Always Be Editing: Sculptors & Bricklayers Revisited
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I recently initiated a thread on the COW Final Cut Pro X Debates Forum called “Bricklayers and Sculptors” which may have mystified more than it enlightened. Here is what I said:
There are two different types of editors:
What I want to do here is talk in a lot more detail about what I mean by the sculpting method and why I think that embracing it can transform your editing, both practically and creatively.
(As a bit of background, my editing experience is about as varied as it gets. I have cut features and documentaries, corporates and music videos, trailers and showreels, news packages and YouTube videos. My clients have included Disney and Paramount, Universal and Warner Bros, Saatchi’s and JWT, Mitsubishi and Nestlé, and many more. And I've been doing it for 30 years, going back to the days of film and tape.)
This piece began life as an email conversation with Oliver Peters, which he wrote up for his own blog, currently being discussed on this thread in the Debates forum. His knowledge, experience and insights are always hugely valuable. I'd also like to thank Tim Wilson for adding some very interesting additional perspective.
BRICKS AND CLAY
Just to clarify the point behind this metaphor, which I think was not as clear as it could have been. By "bricks" I mean units that you prepare in a Browser or in Bins (by sub-clipping, keywording, annotating, marking, or whatever other method you choose) and that you then "add" to your timeline, which is why I called it "bricklaying".
By "sculpting" I mean taking your entire source material, adding it to a timeline and removing the "lumps of clay" that you don't want ("subtraction"), and reshaping and repositioning the ones you do. In this method there are no "bricks", there's only your source material (the "clay") in the gradual, uninterrupted process of becoming your final edit. I suspect that the "bricklaying" method needs no further explanation, but what I will endeavour to do is describe what I see are the benefits of "sculpting" and how it actually works.
I want to stress that I have every respect for bricklayers both in the real world and in my metaphorical world. In fact many of the world's top editors are avowed bricklayers and indeed one of the most acclaimed and talked-about editors in history is seemingly as proud of his FileMaker system as he is of the actual edits he makes.
To modify my metaphor somewhat, "bricklayers" often see the editor's role as in large part the job of warehouse manager: stacking, sorting, labelling and listing the inventory. My point here is not to disparage bricklayers, or warehouse managers, but to say that I just don't share their fundamental mindset. I am a stickler for cutting room discipline, but I think it's important to keep looking for imaginative new ways to minimise the time spent on administration and maximise the time spent immersed in the actual editing process.
As I mentioned above, bricklaying in practical terms can and does merge into sculpting, and sculptors do occasionally need to think in terms of bricks, but overall the distinction is in the mindset you bring to the job and how you weight the balance between organisation and cutting.
One other quick proviso and that's to say that this is not a contribution to the NLE Wars. Some NLEs suit my preferred method better than others and overall I feel less encumbered working with an NLE that gets out of my way and lets me work the way I want it to without imposing its own personality.
But, that being said, it doesn't matter what you cut with, it matters how you cut. (I do get the impression that some editors feel that because their NLE offers extensive and innovative organisational functionality they are obliged to use it all, and in consequence develop editing practices that are dictated by the logic of the software rather than the logic of the editing process itself.)
Rather than talk in generalities, let me describe a job I did recently. One of our producer clients came to us to make a sales promo for a documentary that's still shooting and only roughly compiled into a very loose assembly, with some of it not edited at all. It's the stories of five different women that will eventually be interwoven into a thematic whole, but that hasn't happened yet.
The very first thing I did after importing the source material was to grab it all and put it on a timeline, which showed me at a glance that there was about four hours of it in total. I duplicated this sequence five times to make separate sequences of all the material for each woman’s story. Again that gave me an overview of how much material there was for each strand.
Then I made duplicates of those duplicates and began removing everything I didn't want, and this is where the process really begins.
(At this point I am only looking for dialogue and "key sound”; the pictures I will pick up in a separate set of passes.)
Let me be clear that I am working exclusively subtractively. A lot of people approach string-outs by successively adding selected clips from the Browser or Bins, but with this method all my clips are already on the timeline and I am taking away anything I don't want. And by “removing” I mean performing Ripple Edits which reduce the overall length of my timeline.
(Some editors approach this subtractive method a different way, which is to shift the sections they don’t want onto a hidden track leaving gaps where it’s been removed. Although there’s a certain organisational elegance to this way of doing it, I believe it misses out on most of the key benefits of the method. You’re not getting the same instant feedback as to how much you are reducing the overall volume of source material and you are not reaping the huge benefits that flow from seeing one clip transition into another, which we’ll be looking at later.)
What is important for me about this process is that each edit is not a rough approximation but a very precise set of decisions about what I want to use. If you're "editing in the Browser" (or in Bins), you're simply not going to be making the kind of frame-accurate and value-laden edits that I am making every single time with this method.
The point to grasp is that instead of "making bricks" for use later on, I am already editing in the strictest sense. I am focused on a timeline that is going to form the basis of the final edit. I am already thinking editorially (in the sense of creative timeline-based editing) and not wasting any time merely thinking organisationally.
I should stress that this is an iterative process involving not just one pass through the material, but several. And of course with each pass I am immersing myself deeper and deeper into the material and really getting a feel for how all of it works or doesn't work.
At certain points I will keep duplicates as I start to work on shorter versions. This gives me a “breadcrumb trail” back through my editing journey that I can retrace at any time (or that another editor can trace if I need to hand over the project at any time).
However I won't generally keep a lot of duplicates, usually just an intermediate "long version" which has lost all the material I definitely don't want. And by "definitely don't want" I'm not talking about the heads and tails that everybody throws away where the camera is being turned on or off or the crew are in shot or the director is trying to work out what s/he wants.
I am already making deep, fine-grained editorial and editing decisions that will be of very real value later on. I'm going straight to the edit point that I know I'll want for my finished show, and it's not a provisional edit point - it's a genuine editorial choice.
From this point of view, the notion of merely rejecting "slates" and tails makes no sense at all. I choose to sidestep it completely. I am cutting from one bit that I want to keep directly to the next bit I want to keep and I am doing so with fine-tuned precision.
And because I am working subtractively I am often incorporating several edit decisions in one. In other words, with one delete step, I am both removing the tail from the outgoing clip and setting the start of the next clip.
Imagine that I have three consecutive clips: I can remove the tail of Clip A, discard Clip B entirely, and remove the head of Clip C, all one one edit operation. Multiply those edit economies a few times and you have a significant efficiency saving.
FOCUS ON FLOW
Another absolutely key element is that I can see how one clip flows into another. Even if I am not going to be using those two clips side by side, I can already get a feel for the pacing. And of course the really important thing is that I can start to see the faint outlines of my eventual edit as it reveals itself to me.
The more I immerse myself in what the material is telling me, the more I can start to see what might go where, and this way of working means I can be moving things around as options start suggesting themselves. And because I am working in the timeline with actual edited material, those options present themselves very naturally. I'm getting offered creative choices for free.
I can't stress too strongly how valuable this is. If I were simply sorting through material in a Browser/Bin, this process would not be happening, or at least not happening in anything like the same way. The ability to reorder clips as the thought occurs to me and for this be an actual editorial decision on a timeline is an incredibly useful thing.
Again the important thing is that I don't have to think about editorial decisions twice.
Another major benefit that is simply not available to Browser/Bin-based methods, is that I am constructing editorial chunks as I go. I'm taking a section from Clip A and putting it side by side with another section from Clip A which may come from earlier in the actual source, and perhaps adding a section from Clip B to the end and something from Clip C to the front. I am forming editorial units as I work through the material. And these are units that I can later use wholesale.
One helpful spin-off is that I can very quickly spot "duplicate material", by which I mean instances where the same information or sentiment is conveyed in more or less the same terms at different places in the source material. Because I am reviewing all of this on the timeline and because I am doing so iteratively, I can very quickly form an opinion as to which of the "duplicates" I want to use in my final edit and remove what is unnecessary and/or less effective.
This ability to compare the source material against itself has a deeper benefit too. It helps you to identify what is strong and what is not so strong. Successful editing (unless we’re talking about the dullest corporate ever) is not just about conveying information, it’s about communicating a feeling. Tagging material in the Browser tells you what’s in it, but it tells you nothing about how it resonates, or doesn’t. You could literally transcribe every single word and you still wouldn't have enough information to judge whether or not the material will deliver an impact on a timeline and most importantly how it stacks up against everything you have got to work with.
Good films work their way towards moments that elicit an emotional response, whether it’s laughter or tears, apprehension or awe, or a score of other visceral responses. Finding those moments and making them work is the key to good editing.
I find that this iterative sifting method really helps me identify where those moments are going to come from and how to structure everything around them so as to build them as strongly as possible. I am immersed in what the material is saying to me, not just as information but for its emotional power.
The more you work it, the deeper you are absorbed in it, the more the material itself tells you about the shape it wants to have.
WORKING WITH TIME
Let's step back and look at a further benefit of this method. Whatever your final film it will almost always have a length that it needs to be - unless you're Andy Warhol. You're delivering a 50 minute documentary or a 90 minute feature, a 2 minute trailer or a 30 second TV spot. In each case you have a rough idea (or even a very precise one) of what final length you need to arrive at.
In my case I knew that the piece needed to be around 3 minutes long. And that of course throws up a very helpful piece of arithmetic. I had five stories to fit into those three minutes which meant that the absolute maximum of dialogue (or other key sound) that I would need would be just over 30 seconds from each story. And by working subtractively, I’m putting myself in the perfect place for extracting the best possible 30 seconds.
Because I'm not simply topping and tailing clips in the Browser, but actually sculpting them on the timeline (and forming them into editorial units, as described above), I can keep a very close eye on how this is coming along for each story strand. I have a continuous read-out of how well I am getting on with reducing the material down to the target length.
By contrast, if I approach my final edit with 30 minutes of loosely selected source material to juggle, I'm going to spend a lot more time on editorial decisions that I could have successfully made earlier.
Working in the timeline, I am literally working with time. And for a temporal medium that's a pretty key consideration.
And each time I'm going through my selects I am refining all sorts of little things here and there, again in a way that would never be possible if I were just reviewing in a Browser/Bins. As I go through I can be removing pauses and hesitations and deviations, finding edits that help make a point faster, and generally streamlining and refining the material.
The point is that I am doing two things at once: I am reviewing the material to see what works, but I'm also fine-tuning it. The fact that I am not separating the review process from the editing process means that I keep the flow going and just as importantly I'm saving time.
But the real key for me is that I always have my "editing hat" on and I stay in that one zone throughout.
Pancaked Premiere Pro Timeline
TOWARDS A FINISHED EDIT
The final stage in this case was simply to combine and rearrange the pre-edited timelines into a final timeline, a process that is now incredibly fast and a lot of fun. I've narrowed the range of choices right down to the necessary minimum and a great deal of the editing has literally already been done, because I've been editing from the very first moment that I made my original timeline containing all the source material for the project.
And as you can see, the process has been essentially entirely subtractive throughout, a gradual whittling down of the 4 hours to something closer to three minutes.
This is not to say there won't be additive parts to the overall edit. In this case I added music and SFX and graphics cards, but from the perspective of the process as a whole this is addition at the most trivial level.
Of course, there is another layer of addition that I have left out and that's what happens with the pictures. So far I've only mentioned what is happening with what is sometimes called the "radio edit”, in other words the base structure formed from the dialogue and other key sound elements. Gathering the pictures is another step that will again be based on iterative, subtractive sifting.
From a timeline containing the entirety of the source material, I perform the exact same process of subtracting the pictures I want to keep. I will aim to fine-tune the edits as I go (though perhaps not to quite the same degree) rather than leave them loose and provisional.
Again I have to be mindful of the target duration for my finished piece, so precision at this point has obvious value. It also means the sequence will mostly have its own visual flow, and that really helps with reviewing it.
Reviewing these tightly selected images as a sequence can give me a real insight into how the story can be told pictorially. If I have a sequence that is already flowing at more or less the right pace, this is going to be so much more productive. I will often review the pictures having very roughly laid up some of the music tracks I have planned on using. This lets you gauge both whether your music suits the material and conversely whether the pictures are the right ones for the way you are planning to tell the story.
FREEDOM TO EXPERIMENT
This brings to me a key point I would make about how I personally work with this method and that's that I plunge in and experiment even at the early stages of the project.
For me, the key thing is to start to get a feel as soon as possible for how it's all going to come together, so this loose experimentation is a great way of approaching that.
At some point in the experimentation something clicks and you can see the whole shape, or at the very least get a feeling for what it's all going to look like. The sooner that click happens, the better you can work, because now you are not simply randomly sorting material, you are working towards a picture you have in your head.
For me, that's the biggest benefit of working in the timeline from the very beginning. You're getting immersed in the shape of the material rather than just its content and the immersion is what sparks the ideas. I'm not invoking some magical thinking here; I'm just talking about a method that's proved itself time and time again to be the best and fastest way to unlock the doors of the edit.
Fundamentally it's about immersing yourself in the material in a timeline context, where ideas about selection, trimming, ordering, pacing, structure and much much more are able to suggest themselves to you through an entirely organic process. Let the material do the work and get creativity for free. What's not to like?
VARIANTS AND ADAPTATIONS
I've shown many editors how to work this way over the years and they have almost all embraced it for the very obvious benefits it brings. I'm not saying it works equally well for all types of projects. It's arguably less suited to scripted drama, for instance, but even there it can work very effectively. Some feature editors use variants of the string-out method both to organise and to refine their choices.
Oliver Peters pointed out to me that when he's cutting for David Fincher, Kirk Baxter adopts a very similar approach. "The assistants prepare a “KEM roll” (stringout) of a scene, organized from wide shot to close-up," Oliver says.
"Then they break up each take by line and re-organize the sequence so that each script line plays back-to-back-to-back through all the takes and angle options. Kirk goes through this and makes his selects for the better takes (several choices for each) and pushes those clips up one track. The assistants clean this up and send it on to Fincher, who gives his input. Obviously Fincher is more obsessive than most other directors, but this way he knows all of the options have been reviewed."
I was intrigued to see a recent presentation by Vashi Nedomansky in which he showed how he used the string-out method as a basic organisational tool for a feature film. Vashi points out that this avoids the problem of anything getting accidentally lost due to a mistake in the logging. But even without accidents there's a danger with the conventional "warehouse method" that you might end up consigning worthwhile, valuable, even crucial material to a vault marked "We're Not Using This" and hiding it from further review.
Vashti Nedomansky on editing the feature "6 Below" natively in 6K in Adobe Premiere Pro.
Like every method, every editor will have their own variant adapted to their own taste and inclinations. The one thing I have found to its advantage above all others and that's that it almost entirely circumvents the problem of "what shot do I lay down next?" Time and again I've seen Browser/Bin-focused editors get stuck in exactly this way and it can be a very real block.
In other words, I keep coming back to the observation that this method is doing a lot of the creative work for you in a way that simply won't happen with the alternatives.
Although one would expect this method to make it harder to collaborate, in fact the reverse is the case if each editor is conversant with the technique. You're handing over vastly more useful creative edit information with this process than you could by any other means.
What you're effectively doing is "showing your workings". It means that the editor taking over from you can easily backtrack through your work and find new stuff and see the ideas that you didn't end up including in the version(s) that you handed over. It's a really incredibly fast way for the new editor to get up to speed with the project without having to start from scratch with acquainting him/herself of where the useful material can be found.
There's another practical benefit and and that's how it relates to the NLE interface. When I'm working with this way which is essentially 90% of the time, I am just not looking at the Browser/Bins at all.
Accordingly, in Premiere or FCP X I can fully close down the Project/Browser windows/panes and avail myself of the extra screen real estate that gives me, which is not inconsiderable. The consequence of that is to make the timeline experience even more immersive and that's exactly what I want. I want to be immersed in the details of what I'm doing in the timeline and I have no interest in any other distractions.
Conversely, having to keep going back to Bins/Browser means shifting the focus of attention away from my work and breaking the all-important "flow" factor.
I just don't want any distractions from the fundamentally crucial process of moving from one clip to another in a timeline context. As soon as I am dragged away from that, there's is a discontinuity in what I am doing. In editing focus is everything. In fact one could say that editing is a process of focusing!
Immersive editing with the Premiere timeline. All timeline, no Bins/Browser.
ALWAYS BE EDITING
Long before Malcolm Gladwell and his 10,000 hours, I came to the conclusion that the more edits you make, the better editor you become.
The method I am describing involves making a lot of edits that will never make it into your finished piece, but that doesn’t for one moment mean that it’s wasted effort. The opposite is true. A pianist performs thousands of hours of scale practice that no audience will ever hear. Every single edit you make hones your instincts that little sharper, helps your decision-making become more fluent and creative, and simply adds to your speed.
My belief is that (wherever possible) you should “always be editing”. Don’t approach it with the mindset of “we can think about that later”. A provisional edit decision is a waste of time and energy. Always be making meaningful editing decisions, and make them as edits on a timeline.
Be an editor, not an inventory clerk. The audience will never see your careful logging and keywording and annotating and sifting and sorting. All they will ever be aware of is the quality of your final edit decisions.
Maximise your immersion in the material and reap all the many benefits of that. It can be very liberating.
I've been a film and video editor for over 25 years as well as being involved in motion graphics, sound design and mixing, music composition, visual effects and compositing, 3D modelling and animation, and colour grading, not to mention writing, directing and producing, and most recently, software development.
I am also a developer of plug-ins for the video post-production market having released a range of successful and acclaimed products both under the Tokyo brand and as Hawaiki with Robert Mackintosh.