Even though I’ve edited a lot of trailers and commercials, where music played an important part, I had never had an opportunity of working on an actual music video. Thanks to a fortunate coincidence, I was recently contacted by a young singer, Oktawia Kawęcka, who had just recorded a cover of the Oscar winning “Writing’s on the Wall” by Sam Smith (well, at that point in time it hadn’t won an Oscar yet), asking for an editor. It was extremely hard to resist the temptation. So I didn’t.
Music video is a curious beast. One could look at it as a scripted project – after all, there will be multiple takes of the same performance, and it is literally the same performance dictated by the music. But usually there is some kind of an additional story or a hook involved. This additional footage might not have been shot with a tight script and the goal to show it at a specific time – and in that case, even though the main timeline is set, the quest to find the best possible outcome turns the project into a non-scripted one. “Writing’s on the Wall” was just that, and I am going to take this opportunity and describe in detail the process which I usually employ for these.
There are, in general, two kinds of non-scripted projects: the one where the vision is set, and the director knows exactly what he or she wants, and the ones more exploratory, where the story begins to take shape in the editing room, regardless of the footage being shot. This one was certainly more of the latter, as we had a ton of material to choose from, a basic idea and a number of secondary ones. With exploratory projects you can safely assume, that the inevitable back and forth will be more frequent, and that there will be more revisions, before the final version is produced. On the other hand, the input of an editor is most certainly more significant – or perhaps more easily seen – than in the ones with set vision.
Here are the stages that my work usually goes through in this case:
- Listen to the director and producer to hear about their vision for the project.
- Watch all the dailies.
- Consult with the director and producer about your ideas.
- Prepare the footage
- Create a first cut.
- Allow the director and producer their cut.
- Converge on the final version.
Let’s now go by the stages one by one:
1. Listen to the director and producer
Above all, any project is the manifestation of somebody’s vision, and this person is usually not the editor. Yes, we can add important input into the process, but in the end it is somebody else’s creation, and they have their first and final say. If you do not understand that, your relationship with the director and producer is going to suffer. You don’t ever want that.
Therefore, during the first meeting listen to the vision, note the ideas, ask about the overall tone, characters, emotions, story. Try to talk as little as possible and allow the other side to fully express their desired outcome. When things seem unclear, try to ask for more details. You will see which parts they have a clear idea about, and which are more in the air.
If I am shown favourite shots at this stage, I usually do not put much weight to it, unless it is to be an opening or a closing shot. The project itself will dictate, which shots should be used to achieve the result – I don’t mention that to the director though, unless I keep getting barraged with the great shots that must be used. Then I kindly point out that at that moment I am more interested in the overall story, tone and emotions and ask for the list of selected shots to be sent to me. It helps to remember them, but in the end what is needed is the editor’s fresh eye, not his complacency – unless we are looking to create a collage. But that’s rarely a case.
When it comes to the story and ideas, sometimes the director will come with a number of them that he or she wants to make, sometimes there will be little to work with. In the first case, by all means pay attention to all of them, but also listen to which seem to be the most detailed, the strongest, which seem to carry the most emotional weight. Usually you can figure out pretty quickly which are more important, and which seem more like an afterthought, or a “cool idea” without much story behind it. It’s important that the ideas carry some kind of a story, because otherwise they will feel disjointed and boring. After all, you are making a picture in motion, in flux, not a still image.
Try to look for as much substance as you can. Ask questions, try to figure out a beginning, a middle and an end of each idea. Where is the change, where is the conflict. If you feel that there are too many disjointed ideas, let the director know that it’s possible that they will have to make some tough choices on the way, because of the expected length of the project. You might also explain how it’s better to focus and develop a smaller number of ideas to their full potential than to create a hodgepodge of superficiality.
With no apparent ideas in the air, try to look at the motivation of why the project was shot, what were the emotions that the director wanted to convey, or–in case of music video–what are the emotions that the music carries with itself. Try to pinpoint what is the gist of the project, and have the director say it in his or her own words. It is much harder than dealing with a large number of ideas, because you are running into the risk of hearing “this is not exactly what I wanted” many times. If you are comfortable with such an exploration, fine. Just know what to expect, and also let the director know what he or she should be expecting. Otherwise you will both depart disappointed.
Of course, if you are feeling that this project does not agree with you, this is a better point to say that, than later in the process. Even if it is painful to turn down a job, consider how much harder would it be to attempt to work through it, and quit the relationship in even more disagreement and disappointment.
2. Watch all the dailies
You must. With exploratory projects there is just no other way. Watch all the dailies, perhaps log them as well if there is too much material to remember it all. Mark your favourites, so that you can find them later, try to find the story in the footage. Is the footage supporting the director’s vision? This is one of the most important questions to ask. You might find out that there is not enough coverage to work with. It is not uncommon. Or that the content repeats itself, and while interesting in their own right, the shots will be boring when put together. Be mindful that what the director thinks is in the footage and what actually is there might be two different things. But watch all the dailies.
Look for happy accidents, small details that can spice things up, possible cut-ins and cut-aways. Beginnings and endings. Twists. Emotional moments. Anything that makes you go “hmmmm”. The more experience you have, the sooner the stories start to emerge, the more creative ways you will find to use the footage, the more ideas you find. If you have time, watch the footage twice. Having seen everything can help you look on it in a different light, make new connections.
Also, consider the footage quality. Sometimes you will have to just say no, because a shot is for some reason unusable. Sometimes the quality of some footage will be so drastically different from the rest, that it is your duty to suggest to the director, that it should not be used. Because you cannot make the quality better, you can only make the better footage look worse, or make the worse footage look even worse in contrast with the better quality shots, and ruin a great perception of the project. In rare cases you can creatively process the bad looking footage to make it look like it was shot on purpose. But be aware that applying the “old movie” plugin will not always work, especially to an experienced eye. This should also be in service of a story, and if a story does not warrant it, you should scrap it, regardless of the director’s attachment to it.
Yes. Don’t rush with the editing. Use the best editing tool that you have – your mind, your brain. Experiment, think if the pieces fall together into something coherent. Go for a walk, keep thinking. Can you visualise the whole project? Or at least its parts? Can you freely talk about them? With more experience you can do much more at this stage and do it faster, than you would by trying it out in your NLE. Sometimes you must, but thinking costs you much less, and you are not yet in agreement with the director or the producer as to the final shape. No point to committing something that won’t be used.
Consider everything that you have heard about the project, and try to build your own vision. Come up with suggestions how to fix potential problems and be able to articulate reasons for your choices. You have seen the footage, you know what can and most likely cannot be done.
4. Consult with the director and producer
Before you start cutting, have another talk with the owners of the project. Tell them what vision you have, starting with the points that coincide with theirs. Point out which ideas are problematic, and preferably offer a ready solution. Discuss potentially conflicting ideas, try to flesh out more and more now that you have seen the footage. You might talk about proposed edits. This should be mutual cooperation, another brainstorming session.
I stress again, that even though you have your own vision, it is their project, and they will have the final say. Don’t get attached to your ideas, and be willing to abandon them when you notice a significant opposition. Chances are they will come to the same conclusion as you have after a few revisions anyway – if this happens, don’t be rude and don’t remind them that you were right from the beginning – and if not, then so be it.
When you have agreed upon the expected outcome, you might finally sit down and cut something! Hurray!
5. Prepare the footage
Did I say cut? Well, in a moment or so. First you have to make sure that your footage is ready for editing. Sometimes it means just making sure your bin structure is easy for you to navigate, sometimes you need to transcode footage into a more lightweight codec, to get a better experience. Sync your multicam shots – especially true in case of music videos. Connect audio clips to relevant video. You probably have done much of this before you watched dailies. But if you didn’t, this is the last moment. When you start editing, you don’t want to interrupt the flow.
Of course, on larger projects these are tasks better suited for assistant editors. But there are times when you will not have the luxury of having one. This does not mean that you can afford yourself to be messy. In the thick of things, it is crucial to avoid wasting time looking for specific shots. Make sure you know where everything is.
6. Create the first cut
The first cut is your cut. Your baby. It’s something you will get attached to, there usually is no way around it. But it’s also going to be criticised, and will serve as the starting point for revisions. Of course, the more you and the director agreed in the previous stages, the smaller the required changes will be, but there always be some. However, you should deliver the first cut in such a way that it should be ready to be taken to the next step – VFX work, grading, whatever. Do not think that just because it is going to be changed, you should sell yourself short. After all, everybody expects from you the best possible outcome. Do your job well. This is most likely the first impression that you will make on the director, the first time they see their work coming together. Be respectful of that.
If you have doubts about certain shots or sequences, note them down. Sometimes you will not be able to resolve them in your first cut, but you should never ignore your gut feelings. At best the director will point it out to you, and at worst the viewers and critics will. The sooner you are able to address it, the better.
Finally: yes, it is your cut, but you must respect the director’s vision and the desired outcome that you agreed to before. Otherwise you run the risk of loosing trust, fouling the relationship, and increase your chances for more intensive back and forth, more revisions, more changes.
7. Allow the director and the producer their cut
This is a mistake that many rookie editors make – they think that just because they edited something, they are done. It hardly ever happens. In fact, the more attached you are to your cut, and the more you think that this movie you’re cutting is yours to do with as you please, the harder the reminder will be when it comes.
The better rapport you established with the director and the producer in your talks, the more respect you paid to their vision, and the more attention you paid to their expectations, the lesser the chance that the requested changes will turn everything inside out. But the changes will inevitably come. Filmmaking is a team effort after all, and directors not only direct actors, but they also do direct editors. Know that, accept that, and respect that.
You should not fight with the director over his or her notes. The only exception is when you had actually tried what they are asking you to do, and it didn’t work. You might explain that to them, but I would advise to show them why it doesn’t work as well, unless the director trusts you implicitly. Other than that, do what you are asked to. In many cases it might require you to rework an edit. Do it. But save your version before you do! In fact, save every version of your project. You don’t ever want to be caught saying “oh, I don’t have this version anymore”. That’s amateurish.
Some notes will result in you making several versions of certain parts of the project. Save them all, and show them all. Go beyond words, try to feel the spirit of the requested change. Maybe something is not working, because the cut is not in the proper place. Maybe it’s enough to move it several frames instead of scrapping the whole sequence. Sometimes it’s the opposite. Do not fight the feedback. Embrace it. Work with it.
Of course, all this assumes a healthy relationship with the director. This article is not an advice how to deal with abuse and power play in the edit bay. It’s the topic for another time.
Once you address the notes, do not comment on the new version unless explicitly asked to. This is their cut, their vision, respect that.
8. Converge on the final version
After these two cuts are done, the real work begins. Chances are, some things work better in your version, and the director sees it, chances are the notes bring out something that you have missed. This is normal. Most likely the discussion will now ensue over which parts to keep, which versions work better, and you are going to work towards the final outcome. How many revisions it takes will depend on how well you understand each other and how much experimentation you are willing to go through – and of course on the budget.
It’s vital to understand that for the good of the project it does not really matter who comes up with the winning solution. Of course, our egos always want to take credit and seek appreciation (aka “I was telling you about it from the beginning”) but in my experience trying to wrestle for who came up with an idea first is a waste of time and energy, otherwise better spent on perfecting the outcome. Good directors and good producers will recognise good editors anyway, without being reminded, and the bad ones will take this power play as an excuse to aggravate the relationship further. Definitely not worth it. Think about what’s best for the project, not who takes credit for what.
At this point also some other parties might get involved, and you will not only get the notes from the director or the producer, but also from people who were included in the process. If you want to get the feedback yourself, do it quietly or ask the director if you can include others. Make suggestions, but be willing to let them go. Remember, that the director has the final say. On the other hand, if the director endorses the notes received from others, there is little you can do to dissuade him or her. Again, you can make suggestions, and if you feel there is trust between you, you might attempt to counter those which make little sense to you. But make sure you have a ground to stand on, and try to win the director on your side by asking if this will really make the project better, instead of outright criticising the requested change. And don’t badmouth people giving feedback. Ever. You never know what is their relationship with the director.
Sometimes these outside notes are reaffirming a gut feeling that you or the director have already had. In this case, it is very worthwhile to pay more attention to the issue at hand, and even at this late stage consider significant revision. This is the last moment to do it. Instead of being angry about more work, be thankful that people actually care for this project to come out great. You will be more angry when the viewers remind you of things you could have fixed.
Of course, there are some people who should not be in the business of giving you notes, and just want to assert their presence and “take credit” for the project by making some nonsensical change. Sometimes you have to bear it, sometimes you can attempt to win the director or the producer over.
For me the hardest part is not giving up when I am feeling that the project is being made worse by the outside feedback. Sometimes it is the attachment to my cut (I am still an egotistic human being), sometimes I genuinely consider that change unwarranted, focused on a wrong thing, and sometimes I just see the power play. In such cases I often feel like I am attempting to disassociate myself with the project – yes, I did the editing, but I don’t really feel it’s “mine” or “the way I would have cut it”. I feel that the project could have been better. I have not yet found a solution to this. At present moment I repeat words of another editor, Chris Fenwick: “I will give you my expert opinion, and then I’m going to give you what you want.”, but each such change still distances me from the project. Yet another reminder, that the editor does not call the shots.
Hopefully, this does not happen though, and the result is the version which is a win for everyone: for the project, the director, the producer, and the editor. And of course finally for the audience as well.
If you think, that your job ended, when you locked the cut, you are wrong again. You have to deliver the cut to the director or the producer in the way that they want. Sometimes it is a master file, sometimes it is a project, sometimes it is a number of deliveries, each with a different spec. This step is important. Do not fail at the very end.
Sometimes the cut will be “unlocked” with additional feedback after the delivery. This is a very delicate moment, and in truth, it might be one of the most important things to specify in your contract and in your talks how you handle such events. Yes, everybody wants the project to succeed and to be the best it can be. But delivery is a process too, and it requires additional work. And reopening something after experiencing the sense of closure is difficult. “False finish” is one of the hardest situations for any artist to handle, and I intend to write more on this in the future. For now, just remain calm, assess the amount of work required, and negotiate with producer and director as to how to proceed.
Of course, before you deliver, make sure that you get paid. But that too is another story for another day.
The “Writing’s on the Wall” was an exploratory project with a large number of ideas. We trimmed many in the process, not as many as I hoped for, but still. I am happy to have edited it, even if I don’t necessarily agree with all the choices that were made during post-production. In the end, you are the judge. Here is Oktawia’s music video which I edited and graded: