It was a beautiful autumn day in Queenstown, New Zealand, and from my hotel room I could see the waters of Lake Wanaka stretch far out to the snow-capped mountains. And there I was, wishing I were anywhere else. I had four hours before the crew returned and the director would be expecting three finished edits.
To seasoned editors the situation would barely raise an eyebrow but on my first job in the industry I was discovering the truth in Aaron Sorkin’s dry wit: what I lacked in experience I was surely making up for with inexperience. And panic.
Story by Vivienne Smith
Fresh out of film school I was hired as a junior editor on the global TV show Wild Racers, which covers six extreme events in the Adventure Racing World Series. The production crew travel to some of the most rugged parts of the world to film these incredible five-day races: Costa Rica, Australia, Ecuador, South Africa, Switzerland, and now New Zealand. Part of my job was to provide daily shorts – videos that are uploaded onto sponsor sites, world media and news feeds where thousands across the globe tune in for the day’s highlights.
It was an impossible schedule. Up at 5.00am, on the road at 6.00am, maps out trying to locate the racers in the wilds of New Zealand. Film all day in some of the most brutal and stunning landscapes on earth, return to the hotel (or sometimes a remote campsite) at 9.00pm, log all the footage from five cameramen, then start editing around 11.00pm for the midnight upload.
The night before I had failed this punishing routine miserably. 1.00am came and went, and still the edit was deemed unacceptable for international broadcast, not to mention that I was behind on two more. So there I was, confined to my room while the crew was out adding even more to my digital backlog.
Most technical issues with digital film editing can be solved fairly easily. Google, online forums, fellow co-workers and tutorial videos will co-pilot you through most problems. But all these resources fall short when it comes to solving a creative block. And if you’re editing under pressure, this first piece of advice is paramount (and just as good for more laidback work as well): when faced with the blank timeline, just put something down. Anything. Then you have the first thing to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to. There’s no way of telling if a clip will work sitting in the bin. It’s all about avoiding analysis paralysis; <just make a decision>. Often it will be the right one and if it isn’t, you’ve now got something to change.
Often the first thing I’ll drop to the timeline is music. Even to non-editors, songs conjure up thoughts and images, and music is also a great way to calm you down! Once a track has grabbed my attention there are usually a few clips in the bin that I know straight away will go perfectly.
Don’t think about the whole edit and how it will pan out – at least, not yet. Keep to the very beginning and focus your energy on a great intro. Once you have that, the rest of it will start to flow and <then> you can begin planning your story line. You do not need the story line for the beginning – its purpose is to capture the imagination of your audience and, more importantly, yours as the editor. The more left field an intro the better, that way you might start with some abstract sounds, use a quote on a blank screen, or hold an image longer or shorter than you normally would.
Doing something you normally wouldn’t do is a powerful tool in your belt. That day in Queenstown I did all those things to get going: I found a quirky track in our music library, then added a clip from the day’s shoot where a radio call had accidentally been recorded. Ordinarily we’d replace the natural sound on this but hey, it was something different and it worked. My heart was pounding when I showed the final cuts to the crew but I’ll never forget the smile on the director’s face.
Creativity is flaky. Ideas pop into our heads without warning, sometimes flooding in at 3.00am and yet they seem to dry up at 3.00pm when a client is expecting an upload before the day is out.
So here’s another suggestion: When you’re in one of those creative, pre-dawn floods, make notes – in your phone or tablet or computer. If a song grabs you, Shazam it (the music recognition app). Save a YouTube link or snap a picture of something that catches your eye. Keeping them in one device means you’ll start to build up an inspiration bank, which you can dip into during a creativity drought. For me the Apple trailers or the Vimeo Staff Picks are always stimulating and these sites are constantly updating with new material. A short browse can get the juices flowing at 9.00am on a Monday morning, or at 11.00pm in the middle of the Australian Alps, sitting on your laptop bag wrapped in a down jacket, but that’s another story…
Wild Racers is produced by Nothin But Shorts International, a dedicated television and film documentary and series production studio, based in Sydney, Australia.