How I Hire (and Re-Hire) a Film Editor

A film project is made three times – once on the page, once on set and a final time in post. As a director, I’ve always seen the editor as an equal to the writer and director. Yes, the words and story are written by the writer and sure, the director puts those words into a cohesive order, dictating the style and feel of the piece; but at the end of it, they both hand the editor a sack of parts and tell her to build a movie. It’s a difficult, wildly important job and I’m as picky as an apple picker (they must be picky, right?) when I hire my post team.

I’ve personally seen my film project saved in post production innumerable times. The entire order of a piece, the intention, the very idea of the work can be completely changed in the editing bay.  As an equal partner, I want my editor to be brimming with ideas, excited about the project and to consistently bring his own voice to the film.

Since our career is notoriously competitive, it’s often hard to know what qualities people look for when they hire for certain positions. To help, I’ve put together a guide on what I, as a director and producer, look for when I hire an editor, and also, what I look for to get that same editor re-hired (always an important step).

Here we go:

THE HIRE

I look for a few parameters when an editor sends me their work. It should be noted that I heavily prefer both a reel and several scenes that can showcase specific strengths. I’ve known editors who can edit the hell out of a cool reel for themselves, but upon closer examination, their ability to cut an actual scene is severely lacking. This leads me to my first box to tick…

DO THEY HAVE THE RIGHT WORK FOR THE PROJECT?

If I’m looking for an editor to cut a comedy pilot, it drives me mildly crazy when I’m sent someone’s reality show reel.

I’d rather see less work that hits the style I’m asking for, than get a whole bunch of samples that take up my time and don’t give me any real information.  (I’m always open to finding a diamond in the rough, someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience but that obviously shows a knack for a style).

When their content does match my ask, however, I look for a few things…

CAN THEY EDIT COMEDY?

romanholiday

If the project is a comedy…

Editing comedy is not easy. I’d argue that it’s the hardest thing to edit. Timing is everything – and the editor needs to have comedy timing flowing through their very veins. In a particularly funny way.

This is an editor who doesn’t just know what’s funny, he knows the length of a comedic beat, the comedy of a well-placed look, and the rhythm of a joke. The first thing I look for when I’m hiring  a comedy editor is does their reel truly deliver on the comedy. If not, no matter how good the rest of the reel is, I will likely look for someone else.

The fact is, you can give the editor specific notes to shorten a pause, but if they don’t know how long a funny pause is, you’re going to spend hours tweaking milliseconds off a cut. It’s exhausting for everyone involved.

A great comedy editor is a gift, which probably explains why I’ve often used the same editor for so many years.

All that said, when applying to edit a comedy, I would recommend scene samples that cover a few specific types of comedic scenes. These include:

Fast Patter: A scene with fast, back and forth dialogue. Rhythmic comedy that is like a game of ping-pong, back and forth, with a few choice moments of silence. Scenes like this, when done well, are the very height of comedy. It’s like listening to a finely crafted orchestra… that’s also very funny.

Here’s an example of fast-patter:

 

Awkward Silences: Long, awkward beats, where the comedy is in the looks of the actors, the movement of the cuts, the rhythm of the whole thing. This, much like the patter, shows me that the editor has a good grasp of comedic timing, that they know exactly how long an awkward pause should last before the action continues.

Here’s an example of awkward silences:

Note: In general, the American Office or British Office are a perfect study of comedy living in the awkward moments.

Physical Comedy: It’s like an action scene, but funnier. A good pratfall can nail a joke – and the editor has to show me that they can properly edit a tumble, a fall, a slap, you name it.

And this not only includes the pratfall, but the properly placed reactions of the characters watching.

Make Me Laugh: This is simple. Does the comedy sample you send make me laugh? Make me smile? Is it, in short, funny?

CAN THEY EDIT DRAMA?

maltese falcon big

If the project is a drama…

Much like comedy, there’s a rhythm to drama, and often it can be found in the silences (read more about this in my interview with editor Chris McCaleb). When I watch an editor’s drama reel (or drama scenes) I’m similarly looking for a few key things:

The silences: Can they draw out moments? Do they know how long a dramatic beat should last? Can they, with a well-placed quiet moment, show us what the actors are thinking, wanting, needing? And do they use that silence effectively in an overall dialogue-heavy scene?

The action: If I’m doing an action-drama, I want to see if they can edit action. A fight scene, a shoot-out, whatever it is, a well-edited action scene is a seamless dance, and the editor is its choreographer. Be wary of sending a bad action sequence – that’s a recipe to never being hired to do one again.

The drama: This seems like an obvious one, but when I look at a drama editor’s reel, I want to see drama that isn’t cheesy, that doesn’t feel like a soap opera. Drama that is raw and real and interesting. Please don’t send an old scene you did in college (where there is, undoubtedly, a character that is a hitman). 

Send the moments you’re proudest of, the ones that make the viewer feel. Much like the “make me laugh” section in comedy, a drama scene should make me feel something.

IS THE ACTING GOOD?

It’s surprisingly easy to ruin acting in post-production. If you’re ever bored, try it. Pick bad takes, don’t hold on moments (or hold too long) and find reaction shots that don’t at all fit the scene. On the other hand, a good editor can save a bad actor’s performance. Therefore, make sure every scene you send is genuinely well-acted. Even if it’s not your fault that an actor wasn’t particularly great, it colors the entire watching experience and will knock you down on the list of potential hires.

CAN THEY EDIT DIALOGUE?

A lot of editing reels I’ve seen feel more like DP reels than anything else – all visual, very little dialogue. The first thing I look at, however (no matter what the genre of the project I’m hiring for), is whether the dialogue is edited well. Sure, film is a visual art, but it’s also, in most cases, meant to mimic life — and what if life is not a whole lot of talking?

Next time you’re at a cafe, pay attention to the many different conversations and rhythms that are happening around you. There’s a beauty to it, be it dramatic or comedic. People flow over one another, they cut each other off, they take moments, race through stories, raise their voice, whisper, get distracted – it’s an entire, subconscious dance.

I want an editor who can capture that natural dialogue flow, where the cuts are seamless and I feel like I’m sitting and chatting right along with the actors.

THE RE-HIRE

Okay, so we’ve done one job together. The film industry is wildly incestuous and often, once you work with one person, you’re going to end up working with them over and over and over again. Trust is hard to build, but once you have it, you’re going to be working.

Here are the things I look for when I decide which editors I want to re-hire…

WERE THEY EASY TO WORK WITH?

Editing is a hard job. Aside from the actual mechanics and pressures of the work, it’s one of the few jobs where multiple people can lurk behind your shoulders, criticizing your every tweak, while loudly eating Cheetos and breathing down your neck. It’s… wholly unpleasant. In addition to that, as an editor, you might make some decisions you’re extremely proud of and then have those decisions overturned by the People in Charge, be it the director, producers or whoever else, making the whole process feel a little… powerless.

I understand all of these things, and I try to minimize those feelings of irritation and powerlessness to the best of my abilities. That said, I need an editor who can not only deal with the pressures of the job, but who is willing to do it with a smile. Someone who enjoys their job, who can collaborate well, who enjoys being in the trenches and can stand the hot, cheeto-stained breath of the director on their neck.

In short, filmmaking is a long and arduous process – I want to be stuck in a room with someone who can be light-hearted, who can laugh, joke and who loves filmmaking as much as I do.

CAN THEY TAKE NOTES?

Not only emotionally, but in practice too.

I am the nitpickiest of nitpickers. As a comedy-leaning director, I’ve worked for hours sometimes trying to get a joke just right. I need the beat to be shorter. Longer. The rhythm is off. The acting feels wrong. The intention of the scene isn’t working. When I give these notes, I need someone who can deliver on a result without me hand-holding every cut.

Other times, my notes are less specific. They’re working off a feeling. Something doesn’t feel right. It’s not landing. It’s all sitting wrong and I can’t quite place my finger on it. In this situation, I will re-hire the editor who could take my notes and translate them into something meaningful. They can listen and offer potential solutions and together we fix the problem.

In other words, I want an equal partner, not just a pair of hands.

CAN THEY FIGHT FOR THEIR IDEAS?

I thoroughly believe that an editor needs to be a creative force. I want to hear their ideas and I want them to bring their own style to a project. That means that when we’re sitting in in an edit and the editor has something that they’re proud of, I’d like them to be able to explain their vision to me clearly and concisely. I want them to not be afraid to voice their opinion, to discuss and fight for it, and if, at the end, we still decide to go another way, I want them to be able to swallow their pride and move on.

WERE THEY CREATIVE OR DID THEY CUT BY NUMBERS?

I’ve worked  with a couple of editors who wanted a cut-by-cut breakdown of a scene from me. The issue was that they both had came from an editing-mill (like a puppy mill but less cute) and they were used to being given paint-by-number binders. This wasn’t their fault – it was just what they were used to, but it’s not at all the way I like to work.

Similarly, while I want a rough cut to include every piece of dialogue in a scene, I also don’t mind the editor finding something new, experimenting, showing me a different way into a scene. What you shoot can vary, so what you had on the page will often be completely different than what you get when you shoot it. If the editor edits line by line by line, they might miss the moments in-between, the little touches the actors brought to the project, the surprises, the accidents.

I want to bring back an editor who brings their own creativity to a project and surprises me with their choices. I want them to put their own stamp on a project.

CAN THEY HIT A DEADLINE?

This is a simple one. If they tell me they can follow the post-schedule and they don’t hit the dates, that’s someone I’d be hesitant to hire again (unless there were extenuating circumstances, of course). The key here is to be reasonable about your estimates and to speak up when you think the timing is unrealistic. It’s better to come in early then to come in late, so be careful what you promise and make sure it’s realistic, lest you over-promise your way out of a job.

HOW WERE THE ROUGH CUTS?

Rough cuts are a tricky creature. On one hand, an editor will often not have a whole lot of time for their rough cuts and, generally, the cuts aren’t expected to be particularly great. On the other hand, a rough cut needs to show the promise of a good scene (if the scene is, indeed, good). It’s maybe an unfair ask, but I prefer an editor who has a rough knowledge of sound editing so they can at least even out some sound glitches to make cuts less jarring.

As a director, when I oversee a rough cut for a client, my goal is to make it look not like a rough first cut but like a smooth-ish second pass. I want it to be able to catch the essence of what the final product might look like. Yes, it might get whole minutes cut off of it in the end, and yes, we may end up changing the intention of the scene dramatically. But, the goal is for the scene to be watchable.  When I watch my editor’s rough cuts, I’m generally expecting the same thing.

This also helps me not enter a deep, dark depression after I watch a terrible first cut of something I made.

ONE FINAL THING

I’d like to leave off by saying that all of these things come from my own particular preferences and experiences. Some directors might prefer a mute editor who does what they say (and I can confidently say to those directors: you’re hurting your own project). Others might care less about an editor’s passion or love for the art, and just want someone who can cut quickly and give them the product that they want.

That’s fair enough. For me, I’m a filmmaking romantic. I love filmmaking because I love collaborating, I love creating art with talented people who love creating art with me. If you can be one of those people, I’ll hire you all the time, for everything, until you’re either dead or you’ve grown to hate me.

Good luck out there, go make some movies.

  • lowbudgetfun

    Hated this article because it spews the same non-sense that frustrates most of us in the business. For example:

    “If I’m looking for an editor to cut a comedy pilot, it drives me mildly crazy when I’m sent someone’s reality show reel. It’s as if, applying for an accounting job, you come in with your years of experience digging holes.”

    Actually, that’s not it at all. Accounting is to dirt digging, is not the same as cutting comedy is to cutting reality. While the reel may not have been in your genre, you’re still evaluating the editor’s ability to edit.

    I’m reminded of a situation I was in years ago when my team was staffing up a cooking competition show. Going around the room I’d hear a bunch of producers say, “Oh he has competition experience, but no cooking.” And a moment later, “Oh she has cooking experience, but no competition.” Because editors can only work within one narrowly defined
    genre.

    Close mindedness like this has stopped countless editors from expanding their skills and I expect more from Frame.io then encouraging small minded thinking like this.

    • Thanks so much for your comment. We really do appreciate the feedback and when readers engage in the conversation.

      If I may push back just a bit though, I feel like Yuri provided an incredible amount of valuable information. And perhaps, the analogy he used was not the best choice of words (with his approval, we have since removed it). But is this possibly a case of throwing out the baby with the bath water? Did you find nothing else useful in the article? Do you really think the entire article is “small minded”?

      Lastly, Yuri made a point to specify that these were HIS preferences. You either like it, or you don’t. This is what’s worked for Yuri. It should also be noted that he listed a long list of other parameters he looks at beyond whether or not they have done something in the genre: are they creative; can they hit a deadline; can they fight for their ideas; etc. I got the impression that he takes ALL of this info into consideration, not just whether or not they’ve cut something from the same genre (which, even by itself, doesn’t seem unreasonable to me).

      Also, FWIW, when we bring in a contributing writer, it is their opinion and their opinion only. Yes, we are publishing it on our blog, but it is our goal with the blog to provide a broad range of information. Not all of it will necessarily be the opinion of Frame.io the company or anyone who works here. I for one commend Frame.io for having the courage to share the thoughts and feelings of other filmmakers for the sake of a greater good of education, even if said education might not necessarily make everyone happy. I would hope and encourage you to not stick around and see where we take it.

      Thanks again for commenting.

      • lowbudgetfun

        Thank you for kind and thoughtful reply. And there was no need to ask the author to change his post.

        I won’t belabor the point, but of course I understand what he was trying to get at. it’s the same advice any career guide would give you; tailor your application as much as possible to the job you’re applying for.

        • Ooops. In my last sentence, I wrote “I would encourage you to *not* stick around and see where we take it.” The *not* was a mistake. 🙂

          Anyway, thanks again for engaging. Many more great articles to come. 😉

  • Kat Albert

    OMG, yes. I have a really hard time finding good editors, so these are helpful tips.

    • David Kong

      Thanks for the comment, Kat! I’m glad you found it so helpful 🙂

  • Notowitz

    Thank you Yuri for the wonderful insights. It was also written concisely and clearly.

    In my years working as an editor, I did know one thing — I was an excellent editor, but I was NOT an excellent editor of slapstick physical comedy. I agree that any kind of comedy is the most challenging of all genres to create, both in the shooting and the editing, and I’m always in awe when I get to enjoy a film which succeeds as a comedy.

    It’s satisfying in life to understand what you are good at, and what you’re not.

  • Kim Watkins

    I liked this article because I truly wanted to know the different ways I may be evaluated when sending samples of my work. This gave me a peek inside one director’s view which I find refreshing after having a spell of first time directors who were nothing more than silly nightmares who knew nothing about the edit workflow. It is good to know that there are some directors and producers out there who don’t undermine the integrity of editors or the process. Lately, I have been passed-over in favor of young budding film makers who can edit lightning fast and break all the rules while convincing the director that this is the “new” look. So much is made for streaming now that picture quality either doesn’t matter at all, or it caters to an ever increasing demand for the latest, greatest uber ultra high resolutions. Not really for the general public to be impressed with (most will not have anything to view a 12K movie on, and if they did, who knows if it’s being played from a 12K capable projector. It’s all or nothing and here I sit in between, capable of doing it either way, but dying to have the collaboration and meaningful meeting of minds with the visionary who brought me the pieces to assemble. I have the reverse problem. I am one of the editors that good directors want, but I keep getting caught up with newbie directors who are immersed in the instant feeling of power and attention from many people who are superficially impressed by them using those titles and not being savvy enough to recognize the good from the bad. They fail to put my full skills to work, giving me very little to show of my qualities. Maybe I am not that good, I don’t know. I think I am. I wouldn’t know if I can’t get the chance to collaborate instead of pushing buttons for a monkey (not a monkey pushing buttons… the reverse scenario). Mr. Baranovsky, may I edit for you? Seriously. You are the type of director I always thought I would work with when I learned TV/Film editing. It is an equal relationship, except that the director is not as disposable as the editor is. In other words, I never got the chance to ask a director for his/her reel before I will edit for him/her. I edit comedies, dramas, documentaries (which get mistreated a lot by documentary film makers who don’t understand their craft, but think they do, and mistakenly see editors as subordinates), and anything that I’m put to task to edit. I know the difference in genres and styles, so I know how to cater to them in editing. Dialog manipulation/correction is a skill that works seamlessly in my work because I am very good at it, it may take me months to develop the solution, but if it makes the moment, that’s what I’ll do.That is because of the timing and rhythm requirements in addition to eliminating the distraction of missed lines or mispronounced words is key to achieving suspension of disbelief. I do it all. It’s what editors are supposed to do. That can’t ever be illustrated in a reel or by watching my past work. It can only be appreciated on the spot when working with me and struggling with something that I find a flawless solution to. Cost-cutting has allowed less capable editors to infiltrate the competition but they have no depth of breadth of technical knowledge or the nuances that stimulate all of our senses. The stuff that touches audiences without them ever knowing why they had such a powerful viewing experience. I am proud of my skills but not so proud of my opportunities; I feel diluted in Hollywood. I wish there were more articles about editing experiences and preferences out there. Thanks for contributing. Every one helps a lot.