How to Train Your Director: The Keys to Editing Collaboration
It’s been said that there are two entry-level positions on a film set, production assistant and director. It can be even tougher when you’re a seasoned editor sitting next to a brand new director trying to crystalize their vision. Of course, everyone on the project is there for the purpose of creating great work and helping the director turn the script into a story on the screen. But there’s a real struggle when you are trying to balance the tension between giving ideas a fair shot, and doing what you “know” won’t work.
It’s not uncommon for an editor to become a gentle mentor to new directors while still giving them the room to lead. So let’s look at some of the challenges you can face in the cutting room, and how to become the kind of collaborator that inspires the growth of those around you.
Where do new directors come from?
New directors can come straight out of film school, but there are plenty of creatives who are making lateral moves into directing videos. I’ve worked with writers, actors, motion graphics designers, shooters, and producers who have all tried their hand at directing web videos and product spots.
For new directors, it really helps to have an experienced DP and producer on set, as they can help guide them towards wise decisions. Once the cameras cut, there’s a temptation to think that the task of directing is over.
What? Post-production needs directing?
Many new directors (and clients) assume that the only thing happening in the edit bay is lining up the good takes in the order of the storyboard. But any seasoned editor will tell you that it’s really the reconsideration of everything that has happened up to that point.
Questions are asked, repeatedly. Does the writing actually work? Did the performances read on camera? Do the sets add or distract from the message? Are there totally unnecessary shots, or a scarcity of usable b-roll?
Editors all know that this process often rewrites the material in significant ways, but it can come as a real shock to new directors. I’ll often share the famous Robert Bresson quote “A film is born three times. First in the writing of the script, once again in the shooting, and finally in the editing.” This helps the director to recognize that “everything is on the table”, and anything can hit the cutting room floor.
Directing is owning decision rights
The concept of “managing up” helps editors work with new directors. Your job is to help them become successful at theirs—even if you feel they aren’t competent at it. Your mindset here, then, can be one of helping them to grow, regardless of who gets the credit.
“You’re really working to craft two projects at the same time; the video on your screen, and the director at your side.”
Consider that you’re really working to craft two projects at the same time; the video on your screen, and the director at your side. At the end of the project, your success will be defined by more than merely exporting a compelling video. It’ll also be about helping your collaborator to learn their craft better, and for them to become a more effective collaborator themselves.
One of the best ways to move a collaboration forward is by asking questions instead of arguing points. Phrased correctly, questions can open up conversations without setting up the other party to be defensive. I like questions that indicate a level of humility and give the benefit of the doubt.
For example, phrases like, “What was the thinking behind this angle?” or “What did you have planned for this transition?” “What do you think about the way this shot leads into the next?” “Now I’m not sure if it is just me, but how does this make you feel?”
By drawing out the thinking of your director, you’ll be able to get into their head and often help them to realize that there is a different way to accomplish their vision than what they originally planned.
Introduce creative solutions
Sometimes a director can go into post-production with a sequence set in their mind, only to find out that desired effect isn’t achieved when it’s played back. Maybe they were being overly ambitious, or maybe they failed to see a problem on set.
In these instances, it’s important to give the director what they’re looking for as quickly as possible in the edit. Then ask your leading questions, to help them wrestle through the issues you see. This will provide an open door to make your suggestions on how to rework a scene.
Sometimes you’ll see problems coming a mile away, making it hard to invest energy into trying something that you know won’t work. But if you don’t try the initial direction you often won’t achieve the necessary openness to a new suggestion. By working this way you’ll build trust and that will ultimately produce speed over the project as a whole.
The relationship between an editor and a director can be a really beautiful thing. It has been compared to a marriage of sorts. But it requires a different approach. When you shoot or direct, it’s an additive approach to art, like putting paint on a canvas. When you edit, it’s subtractive, like sculpting. The editor removes the cruft and reveals the beautiful core. When we make room for one another, we can achieve amazing things!
Kill your darlings
Each new director must be introduced to the concept of “killing your darlings.” The idea is that it is often the most loved shot that ends up getting cut. But why? How is it that the most impressive visual can be quickly dispensed of by an editor. Or a majestic camera move that tells a story in one take can be cut into bits?
I think one of the most common reasons is that those killer shots often attract too much attention to themselves. If you’ve got ten shots in a sequence and the fourth is just head and shoulders above the others, it calls attention to itself. It reminds you that you’re watching a movie, not a story. So you need an evenness of execution to keep viewers focused on the story instead of the medium.
“Pointing out things like this to a new editor can be painful because those great shots probably took a lot of planning and emotional investment.”
When you put it all together in the edit, it sometimes just doesn’t work because the high point is just so much higher than the rest of the surrounding shots. Pointing out things like this to a new editor can be painful because those great shots probably took a lot of planning and emotional investment.
One of the best things editors can do for new directors is to point them to time-tested books on filmmaking. Some of my favorites are The Visual Story, In the Blink of an Eye, and (my all-time favorite) On Film Editing. These books will give new filmmakers a true appreciation for the art and power of editing. And they’ll help a director to think like an editor on set. They’ll learn how to shoot sequences to give an editor options rather than boxing them into a corner.
Showing work “early and often”
Depending on your environment, you might have clients or other producers.
There’s always a temptation to hold back on showing your work until you feel it is done. On our team, we encourage a philosophy of showing work “early and often.” This means that sometimes the Frame.io link to your project gets seen by more eyes than you initially thought would see it. But the benefit is that people can speak into the process before you get too far down the path and you’ve got your back against a wall of the delivery date.
Of course, the flip side of this is that it is hard for many people to evaluate a rough cut. They haven’t seen the available footage on the table and they’ll have a hard time getting the feel without the music.
For those folks, you’ve just got to figure out when the earliest you can get it in front of them, without risking a derailment of the project. A seasoned editor can help a director know when to get other eyes on the project. Those eyes can also help a director see their work in a different light. Those outside voices can help a director know when they do need to try a different direction.
An editor can be the key to helping a new director unlock their entire career. You can save problem shots, rework scripts, and create new story threads. Editors are problem solvers, artists, and craftspeople. But some editors rise above their craft and build up their collaborators. They’re able to become mentors, genuine collaborators, and true friends in the battle to make something out of nothing. You craft more than stories, you build up those around you and transform the world just a little bit. And that’s why we got into this in the first place, isn’t it?