Editors vs. Viewers: What Can Editors Learn From Their Audience?

The relationship between an editor and their audience can be compared to a long distance dating relationship. You’re not together in the same room, but you’re always thinking about them. And when you do spend time together, it can both strengthen your ties and reveal the faults in your relationship.

It’s the same for editors.

In this fourth and final installment of our series looking at how different aspects of storytelling can inform and inspire us as editors, we’ll be looking at the complex dance between subverting and satisfying audience expectations, why the audience must inform your editing choices, and why audiences aren’t always accurate barometers of a film’s merits.

Editors as the first audience

As I mentioned in the previous article on Editors vs. Directors, the editor must be the first audience for a project. At this stage, it’s your instinct, artistic perspective, creative choices, and editorial discernment that are key to building the best possible version.

It’s your job to catch things that aren’t working in the footage, or point out where elements might be missing before it’s too late (or too expensive) to do much about them.

Your audience will be the final arbiters of whether the project works or not, but you are the first viewer. Whether the story captures their attention and holds it for the duration, is down to you. So you, the editor, need to trust that your own responses are similar to the final audience’s feelings.

Developing editorial instinct

This raises a question a lot of editors wrestle with; how do I develop this instinct? How do I find the inner compass that I’m supposed to be using to navigate the project with?

I remember one director I worked for, very early on in my career, helping me with this simply by telling me that I had a gut instinct already and I should just learn to trust it. “If you don’t find it interesting, then it isn’t interesting. If you aren’t moved by it, then it isn’t moving. Don’t second guess yourself.”

To me this was slightly startling, that I should be entrusted with this level of responsibility and decision making. But there’s a commonality to human emotions, and plenty of other eyes will see the film—the director, the producer, the client, the test audience, etc.—before it’s released.

You’ll get feedback and opinions from all of them, so listen to it. This will help refine your gut instincts over time.

Note your own responses

Something else I’d recommend is to catalog your initial and immediate responses to the material. This will give you something concrete to return to when, sometimes months or years later, you’re trying to evaluate whether it still works after watching it through so often.

Some editors like to take long-hand notes while watching dailies and store them in binders, others have a color-coded or track level rating system to assign to clips, others might keep various distinct timelines of their favorite selects.

Others might adhere to the directors ‘circle-takes’ that are dictated to the script supervisor on set—or mumbled into the camera on smaller productions—for whether a take is ‘the best’ or not. But some ignore these suggestions altogether.

Whatever method you choose, choose something. Make notes so that you’re not relying on your memory further down the line. It may well fail you.

Fresh eyes over the long haul

At any stage of the project, the best way to see your edit through fresh eyes is to literally bring in fresh eyes.

Whether that’s an official test audience of 300 people with post-viewing questionnaires, or just another editor from down the hall, a fresh perspective will reactivate your internal critical evaluation. You’ll be able to spot all of the bumps, pauses, dragging moments and confusing sequences instantly.

A fresh perspective will reactivate your internal critical evaluation.

One common misconception I think that some directors (and editors) have is that it’s entirely down to them to determine the best version of the project—without feedback or iteration. They have an auteur’s vision and it won’t be compromised.

This approach forfeits a huge benefit, which is the valuable feedback you get when you take the film out of the edit suite and show it to an audience while there’s still time to improve it.

Test screenings—the real first audience

Before we get into the nitty gritty of how the audience interacts with the film at a creative level, it’s worth standing back for a moment and noting that the audience is valuable but it has its limitations.

Sitting with an audience may fail to create the kinds of responses you were hoping for. Correctly mining the audience’s perspective can give you helpful information for improving the edit, but you need to be careful how you look for insight.

In his book From Footage to Film: Intimate Insights on Film Editing editor Arik Lahav-Leibovich has a brilliant chapter all about conducting and attending test screenings as an editor. He makes an important recommendation on how the way in which the film is presented to the audience will dictate the outcome of the screening itself.

Arik suggests that it must be communicated that the film is still very much a work in progress (regardless of how close you are to the actual deadline and fine cut!) and that you want the audience to share even their harshest criticism on things you might not even be able to fix.

It’s key to present the film neutrally, avoiding emotional statements.

It’s key to present the film neutrally, avoiding emotional statements like “I think it’s really great, you’re going to love it.” These close out space for any criticism which the audience may fear the creators will take personally. It’s one of the reasons why ‘friends and family’ screenings aren’t all that productive. There’s often too much interpersonal baggage for brutal feedback.

But you can be sure that testing your edit on others is an essential process if managed well, as Arik concludes “I cannot recall a test screening that did not accurately predict the film’s future.

Legendary editor Walter Murch also shares a very valuable insight in his famous book In The Blink of an Eye, which states that you should almost always ignore any suggestions from the audience on how to fix the problems they have presented.

The audience is there to diagnose the problem; ‘I found this scene boring and too long’, or ‘I didn’t like this character’ or ‘the ending was too confusing…’ They’re not there to offer solutions. So take the note, but analyze the underlying problem and solve that instead.

He uses the clinical concept of ‘referred pain’ to illustrate his point:

“When you go to a doctor and tell him that you have a pain in your elbow, it is the quack who takes out his scalpel and starts to operate on the elbow… Whereas an experienced doctor studies you, takes an x-ray, and determines that the cause of the pain is probably a pinched nerve up in your shoulder—you just happen to feel it in your elbow. The pain in the shoulder has been “referred” to the elbow.

Audience reactions are like that. When you ask the direct question, “What was your least favorite scene?” and eighty percent of the people are in agreement about one scene they do not like, the impulse is to “fix” the scene or cut it out.

But the chances are that that scene is fine. Instead, the problem may be that the audience simply didn’t understand something that they needed to know for the scene to work.”

—Walter Murch, In the Blink of an Eye

A good example of the practical outworkings of this idea are shown in editing comedy. If the joke falls flat, the problem’s probably in the set up, not the punchline.

Curb Your Enthusiasm editor Roger Nygard, who has written an exceptional book about editing comedy: Cut to the Monkey, shared some tips for fixing this when I asked him how do you save a joke that’s not working?

“To fix it, remove the impediments between setup and punchline: tangents, mispronunciations, distractions, pauses, ums, uhs, ‘you knows’, lip smacks, bad sound, etc.

Then consider the timing of the exposition.

It often has to be adjusted, because you don’t want people to be thinking (trying to figure out the plot) when they should be laughing. Those activities happen in different parts of the brain.

You also have to make sure the audience is not ahead of you, predicting what is going to happen, or else the surprise you are cultivating will be undermined, and the laugh reduced.”

—Roger Nygard, Cut to the Monkey

We’ll return to this idea of not allowing the audience to get ahead of you shortly, but for now it also echoes Walter Murch’s observation that the reason your test audience might not like a scene is because it lacks clear exposition that would otherwise transform its meaning for them.

Genre limitations of test screenings

One insight to add to the discussion on the value of test-screenings comes from the creative nuances that various genres demand of an editor and how they might affect when you let the outside world in.

For example, if you’re showing your test audience a rough cut of a project and you say to them “ignore the man waving the tennis ball around on a stick, the visual effects aren’t done yet, that will be a dinosaur…” don’t be surprised when you get the feedback “why was there a guy waving a tennis ball around?”

The audience will just experience the film as-is, and may not have the requisite technical knowledge or creative imagination to fill in the gaps.

You can of course cut in the ‘kinds of’ footage that you’d like to have in the finished film, as George Lucas did for the original Star Wars—using dog-fight footage from World War II films in place of X-Wings and Tie Fighters.

But this timing also plays out differently for different genres.

When I interviewed editor Julia Bloch, whose ‘horror’ credits include BAFTA winning His House, Bodies Bodies Bodies, Hold The Dark, Green Room and Blue Ruin, she mentioned that the type of film you’re working might determine when exactly in the process it’s best to test it with an audience.

“One of the reasons why you might want to screen later in the process, is because [scary stuff] is more execution dependent.

A joke is a joke and it’s either funny or it’s not. You can make it more funny by fine-tuning the timing of it and all that stuff. But with someone creeping around a corner it could be completely meaningless or it could be terrifying, depending on the execution of it.

—Julia Bloch

For a scary moment to be effective, the fine needlework of several different aspects of the craft need to work in concert—such as perfect timing, effective sound design, and well chosen music cues. (This is one reason if something is too terrifying, muting the audio takes the fear out of it!) And all of this work tends to come later in the editorial process.

That said, one technique I learned from Judd Apatow’s comedy Masterclass is that you should record the ‘laugh track’ of your test audience and bring this back into your edit as an additional audio layer.

This lets you refine the timing of specific cuts around specific jokes to give them room to breathe, re-work the set up or just generally get a sense of what’s really working after the buzz of the screening. Although, sometimes there’s no real nuance to the feedback, as Judd quips “If they ain’t laughing, it ain’t working.”

Audience as pace setters—expectations

One area in which the editor and the audience must deftly weave a careful dance is that of narrative understanding and expectation.

The audience must understand what is going on, what the stakes are, and where the story seems to be heading. But the trick is to not allow the audience to get too far ahead of the film, otherwise it becomes predictable and boring.

At the same time you can’t leave them so far behind that they get lost in the fray and start asking questions like “who’s he again?” or “what are they trying to do?” This ejects them from the flow and experience of the film as they’re having to do too much thinking.

This kind of structural work is keenly related to the idea that Roger Nygard raised earlier. If the audience can predict the surprise that you’re cultivating they won’t be as engaged by it when it arrives.

The film must set up a clear expectation, start to deliver on that audience expectation and then subvert it in a thrilling/scary/humorous/upsetting way in order to hold the audience’s attention.

A classic example of this kind of set up and subversion is found in Mission Impossible movies where the team talk through the defenses of an impenetrable fortress and how they are going break in—clearly setting up for the audience what is suppose to happen, and then subverting that expectation with new challenges, close calls and double-crosses.

Pixar director Andrew Stanton codified the concept of the necessity of engaging the audience by making them active participants in the flow of the story in his often quoted 2012 TED Talk on Storytelling:

Make the audience put things together. Don’t give them four, give them two plus two.

This is what editing excels at and, in certain instances, can create a magical moment in the audience’s brain where you can give them idea A and idea B and then, by cutting between the two ideas, create idea C. Which exists in neither idea A nor B but only in the mind of the audience.

But Stanton’s next sentence is even more important when it comes to practically improving your storytelling and the experience for your audience:

“The elements you provide and the order you place them in is crucial to whether you succeed or fail at engaging the audience.

Stories are inevitable, if they’re good, but they’re not predictable.”

This often means that the work of getting a scene or sequence to function the way you need it to, for the audience, is not often in perfecting the minutiae of each individual cut. Instead, it’s ensuring that the right pieces of information are clearly communicated in the right order so that the clues the audience need to connect two plus two are being planted and paid off later on.

If those clues aren’t there, there won’t be a satisfying pay-off, or it will feel arbitrary. Or if the pay off is too predictable or too left-field it, too, will be unsatisfactory.

Director James Cameron offered a counterpoint to the notion of keeping the audience behind the filmmakers at all times, suggesting that it’s OK for the audience to get ahead of you.

“It’s okay because the tension that goes before a reveal or a cathartic moment, is so much more delicious, when it’s actually paid off in a way that you hoped for, than some utter surprise that’s not satisfying at all.”

—James Cameron, Masterclass

So sometimes you should pay off the planted idea in a way that plays against audience expectations, but is satisfying or in a way that’s exactly what they hoped for, or maybe requires some new level of sacrifice or development that they didn’t anticipate.

Think of the final punch in Back to the Future, where Marty finally gets his parents back together and seems to have achieved the mission yet it doesn’t happen the way we’re expecting (that Marty and George will have a pretend fight) but in a new and more satisfying way that George finally stands up to Biff and knocks him clean out.

Audience as pace setters—length and pace

If you need proof that length and pacing should be at the forefront of your mind during the edit, ask yourself why director’s cuts are never shorter than the original film.

This indicates that some ‘gems’ were removed in favor of a more concise runtime and a more ‘pacy’ feel—in an attempt to please the audience over the director’s preferences.

So you need to be an advocate for the audience, and decide whether there are certain scenes, shots, or sequences that could be truncated, cross-cut, or dropped entirely.

This is crucial for television, where every episode or commercial has to be cut to time. But with the advent of so much new content being created directly for streaming services or online platforms this constraint around length isn’t as dominant.

This lack of constraint can lead to overly long and self indulgent content.

Sometimes this is liberating, giving each episode the time it requires. For example The Bear has episodes ranging anywhere from 20 to 48 minutes each. On the flipside, this lack of constraint can lead to overly long and self indulgent content that hasn’t faced the same creative rigor.

PBS Frontline documentary editor Steve Audette coined a phrase that has stuck with me ever since, which is “The mind cannot absorb what the butt cannot endure.”

Or as David Mamet’s long time collaborator and editor Barbara Tulliver says, “There are no rules but there’s only one law and the law is: don’t be boring. Throw it away.”

If you’re fortunate enough to test your edit with an audience, this will also reveal where the project languishes, drags or disconnects the audience as you’ll physically see them start to shuffle around more, fidget and generally be less absorbed by what they’re watching.

Practical techniques for trimming

Practical tightening techniques that you can try include ‘arriving late and leaving early’ by simply removing any preamble at the beginning of a scene or the wind-down at the end and just sticking to the meat in the middle.

David Mamet is also a strong proponent of ‘burning the first reel’ meaning taking away the opening 10 minutes of the film and seeing how it works without it. If you don’t lose much, can you start your story ‘in the middle’ and in a way that drops the audience into the thick of things in a more engaging manner.

You need to trim out as much unnecessary or repetitive information as possible, even when there’s a lot of information to be communicated to the audience. So it becomes a trade off between nuance and engagement.

The beauty of digital editing is that you can simply duplicate a timeline, take things out, live without them for a while and see if you really miss them or even needed them in the first place. If you do, you can always pop them back in and look to tighten your run time in other ways.

Walter Murch has three main frameworks for condensing an edit;

  1. Diet and Exercise
  2. The Spaghetti Sauce Method
  3. The Procrustean Method

Diet and Exercise

This takes the first assembly length and expect to reduce that by about 30% through simple efficiencies and tightenings.

The Spaghetti Sauce Method

This means to gradually reduce the length over time by nibbling away at it through tightening every cut and scene and accumulating a more concise edit as a result.

The Procrustes Method

The Procrustean Method means just to hack things out and then fix them up. (Procrustes was a murderous innkeeper from Greek mythology who would cut his tenants’ feet off to make their bodies fit his too-short beds.)

“If a film is too long, you can attack it and just lop out things in an almost brutal way and get down to the length that you want, and then you look at it and say, ‘Well, that doesn’t work, but it almost works. And now we go in, and we fix these things.’

So rather than slowly boiling it down and reducing its length, you go in and aggressively make it the right length and then fix what you need to fix.”

—Walter Murch

We discussed a great example of this in action in Editors vs Screenwriters where Editor Joe Walker shared how he and Arrival director Denis Villenueve created a problem solving scene by only hacking the bits they needed together.

Whichever approach you may need to use, or potentially all three, there will be a creative way to condense what you have into a more engaging and accessible shorter form.

Messing with the audience

When it comes to bringing all of these elements together—laying out the right information in the right order, with clarity and conviction and in such a way that the audience are captivated participants in the narrative flow and everything culminates in a satisfying conclusion—you might think that this is the most challenging editorial task.

But a film that can do all of that and still pull the wool over your eyes the entire time, revealed only by a last minute twist in the tale that rips the rug from under your feet and makes you question everything you’ve been told so far. Films that do this are masterworks of audience manipulation.

Think of films such as The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense or The Prestige. Carefully dissecting, re-watching, and studying these films provides a wealth of insights on how a scene can be carefully constructed to disguise what is really happening. (When you know the trick that is.)

Sometimes these kinds of films feature the unreliable narrator—someone who tells us things are true and reliable when they are anything but—for example, with Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects.

Other times we the audience are led to ‘read’ the film in a certain way, when actually a different conclusion is actually more accurate, which is what The Sixth Sense does so beautifully.

Like a good magic trick, everything is going along as it always does, and then suddenly there is a very different outcome and you experience the wonder and delight that everything was not as you thought.

As world-renowned magicians Penn and Teller remarked in their Masterclass on performing magic:

Misdirection is the story that you get the audience to tell itself, and what I like about that is it incorporates the idea that the audience is an active participant in their own deception.

Which is fine, that’s what they came there for, the delight of being deceived.

—Raymond Joseph Teller

One of the things that The Sixth Sense does so well is that it lays out numerous clues telling the audience exactly what it is doing, but it’s only on repeat viewings that the real meaning of these clues becomes obvious.

For example, in the restaurant scene where Malcolm is late for dinner with his wife, it seems like she is angrily refusing to talk to him and grabs the check before he can. As she leaves she mutters “Happy Anniversary”, which feels like a sarcastic put down.

It is only later that the scene takes on its true meaning when we the audience know that she’s really the only one at the table. (The scene also takes place in one long moving master shot, which is nice!)

The scene is focused on Malcolm and we experience it from his perspective, which also aligns us as the audience to his reading of and reaction to their ‘conversation’. We follow the assumption that it is as it looks, an angry wife and a self-absorbed husband failing to connect.

If you want to take your creative editing abilities to a deeper level, it pays to take the time to study a scene or two from these films and review how the mechanics of their construction are depicting both their true and misdirected meanings at the same time.

Audience as Final Arbiters

One of the things that’s most challenging about creating anything that an audience will see, is remembering that it’s ultimately for them.

You can work so hard, for such a long time before you release it into the world that you can forget who it is you’re making it for, and it’s not until it’s seen and responded to that you’re actually removed from the echo chamber of your own creative workspace and face the rough and trouble world of an audience response.

This is one of the reasons that Walter Murch is known to have stuck scaled silhouettes of a cinema audience around his client monitor—to remember that these images will be seen on the big screen but also to keep front and center the knowledge that they will be seen by an audience.

And while, as director Taika Waititi points out in his tweet above, it may be disappointing if that viewing experience is just on a mobile device, at least the project has found an audience.

In many ways, there’s never been a better time to be a video creator.

The Cambrian explosion of streaming services and viewing platforms such as Mubi, Pop Flick and the Criterion Channel coupled with an ever accelerating access to creative tools, means that there’s the space for everyone to create something for and be found by their specific audience.

What’s interesting, even about the Netflix creation engine, is that their data drives the production of incredibly popular and successful content that you’ve never heard of, because it’s not targeted to your viewing tastes.

All of this should encourage you to get out there and create something you’d like to see and hopefully discover there’s an audience out there who’d like to see it too.

Slow burns to success

As a final word of encouragement, if that process of finding your audience takes a little while, don’t worry—you’re in good company.

In the days of theatrical only distribution there were plenty of stories of a film only finding its audience when it hit the shelves of Blockbuster and entered the DVD rental market.

An example that brings everything we’ve talked about in this article together, is one of my favorite films, The Shawshank Redemption.

A brutally claustrophobia yet ultimately hope-inspiring prison drama, The Shawshank Redemption was originally a box-office disappointment, earning well-under its budget during its initial theatrical run.

But it went on to garner seven Academy Award nominations and through strong word of mouth became one of the top DVD rentals in 1995. Over the preceding decades it has continued to be broadcast regularly around the world and in 2015 was inducted into the Library of Congress for permanent preservation.

While the performances are spectacular and the storytelling captivating, the film was also re-edited and a new ending shot based on audience feedback from several test-screenings.

The cathartic final scene where Red and Andy meet on the beach was not part of director Frank Darabont’s original vision, where the film ended with Red more ambiguously heading to the border on the bus. It was only added to the film after Producer Liz Glotzer insisted, suggesting that the audience needed to see them together, while Darabont felt it was a ‘commercial, sappy’ ending.

It proved to be the test audience’s favorite scene and Darabont relented, accepting their glowing feedback.

All this is to say that working for, listening to and making the audience an active participant in your filmmaking process, as an editor or any member of the crew, could prove to help create new moments of cinematic history.

Jonny Elwyn

Jonny Elwyn is a freelance editor and blogger who has been living and working in London, UK for the past 10 years. Having grown up with a deep love for film and a healthy geek interest in all things technical, editing is his perfect job. Off the back of a decade of successful freelancing, Jonny has written a 100 page primer on How To Be A Freelance Creative—a straight-forward, practical guide to building a freelance creative career from the ground up. He also runs a blog on all things post production at jonnyelwyn.co.uk.

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