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Meet Justine Wright

Film editing is a major stage in storytelling for the screen. Watch editor Justine Wright (Touching the Void, Locke) discuss the process.
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Hi. My name is Justine Wright, and I’m an editor. I’ve cut films like The Iron Lady, The Last King of Scotland, Locke, Touching The Void, things like that. And this week, I’m going to be your host for transitions in time and space. And I guess, what does that mean, “transitions in time and space”? That’s basically the controlling of time in a film. Films very rarely take place over real time. We condense time, and move around in space to provide the viewer with as dramatic an experience of the story as possible. For a particular scene, we have a bunch of shots at our disposal.
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We have wide shot, mid-shot, close shot, cutaway shot, and the job of the editor is to work out which order to place the shots in to best convey the actual plot and also the intention of the director. Classically, you’d start with a wide shot and then gradually move in tight until you’re in the most emotional part of the scene.
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And then I guess you might move out again back into a wide shot, and we use a wide shot to enable us to see the layout of the scene and to see where all the characters are in relation to each other. And once we’ve established that, we can cut in tighter on people. And we’ll always know where we are in space within the scene. I started editing in the land of TV commercials.
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And I think that was quite a good to place to start because you’re doing the same process over and over again in a very short space of time, and it teaches you to be concise, I suppose, with your storytelling. We talk about losing time out of things. A commercial is the ultimate vehicle for condensing a story, and you have to incredibly precise with that. And so I suppose that was– the things I learned in commercials have been very useful to me along the away. My ultimate goal, when I came into the film industry, was to work on a documentary or to be in documentaries, and that’s what I then moved into.
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And the first documentary I ever cut was a film called One Day in September, and then I worked on a documentary called Touching The Void. And I had gone to journalism school, so I suppose that helped in my storytelling of documentaries. And I then moved into feature films. I made the leap with The Last King of Scotland, which is slightly documentary in feel, and so I guess that was a pretty good way to cross over into the world of feature dramas.

Justine Wright began editing in commercials, having originally trained as a journalist.

Her first documentary was One Day in September (1999), directed by Kevin MacDonald, who she also worked with on Touching the Void (2002) and later on fiction such as Last King of Scotland (2006). She recently won the European film award for best editor for her work on Locke (2013). More recently Justine has edited Denial (2016) and Yardie (2018).

A commonly held view of the job of an editor is that they are a technician who simply assembles the film from someone else’s plan, but the creative role of the editor in deciding how the footage can be put together to tell the story is crucial. In particular, the process of editing film plays with time and space.

Like the screenwriter and the director, the editor has the ability to play with time and space and to change the way the story is told.

Very few film narratives run in real-time. The viewer takes for granted that sequences will compress or expand time (taking out the boring bits or holding a moment for the purpose of suspense).

Stories need not always be told in the order in which the events occur. As viewers, we are used to filmmakers filling backstory or showing sequences out of order for dramatic effect. We can jump about in time or even be presented with two time periods simultaneously.

The editor has the ability to restrict what the viewer is seeing or expand what is shown to give us information withheld from characters onscreen.

The editor can even change our perception of physical space through the choices they make.

You might like to relate any of these ideas to films you know well and share your thoughts with your fellow learners.

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