GAEL CHANDLER is a Hollywood editor, digital editing trainer and college teacher. She is the author of CUT BY CUT: EDITING YOUR FILM OR VIDEO, and FILM EDITING: GREAT CUTS EVERY FILMMAKER AND MOVIE LOVER MUST KNOW. Her new book, EDITING FOR DIRECTORS: A GUIDE FOR CREATIVE COLLABORATION is brand new from Michael Wiese Productions. We spoke recently about the stages of editing, why good editing often goes unnoticed, and the jigsaw nature of the craft.
Order Gael's book here.
Dave Watson: Congratulations on a wonderful book. How did it come about?
Gael Chandler: Well, I'd done several other books for Michael Wiese Productions, and Michael proposed this one, and there really wasn't any other book like this aimed at directors, starting with shooting and going through editing itself, archiving, and delivery. Chapter Three is on the history of editing, really could use a whole book, but that was really special to me because I really wanted directors to understand how much editing is an integral part of making a movie. It's not just something you get in the can and say, "Oh boy, what am I going to do now?" You need to think about it from the beginning, it's really what the audience sees and hears. The history of editing is really linked to the history of filmmaking and when it comes right down to it, it's how the language of film has developed, how it talks to an audience with sound and picture.
DW: One of the themes in your book is organization, from the various stages of VFX editing to other kinds. In your mind, is it helpful for an editor approach a picture with an organization or jigsaw puzzle mindset?
GC: Yeah, organization is integral to editing, like location-location-location is to a realtor, organization-organization. You want to have every shot available to you. So a lot goes into lobbying and labeling so that each shot has a definite label, and that you can pull up London, all the London footage in a bin and locate a shot within that very quickly. That's what I call the mundane part of filmmaking, it's all mundane and magical. The magical part is what an editor does with those shots that have ben shot and organized. Some editors call it a jigsaw, because you're solving a problem, whether it's a commercial or a film. I like to call it a jigsaw puzzle without borders, because there's really no one solution. There are a lot of fine ways to edit a lot of pieces.
Another metaphor that's used is adjoining or sewing together.
DW: I recently saw Dune and people have said they couldn't follow the story, and my comeback was well, the images and sounds together, especially the music by Hans Zimmer. Have you seen that movie?
GC: I haven't, and that says something. Us westerners like story, and people think of an editor as making cuts, or the British call it joining, but really you're the final storyteller. You're the one who has to make what was shot, work. Whatever problems you may have had, you solve in the editing room. As Dede Allen, who cut Bonnie and Clyde and broke ground with that, said, "The buck stops in the editing room."
DW: Cuts also reveal character and seem essential to moving a story along. Is good editing often unnoticed? Helping the audience fall under a picture's spell?
GC: Well, you know, in addition to telling stories, editors work very, very hard to create characters, maybe that's what held you with Dune. Editors will take, will look at all the takes and they usually don't pull a performance out of one take, they'll take a look here, a line there. Sometimes they'll do what editors call, "Put words in a person's mouths" where the picture look is great but the audio is better from another take whether technically or from a performance standpoint.
The same goes for documentaries: you don't want to do any cheating, putting words in people's mouths, but you do want to pull out the essence of a person says, so in my book it's fine to pull out the "Ums" and the "Uhs" unless it's a specific reaction to a hard-hitting question. So that's the first part of your question.
The second part with the invisible editing, most of the time the editing is invisible like the editor, like the crew, but there are the in-your-face edits and what both need to do is serve the story. I would posit that most of the time the editing is invisible. It's like listening to a band or an orchestra. Are you focusing on the violin or the banjo or the brass or are you hearing the whole? Sometimes you're just hearing one instrument, but you want to make sense of the whole sound.
DW: Sound seems a big component with editing. Do you find this an often under-appreciated element?
GC: I do. I think the adage of many filmmakers is that audiences will forgive poor video or poor picture, but not poor sound. You want to be able to hear what somebody else is saying, and as a director and filmmaker you really want to think about the sound from the beginning: what is your sound vision? What is the sound world that your characters' live in? Or if you're doing a documentary about the eighteenth century, what were the sounds then?
The book really starts, the first chapter, is what does the director need to think about? Part of that is getting the sounds and fulfilling their sound vision, getting the ambient sounds aside from being very carefully from getting the dialogue recorded properly. Sound is not a place to skimp and if you do, it's the old adage, you pay it up front or pay it later and you spend a lot of time fixing crummy sound, or re-recording sound if you can afford it.
DW: And you don't necessarily want to do that in post-production, and sometimes you probably have to.
GC: You could probably do that if sound sounds funny coming from a phone. Sound editors do incredible things. I worked for a while on a TV show called He-Man and Shira in the '80s, and for me it was very interesting, in cartoons there's quite a range of sound effects, much more interesting than the picture editing. Someone slides down a bannister on the moon, I mean, what does that sound like?
In Dune you're creating a whole world so the sound has to be incredible in that. And music too, it sets the emotion of the piece, it's the bedrock in that sense. A lot of times directors will bring in composers early, show composers early footage or show them the script.
DW: And sound almost sounds like a connector, so you're putting the images and cuts together, so the sound makes it cinematic. Would you agree?
GC: Yeah, and the silent films were never really silent, they always had a piano, orchestras, they had music that was sent out, or a person playing the mighty Wurlitzer organ, and so sound was definitely thought of, and yet Images say a lot. Silence is very important. I would imagine there was some silence in Dune. Often it's after a big battle scene. After Dorothy arrives in Munchkinland, silence comes in.
Editing and designing a movie, you have pauses, rests, and very chaotic fast parts. A lot of times in those long, dissolving parts you may have music or silence to let the audience absorb and prepare for what's coming next.
DW: A friend of mine recently saw American Graffiti and said he noticed the sound. Ken Kwapis was here in town and said, "Notice the sound." What's next?
GC: Well, you never know what's going to happen in life and something dropped out of the sky. I have a chance to co-author a book on filmmaking and preaching. My co-author is the leader on the project and she is a professor of Pomylectics and a preacher, and the book is designed to show how filmmaking techniques such as scripting, like thinking of exposition, like editing, can help preachers tell their stories and think in terms of storytelling. As a non-Christian and filmmaker, it's been a very interesting journey so far.
DW: What an honor and change in direction, and seems like a culmination for you. Finally, what is your favorite cinematic moment? An edit or a sound?
GC: There are a couple I'd like to point out and they're very different. I just saw the movie Hive which is a fiction telling of a woman whose husband is not coming back from the war in Kosovo. The people are held very tight. The first shot starts on just her going into a tent to see bodies to see if this is her husband. Right from the beginning of the shot of that movie I was with it.
Another example I love is with an editor, Chris Dickens, who got the Oscar for cutting Slumdog Millionaire. He also did Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead, Les Miserable, and what he does is what might be termed in modern editing, everything is "layered." If you look at the opening of Hot Fuzz, what it does is get this movie off to this fast start and you get it right away. It has all these fast cuts, it sets up the character and he's telling you a story. Chris is doing an incredible amount of work, it's a lot of work layering in your computer, doing those dissolves and superimpositions and all that. I really think he's taken filmmaking to another level.
I like both. It depends on what the story demands.
DW: I still remember the opening of Hot Fuzz with the police officer walking toward the camera. It goes into this whole backstory of his journey through the police academy and getting his assignment, and believe it's set to this Adam Ant song, Goody Two Shoes. It's very rapid fire editing, and still remember the audience going silent when that movie started.
Clip: Hot Fuzz
Founder and editor of Movies Matter, Dave Watson is a writer and educator in Madison, WI.