Video: 10 Lessons from the Top Film Editors
This video is brought to you by Skillshare. Get a two months free trial by clicking the link in the video description. I think the best example and the best description of when not to cut is in my interviews with Joe Walker. There's a scene in "12 Years a Slave" where the main character is being hung by a tree and the shot lasts 90 seconds with this guy just on his tiptoes, barely able to keep himself from strangling and people walk around and are kind of ignoring him as he's hanging there because they know there's nothing they can do without being without being killed themselves. It helps the audience to realize the truth of the moment because people know that when you edit, that's lying.
Right? I mean an edit is a lie. Sven: See, I always thought editing is the ultimate truth. Steve: Paul Hirsch says the opposite. He says when you shoot the film that's the truth. When you edit the film that's the lie. Sometimes you have to because that's the most powerful thing you can do is the lie. But if the most powerful thing you can do is to tell the truth just sit on that edit. Just let it go. "Sin? There's no sin." And the Oscar goes to Lupita Nyong'o. Joe Walker, the invisible performer in the editing room. Thank you! The way this all started was, I actually saw the Oscars and Lupita Nyong'o won Best Supporting Actress for "12 years a Slave" and she and she thanked her editor. I'm like, oh my gosh, I got to interview whoever it is that gets thanked by the actress. So I actually found Joe Walker's Twitter feed and sent him a message and said "I'd love to interview you.
" And he agreed and I just kept setting up these interviews, one after another after another and really learning a huge amount of editing. Some of which were a complete revelation to me. Sven: Steve we're going to talk about some of the biggest lessons that we can get from some of the biggest editors. And let's get started with just the first one that stuck out to me… which is: It's important that you're confident as an editor, have a point of view, but you got to keep your ego in check. "Houston, we have a problem." Dan Handley, Ron Howard's longtime editor, he said: "When collaborating, remember it's not about you. It's about the final product." So many times, people make it about "oh, I made this great editorial choice. I made this clever editing trick and it's got to stay." And they're not thinking about what it means for the project and for the story.
"I need a map." So many of these editors, they're very humble people. I think they're all brilliant, you know, almost everybody… I've talked to almost every Oscar winner for the last 30 years and they're obviously clearly skilled. But they all just want to do the best they can for their director. Did any editor stand out to you as having an outsized bigger-than-life personality? "I can feel your anger." I did kind of get that sense from one specific actor… That's Joel Cox who edits all of the Clint Eastwood movies. He's the one that basically said: "Select reels are for sissies." He's like: "You don't need any of that crap. You you watch the dailies, you know what the right takes are and you cut them in the order that they need to go.
You're done." Sven: Yes, sometimes I love that when editors just say: "Well, … You know what when I do my editors cut, I'm just gonna do it my way." "We don't need that. He said it three times." Sven: If I feel like a line needs to go I don't wait. I like the idea of just giving it a good shot before the director comes in. Steve: I certainly believe in that. Many people stated. "You can't edit thinking of what the director is going to want. You've got to edit thinking of what you want." That's what the director wants of you. But then when the director will see your editors cut. At that point it becomes another film. Early in my dramatic editing career, I was doing the same thing you were doing. Where I would just cut out lines, you know. Oh, we don't need these. "I'm gonna take Kennedy's line out. And I think we'll double our suspense." That I didn't think we're necessary and when I played it for the director. "We've got to have that information.
" Immediately, you know as soon as I hit "play", the guy said: "Something's wrong with that. What you do exactly?" "There's the guy. Now we just have a reaction shot. We eliminated his line." What happened to my scene, where's those lines? "I love that line!" He was mad about it and I explained that I didn't think that those lines were necessary that they were extraneous and… "I think it works better." Maybe you're right. But let's do it the other way." He asked me to put them back in and I put him back in. And over the course of several months that he had a chance to live with them himself, he realized as well, that those were extraneous and that by the end of the movie those lines were cut out.
But two things about that. One, I pissed off the director and I made him feel, at least temporarily, to lose faith in my judgment. And number two, even if I'd convinced him that we didn't need those lines he might have always wondered what it would have looked like if they'd stayed. The way I cut it I didn't give him a choice, I didn't give him a chance to see, this is the way he intended it. So he never really would have bought into my idea. You have to understand that editing It's not a one-and-done kind of thing. It takes place over weeks or months or even years. So just trust the process. Sven: I guess it also has to do with the relationship you already have with your director and if you've gone through that process before. Steve: But you built that relationship over years. "I'm curious.
Are you dreaming in their language?" Sven: So that sort of leads to the third lesson here: Bad ideas lead to good ideas. Steve: One of the best examples of that, Joe Walker in my interview with him about cutting the movie "Arrival". Denis Villeneuve, who came to him and said: "Hey Joe, I know we didn't shoot the scene, but I feel like we need a scene where Amy Adams' character is dreaming in the alien language." If you speak multiple languages you might know that one of the ways that you really know that you're starting to get into that language is because you start dreaming in it. Sven: "Yeah, I do." Sven: There you go, and they wanted to show that amy adams was becoming immersed, kind of maybe dangerously, in the alien language. But they hadn't, it wasn't in the script and it wasn't shot.
And so Danny said: "What if we took this scene from here and this shot from here and this from… we dropped this one thing. Can we put that in here?" And Joe is thinking: "There's no way this is gonna work. This is the stupidest idea I've ever heard." And yet… He, you know, trusted Denis and even though it didn't work at the beginning, it made Joe think: "You know, maybe if we got some ADR and we got them to do a special visual effect shot to show an alien creature, then we could get it to work." "I don't think that that makes me unfit to do this job." And so what seemed like a bad idea… became a great idea. Sven: That's something that sets an editor immediately apart, when he or she will always address whatever concern is being raised. And not try to talk their way out of it. Steve: Yeah.
Absolutely. And just think about that from your own career perspective. If you refuse to do a note, you've just become the guy that's not willing to be a team player. Kelly Dixon from "Breaking Bad" and "The Walking Dead" says: "Be willing to lay aside preconceived notions and re-examine them in a new context." I just think it's really critical to have an open mind at all times. And to remember, your collaborator and other people have ideas, too. Sven: That leads us to the next lesson. I have here: Editing is editing. Steve (laughs): I kind of wrote it that way because it seems like a stupid thing. But really it's one of the most critical things. How often do you just cut a scene and it's done? Out of three thousand movies, there's maybe 20 examples. Editing is just a process of revision and there's a ton of reasons why. One is that it's contextual, right? it depends on the scene in front of it and after it. When you're originally cutting that scene you're cutting out of order and you're not seeing your choices in the context of the scenes around it, right? Sven: I remember in your book, I think it was John Refoua who said that it's like "every scene is a delicious course and then when you put them all together, you can't eat them all so you have to pick the ones you really like.
" Steve: That's a great quote. Sven: Before we move on to the next lesson. I want to take a brief moment and thank Skillshare for their support. It's an online learning community with thousands of classes in filmmaking, editing, writing, design, business, tech, and more. I want to recommend a course by Marc Cersosimo who's a filmmaker and also works on Vimeo. And he did a great course on how to shoot your own video resume by using a simple point-and-shoot camera or smartphone. "The video resume is a video designed to show off you, to show off what it is that you do in a nutshell." It's a 52 minute course that takes you through the concept, shoot, and edit. So, the first 500 people that sign up through the link in the video description get a two months free trial. Now back to Steve… "Downbeat on 18.
" Sven: Why is it critical for editors to be organized. Steve: When you're watching the dailies and you're maybe building a selects reel, your brain is starting to organize and start the editorial process at that point. "Not quite my tempo." Tom Cross, he said "The goal is to organize the material and understand it. A lot of times, that's about figuring out what can be ignored." Andy Greeve is a great documentary editor. He said: "The biggest trick is to compartmentalize, break it down into smaller chunks." And that's definitely the way I feel about editing. I need to be able to get to a point where my brain understands the material. And then I can start to build the story from that. Sven: You mentioned Tom Cross. I looked at his IMDB page and I realized: Well.
.. That's an editor who did a short, same short. Did the movie and then just his career exploded! Is that how it works? Like how can editors, young editors get to that level where they ultimately want to be at, which is playing in the big league. "We'll never get it out now." Steve: My biggest advice is the same every time anybody asked me that question: You have to just do it. You have to say: "Okay my goal is to be a big time editor. What can I cut? Maybe I can shoot some stupid little scene with my iPhone and then I'll try cutting that together." Great do it. It may not look like what you want it to look like but your brain starts to understand how story works and how scenes are constructed and what you need as an editor. Sven: The next lesson, I'm really excited about it. Is that storytelling is actually a muscle that can be built up Steve: Yeah. Stephen Mirione who cut "The Revenant" said: "Storytelling is a skill that you can become better at through lots and lots of practice.
" Joke-telling is the shortest form of telling a story as a joke is always just a short story. What do you need? so that the audience understands the punchline? The audience is kind of misdirected and then the punchline snaps them back into a different direction. "The other day, I was thinking, it's weird, I was thinking, you know, I tend to overthink things… Then I thought, do I though? I mean…" "Are we having the Afghan version of this conversation where in New York we would have gotten to the point five minutes ago?" You need to edit things and then realize how your editorial decisions affect the story. Glenn Ficarra talked about a character named Fahim. There's a scene where Fahim is basically telling Tina Fey's character: "I do not want to work with you anymore." "No. Ok.
Wait. Fahim? I know I fucked up." "I do not think you do." "Hear me out." And after he leaves there's a series of three jump cut close-ups of Tina's face: cut, cut, cut. And it seems kind of jarring. But that's the whole point. Ficarra mentions that that's the midpoint of the story. That's where the stakes change. It's this very visceral way of showing the audience: Oh, you know yet it almost shakes you as an audience when you see these three jump cuts. That's the whole point. That's the storytelling in editing. That's completely told in editing. Not with a word of dialogue and it tells the story. Sven: Okay, next one: Be careful with reaction shots. That was really interesting for me because I was like, "hmm, I'm never careful with reaction shot. Steve (laughs): A couple of things. Multiple people said that you shouldn't be on a reaction at certain times. Eddy Hamilton said: "If you want a specific piece of information to go into the head of an audience the character should say the line on camera.
" "And his team would be dead." "Yes. They would… That's the job." And Lee Smith said basically the same thing: "If you play a line off you're diminishing that line. "You create the world of the dream. We bring the subject into that dream and they fill it with their subconscious." "You have to be really strict in the way you edit whether you play a line over or off." Because I think that's just emotionally much more interesting to be on the person who's listening than the person speaking. Sven: I agree. "That's what she had on that day." There's a scene in "Mindhunter". These two guys are Interviewing who they think might be a serial killer. And there's just a local detective there. And even though the scene is really between the suspect and the two Interrogators and that local detective doesn't say anything. "She looks pretty tasty in that outfit. Doesn't she?" Tyler Nelson describes why the reaction shots are done the way they're done. "Come on, you guys don't think so?" There's these great close-ups as he's like, where are these guys going with these questions? "I mean by the time a woman has hair on her pussy.
You think, she'd be able to decide who gets a piece of it?" "I mean, yeah, man. I've never thought about it like that before but yeah." "She didn't mind the you were older. She probably kind of liked it." and then you start to see in his brain: "Oh my gosh, I see what they're doing. They're gonna get it out of him. Holy crap!" "When you picked her up from the bus, was she wearing this jacket?" He's acting as the audience going: "Oh my gosh, this is brilliant!" "When Lisa's skull was crushed, that blood goes everywhere." "In crimes involving blunt force trauma, it's almost impossible for the attacker to avoid getting his victim's blood on him." So that detective's reaction shots bring the audience into the scene. "You want to take a sample?" "Well, can we do that?" "I can arrange that." Sven: That's awesome. I have a side question here.
What do you think about watching these lessons of how to edit, how to film things, watching a lot of YouTube videos? How helpful, is that really? Steve: Oh… I think it's tremendously helpful. To be able to watch someone and see what the process is. And the why of the editing. That's the real thing. And so many people will say like, "oh, it's all intuitive. I'm like this intuitive editor and I just feel it in my gut." You don't really. It's not really intuition But they have soaked up these lessons of how to tell a great story and when is the right moment of editing. And if they really thought about it and there's plenty of editors that can actually explain the reason why they cut in an exact moment. Some people go: "Oh, well, you're so analytical.
" No, I think those people made those choices intuitively, but they can explain them analytically. Sven: I mean, I agree with you. I think the important part is you got to take action. You got to find that balance of just accumulating information that is making you think. But then also use it in a way. Steve: Yeah, when I'm doing real nuts and bolts training sessions, which I do for various companies, they need to put it into action immediately. Sven: Well, Steve, thank you so much. I got a real kick out of this one, I really enjoyed the way that you structured these conversations that you had with them. I can tell you an editor. In those great conversations and those insights, they are divided up into – sort of – the process of editing. How do you get organized? How do you watch dailies? How do you attack a scene? On top of that, you really have the takeaway highlighted in the book? So if you are facing a specific problem or a certain situation where you just want to know "How do other people deal with it?" That book is a great reference.
Steve: Thank you. Editing that book was what made it good, in my opinion. Sven: Did you cut it in avid. Steve (laughs): I did not cut it in avid. No, I did not. Sven: There you have it. So how do you feel about watching YouTube videos on filmmaking and are you putting it into action? Let me know in the comments. I want to thank Steve for giving me so much time. There were many more tips he shared and I'll have a worksheet by Steve plus a bonus video available to patreon members. Steven: "There's also a whole section on the sizes of shots. And the reason specific sizes were chosen." Sven: "Do you think that's a trade of being a successful filmmaker?" Steve: "it's something that I definitely have picked up on on numerous interviews…
" If you like this type of content and want to take your editing to the next level consider joining me on patreon. Thank you for watching.