The Insider's Guide to Production: The Dark Art of Editing - Sponsored by Final Cut

The art of editing shares a few things in common with growing mushrooms... surprisingly.

I remember vividly the day I realised my vocation in life was editing film. On announcing this to the production company at which I was working, one producer chimed in, saying: "You do realise editing's like growing mushrooms... " I looked blank as she continued: "You're locked away for days in a darkened room and then the door suddenly opens and someone shovels a pile of manure on top of you." The euphoria of finding a purpose in life soon wore off. Despite this inauspicious start, I am still living in this darkened room 20 years on.

The reason why editing remains a passion is that no job is ever the same. There is always a unique combination of ideas, filming styles, post-production techniques, music selection and creative collaborations. The diversity of projects always keeps the role interesting. Editors expect to work on commercials, music videos, short films and documentaries, and sometimes on set with portable editing systems.

One of the factors that sets film editing or offline editing apart from other areas of post is that, at its heart, it is not about the hardware and software used or, in the old days, the flat-bed editing table. These are merely the tools; editing is about choices and decisions.

Often, it's ideas we edit as much as pictures. The closest analogy would be a sculptor crafting an intricate shape from raw material. It is just as important to focus on narrative and the arc of a story in a 30-second ad as it is in a 90-minute feature film. Commercials are a microcosm of longer-form films. Ultimately, our chief aim must be creating a film that communicates something memorable to an audience. This can mean using simple linear narrative, other times it is a more abstract visual and rhythmic communication.

In many ways, the craft of editing has not changed as much as the advertising industry itself has. The layers of approval, coupled with short time frames, can lead to a less considered and well-crafted end product. Clients also seem to be more prescriptive about areas of production and post that always used to be the domain of the individual departments themselves.

It always amazes me when clients shy away from standing out from the malaise of media noise. They are often more comfortable conforming to what others are out-putting in their market sectors. But then surely the point of advertising is to be noticed, not to blend into the crowd.

If there is any area of disappointment in the current industry, it is the lack of boldness that seems to be prevalent. The over-reliance on research leads to a dilution and neutering of ideas owing to committee over-analysis. The best creative work is often the result of spontaneity and simplicity of purpose, coupled with careful crafting.

Creative teams, directors and their chosen collaborators need to be trusted more and given the freedom to be daring and imaginative. However specific the scripted idea may be, the film-making process is organic, and projects have the potential to develop enormously during the process. The cutting room is the focal point of these possibilities. At least, it should be.

One of the drawbacks of non-linear editing tools, ironically, is that their ability to try out an infinitesimal number of edit options can encourage indecision. Often, by the end of it, no-body can see the wood from the trees. On linear systems, we had to make selection and edit decisions in a more considered way because of the physical limitations of handling film. The huge advantage of non-linear, however, is the speed at which you can access the wealth of material at hand, but we have to impose discipline in exploring the many directions the idea can go.

One of the developments that pose a challenge to the editing of advertising content is the internet film. This is now extending to video phones and iPods. The obvious simple differences relate to screen size and resolution. The use of the extreme wide shot, while adding so much production value to broadcast commercials (particularly cinema versions) is often of little comprehension in an mpeg 4cm square.

There are broader issues of how long edits should be, too, as there are not the same cost restraints as traditional broadcast media. We often judge these edits within the parameters of traditional TV media that are not always relevant. Indeed, one of the challenges we face is to invent formats to communicate with. Not just technical platforms, but the types of filmed content.

With digital TV enabling the viewer to avoid seeing commercial breaks, the need to target the relevant audience is greater than ever. It is interesting there has been a development of two-minute commercials running on terrestrial TV, against all the assumptions that that would be too costly. These big-production commercials are highly effective at making an impression on the public, as they stand out and almost dwarf what runs either side of them. This is the sort of bold approach that needs to be taken to keep the TV format relevant and effective.

The first incarnations of internet ads were called "virals", as they were designed to appear as subversive teasers, where the branding was deliberately concealed. Now it seems that there are more regular, branded commercials running on corporate sites. These are not "virals"; they are orthodox ads and indeed often fail to engage the audience in the spirit of internet surfing for "cool" content. It is a learning curve to which the industry is trying to adapt.

These new digital forms of communication that need creative content could potentially be an exciting era for advertising, but it needs to be embraced by spontaneity, bravery and a sense of fun. And there will always need to be judicious editing. Whether it is with the use of the Steenbeck table or some future hologram-inspired virtual-editing cyberspace, someone will always need to refine the raw material.

Got to go now - that door is just about to open...


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