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Starting an edit

Starting the edit of a fiction film is different from starting editing a documentary. Watch editor Justine Wright explain.
So how do we start an edit? The process is quite different for a feature drama to a documentary. With a feature drama, what happens is the editor is on board from day one of the shoot, hopefully. And you cut today what was shot yesterday. So you’re always one day behind the crew and what’s being shot. And you do this so that at shooting stage, you can make sure that everything’s working and that nothing’s missing. And if something is missing, they’ve still got time to pick up those extra shots. And also it gives a director the chance to look at how the actors are working together. They can make sure that what’s being shot is what they had intended.
And so you put it together on a day basis. And about a week after the shooting is finished, the editor shows the director the very first assembly of the film. And the way I like to do it is, I assemble absolutely as per the script. So everything that is in the script is in there. And then, the director and I sit down and take it from there. And we start working out what works and what doesn’t and what needs to come out. Because more often than not, it’s over length, the first assembly, because it’s got everything chucked in there.
Whereas with a documentary, what tends to happen is the editor comes on board once most of the material has been shot. You can’t actually start to put together a document. It’s very hard, until you know what all the material is, because there’s no specific order to stuff, necessary. And so when you’ve got all the material together, you then– basically, I tend to start wherever’s easiest. And I just jump into the middle. And the most important thing is just to make a start. It’s really hard when you’re confronted with a couple of hundred hours of footage to think where to start. You’ve just got to start. And so you jump into the easiest scene you can.
And then you go in and you sort of thrash around in all of this footage, putting together one scene and then another scene and then another scene. And then bolting those together, until you have a structure of some kind. And once you’ve got through that first sort of wriggling through all the footage, it’s like I always call it my sort of mudworm phase, where you’re just wriggling through trying to find your way through this sludge of footage, all this stuff. Once you’ve got an assembly together, it’s much easier to see what you’ve got. And then you can start re-cutting that and re-working out where you are, and what you’ve got, and what the story should be.

Justine’s account of how she gets started with an edit demonstrates the importance of the editor to the storytelling process. Editing is often mistakenly seen as a purely technical task, carrying out the instructions of the director. Clearly it is much more than that.

In this week’s featured Bafta Guru video, Walter Murch talks about editing.

In the next step, we look at the different ways in which films are structured.

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Explore Filmmaking: from Script to Screen

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