10 hours of footage to 3 minutes
Advice for documentary editors
I work on so many different types of films at Contra, from charity documentaries to brand commercials, so when No Film School asked what my three most important tips to aspiring editors would be I didn’t really know where to begin.
There’s no set rulebook on how to edit, no ‘one size fits all’ approach and what works at our video production company may not work at others. So after hours of racking my brain I decided just to talk about my processes on my most recent film, The Craft of Sound, a short documentary about an extremely talented, young guitar maker Alex Bishop.
The film charts the six month process of one particular gypsy jazz guitar, painstakingly transformed from various pieces of wood into a stunningly beautiful and unique instrument. Thinking about it, cutting this film was in many ways similar to the process of hand-crafting the guitar and the qualities that make a good luthier – creativity, attention to detail, patience, perfectionism – could also be said of a good editor.
I guess you could say that the rushes are like the raw materials – Californian Claro Walnut and European Spruce in this case – you know the finished product is in there somewhere but it’s your job to meticulously carve and chisel away at it to form the final piece.
Although following Alex for the last 6 months resulted in me needing to shave 10 hours of footage down to 3 minutes my first tip would be don’t cut too much too soon. It may sound counterintuitive with the 200:1 shooting ratio I had to contend with but it’s impossible to know immediately how the final film will look and discounting too much footage at the start limits the number of ways the film can come together. My first job is to long line; removing the unusable and worst footage. On this film I did 5 passes, cutting the footage down from 10 hours to 7, 7 hours to 2, 2 hours to 30mins, 30mins to 10, and 10mins to 5 until I arrived at rough cut. Whilst this methodical approach can be time-consuming, it allows you to really get to know the footage and the film comes together much more organically which I think results in a better end product.
During filming Alex would often mention that guitars wouldn’t end up quite how he’d envisaged them due to the grain and knots in the wood forcing him to shape it differently and the same can be said for film. It’s very rare that a film ends up 100% identical to the original idea, particularly with documentary as the story can shift both during and after filming so being able to work with footage in an open and flexible way is a trait that all good editors need to have. For example on this project we had a couple of hours of interviews with Alex and had originally intended for the film to feature a lot more voice-over. However after the first cut we soon realised that too much VO meant you didn’t listen to the music. Whilst music usually plays a supporting role to the narrative, on this project it was critical the visuals, voice-over and music all shared top billing and the audience got the chance to appreciate them all equally. By stripping back the interview to its bare essentials and allowing the music to breathe we were able to tell the story more effectively. Which brings me nicely onto my most important piece of advice, nothing should come before the story.
Hopefully from watching the film you get an idea of how unique Alex’s guitars are; from the fanned frets to the Kandinsky-esque inlay work but at the end of the day what matters to him most is how it sounds. Similarly in filmmaking the story should be the main focus. Although it sounds obvious and is something you hear all the time, you’d be surprised how often this salient point gets overlooked, I’m ashamed to say I’ve been guilty of this many times. Following this rule on The Craft of Sound was particularly punishing as there were so many beautiful shots. Knowing three minutes was our limit something had to be chopped; the clips which didn’t further the story, no matter how good they looked, were the victims.
Everything above you’ve probably heard many times before but there’s a good reason for that; most well edited films will have followed these simple rules. So take your time getting to know what you have to work with, be open to change and always keep reminding yourself why you’re making it. Three things I’m sure Alex would agree with.