The Grammar of Storytelling: Narrative Editing with Andy Weisblum, ACE

The Grammar of Storytelling: Narrative Editing with Andy Weisblum, ACE

Highlights

  • Oscar-nominated editor Andrew Weisblum, ACE values storytelling over tools.
  • How NLEs changed the editor-assistant dynamic.
  • Editing is like playing chess: think about how you’re building a sequence in advance.
  • Every film has its own “grammar,” or unique set of rules, both in terms of storytelling and techniques.
  • A good editorial assistant anticipates the editor’s needs and gets noticed for going above and beyond their regular duties.

If you’re one of those editors who likes to geek out over the technology you use, you’re not alone. But Andrew Weisblum, ACE, is not that kind of editor. He knows his tools well enough to have been an adept visual effects editor, and obviously well enough to work steadily with directors like Wes Anderson, with whom he most recently collaborated on this year’s Oscar-nominated stop-motion animated film Isle of Dogs. He’s also worked with Darren Aronofsky, for whose Black Swan he earned Oscar, BAFTA, and ACE Eddie nominations.

andy weisblum
Image courtesy of Andy Weisblum.

He also spent ten years as an assistant editor at a time when the editing process was transitioning from film to digital, and has some keen insights and observations about what’s changed and how it’s affected the way a cutting room operates—along with what aspects of a traditional film edit are still (and will always remain) relevant.

In between projects, Andy was happy to discuss topics like how finding the “grammar” of each film is essential, what makes editing like playing a game of chess, which qualities make an assistant valuable, and what steps assistants can take to help move their careers forward.

Rewind

For those of you who have only edited digitally, there’s a huge difference in how the traditional film-based cutting room worked—both physically and in terms of the relationship between editor and assistant.

Way back then (meaning as recently as the late 1980s), 35mm workprints came on large, platter-sized reels, typically of 1000 feet each. And for every reel of workprint, there was an accompanying reel of clear film, which had the sound recorded onto two magnetic stripes. Editors cut the film on “flatbeds” such as Kems or Steenbecks or Moviolas (which took up half of an edit suite) that had a little projector and speaker system that let them view the rolls of workprint and mag film, and they’d cut both, physically, on a film splicer, and put the pieces back together with perforated tape.

steenbeck 16mm editor
Image © DRs Kulturarvsprojekt (CC BY-SA)

It was the assistant editor’s job to work closely with the editor, taking the leftover bits of film, or “trims,” and keeping them in order in case the editor needed to adjust a cut by adding back a few frames. Similarly, they needed to know where alternate takes lived in the remaining rolls of film, which were marked according to scene and take numbers (because there was no such thing as timecode on film).

Imagine that if you were editing a 90-minute motion picture that was shot with even a 3:1 ratio, you’d have roughly 24,000 feet of 35mm film sitting in twenty-four 1000-foot cans (plus the same number of cans of mag film). And that would be a conservative number—there are directors who can easily shoot 30,000 feet of film for a sixty-second commercial!

It probably sounds incredibly cumbersome and labor intensive. And it was. But if you were an assistant prior to the 1990s, you were able to closely observe how masterful editors approached and executed their craft. It was a true apprenticeship, and you were the editor’s second pair of hands, much in the way a nurse assists in an operating room by anticipating which tools the surgeons will need before they even ask for them.

cutting room floor

Moreover, when the director was in the cutting room with the editor, the assistant was privy to the inner workings of two storytellers. We’ve recently highlighted some of the successful director-editor relationships (including several from our 2019 Oscars roundup) and the creative exposure from which an assistant could benefit is akin to getting paid to take master classes.

The editor’s apprentice

Andy was lucky enough to apprentice with William Pankow, ACE, who frequently collaborated with Brian De Palma on such films as Carlito’s Way, Casualties of War, and The Untouchables. The lessons Andy learned at his side were some of the most important of his career.

“Editors depended on their assistants to anticipate their needs. It was almost like a game of chess, where you had to think several moves ahead and plan accordingly. I learned what Bill’s process was so that I got to the point where I knew that he was going to need a close-up next, or would want to go to a wide shot or a reverse.”

It’s one of the things that’s so different about editing digitally, where the assistants are responsible for loading all the footage into bins and timelines, and then leave the editor to the business of the creative work while they are off dealing with turnovers or prepping new footage to be ingested.

“By sitting at the side of the editor, you were always talking about what you were doing,” Andy says. “There was a decisive approach to why you were cutting and where. Bill was open to sharing his process and what he was thinking, and we were problem-solving together.”

When digital editing became the standard, that kind of constant interaction and discussion became less common. “Everything about the construct of the cutting room has changed. It’s a lot more time in isolation, with the editors talking to themselves a bit while the assistants are off doing their tasks.”

Editing strategically

But just because it’s easier to make changes digitally doesn’t mean the approach to editing should be any less strategic or thoughtful—it’s what sets an experienced editor apart from a novice. And it’s where Andy’s film-based cutting room apprenticeship has most significantly informed his approach.

Although he works exclusively on Avid nowadays, he considers himself to be a deliberate editor. “I take my time looking at the material and thinking about it, and that way I don’t have to recut it much because I’ve thought about the various options—if I use this shot here and this moment there, have I blown it for this later beat or is it the right way to go? What’s the grammar of this?”

Grammar is a term Andy uses when talking about how he works with different directors, particularly in his collaborations with Darren Aronofsky, with whom (in addition to Black Swan) he’s worked on The Fountain, The Wrestler, Noah and, most recently, Mother!.

“Darren’s structure is about rules,” Andy says. “He tries to establish what the film is and what its language will be. Will this film have jump cuts? Will it have point-of-view shots? It’s important to establish these kinds of guidelines not just on a technical, but also on a storytelling level in order to keep the film coherent.”

Andy’s first film with him was The Fountain, for which he served as visual effects editor. “In that film, the visual effects were a big part of the storytelling rather than just a decorative tool. It was the film that helped me to become a lead picture editor.”

Like most longtime director-editor teams, Andy and Aronofsky communicate somewhat intuitively in the language of filmmaking. “I assemble everything, and maybe show him a couple of things if he’s concerned about whether he’s captured what he needed. He likes to see what my interpretation of the material is first and then react to it. ‘I like this part but not that,’ or, ‘I had this in my head but that is better.’ Then we go through the process of looking at all the dailies so that, by the time we’re done, we both know all the options and have discussed them extensively. With Darren, I’ll often do multiple versions because it allows us to know how many different ways we can approach it. Even if we have established rules, we’re still able to experiment within that framework.”

Being methodical and thinking about your editorial strategy may seem like a slower approach, but in the end it may save you time by minimizing revisions and recuts. If you’re working with a new director or client, it’s worth it to discuss the director’s ideas before cutting, so at least you have an idea of what the goals are for the finished product, or can tease out the rules (or grammar) for the piece. Establishing those rules can help keep you on course—or, should you decide to break them, they help you understand exactly what necessitates that choice.

Wes Anderson is another director who has strong ideas of what he envisions. “It’s an equally collaborative relationship, but you could say that it’s slightly inverted,” Andy says. “What I mean is that he knows exactly what he wants and how he’d like to see it, and that’s what we do first. After that, if other ideas come up, the floor is open and I can try what I like because he’s satisfied that he has what he wants already. We try beating it up a little to see where it can go, and Wes is open to hearing other opinions. But it’s great that he knows what he wants from the outset, because sometimes it’s just right. Sometimes I actually don’t have a better idea.”

It’s been said that Anderson is so exacting that he can perceive a one-frame difference in a cut. “It makes my job easier,” Andy says. “There’s no waffling, which I love. It’s far more difficult to work with a director who either doesn’t know what he or she wants or can’t articulate what’s not working for them. It’s my job to help them figure it out, of course, but it also makes my job harder.”

Andy has cut several of Anderson’s films, including his other animated feature, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, as well as the live action films The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom. “My role, whether it’s animation or live action, is to work with Wes as a collaborator.”

Andy functioned as supervising editor on Isle of Dogs, sharing responsibilities with Eddie Bursch and Ralph Foster, which allowed him to come in at critical story-building periods and to go away during long stretches of the laborious animation filming. “Over the course of the two-plus years, I spent the initial stages working with Wes on the animatic to clarify or simplify or reshape the story. We tinkered with timings and different character ideas in these intensive sessions. And then, after a few months of working on something else, I’d come back to address some of the animated scenes with him and we’d reevaluate to make sure that the project was developing properly and to do a little overhaul if something wasn’t working. After the shoot was about halfway through, I stayed on with Wes to help finish the film and refine what we had.”

isle of dogs 01
“Isle of Dogs” © Fox Searchlight Pictures

Story trumps tech

While working through story is always the primary focus of the supervising editor, Andy’s background in visual effects editing has been an important factor in the development of his career. And while he claims not to be a tech enthusiast, there’s no way to edit at the level (or on the kinds of projects) he does without being incredibly tech savvy.

“All I care about is that I’m working intuitively on a system so that I can concentrate my energy on making the film better,” he says. “If you’re more excited about how your speakers are laid out or by which mouse you’re using, it’s really got nothing to do with how the story unfolds.”

Still, on Isle of Dogs, almost every scene required visual effects work for rig removals and background enhancements. And Black Swan had a hugely complicated visual effects-laden dance sequence at the end of the film.

There’s an interview on Uproxx in which Wes Anderson interviews Andy about that film, and Andy’s response acknowledges fully how much different having digital editing systems—and knowing how to use them intuitively—has changed what’s possible in modern filmmaking. 

“One thing that I like to do is explore a lot of things that go beyond the footage, in terms of digital solutions and split screens and tricks and gags and things like that. They are still organic to what’s been shot but we’re trying to come up with other solutions editorially that we can explore. We wouldn’t be able to do that on film.”

So, yes, an Avid may be just another tool, but learning to use your tools, whatever they may be, at a level of expertise that feels as intuitive as, say, breathing, is still something you have to do if you want to be able to focus on storytelling. In fact, every highly accomplished editor will tell you the same thing—knowing your tools is one of the absolute fundamentals to working in an editorial capacity.

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Become the point person

Assistants today may not be responsible for actually handing strands of celluloid to an editor, but that doesn’t mean that they can get away with being less attentive or methodical. What Andy specifically looks for in a good assistant is still someone who will make his job easier by anticipating his needs.

“I want to be sure that I have a point person who can anticipate what might be coming or when things might get crazy. I want them to take that moment when things get quiet to organize and delegate in a way that everything is covered without my having to articulate what’s going to keep me working or what’s going to slow me down.”

If an assistant is doing a good job, the editor shouldn’t notice. They should be able to keep focusing on the story, not on the logistics of how they’re getting their material. As Andy says, “There’s often a lot of busy work with file stuff and organizing that’s not thought through very well. I don’t stick my nose in it unless I can see that it’s getting messed up.”

Suppose a surgical assistant didn’t know when to hand the doctor the scalpel or the sutures—while the patient was on the table? In other words, you don’t want the editor to notice you because you’re not doing your job.

Take chances

On the other hand, if you want to be noticed for doing a superior job, you have to do your assistant duties well and, on top of that, take some chances.

Andy is the kind of editor who believes in giving his crew opportunities to cut. “I’ve been in situations where I’ve had more to cut than I could manage in a reasonable amount of time, so I’ve opened up the floor to the assistants.”

Nevertheless, there have been shows in which the assistants haven’t taken him up on the offer.

“There are a lot of reasons why I may not have had takers,” Andy says. “They may have a lot of work of their own doing intake and prep and turnovers and coordinating with other parts of the post process. Or they may feel intimidated. But the fact is that if you want to learn how to be an editor, you have to start out by not doing it well. It’s the only way to build confidence.”

If there’s one piece of advice you take away from this interview, it’s this. “If you want to be an editor and the editor you’re working with is willing to let you participate on that level, do it.”

We’ve heard this from several newly minted editors recently. And it clearly worked for them. Editors Gardner Gould (Hotel Artemis) and Lucian Johnston (Hereditary) are perfect examples of apprentices who did their jobs perfectly and then went above and beyond. In both cases, they worked as co-editors until the senior editors rolled off the productions, allowing them to finish the films—and to go on to new projects as editors.

gardner gould and lucian johnston
Gardner Gould (left) and Lucian Johnston.

Andy acknowledges that in a day where the assistants aren’t working alongside the editor, it’s more challenging for them to learn editorial strategy. “That’s why it’s even more important for them to try things and bring their work forward.”

Drawing on his past with Bill Pankow, Andy still likes to share his work with his assistants in order to get initial reactions. “I often show them what I’ve worked on just to try to feel their reactions, even if they’re not necessarily going to be honest with me. But sometimes it just tells me right away whether something is a mess or not.”

Here’s the thing: if an editor with Andy’s experience can occasionally question his approach to a sequence, you definitely will. But in those moments of doubt, let his words echo in your mind.

“Mess it up first, and then you can analyze why it’s not working and you can fix it. There’s nothing to lose.”

Given his track record, it’s clearly excellent advice.

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Thank you to Lisa McNamara for contributing this article.

Lisa McNamara is Frame.io's copywriter and a frequent contributor to The Frame.io Insider. She has worked in film and video post-production approximately since dinosaurs roamed the planet.

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