I’ll answer this in a very simple way. Software is software, and will always be trainable no matter where you work. Most editors these days work on Premiere or Avid, with still some Final Cut users out there. The tool is the least important thing to be honest, since what matters is that you use something that allows you to tell the story, and deliver the necessary digital files for the distribution medium the film will go in.
That said, if you’re mostly technical you can be insanely efficient in terms of cutting something together, but you’ll be missing on a lot of the subtle nuances of storytelling that a more creative artist will have. And if you’re mostly artistic, you’ll be missing on a lot of advantages the technical people will have in terms of learning new tools of the trade, shortcuts for efficiency, or features in the software that will allow you to tell the story better.
Now if you’re both technical and creative? Then you’re unstoppable.
As animation students wanting to get into editing — is there anything you can recommend we do to help us develop our personal learning and to grow our editing skills.
Practice. A lot. Watch as many films as possible. And then watch them again. And pause them, and think about what choices were made, and try to figure out why. How did it make you feel? What works with you, what would you have made differently?
Try things out at home. See for yourself how different cutting techniques work, and don’t work. Read about the very basics of film theory, and rhythm, and storytelling.
Watch a film, read the script, and then do both together at the same time, so you can reference the script as you watch the film and gain a better understanding about how the story was translated visually.
Don’t be afraid of emailing editors that you like from films that you connected with. It’s easier than ever to find someone’s contact details online, so reach out and ask questions. Don’t be discouraged if people don’t answer because everyone is busy, but even if only one out of 100 gets back to you with some advice, it’s still worth it.
Show your work to people who are not going to be afraid to offer you critiques. See how they reacted, understand why, and figure out what you could do differently to create a better impact and engage their attention in different ways.
There’s so many resources online – use them constantly to keep learning and growing and gaining better sensibility to storytelling for film.
Do you have any other advice to an aspiring editor?
Always be curious.