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Why a Director Shouldn't Edit Their Own Film

By Dan Selakovich  |  04-Dec-2014

I was asked why a director shouldn't edit his/her own films today... again. I get a lot of blow-back from my usual answer, but I'm steadfast in my belief that a director should never edit their own film. I know; never is a strong word. And there are exceptions, and those outliers are part and parcel for the argument for editing your own work. But all of us can't be the Cohen brothers - I'm certainly not.

Which brings me to me. I'm an editor. I started editing when we cut on film (yes, I really miss it.) Most of my career - probably 98% of it - was fixing movies in trouble. What that means is, a producer realized too late that he/she hired the wrong director or bought the wrong script (usually both). On about half of these films, new scenes were written to fill the plot holes and I'd figure out what additional shots were needed to make existing scenes work. I'd then direct the new stuff and re-edit the entire picture. On the other half of the pictures, I would simply re-edit. The other way I get hired is from a completion bond company that has taken over a picture. Yes, there are people like me in the business. Don't look for our IMDB credits. They aren't there. We work uncredited (signing non-disclosure agreements in perpetuity). Everything I fixed got a distribution deal (probably 99% of films made, don't).

I tell you this because I kind of know what I'm talking about. How an audience sees a film for the first time is sort of my bread and butter, as it is for every editor. And as every serious editor does, I actually study how we as humans see the filmed image. Do you know, for example, it takes the human brain three to five frames to recognize what it's seeing? I do. I've actually done tests. Do you know how an audience sees a film on a 40-foot screen compared to a computer or huge monitor screen? Or where they are most likely looking? Or why they may actually like a particular film better on a TV screen rather than the big silver? I do. An editor has to know film grammar, screen structure, acting (or more accurately, character), directing, as well as the tools that we are known for; pacing and emotional impact.

A director shouldn't cut his/her own film because of this: objectivity. As a director, you have none.

What you need to know from the start is your eyes are lying to you. Think of it this way: we've all been trapped in an elevator with someone that has on WAY too much cologne. We think how can he possibly leave the house smelling like that? Here's how: on day one, he put on just a bit. By day four, he couldn't smell it because his nose got used to it. So he puts on a little more so that he can notice it. This goes on, every few days, adding a bit more. By day 30, he's on that elevator with you. To HIM he smells like day one. To us, it's a gas attack. We are all familiar with nose blindness. But less familiar is a phenomenon called inattentional blindness and a plethora of other human limitations working against you (if you'd like to know more about inattentional blindness check out "Sights Unseen", an article from the American Psychological Association which sums it up nicely).

Our eyes get used to things much quicker than our sense of smell. The next time you're editing, go ahead and make a bad cut. Make it the worst of the worst: a jump cut. Now watch that cut five times. By the fifth, the cut will be much smoother than it was the first time you saw it. Your brain is filling in stuff that just isn't there. That's how our brain sees. Your eyes are equivalent to a two megapixel camera. Pretty crappy, right? You don't see with your eyes so much as you see with your brain. And all day long, it's filling in sight based on PAST experience. How do we know this? Because there have been people blind from birth that were given a new set of eyes, but they could only see a very blurry wash of colour. Their brains had no reference. We see based on past visual reference.

Can't See the Wood for the Trees

So how does that apply to filmmaking? When you are directing a film, you are in a visual bubble. Think about your time on the set. You're staring at video monitors (and probably small ones at that). You spend every single day getting shots you've planned for weeks or months before. You might have even done storyboards. You know each and every performance an actor gives. You know that just to the right of that set wall is a row of lights. You know that the DP pissed you off that day and you think the lighting way in the background sucks where those two extras are. You know a thousand things outside of what's in the frame. And you're going to carry all of that baggage into the editing room.

Let me try to explain this way: I loved the movie "The Bourne Identity". It was directed by Doug Liman, a director whose work I mostly like. So when they announced the sequel, I was excited to know what was going to happen to the Bourne character in the next film. Enter Paul Greengrass, shaky-cam director. The first time I saw the Bourne sequel in the theatre, I had no idea what I was watching. Shaky camera work, quick cuts, a complete abandonment of screen geography... the established filmmaker I was watching the movie with had to leave because he was nauseous. Physically nauseous.

But here's where I can let Greengrass off the hook -- almost. He saw a completely different film than I did. If he's looking at a seven inch screen on set, the picture is barely moving with that shaky-cam. But once you put that in a theatre, a half inch move on that monitor turns into a six foot blur on the big screen. But HE doesn't see that six foot move. HE KNOWS THE FOOTAGE. To him, it still looks like the day he shot it and all of those days in the editing room seeing it again and again and again.

How about this: HE ALSO KNOWS WHICH CHARACTER IS THE BAD GUY. We don't. Between shaky-cam and five frame cuts, we can barely make out who is who in a fight to the death. We know Bourne will win, but we want to see HOW he wins. It took two more viewings on a small screen for me to appreciate the film. Paul Greengrass doesn't know his own limitations -- or ours, for that matter (by the way, actors love Paul Greengrass. Why? Because they don't have to worry about anything that goes into the technical aspects of film acting.

A side note, here. I'm using Greengrass' Bourne films because they are an obvious way to illustrate my point. I think his "Bloody Sunday" is pretty brilliant. I've also written about why you shouldn't use shaky-cam.

Anyway, take that small shaky-cam example and apply the concept to bigger things like a scene, an act, or the picture as a whole. Are you putting in scenes that are repetitive? Did you foreshadow that gun in Scene 2 because the character uses it to kill someone in Scene 14? Is that kiss that seemed perfectly placed in the screenplay, now much too soon? There are a thousand details like this that an editor thinks about. But as a director by the time it comes to post you're so familiar with the material that you may be killing the heart of your story without realizing it.

Why? Because you have no objectivity. I've seen it a lot: directors that ruin their own work because they've left emotion out of the cut. On many of the pictures I 'saved' I didn't mess with the structure at all. I simply re-cut so that the audience could connect emotionally with the character. I tend to cut to the rhythm of the actors - cut to character, then story. If you do the first two, story will often take care of itself, assuming the screenwriter and director have done their job. By cutting to character, you create an emotional bond between the audience and your actors. Too often, because they are too close to the material, the director sees things that will be a mystery to his/her audience. Or they will fall back on basic television cutting. Cinema editing is about emotion. Often it is about adding a few frames, or cutting out a bit of dialogue because a reaction shot works better. Or it can be about not cutting, and letting a scene play in a master or two shot. Just because you're not cutting doesn't mean you're not editing.

Back to the second Bourne film, there's a chase early on that ends in Bourne's car going off a bridge. Greengrass relies on shaky-cam and quick cuts to relay tension. But that's artificial. The tension comes from the audience knowing where the protagonist is in relation to the antagonist. It's basic screen geography. We don't know if the bad guy's car is right behind Bourne, or a half mile away. It kills the tension. On my first viewing in a theatre my brain couldn't keep up with the visual language of the constantly shaky camera and quick cutting... so it gave up. In real life, we don't see in shaky-cam.

Still not getting it? OK, I think most people reading this will have tried their hand at screenwriting. Think about draft one or two, and draft six. Sometimes a screenplay will get better with each draft. Sometimes not. Have you ever had the experience of letting someone read draft two, then you hand them draft six, and they say something like, "I'm just not sure. Your second draft seemed to have so much more heart." Or, "What happened to that kitchen scene? That made the third act work". It's because you knew the screenplay so well, that you cut things you actually needed or added things you didn't. On every film I had a hand in directing, at least one actor gave a performance that was better than I imagined in my head. Have you had that experience? That an actor adds a layer to a character that you would have never have thought of? So why is it such a leap to think an editor can't do the same for you?

All of that said, while I don't think you should cut your own film, when you're just starting out, you need to edit your own stuff to learn. BUT ideally, you should also let a real editor cut away to see what he/she has done with your stuff. It's digital, after all. It's easy to have two cuts going at once.

I'm reminded of this great story that happened some years ago on this big feature. The Studio did one of those awful screenings where they pull people off the street to comment on an unfinished film. EVERYONE said that they didn't trust the main character. Well, the studio went nuts trying to figure out how to make the lead more appealing. But the editor and the assistant knew exactly why: the main character's dialogue track was just under 2 frames out of sync. An editor would notice, but a general audience won't. Studio execs won't. Hell, the director didn't even notice. And the execs refused to believe that that was the problem. A week later they showed it again, back in sync this time. The result: glowing reviews. Yes, a dialogue track very slightly out of sync affected CHARACTER. Let that one sink in.

Directors and Editors

Raindance has an article on how directors screw editors. Not only a lesson on editing, but directing. You can read the first six over at Raindance. I would add a few of my own rules. And by the way, I have used cliché to help emphasize my points. Cliché s are cliché s for a reason, but don't let that stop you from thinking about your film and applying these rules. The big obvious cliché s make for a clearer discussion. It's hard, for example, to say "this line should be cut because the emotion of the scene carries better with just a look." That's a small vague thing that is hard to quantify, so cliché s are necessary. The same reason I picked Paul Greengrass instead of Steven Soderberg. Some directorial styles are easier to quantify in a discussion of this nature.

My additions would be:

7. Inserts are not throw-away shots, and should be treated with as much care as framing that close-up of your star. Bad coverage is no coverage.

8. Don't edit 'in camera'. Are you only getting a close up for THAT line? Well, stop it. I personally edit to an actor's rhythm. It may end up that a close up on THAT line works. Often it can look awkward and wrong (this was actually covered in the Raindance six, but needs repeating, lots and lots of repeating).

9. The worse your actors are, the more coverage you need. And even the best actors can have a bad day. Plan with a little breathing room in your schedule.

10. If you cross the line, give your editor a 'bridge' shot to get to the other side of the line.

11. Just because it took you five hours to get that crane shot, doesn't mean the editor will use it. Please look at the cut carefully before you blurt out a knee-jerk reaction because the shot is gone. You need to edit for story, not because something looks cool. Along these same lines, please remove "if I shot it, I want it in" from your brain. If an editor doesn't use a shot, it's because the story works better without it.

12. Don't call a first cut an "assembly". We hate that. Tell your editor to cut his/her first cut as if it were going out into the world. You'll have time to change it later, but odds are you'll be pleasantly surprised.

13. Your editor isn't a 'machine operator'. Don't treat them as such. We've spent years learning our craft. We study psychology, story, and all sorts of odd things to make us better. We make a film better than the sum of its parts. Let us do that for you.

14. The words "per director" on the script notes sends a chill down our spine. For example, "crossed the line; per director" means the script supervisor told you that you crossed the line, and you did nothing about it. Script supervisors are there to help. Listen to them. Also, don't hire your little sister to script supervise. They're our only link to set so we need a professional.

15. If you stared at the video monitor all day, you very well may think you have footage you don't have. Don't make us spool through hours of footage looking for that 'lost' shot. If it's not in the script notes, it probably doesn't exist. Go stand next to the camera, please.

16. Don't frame a shot for what's going to happen. For example, you've got a medium wide shot of a guy sitting on a couch, but there's all this room on one side of the frame, and enough head room to land a plane in. This awkward framing means some character is going to walk into frame at some point. An editor is going to try his best not to use that shot until the second character enters, but if there's not enough coverage, we're stuck. Camera people are really good at moving the camera. Start with a proper single, then pull back for the second character. Every film I've ever fixed has at least one shot like this, and it's a nightmare to get out of if there's no coverage.

17. A good producer is gold. They can be incredibly helpful in the editing room. Don't be afraid to lean on them. Keep a bad producer out of the editing room.

There you have it. Some might think I'm trying to remove the director from the editing process. Let me be clear: I am not. It is the director's film. Period. I'm just trying to make directors aware that they have baggage that will confuse assumptions with reality. By being aware and taking a step back, it will help your film immensely. These are limitations we have simply by being human.

I also don't want you to think that I'm saying editors are gods. We are not. And the fact is, there are a lot of bad editors out there. It's more common than not to get a bad editor, nowadays. When I was learning Avid 20 years ago, in a class of 12, there were only two professional editors - including myself. The rest thought that if they just learned the machine, they too could call themselves an editor. Now that you can get software for free and learn it in your spare time, it's even more prolific. This article is just as much for editors as it is for directors.

Dan Selakovich has held almost every position on a variety of film and video projects. Since 1986 he has worked as an editor and director, working mostly uncredited as a film surgeon fixing films in trouble. He also lectures on camera placement for emotional impact: Finding The Right Shot, and on rig building based on his book Killer Camera Rigs That You Can Build to schools and groups around the country including the USC summer film program and the NAB convention in Las Vegas and New York City.

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