By Chris Hood
(This is Part Twenty One of an ongoing series to help educate aspiring filmmaker on the process of making their first film. Previous articles in this series can be found at BleedingCool.com and MovieIndustry.com)
Now that you've wrapped production and have the illusion that the finish line is in sight, you're probably very excited to get to the editing. In truth, the editing can be exciting…in small doses. The trick to successful editing is to fight your way through the monotony which will quickly settle in and overcome the bias that you have in hopes of empirically evaluating the actual work being done as well as the economy and success of the actual assembly in the telling of the story.
The first thing we have to establish is whom is editing the film?
If you're doing the cutting, that's great…if you're a good editor. It's certainly not uncommon for first time filmmakers to come from a background of editing. That's great if you do. Big bonus. If you're editing professionally (i.e. people are actually paying you well to do it), you should have that aspect of the production covered competently. If the limit of your experience is what you learned in film school and putting together some shorts and YouTube videos, you shouldn't be cutting you're film. I'm sorry, but you're not an editor. Not yet. Editing is a skill which takes lots and lots of experience to get proficient at. So if you have limited editing experience and still choose to deny my omniscience, at the very least, I strongly recommend that you allow for and plan to have a "real" editor polish your project when you start to get close. We all have a habit of trying to skimp (usually by necessity) when it comes to post production, but good editing is absolutely non-negotiable and is money well spent.
If you're not doing your own editing, the film will probably be better for it. Filmmakers who edit their own material are terribly biased and have a difficult time getting past their emotional attachment to the footage…sometimes to the detriment of the finished product. Sure James Cameron edits his own films, but so did Ed Wood. And the reality is, at this point in your career, you're probably more Wood than Cameron. (Ironically "more wood" is usually a good thing!)
One of the hardest chores when it comes to editing is making the big cuts; excising large pieces of scenes, or entire scenes themselves, for the greater good. After months and years, you've come to treat the script, story and dialogue as almost family. In most cases you wrote (or had some involvement in writing) the scene. You spent all this time preparing and possibly storyboarding it. You spent half a day rehearsing and shooting it. The actors and director nailed it. It's a great little scene. BUT, it doesn't fit in the film. It's a great little scene, but it doesn't propel the story. It doesn't provide essential details for the viewer. It doesn't yield invaluable character information. It's simply not necessary for the story arc. If that's the case, it HAS to go. And that can be terribly, terribly hard. These types of decisions can be made a bit easier when you can find flaws in the scene or simply don't like it for one reason or another, but there will be times when it's technically all good. In fact, it might be the best scene you have…and you still may have to cut it. If you're the editor, you probably won't be able to do it.
M. Night Shyamalan originally had a different ending for The Sixth Sense. Now, before you write to tell me that Night is a shitty filmmaker and that The Sixth Sense is the only good film he made, don't bother. I know. I don't think there has even been a more promising debut film followed by a seemingly endless deluge of utter horseshit without a remotely passable film in the batch. But I digress… The point I was working toward before going off on the tangent that is "How the fuck does anyone still give this talentless turd money to make movies" was that Night originally had a different ending for that film. He loved that other ending. It beat him up to have to cut it but he realized (or was convinced) that it wasn't the best option for the film. On the Blu Ray, you can see his ending and listen to him talk about it, and if you're familiar with the film, you'll agree that the ending that made it into the film is worlds better. But for some reason, he was married to this other version that, thankfully, he cut. As an outsider, it's easy to watch this deleted scene and say "Obviously the one he went with is far superior," but that is the dilemma I promise you'll face at some point during the edit. The reality is, you're the one person to whom the obvious is least obvious.
If you give the editor the freedom to cut the film properly (yes, I realize that's subjective) and encourage him to trim the fat, you'll have a better movie. I've watched a first pass of one of my films and didn't realize until much later that a notable scene had been cut out entirely. I liked the scene, but having it removed had zero bearing on the story, which means it absolutely shouldn't have been there. If I had been cutting the film myself, it would have taken me a long time to even consider removing that scene in it's entirely and I likely would have fought with myself over it – even if other people were rightly telling me it had to go.
Although losing entire scenes can be agonizing, even losing pieces of scenes or even individual lines can be painful. Some scenes will be too long, especially dialogue scenes. And you, as the filmmaker, are the worst possible person to decide what should stay and what should go. Get as many people as possible to work with you through this process. Make sure these contributors know something about film and be certain that they'll be honest with you. I stopped asking my mom for advice on anything creative a very long time ago. She loves everything I do. Sadly, many people surround themselves with these "yes men" who stroke their ego and convince them they can do no wrong. You don't need that. Avoid it. If someone watches your film and can't make any suggestions to improve it (assuming you're still working on it and changes can still be made), that person is worthless to you…and they're lying.
In most cases, making your first film is a lot like getting potty trained – You go and do this thing for the first time and everyone who knows and loves you stands around smiling and clapping and telling you what a wonderful job you just did…but in the end it's still just a pile of shit.
Surround yourself with critics. Find other filmmakers, other creative folks who will shoot you straight. You can dismiss much/most of the constructive criticism you get, and in most cases that will be your first reaction, but once the bruising to your ego has gone, go back and really look/listen to what they've said. When the same point(s) come up time and again, it becomes even harder to deny that the issue(s) is valid.
I recently completed my first novel and had a handful of trusted friend and colleagues give it a read. Amongst all the feedback, a trio of suggestions came up in three or more separate sets of notes. And I can tell you, the first time I read each of these criticisms, I was resistant. It's easy to tell yourself "Yeah, I can see what she's saying, but I don't think she's right." Once I heard it the second and third time, the reality was that I was almost certainly wrong. When I brought up these points to other readers who hadn't flagged them, they universally agreed with something like, "Yeah, I guess I didn't really think about it much at the time, but now that you bring it up, I think he/she is right." Put your (and my) ego aside because that is EXACTLY the kind of feedback you want.
Keep in mind that the purpose of editing is to the serve the story. It's not to show off your skills as a director or cameraman or actor. It's not to dazzle the audience with an awesome tracking shot you came up with. All the roles you have on the film are secondary to "storyteller". Keep that in perspective. No one should take satisfaction in being able to say "I made a shitty movie, but it had some cool shots and performances!"…except, maybe, M. Night….
Watch critically. Listen attentively. Cut generously. Tighten passionately. Tight is good.
Chris Hood is a writer, producer and director of such films as "Counterpunch" starring Danny Trejo (a Lionsgate release) and "Dirty Dealing 3D" with Michael Madsen and C. Thomas Howell. He and Jon Schultz own Robin Hood Films, a Las Vegas-based distribution company representing English language films around the world and operates a film blog at MovieIndustry.com. He's also dead sexy. (Mr. Hood denies any involvement in the creation of this mini-bio.)