By Amy Leland
This year, I was asked to live tweet from Sight Sound & Story on behalf of Blue Collar Post Collective. As part of their mission to make post events as accessible to members of our industry as possible, they often attend events like this one and provide live blogging, tweeting and recaps of the events for their members via their Facebook group. What follows are the recaps that I posted to that group after the event and massaged a bit for the sake of postPerspective.
While I haven’t made it a professional priority to break into scripted TV editing because my focus is on being a filmmaker, with editing as “just” a day job, I still love this panel, and every year it makes me reconsider that goal. This year’s was especially lively because two of the panelists, Kabir Akhtar and Julius Ramsay, have known each other from very early on in their careers and each had hilarious war stories to share.
The panelists were asked how they got into scripted TV editing, and if they had any advice for the audience who might want to do the same. One thing they all agreed on is that a good editor is a good editor. They said having experience in the exact same genre is less important than understanding how to interpret the style and tone of a show correctly. They also all agreed that people who hire editors often don’t get that. There is a real danger of being pigeonholed in our industry. If you start out editing a lot of reality TV and want to crossover to scripted you’ll almost definitely have to take a steep pay cut and start lower down on the ladder. There is still the problem in the industry of people assuming if you’ve cut comedy but not drama, you can’t cut drama. The same can be said for film versus TV and half-hour versus hour, etc. They all emphasized the importance of figuring out what kind of work you want to do, and pursuing that. Don’t just rush headlong into all kinds of work. Find as much focus as you can. Akhtar said, “You’re better off at the bottom of a ladder you want to climb than high up on one that doesn’t interest you.”
They all also said to seek out the people doing the kind of work you want to do, because those are the people who can help you. Ramsay said the most important networking tool is a membership to IMDB Pro. This gives you contact information for people you might want to find. He said the first time someone contacts him unsolicited he will probably ignore it, but if they contact him more than once, and it’s obvious that it’s a real attempt at personal contact with him, he will most likely agree to meet with that person.
Next they discussed the skills needed to be a successful editor. They agreed that while being a fast editor with strong technical knowledge of the tools isn’t by itself enough to be a successful editor, it is an important part of being one. If you have people in the room with you, the faster and more dexterously you can do what they are asking, the better the process will be for everyone.
There was agreement that, for the most part, they don’t look at things like script notes and circle takes. As an editor, you aren’t hired just for your technical skills, but for your point of view. Use it. Don’t let someone decide for you what the good takes are. You have to look at all of the footage and decide for yourself. They said what can feel like a great take on the set may not be a great take in the context of the cut. However, it is important to understand why something was a circle take for the director. That may be an important aspect of the scene that needs to be included, even if it isn’t on that take.
The panel also spoke about the importance of sound. They’ve all met editors who aren’t as skilled at hearing and creating good sound. That can be the difference between a passable editor and a great editor. They said that a great assistant editor needs to be able to do at least some decent sound mixing, since most producers expect even first cuts to sound good, and that task is often given to the assistant. They all keep collections of music and sound to use as scratch tracks as they cut. This way they don’t have to wait until the sound mix to start hearing how it will all come together.
All agreed that the best assistant editors are those who are hungry and want to work. Having a strong artistic sense and drive are more important to them than specific credits or experience. They want someone they know will help them make the show the best. In return, they have all given assistants opportunities that have led to them rising to editor positions.
When talking about changes and notes, they discussed needing that flexibility to show other options, even if you really believe in the choices you’ve made. But they all agreed the best feeling was when you’ve been asked to show other things, and in the long run, the producer or director comes back to what you had in the first place. They said when people give notes, they are pointing out the problems. Be very wary when they start telling you the solutions or how to fix the problems.
Check out the entire panel here. The TV panel begins at about 20:00.
Of all of the Sight Sound & Story panels, this is by far the hardest to summarize effectively. Bobbie O’Steen is a film historian. Her preparation for interviews like this is incredibly deep and detailed. Her subject is always someone with an impressive list of credits. Dylan Tichenor has been Paul Thomas Anderson’s editor for most of his films. He has also edited such films as Brokeback Mountain, The Royal Tenenbaums and Zero Dark Thirty.
With that in mind, I will share some of the observations I wrote down while listening raptly to what was said. From the first moment, we got a great story. Tichenor’s grandfather worked as a film projector salesman. He described the first time he became aware of the concept of editing. When he was nine years old, he unspooled a film reel from an Orson Welles movie that his grandfather had left at the house and looked carefully at all of the frames. He noticed that between a frame of a wide shot and a frame of a close-up, there was a black line. And that was his first understanding of film having “cuts.” He also described an early love for classic films because of those reels his grandfather kept around, especially Murnau’s Nosferatu.
Much of what was discussed was his longtime collaboration with P.T. Anderson. In discussing Anderson’s influences, they described the blend of Martin Scorsese’s long tracking shots with Robert Altman’s complex tapestry of ensemble casts. Through his editing work on those films, Tichenor saw how Anderson wove those two things together. The greatest challenges were combining those long takes with coverage, and answering the question, “Whose story are we telling?” To illustrate this, he showed the party scene in Boogie Nights in which Scotty first meets Dirk Diggler.
For those complex tapestries of characters, there are frequent transitions from one person’s storyline to another’s. Tichenor said it’s important to transition with the heart and not just the head. You have to find the emotional resonance that connects those storylines.
He echoed the sentiment from one of the other panels (this will be covered in my next recap) about not simply using the director’s circle takes. He agreed with the importance of understanding what they were and what the director saw in them on set, but in the cut, it was important to include that important element, not necessarily to use that specific take.
O’Steen brought up the frequent criticism of Magnolia — that the film is too long. While Tichenor agreed that it was a valid criticism, he stood by the film as one that took chances and had something to say. More importantly, it asked something of the audience. When a movie doesn’t take chances and asks the audience to work a little, it’s like eating cotton candy. When the audience exerts effort in watching the story, that effort leads to catharsis.
In discussing The Royal Tenenbaums, they talked about the challenge of overlapping dialogue, illustrated by a scene between Gene Hackman and Danny Glover. Of course, what the director and actors want is to have freedom on the set, and let the overlapping dialogue flow. As an editor this can be a nightmare. In discussions with actors and directors, it can help to remind them that sometimes that overlapping dialogue can create situations where a take can’t be used. They can be robbed of a great performance by that overlap.
O’Steen described Wes Anderson as a mathematical editor. Tichenor agreed, and showed a clip with a montage of flashbacks from Tenenbaums. He said that Wes Anderson insisted that each shot in the montage be exactly the same duration. In editing, what Tichenor found was that those moments of breaking away from the mathematical formula, of working slightly against the best of the music, were what gave it emotional life.
Tichenor described Brokeback Mountain as the best screenplay adaptation of a short story he had ever seen. He talked about a point during the editing when they all felt it just wasn’t working, specifically Heath Ledger’s character wasn’t resonating emotionally the way he should be. Eventually they realized the problem was that Ledger’s natural warmth and affectionate nature were coming through too much in his performance. He had moments of touching someone on the arm or the shoulder, or doing something else gentle and demonstrative.
He went back through and cut out every one of those moments he could find, which he admitted meant in some cases leaving “bad” cuts in the film. To be fair, in some cases that difference was maybe half a second of action and the cuts were not as bad as he feared, but the result was that the character suddenly felt cold and isolated in a way that was necessary. Tichenor also referred back to Nosferatu and how the editing of that film had inspired him. He pointed to the scene in which Jack comes to visit Ennis; he mimicked an editing trick from that film to create a moment of rush and surprise as Ennis ran down the stairs to meet him.
One thing he pointed out was that it can feel more vulnerable to cut a scene with a slower pace than an action scene. In an action scene, the cuts become almost a mosaic, blending into one another in a way that helps to make each cut a bit more anonymous. In a slower scene, each cut stands out more and draws more attention.
When P.T. Anderson and Tichenor came together again to collaborate on There Will Be Blood, they approached it very differently from Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Instead of the parallel narratives of that ensemble tapestry, this was a much more focused and, often, operatic, story. They decided to approach it, in both shooting and editing, like a horror film. This meant framing shots in an almost gothic way, which allowed for building tension without frequent cutting. He showed an example of this in a clip of Daniel and his adopted son H.W. having Sunday dinner with the family to discuss buying their land.
He also talked about the need to humanize Daniel and make him more relatable and sympathetic. The best path to this was through the character of H.W. Showing how Daniel cared for the boy illuminated a different side to this otherwise potentially brutal character. He asked Anderson for additional shots of him to incorporate into scenes. This even led to additional scenes between the two being added to the story.
After talking about this film, though there were still so many more that could be discussed, the panel sadly ran out of time. One thing that was abundantly clear was that there is a reason Tichenor has worked with some of the finest filmmakers. His passion for and knowledge of film flowed through every moment of this wonderful chat. He is the editor for many films that should be considered modern classics. Undoubtedly between the depth of preparation O’Steen is known for, and the deep well of material his career provided, they could have gone on much longer without running dry of inspirational and entertaining stories to share.
Check out the entire panel here. The interview begins at about 02:17:30.
Amy Leland is a film director and editor. Her short film, Echoes, is now available on Amazon Video. Her feature doc, Ambassador of Rhythm, is in post. She also has a feature screenplay in development and a new doc in pre-production. She is also an editor for CBS Sports Network. Find out more about Amy on her site http://amyleland.net and follow her on social media on Twitter at @amy-leland and Instagram at @la_directora.