An inside look at film editing at the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival
In a film, there can be one scene that the film editor falls in love with so much it’s hard to not just stay in it forever.
That scene is a creative baby, and “you have to kill your babies,” according to veteran film editor Vivien Hillgrove, whose documentary credits include “The Devil Never Sleeps” and “In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee.”
In her presentation at the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival, “Cut, Cut, Cut, Editing Your Doc,” Hillgrove shared her experience and insight on creating a captivating film via editing.
In order to keep great scenes from becoming boring, Hillgrove said they had to be trimmed down.
That way, the scene continues as soon as the viewer has fully understood what was happening.
While most people think of film editing as being primarily visual, audio is just as important, as Hillgrove demonstrated with a clip from “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” which she also worked on.
In the scene of the invasion of Prague, sounds from protests carry over images of a crowd and build. The cacophony transitions into a musical track, which is then burst in on by the crash of a tank.
Hillgrove said this captivating sequence was made possible by careful organization of audio tracks.
Separate elements tell a different story
Hillgrove suggested creating groups according to dialogue, sound effects and music, then looking at each alone and in conjunction with the visual elements.
Playing a scene with only the dialogue helps show when something is both said and shown and therefore what to cut. Playing a scene with only music can show where transitions are needed and when something isn’t jiving with the rest of the scene’s mood.
Reading transcripts can also be a helpful way to look at a scene. In its written form, a scene may have areas more obvious to take out or scenes that truly stick in the editor’s mind.
“Over-explanation tires the viewer,” she said. “You’ve got to find the juice and take just that piece.”
Similarly, taking away different audio elements can show when a visual is too long on the screen. Hillgrove showed a scene of stock footage she had edited from the Korean War, both the rough cut and the more refined final version.
In showing too much of the war scenes, the devastating effects of the war were lessened. In the final cut, a flash of the scenes flies by viewers.
“You have to be seductive,” she said of the trimming process.
Take a break
There’s a lot that goes into cutting outside the cutting room, though. Hillgrove said editors should do whatever they have to do to get out of the office.
She has taken stills and had them posted all over a room, so that she could absorb the material differently. The randomness of it helped her brain pick what was interesting, she said.
Taking breaks often is also helpful, Hillgrove noted. It was one of her few criticisms of the digital age, where everything can be done with software in such an instantaneous fashion that the mind doesn’t have a chance to slow down. This compared to the days of having to stop to set up a reel or other analog equipment before making cuts.
Examining what is going on in your world also helps an editor understand his or her selection process.
“All experiences outside a film affect decisions as an editor,” she said.
Film is a collaborative medium
Establishing a good relationship with a director is key to developing a good film, Hillgrove said.
“The director is your film spouse,” she said.
She asks a lot of questions about what the director wants out of a film, what emotions are intended to be drawn out and then finds a way to get on that same frequency.
Editors also work closely with a film’s cinematographer.
So in the end, when does an editor know it’s time to stop?
“When you run out of money,” Hillgrove joked.
In all seriousness, she said, it takes a lot of screenings and sharing your work with critical eyes that let you know when something is at its best.
Knowing who the audience is helps form those screening groups, as does picking people who may not really like your work, in order to get the most critical and best responses.