On Gender and Genre: A Woman’s Experience Cutting Action Blockbusters

On Gender and Genre: A Woman’s Experience Cutting Action Blockbusters

Highlights:

  • Some of the most iconic action films of all time have been edited by women.
  • Three tips for cutting kick-ass action sequences.
  • Editing “like a girl” is good advice.
  • Taking a step backward can lead to leaping forward in your chosen career.
  • No matter your gender, the “soft skills” count if you want to keep getting work.

From the time motion pictures came into being, some of the best-known film editors in the business have been women. From Barbara McLean (Twelve O’clock High) to Anne V. Coates (Lawrence of Arabia), and Dede Allen (Bonnie and Clyde), those women cut some of the most iconic action movies of all time.

Yet, if you look at the longtime partnerships between directors and editors, you’ll see that the majority of editors on that list have been, and still are, men.

But are changes afoot, at a time when gender equality is a hot topic not just in Hollywood, but across all professions?

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Melissa Lawson Cheung proves that, even as action films dominate the box office during the summer months, the tradition of women editors cutting them endures, and offers some insights and advice to other aspiring editors—whether they’re women or men.

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She’s just finished working on Peter Berg’s Mile 22, an action extravaganza, starring Mark Wahlberg, Lauren Cohan, Iko Uwais, and Ronda Rousey, and took the time to talk with us, breaking down her approach to cutting amazing action sequences and discussing what it’s like to be a woman in a relatively male-dominated business.

Stepping back to move forward

Melissa studied everything from fine art to cinematography before catching the editing bug. Once she did, she became “an editing nerd,” working late nights on student films and learning everything she could about the filmmaking process. If that sounds familiar, it’s because pretty much every successful editor we’ve spoken to has started similarly. As Mark Toia likes to say, “there are no shortcuts.”

While Melissa was still in school at The Academy of Art University in San Francisco, she began working at Tech TV, where she assisted and then worked her way up to editing. Because scripted content was her true passion, she made the move to Los Angeles to seek those sorts of opportunities.

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When she arrived, she decided to take a step that some would consider moving backward in order to further her career. Even though she’d been an editor at Tech TV, as well as in the video game sector of the industry, she decided that if she wanted to work in narrative filmmaking, she’d have better luck working her way in as an assistant.

She assisted on the USA Network show In Plain Sight, and on Battlestar Galactica before landing a job on the TV movie Virtuality, directed by Peter Berg. On that project, she assisted editor Colby Parker, Jr., who has been a longtime collaborator of Berg’s, and Melissa has since worked with Berg and Parker on Battleship (as first assistant) and Patriot’s Day (as additional editor) before landing an editor role on Mile 22, for which she and Parker shared editor credit.

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Women in Action

Melissa finds herself quite comfortable in the action genre and enjoys the challenges it brings. Before Mile 22, she was already a huge fan of The Raid, Iko Uwais’s breakout role (the one that led to his being dubbed “the next Bruce Lee”), and was excited to work on his fight scenes, as well as the many other high-intensity action sequences.

“Compared to the other Peter Berg films I worked on, this is the first that had this amount of pure action. There were a lot of practical effects, including all of  the explosions, but there were quite a lot of visual effects, as well,” Melissa says.

ZERO VFX (whose work we will feature in an upcoming story about The Equalizer Two), did the visual effects work for Mile 22. Because there were so many visual effects, there was always pressure on editorial to get sequences to ZERO so they could keep their pipeline moving.

And that’s just the beginning of what made cutting this film challenging. The exteriors were shot on location in Bogota, Colombia, and cinematographer Jacques Jouffret used a multitude of cameras in an effort to mimic the verité style of shooting common to documentaries about military conflicts.

Multi Camera Fight
From BTS featurette. STX Entertainment.

“Most of the main action was shot with three primary cameras,” Melissa says. “The A, B, and C cameras were Panavision Millennium DXL 8Ks, shooting in raw, and outfitted with anamorphic rather than spherical lenses. And because we were shooting action with lots of stunts and practical effects, there was a great deal of coverage using additional drone footage and GoPros—sometimes as many as eighteen cameras covering a given setup.”

The offline edit was done in DNx36 and Company 3 did a 4K Digital Intermediate. The assistants would cull down the footage to get rid of extra heads and tails on the GoPro footage during the setups, but the two editors watched all the footage to make sure there were no hidden gems. “There are key moments that the GoPros might capture that one of the main cameras wasn’t capable of, and that can give some interesting and unique options and angles,” Melissa says.

The next step for Melissa was to compile a well-cut select reel. “I put aside the best selects for each moment, the best angles for the fights, the best performances, while also organizing them for easy access. I’ll sub-clip each select and make notes in order to avoid having to dig too deeply again once I circle back.”

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Because this film was so footage-intensive, Melissa discovered that in some situations, using the frame mode (which shows clip thumbnails) in the Avid bins was a big help with her selects. “I’d separate the footage by the blocking, which meant that I could then find specific moments more quickly when I was finessing a scene. With the amount of various footage shot (usually out of sequential order) it became easier to find options visually rather than having to scroll through the timeline or read markers.”

That approach was especially helpful (along with script sync) in terms of allowing her to give Berg the options he likes to have, because although the sequences are action-based, they’re also very much character-focused. Wahlberg and his team have a lot of rapid-fire dialog and banter, some of which has a comedic element, and Berg would often have the actors do multiple line deliveries or variations.

Actors Preparing for Scene
From BTS featurette. STX Entertainment.

“When it came to the action sequences, I’d first put them together as choreographed so that we’d always have that as a guide to fall back on. Then we could approach the footage with a new perspective. Pete (Berg) likes to avoid becoming too predictable, and he wants to explore many editorial options and avenues with the footage. For example, from the start, it’s established that the main character, Silva, has a mind that often races, and we wanted to see the film through his eyes as much as possible. Therefore, the pace of the film reflects that.”

Melissa likes to do her first assembly without music. “I prefer to not use the music initially, otherwise I may unintentionally lean on the music as a crutch. When I go back to finesse the scene, I’ll add music to help guide where things may need to be tightened or loosened.” If that approach strikes a chord, it’s because it was the same technique that Eddie Hamilton used when working with Chris McQuarrie on Mission: Impossible – Fallout.

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Melissa does, however, like to lay in sound effects so that she can get a sense of the natural rhythm of the sequence. “While I was editing an Iko fight sequence, I’d add sounds of the strikes and kicks because it helped me feel the energy of the scene and better assess how well it was working.”

Working Against Type

A recent notable trend in Hollywood is the increase in strong female characters populating action films. Mile 22 is one of them, featuring at least three strong and capable women.

In a film where there are hard-core action sequences punctuated by the occasional emotionally charged scene, did Melissa end up, as the woman-in-residence, taking on more of those?

“It’s funny,” she says. “Colby (Parker) and I both ended up working on most scenes. At a certain point, we’d find that we’d each take ownership of certain sequences, but it wasn’t because I was the woman that I necessarily had certain tasks assigned to me. It had much more to do with workload.”

That’s not to say that she wasn’t happy, or even eager, to pick up the scenes that could benefit from a woman’s insights or instincts.

“There was one sequence in particular,” Melissa says, “in which the female lead, a CIA-trained fighter, pretends to cry, acting as if she’s a damsel in distress. And I felt strongly that we should wait a beat to start her crying so that she had the time to think of this plan, so it’d feel more calculated.”

If action sequences are intended to serve the story, and every good story depends upon the viewer connecting to the characters, then ultimately it shouldn’t matter whether the editor is a man or a woman. As a pro, Melissa relishes the opportunity to explore the emotions and motivations of characters, no matter the context.

Life Imitates Art

If, on the other hand, one of the main characters is also a mother with an all-encompassing career who has a young daughter from whom she’s often separated, perhaps there is an extra pinch of nuance that a woman’s point of view can provide.

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Melissa’s job, fortunately, isn’t quite as life-threatening as the character’s. It is, nonetheless, a juggling act.

“It was great that the cutting room wasn’t far from home,” she says. “We were working six-day weeks by the end of the show, but I was sometimes able to go home and put my daughter to bed and then go back to the office if necessary.”

Melissa works as a freelance editor and notes that the fact that she has a young child has definitely influenced the kinds of projects she’s taken on during her daughter’s infancy and pre-school years. Obviously, being away from home for long periods for work hasn’t been in the cards.

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One thing that has benefitted her, however, is establishing herself as a hard worker and a valuable team member. It’s the kind of advice that goes for anyone who wants to advance in the industry, but it’s particularly true for women who may need a little extra flexibility in their work lives.

“Although, it’s always a struggle to find balance as a parent with the demanding schedule of the entertainment business,” Melissa says. “I’ve been lucky to establish a few relationships throughout my career with people who understand my family needs but also know that they can depend on me and that I will always go above and beyond for them.”

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When Melissa had her daughter, she had been working on the episodic TV series Outlander and was able to take time off. Similarly, Berg and Parker have been supportive of her needing some flexibility in her schedule. “They’re both fathers,” Melissa says, “and they remember what it was like to have a young child.”

Realistically, she knows that she will not always land in this situation. If there’s anything that’s a universal truth about succeeding in the industry, it’s that you can almost depend upon getting to a point in any project at any level that will demand more than you can comfortably take on.

Establishing priorities for both family and work-life requires some degree of compromise. But if you always make sure to bring your A-game to every project, you’ll find that others are more willing to compromise along with you.

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Advice for all aspiring editors

Most of the tips Melissa shared apply equally to women and men. For example, being willing to take an assistant role in the sector of the industry in which you most want to work is something that she (and many other editors) have done. If you’re editing corporate explainers but really want to work in scripted episodic TV, it’s unlikely that you’ll be hired for an editor job when there are so many able (and eager) assistants already working their way up in those environments.

Melissa also articulated the added benefit, which is that already having creative editing chops as an assistant can position you to take on more creative tasks from the editor you’re assisting. Many editors will happily pass scenes on to assistants, and if you’re ready and willing to rise to the occasion, you’ll find more opportunities to keep doing creative work.

You still have to be willing to go back to the basics—nobody wants a know-it-all assistant—but if you can show that you have talent as a creative editor, chances are better that you’ll move up faster than a brand-new assistant.

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One of Melissa’s favorite bits of advice is for assistants to help editors with sound effects and music editing. Some editors (like Parker, as it turns out) find sound effects editing to be a little tedious. But for an assistant, it’s a chance to closely watch how the editor cuts a sequence and to contribute creatively.

“It’s easy for assistants to get bogged down in their tasks because there’s so much to do,” Melissa says. “Taking the time to show your abilities by helping with music or effects can be a fantastic way to grow into editing. Many extremely talented picture editors started as sound editors. Always jump at the chance to showcase your creativity whenever possible.”

Okay. Here’s where it can get tricky for women in gender politics, especially when we’re starting our careers. We are supposed to appear confident, but not challenging. We want to be team players but not get taken advantage of. We want to find ways to give our opinions without being perceived as pushy. And while there’s an increase in sensitivity to those kinds of issues in the business, there’s still a long way to go.

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If you’re someone like Melissa, you pay as much attention to the interpersonal dynamics as you do to the technical and creative aspects of the job.

“It’s important to have confidence in your abilities, but it’s also important to examine your personality with respect to others. Some people enjoy a lot of interaction, some less so. Everyone has their own ideas and approaches to situations, but you still need to find a way to collaborate to get the work done and find a solution that makes everyone feel they’ve been heard. You want to be considered a team player because being reliable and a positive part of the team is why you’ll get rehired.”

Academy Award-nominated and -winning editors like Sally Menke (Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds) and Thelma Schoonmaker (Raging Bull, The Departed, and The Aviator) paved the way for women in the field of post-production. And as more women like Melissa enter the profession, we hope for a time when we will no longer feel compelled to preface their title with their gender (i.e. women editors), nor will their presence on blockbusters be considered newsworthy.

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Photography by Irina Logra.

Thank you to Lisa McNamara for contributing this article.

Lisa McNamara is a freelance writer and editor, and has worked in film and video post-production approximately since dinosaurs roamed the planet.

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