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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

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  • Get a 2 Month FREE Trial from Skillshare (limited to the first 500 people who sign up): http://thisguyedits.com/skillshare

    Steve's Book: "Art of the Cut": http://thisguyedits.com/artofthecut

  • Love videos like these. They help me speculate my philosophy on taking my self-educated states of stasis and give me new external ideas to exfoliate in ideology. I'm a professional actor, but I don't market professionally as my braces just came off. However, I've been learning and studying my craft in detail for about 8 years now and I'm consistently improving still to this day. It's rather nice to know that no matter how much you learn, you can always use your educated guesses to acquire different types of new. I love the process of using mediums cohesively in film because they allow for a synergy out of exponentiating art uniformly. I can add details from my life and add speculation to it while I'm immersed in the genius of ingenuity from multiple minds who specialize in perfecting their "one thing" to make one story told for real in reel form. It's the modern symphony to tell a movie in its tale told form.

  • I am making games. They are simple story telling devices. I compose the shots, light the scenes, write the story, position and clothe the actors, add a musical score and edit for pacing. Videos like this are essential for the progression of my education in the worlds I want to create. Thank you for your efforts and inspiring others in becoming creators of dreams.

  • Comming from a student cinematographer/editor; this is some real solid advice. The art of the cut is actually one of the books I am going to be studying in an upcoming course. I am looking forward to it more now.

  • This is great advise! I can't wait to add these tips to my editing process and keep building that storytelling muscle!

  • Thankfully I'm blessed with knowing I am both the Editor and the Director of my productions, in fact, I am everything but the characters in them.

  • 13:30 – I think this one is possibly my favorite lesson from this. I've always thought of how quick you cut in a conversation contradicts the pacing but then I never thought of using lines on or off camera to create an emotion or give information. Love it.

  • What if you are a filmmaker who is the Director and also an editor too? I want to advance my editing skills.

  • Very cool to watch it out, time flies so fast over the 18mn. I had some editing issues with producers and corporate questioning myself a lot about the process and my process. Now I start to find the balance and the video helps to get trust in myself at the same time as trusting the process and the environnement. Thanks for your tips and great infos 😉

  • one thing you forgot to add is that people don't come up as an individual. people get into the industry as a group.

  • Awesome … love recognition for editors! They say you need to be an editor before attempting to direct, so true! Thank you for making this 🙂

  • Why would you start your video with those scenes? Do you not understand how triggering and hard to watch they are for Black and Brown people? You really couldn't find different examples that weren't trauma porn? Jfc.

  • "Explaining intuitive decisions analytically?". Hm…That's like trying to say all those 1000 words that a picture is worth.

  • Jeffery Ford also edited Infinity War and Endgame. We can all thank him for Tony Stark's final line "And I…am…Iron Man" snap. The Russo Brother's were gonna have Tony just get the stones and snap, but Ford recommended having Tony say that so the Russo Brothers added it in the re-shoots. And thank God for that because it was the perfect way to end Tony Stark's character arc.

  • Walter Murch correctly refers to editing as a "blink". Like the blink of an eye. When you choose not to blink during a moment when you don't want the audience to be able to look away (e.g. the agonizing hanging scene where everyday life continues) the result is an emotionally powerful reaction.

  • I’ve never done editing nor do I plan on. But videos like these make you realise how important it is & the amount of work & thought that goes into it

  • True, you have to keep your ego in check, but understand what your worth and experience are and know when someone whose experience doesn't even begin to touch yours is bullshitting their way through the decimation of your end product for their own ego boost. The industry is full of people who got their job because of someone they know or their dad knows, not because of what skills they've developed to be where they are. Everyone thinks they can edit, but can't. The main proof is audio and that is always a glaring mistake on youtube videos—not knowing how to mix audio, not knowing how loud nat sound under should be, not cross fading into and out of your bites, not cutting out extraneous noise and basically not caring about the details.

  • @13:23 the shot of Tom Cruise with the hanger behind him looks like the American flag. I wonder: was that a coincidence? If it was intentional, what does it symbolize?

  • Hey, am Milly have got passion on editing but am on my babysteps,recently my friends and I have a short film that we need to shoot.10mins film and I was told I'll have to edit the film,to be honest am really scared I know the basics but am not sure if I'll deliver w

  • Extremely helpful in deciding and thinking the way editors think and help in making a project more impressive and beautiful, their importance as well in project

  • Please tell me what are the best editing software for a film…

    What kind of softwares do hollywood editors use??

  • This is an interesting vid but I was disappointed that it's almost completely not about editing itself, but the editor's role in a collaboration and personnel sense, career advice for editors, etc.

  • This is why i love the film business. Every single soul in a production has to keep their ego in check to make beautiful art and there's nothing more refreshing than that.

  • Wanna know how to make an editor a artist? Just don't provide him with a script. Watch him sweat…that's art! 😂
    Give him script, and art turns to labor. 🤓

  • Me and my friends are planning on making a film, and we are all around 15-17 years old so I’m doing as much research as I can. 😂

  • 16:09 – That's a famous scene from "Scaramouche", my favorite film with REAL fencing. Such an amazing fencing skills of these two actors! It's this movie that inspired George Lucas to add lightsabers to Star Wars. Unfortunately, it's no longer real fencing what the actors in Star Wars do. Sadly, it has become a ridiculous mix of ballet and kung fu that nobody cares about anymore, except for cosplayer-millennials. 😝

  • Great video! Here's a breakdown of what I took from each lesson,

    1. Know when NOT to cut. Be present and keep your ego in check.
    2. Edit to what YOU want. The director will come later and make changes.
    3. Trust the process, your changes will be addressed if the film requires.
    4. Be a collaborator.
    5. Editing is a process of REVISION. You'll need to go back and edit what you edit.
    6. Organization = editing. Compartmentalize the smaller chunks.
    7. How do you make it as an editor? JUST START EDITING. Cut what you can, as often as possible.
    8. Ask yourself, how does your scene affect the overall story? Make adjustments to keep it cohesive.
    9. Use reaction shots wisely. Usually it's more interesting to show who's listening rather than who's speaking.
    10. Study the why during editing. Make choices intuitively but know the analytical reason why you cut it that way in the first place.

  • Interesting vid, I’ve been lucky to work with dozens of directors and most have been big personalities. Is this a prerequisite for directing do you think?

  • Man….
    Im an editor and every single thing I've heard in your video i feel like i knew it before but i don't know how to say or use it boom great job awesome video !!!!

  • I dont know, maybe its just me. But if you're a filmmaker you should know how to edit…even if you dont know how to physically use the editing program you should still be next to the editor and know how the film should be cut (even though i still think you should know how to do it yourself). You wouldnt be a painter and only know how to use one color. Filmmaking is a passion, you should know/learn by the love of the process and by the love of watching films. Its amazing that filmmaking is so affordable now and anybody can do it but it is also sad that it has become another trend… if you can't edit or don't know where and when to cut then you probably shouldnt be a filmmaker im sorry but its true, you cant just be partially into something. Im also not saying to not let an editor have creativity either, cause collaborating is how magic is made. Im just saying that overall you should definitely know how to edit or be able to communicate how you want it edited at least. Im specifically talking about new filmmakers or indie filmmakers, not Hollywood. Hollywood is a joke unless youre Martin Scorsese or Tarantino lol. Filmmaking/editing comes from passion and yes gut instinct, because its your fucking passion lol. There are no tricks or secrets. You either love film and filmmaking or you don't. Just like being a true musician, you create what you love, there is no questioning it lol. Almost everything i learned about filmmaking was out of the love of doing it, especially the editing. Those were the days before youtube existed so any videos we made were for ourselves and a couple friends to watch lol we couldn't stream or upload shit, and it didnt matter to us anyway, we did it cause we actually love it. If youre not out there just doing it and practicing out of pure passion then you're in it for the wrong reasons.

  • I need to edit our 25 minute film video & this pops up on my recommendation, thank you. 🙇 I have to be confident bc im a beginner 🙁

  • With the greatest respect for your truly helpful videos, the audio doesn't work for me here. The simultaneous mix of voice-overs, music and dialogue from films is just too much, especially for the first lesson and a little bit beyond i.e. 2:40 – 5:32 . Maybe just turn the music down a little? Again, meant with all respect as a bit of feedback.

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