HOW TO BE A GOOD DIRECTOR,
ACCORDING TO AN EDITOR

Director BAZ LUHRMANN on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ drama “THE GREAT GATSBY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

I will say up front: I am a terrible director. I’ve tried it, and I’m not so proud of the results. So why listen to my advice about how to be good at directing fiction projects? Because I’ve edited a few, and I think people in post-production, particularly editors, are in the best position to know what is needed to achieve the best film possible.

Written by Julien Chichignoud

I can’t really give advice on how to write a script, how to direct actors, or talk to your cinematographer. But from staring at hours and hours and hours of footage – a frightening proportion of it being unusable –  there are a few tips worth listening to from an editor, about what you should doing on set and in pre-production to avoid the disappointment of hearing “It’s great but we can’t use that”.

These tips are aimed at new directors, or even the more experienced ones who don’t tend to consider post-production while on set.

Peter Jackson on the set of 'The Hobbit' [image: RED)

Peter Jackson on set [image: RED)

ASSEMBLE YOUR TEAM

Get an Editor

I tend to think that my role is important on a film. Regardless of how well you know Final Cut, Avid, Premiere or iMovie, get someone else to edit. After several days on set trying to get the imagery and the performances you had planned in your head, and after reviewing the dailies each night, beating yourself up for what you could have done better, you can be assured that you will hate your footage – or even worse, you will be in love with it. You need someone with no emotional attachment to what they are cutting. You need to keep your distance and start looking at the film the way the audience would, which is not going to happen if you spend weeks looking back through every take, and trimming every cut.

Remember that shot you spent 10 hours setting up, for which you had to hire a helicopter? Well, it’s crap. Or maybe it’s great, but if it’s not, you need someone to tell you it’s crap without caring about how much or how long you spent on it. You love that shot where the actor looks through the window thinking about his dead sister. The performance is great, right? Except nobody aside from you and the actor knows that he’s thinking about his dead sister. Having an editor on board gives you someone to take the audience’s fresh point of view.

For these reasons, as the editor, I like to keep away from the set (but somehow always find my way to the wrap party). 

Get a (Good) Cinematographer

As a general rule, if the first thing your DoP mentions is the camera they want to use, you’re probably in trouble. Get a cinematographer that understands the basics of cinematography so that everything that you shot with that very expensive camera is usable in the edit. These basics include:

  • the “line” that shall not be crossed (or that has to be crossed properly with careful planning)
  • the eyelines that shall be matched
  • the 30-degree rule, and other “how this shot will cut with the next one” rules

If you went to film school or read about filmmaking you’ll find these obvious, but the number of times this seems to be forgotten leads me to believe it should be reminded.

Also make sure they bring in a good gaffer. Lighting is the most important thing.

Another way to spot a good Cinematographer is when they’re willing to part with some of their budget to devote it to Production Design… 

Give Money to Production Design

The importance of this will of course vary based on the nature of your project, but in micro-budget filmmaking if there’s one thing you should be throwing money at it is the art department (and catering, but that’s relevant to the well-being of your crew, not the quality of the film). There’s no point getting the most expensive camera on a steadicam if they’re going to film actors in a terrible setting. What will make your film look good are your locations, props, and costumes.

 Don’t Ignore Sound

When scouting locations, keep sound recording in mind. The obvious is being near a busy road, but there are more sneaky less predictable events like being in a flight path, or in an office where you don’t have control over the air conditioning. If you’re shooting on the beach, you’re pretty much going straight to ADR (which has never sounded great, in any movie ever, so it should be avoided as much as possible).

And get a great sound recordist. I know, they are hard to find. For some reason, they don’t gravitate in the same circles as the rest of film people. They seem to often be in a different section at Uni, and they are rare enough to be quite expensive as soon as they are good.

It’s also not enough to get good sound. You have to get usable sound. Your sound recordist should know the script. They have to follow who will be talking next and point the mic in the right direction (pointing the mic “in the middle” is lazy and sounds awful). Don’t bother booming the characters that are not in shot. The audio from other angles will be used.

Little things like asking your actors or extras to take their shoes off (when their feet are not in shot, obviously) will make sound mixing so much easier. If you’re filming in a kitchen, unplug the fridge if possible. Any source of hum will deteriorate your audio, and while a lot of it can be fixed, it’s a lot quicker and easier to think about these things while on set.

Record atmos for EVERY scene. If you have extras in a scene, make sure they “mime” conversations, without making a sound. Then record a “walla” track at the end, which will be pasted over the whole scene and sounds a lot more seamless than having bits of background chatter that cut every time your angle changes.

 

Director Francis Ford Coppola advises his film crew as they set up to shoot a scene during the filming of the movie Godfather III in the Little Italy section of New York on Saturday, May 19, 1990. The crew had just arrived from filming on location in Italy. (AP Photo/Gene Page)

Director Francis Ford Coppola advises his film crew as they set up to shoot a scene during the filming of the movie ‘Godfather III’ (AP Photo/Gene Page).

GET THE RIGHT COVERAGE

Plan It

Improvising on the day with the camera might seem great for creativity, but you will end up with a lot of unusable footage. Crossing the line is the most obvious example on how you might render a shot unusable, but there are plenty of ways you might ruin it. The most important shots to plan are the opening and the closing shot of each scene. Think of how it might cut together with the previous scene and the next.

For example, one ugly scene change I always try to avoid in the edit is having the same character in the last shot of one scene, and already visible in the first shot of the following scene, in a different time or location. It’s good to plan “neutral” shots to start and end scenes, where the character has left the frame, or the camera has panned or dollied to or from an empty wall, etc.. They might not end up being used, but they can save a difficult scene transition. 

Storyboard is your best tool to plan for all of this. If you can’t draw to save your life, take photos; it doesn’t need to be in the right location or with your actors, what matters is shot sizes and eyelines. 

Shoot Less Angles

Unless you are filming a car chase or a fight scene, you don’t need 12 angles for a scene. Focus on performance and on getting varied coverage. By varied I mean different shot sizes, focusing on different elements of the scene. 

If you film a character over the shoulder of another one, try to hide the mouth of the one turning their back to the camera. This gives a lot more flexibility in the edit and allows to be really in control of the rhythm.

If you have a strong vision for a scene with minimal coverage (like a complex steadicam sequence shot), because no shoot is perfect and nothing goes exactly to plan, you should plan some “extra” coverage. If things don’t work out, having just a few cut-aways or alternative angles as a safety will save your film in post. 

Film More Action

You don’t need much coverage to make a scene work and your editor’s life easy. One thing that will make them very happy though, is if you let them choose when to cut. The main problem encountered when cutting scenes, is the lack of action in the close-ups. 

Let’s take an example:

You have a scene where a character enters a room, sees someone on the other side of it, stops, says “hello” and a conversation ensues (I would make a great writer). You are probably going to start the scene with a wide shot with one character in frame and the other entering, to establish the room and where characters are in relation to each other, and then run the whole scene. Great.

Then comes the close-up of the character entering the room. You might set him on his mark, make sure the camera is in focus, and then start the dialogue from “hello”. Not so great. To get more choice in the edit, film the character entering the room in the close-up, before saying “hello”.

The reason for this, is to ‘match the movement’. It’s what makes a cut both seamless and dynamic. Seeing a character starting to turn in a shot and finishing his movement in the next, is the best way to avoid jarring cuts. You can even get away with massive continuity errors, so long as the movement matches. As a general rule, try to start and finish shots with an empty frame (or the character turning their back, or anything else that might seem unusable), and get your actors to perform the actions, even when out of frame. This will also help their performance. 

Get Closer

Wide shots are great. They are also your worst enemy (or at least your editor’s), for several reasons. 

Performance:

It might seem counter intuitive, but it’s harder to get a great performance from an actor in a wide shot than it is for a close-up. The first reason is that they need to perfect their whole body language to convey an emotion, instead of just their face. In a close-up, an actor needs less “acting” to convey an emotion, making it easier to achieve (but it also requires subtlety, so be wary of over-acting). 

Photography:

A wide shot is harder to light, harder to compose (in terms of placing things in the frame) and less dynamic. It requires a lot more preparation and attention to detail, making it a lot more difficult to pull off. In the edit, I personally tend to favour the closer shots. So it’s always frustrating to get 12 takes of the establishing wide shot, and only 2 or 3 of the key close-ups. 

Continuity:

Unfortunately, one of the main obstacles an editor faces when cutting from one shot to another, is continuity. The position of the actors has to (somewhat) match, and the wider your shot is, the more elements have to match between each shot. If you’re running late on schedule, getting just the master shot (or prioritising it) is the worst possible idea. Despite its name, it’s probably the least necessary of all.

Actors need to get all their lines perfectly, including the timing, and there is no way to cheat in the edit. If you’re pressed for time, get your close ups secured first, and ditch the master shot if you must lose one.
 

Sam Mendes on the set of 'Skyfall' with actor Judi Dench and DP Roger Deakin (image: courtesy Sony Pictures).

Sam Mendes on the set of ‘Skyfall’ with actor Judi Dench and DP Roger Deakin (image: courtesy Sony Pictures).

SHOOT FOR POST

Speed Your Actors Up

You will not realise it on set, but everything your actors do is too slow. They take too long when they “think”, and they’re late with their reactions to other actors’ lines. I have rarely seen a performance when I thought: “It’s going too fast” – the opposite is most often the case. Especially with comedy, dialogue should be snappy. So push them to be quicker. 

Slow Your Actors Down

I’m aware of the contradiction with my previous point. That applied to master shots, where more than one actor is in frame – this applies to close-ups.

When filming single shots on one character, make sure to slow down your actors, and avoid lines overlapping between your characters, both in and out of shot. This is to make your editor’s life easier. It feels quite strange while on set, but the overlap is then created in the edit, where your editor can control the length of the pause between lines, allowing them to overlap when needed.

If your actors’ lines overlap while you shoot, the rhythm is set and you lose control of the pace for the scene. Not to mention the fact that the boom (probably) wasn’t pointing towards the person out of shot, meaning you also end up with bad audio that you can’t get rid of. 

Stop Saying “Aaaaaaand Cut”

This is a pet peeve of mine. Say “Aaaaaaand action” all you want if you think it helps you or the cast, but please just say “Cut” when you have everything you want. As soon as you start saying “Aaaa….” – the actors stop acting, and the remaining footage is unusable. Also, when you’re running behind, yelling “Cut” 2 seconds earlier than usual isn’t going to put you back on schedule, but it will most certainly destroy what would have been a good, usable moment.

 

Walter Murch working on the sound design of 'Apocalype Now'.

Walter Murch working on the sound design of ‘Apocalypse Now’ (image from Cinephilia and Beyond Archive).

POST PRODUCTION

Let Go of Your Ideas

I guess that you are directing your own script. Even if not, chances are you will be scared when your editor starts cutting out things you thought were important for the story. Don’t think the editor is disrespecting your script, or your direction, when they cut a line of dialogue. The beautiful thing about film, is that images speak louder than words. You might have needed that line on the page, but now that your actors are fleshing it out, you can trust that their performance will convey the emotion and the idea that previously needed dialogue. In saying that, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have written that line in the first place.

I’d advise anyone to read this interview of the Mad Men editors, talking about how Matthew Weiner (writer/showrunner) approaches writing and editing (being cut out of the directing part). He will purposefully overwrite (and overshoot) to get the actors through the right emotional transition, knowing very well he will cut part of it out in the edit. You don’t need to be conscious of it when you write or direct your film, but you should be open to your editor’s suggestions about cutting out unnecessary parts, and even be proactive, suggesting it yourself if you can see it. 

But Also – Fight for Your Vision

In the same way that your actors are going to interpret a scene differently from what you had envisioned, your editor will also cut it with a different meaning to what you had intended. The actors and the editor will sometimes come up with an idea that makes the scene better, and sometimes they’ll take it somewhere you don’t want it to go. Just direct them.

My favourite part about editing is the relationship with the director. I love it when I come up with something they hadn’t expected, then they tell me how great I am. I also love it when I do something that the director doesn’t like; we argue, and I lose. The idea is, that discussing your ideas and vision with someone else, will either change your view on it, or reinforce the fact that you were right in the first place. In both cases, your film will end up stronger and better for it. 

Throw Away the Script

As the editor, I only read the script in pre-production when I’m asked if I want to get on board, and then put it away. The director should do the same after the shoot. There is no point trying to make pieces of footage fit the script. 

Your editor will look through absolutely everything and make an “assembly edit” containing the best takes of all that was shot (even if they already know that will be cut). This will be as close to the paper script as it can be, and it will be unwatchable. So forget about it, and look at what you now have in front of you, which pieces are necessary to tell your story. 

If you need more control over the process of selecting takes, or want to speed up post-production, make sure you keep a thorough continuity sheet with your preferred takes and any notes relevant to your editor while shooting.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

I hope some of these tips will helps directors come into the edit, with the best material possible. Which will make the edit an enjoyable, creative and constructive process. 

Your editor might say that they “like the challenge” of fixing a problematic scene, but in reality, the best reward is not when you have “saved” a scene with some clever cutting, but when you built one that came with way too much amazing footage to choose from. Carefully selecting the best moments, conveying the right emotion, with your choices being dictated by performance and rhythm, rather than trying to hide or fix mistakes.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julien Chichignoud has worked as a professional Editor for over a decade. He began his career in France as a Broadcast Technician and Editor for networks such as TV5MONDE and Orange Sports, before moving to his adopted home of Sydney, Australia; where he works as a freelance Editor and Colourist.

To find out more about Julien, check his website: julien.chichignoud.com

Also read his excellent blog post, How to Get People to Work for Free on your Project… By Someone Who Likes to get Paid.

 

Feature image: Director Baz Luhrmann on the set of THE GREAT GATSBY (© Warner Bros. Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures)

6 Comments

  • Reply January 28, 2015

    Julian Arriens

    Words of wisdom, adopt a few of these and ease every editor’s life a little. Def don’t over-complicate it with the angles… but do get those backup cutaways!

  • Reply January 31, 2015

    Lucas Ross

    As a sound editor I would suggest not saying “aaaaaannnnnnd action”. When editing dialog some of the most useful tracks are the roomtone tracks. It can save lots of time. But you may not have time to get roomtone on set. Or the Grip down the hall and around the corner may not think the microphone can hear him packing up. But it can.

    I would recommend saying “And….. (2-3 second pause) ….. Action!”

    That 2-3 second pause can save us if the roomtone tracks (That were still recorded) don’t work out.

    • Reply February 6, 2015

      Julien Chichignoud

      Great tip!

    • Reply February 12, 2015

      Nicole Boyd

      Such a great point to make. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used these kinds of pauses for room tone.

      (Nicki – V&F Editor)

  • Reply November 24, 2016

    Luke Smith

    I really like your comment about not needing 12 angles for a scene unless it’s a car chase or something else with a lot of excitement. I would imagine that as an editor especially, clipping those angles together would be a considerable amount of work. I would imagine that good way to learn some good directing tips would also be to study the work of current directors and see things they’re doing well.

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