Production 101: 5 Directing Tips From An Editor

I’m writing some posts offering tips to filmmakers from the perspective of an editor.

Today I want to talk about a few things directors should keep in mind. I’m going to avoid basic concepts like the 180-Degree Rule that are taught to every beginning filmmaker (and can be violated these days as audiences get more sophisticated, if done smartly).

1. Give the Editor Something to Cut Away To.

I’m a big fan of the single take scene. If you have the time and money to make sure you get one or two perfect takes, or if the single take is essential to the aesthetic of the scene, that’s great. But in general, it’s important to give the editor as many option as possible. Especially in low-budget and independent filmmaking, where you might not have time to persist until you get that one perfect take, it’s dangerous to shoot an entire scene expecting it to be a single continuous take in the edit. If there’s a problem with the performance or a camera mistake that wasn’t noticed on the set, or even if you just change your mind in the edit, you may be stuck with no good options. Even if it’s just the proverbial cat in the window, give the editor the ability to piece together a scene from different takes.

The basic idea is that you want to have as many options in post as possible, given constraints of time and budget.

2. Don’t Yell “Cut” Too Quickly.

I once edited a film where one non-professional actor consistently broke character the instant the last line of dialogue was finished, looking at the camera, or smiling nervously, or just relaxing his pose. This made it hell too edit. You should always give yourself a little time after the last line to smooth transitions to the next scene or the next shot, in case it’s needed.

But there’s another reason to keep the camera rolling after the dialogue is completed. Good actors know how to stay in character until they hear “cut.” If you keep the camera running after the prepared conversation or action is over, you can sometimes find amazing moments of vulnerability and honesty. These little moments, when the actor doesn’t have anything rehearsed but hasn’t “broken” the scene, can yield gems that raise the emotional resonance of a scene. In the same way, those moment at the beginning of the take, after the camera starts rolling but before the action starts, can yield beautiful, even profound moments.

Don’t miss out on these opportunities to add richness and depth to your actor’s performances.

3. Make Sure Someone is Acting as Script Supervisor.

The Script Supervisor plays an important role that’s often neglected on low budget productions. The Script Supervisor does more than just check for continuity problems (which hand the actor is holding the cup with, whether a door is open or closed in each shot). The Script Supervisor also keeps careful track of each line of dialogue and which angle it’s been shot from. I once edited a scene where two characters moved with complex blocking throughout the room. On set, the crew lost track of things, and a crucial line by the lead actress was never shot with the camera pointing directly at her, so we had to use a shot of the back of her head for that line. We made it work, but an attentive Script Supervisor would have caught this on set and made sure the shot was gotten.

On low budget films, you don’t always have the luxury to have someone on set who’s sole function is Script Supervisor, but it’s important to assign someone this task and make sure they know how to do it. And it shouldn’t be the Director or Cinematographer. They have way too many other things on their plate to do this well.

4. Learn to Communicate Your Ideas, Then Trust Your Editor.

I’ve sometimes worked with inexperienced directors who insisted they wanted to “sit it on every editing session.” I usually decline this type of job.

Inexperienced directors who want to do this either don’t trust their editors and want their editors to simply be their hands running the editing software, or they haven’t thought through their ideas for the film well enough to articulate them to the editor.

Having two people in the room also means every decision will have to be discussed, argued over, decided jointly, even the simplest decisions that were going to be made one way regardless. This will more than double the amount of time it takes for the edit.

The better course of action is to hire an experienced and creative editor whom you trust, communicate as precisely and articulately as you can your vision for the film, and then let the editor work through to a rough cut. Once the rough cut is done, you can productively work as closely with the editor as you want, either through notes, or by sitting in on the sessions.

But unless you really are an experienced filmmaker who has a mature understanding of the art of the edit – and have the budget to pay the editor to spend twice as much time getting to rough cut as you would otherwise – trust your editors to do the job you hired them for.

5. Know Your Footage.

I’ve worked with directors who, when they want a take replaced with another, will tell me exactly which take they like better. “Don’t use take 4, use take 2.” I’ve also worked with directors who’d say, “I don’t like that take, can you find a better one,” without any explanation of what they didn’t like or what they’re looking for. The first note can take me a minute or two to implement, the second might take me 25 minutes, and I still might not find something that satisfies the director. The more you know your footage the more precise you can be when giving notes.

Again, it all comes down to learning to communicating your ideas clearly and effectively.