Making the Cut: The Perils of Editing Your Own Film

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I remember when I was still in film school, my editing teacher told us on day one, that editing was “cutting out all the crap!”.  Seriously, that’s how he put it to us.  It’s essentially trimming up the fat and leaving behind the best parts of the movie for everyone else to see.  At it’s core, that’s what the editor’s job is.  While there is quite a bit more than that involved, that’s the basic concept every editor (all filmmakers really) need to understand.

Editing

One of the hardest things to do to a film is cut it down.  For many editors, it’s a matter of practicality.  On a feature film you have the potential for hundreds of hours worth of footage.  Somehow you’ve got to whittle all of that down into a 2-hour block of time, that’s cohesive and tells a great story.

But the thing that makes an editor’s job 10 times harder….is when you’re the person editing your own movie.  It’s a common thing that happens with young and independent filmmakers.  Sometimes there just isn’t room in the budget to bring on a separate editor (and if you’re still in school, you are for sure doing it all on your own), and the director, who also handled the story and pre-production, is left to handle the post side of things.

Editing

The main issue with editing your own project, is objectivity.  Because you know how much work and effort went into every shot produced, you’ll struggle with the decision on which one to cut.  While you may tell yourself that you can remain objective; but when it comes down to it, your hand may hesitate on cutting a scene because you’re still having flashbacks to the 10 grueling hours it took to make it.

It’s a hard thing to do, but it’s necessary.  Sometimes those scenes which took an entire day (or more) to shoot, doesn’t fit in with the flow of the film.  Maybe it’s slowing down pacing of the movie, or the story has molded itself differently, and it just plain doesn’t make sense to be in the film anymore.  Holding on to those scenes out of pride in the previous work you did, will only result in a poor film.  At which point all of your work will have gone to waste.

Filming

When I was still in film school, I was working on my final project; I spent 3 days shooting and was ready to get into the editing bay (since that was my primary focus anyway).  There was this one very small shot of a man sitting down at a table across from another person that took me hours (literally) to get down correctly.  I was experimenting with a new camera movement and it was taking forever for the timing to work out.

Finally, we got the shot perfect and when I looked at the footage in the editing bay I was truly amazed at how well the shot looked.  I hate to sound boastful, but it was just gorgeous!  So I’m throwing the entire scene together, and I proudly drop in my meticulous shot.  After a little more tweaking I play through the rough cut of the scene to see how it works….

Editing

It was awful.  The entire flow of the scene felt off and was taking me out of the story of the film.  After a second viewing, the culprit for this issue was easily apparent: that one small shot I was so proud of, was mucking it all up.  Even when I’d gone through all this work, and set up this elaborate lead in for the character to sit down, what the scene really called for, was a steady shot of him sitting down.

It was a heartbreaking change for me to make, but I did it because that’s what’s required of the film.   All of that was for a simple short film too.  When you’re developing a feature or something a little longer than a short, you’re only compounding the issue.  So what can you do to minimize this problem of editing your own flick?

Editing

1)  Don’t edit it! Seems like the easiest solution.  If you have to option to bring in an outside editor, by all means do it.  Even though you may be really close to the project and desire to keep it ‘in house’, that could also be the best reason why you shouldn’t be editing it.  You need someone who can remain objective regardless.

2) Take a break! Seriously.  If you’re set on editing your film on your own, be sure that you allocate some time in your schedule to take a good couple weeks off between the end of production and the beginning of any post-production work.  This will ensure that you go into post-production with ‘fresh’ eyes and can look at your dailies objectively.

3) Don’t do it alone. This is fairly important.  Normally, an editor and the director try to sit down together during post-production, so there is always someone there to catch mistakes.  If you’re editing your own film, then you’ve eliminated that second set of eyes.  Get someone you can trust, and someone who’s not afraid to tell you what works and what doesn’t to be in the bay working with you.

Sometimes it really is unavoidable, especially if you’re still in film school.  But remembering these steps and keeping your mind objective will ensure that the best version of your film possible, will be what people see.

-Jordan