Editing for Death Grip is done – and Why Directors Shouldn’t Edit

Last night I finished editing Death Grip, much thanks to help from producer/co-star Rebecca Ahn, co-stars Chelsea Steffensen, Nathan Hoskins, the cast and crew, friends, family, and industry pros. I loved the process of editing, but in the future I’d rather not do it again.

I’ll still edit action scenes. I can churn out a 5-minute fight scene in one day with sound effects. But for anything else, especially if there’s a lot of footage, a minute of edited film might take me a couple days. Editing a feature film is supposed to take an editor 8-12 weeks. It takes me between 18 (Bound By Blood) and 26 (Death Grip). From an industry perspective I’m not efficient. A better idea would have been to spend just half those 6 months raising funds to hire an editor. In the meantime I could have been spending more time prepping the next projects.

Still worse, there’s the unavoidable problem of the director treating his edited product like a finely crafted work of art before anyone has even seen it. As directors we’ve all heard it: you shouldn’t edit your film because you become attached to it. But being married to footage is only half of the problem, and it’s not impossible to overcome that. My process involved screening the film to friends, family, crew, and execs. Opinions varied widely. Cut this, add that, re-shoot these parts, sound critiques, story issues, etc. In the end I had to average it all out into one edit. Painful, but not impossible.

The real issue, however, is that as directors we’re married to “directing”. Directors tell people what to do, while editors help viewers understand what the hell the director was thinking. A director in the editor’s seat will glue shots together to tell the audience what to think, forcing his vision across even if there’s not enough information to really make the idea work. Editors glue shots to make use of the target viewers’ average mental faculties, producing the intended effect. If the footage just isn’t there, then as directors we haven’t done our job. We might go as far as blaming the audience for not “getting” it. Editors, on the other hand, might suggest a new direction for the footage that we have, or maybe a reshoot. In any case, editors are “helpers” for the audience. While audiences are willing to be directed in certain circumstances, such as major blockbusters where they’ll happily sit at the mercy of the studios and take anything thrown at them (god bless em), in our low-budget and indie situation we have to make a special appeal to the audience. A director isn’t always the best person for this job.

I say this on my high horse after editing my films for 11 years, and I wouldn’t expect anyone in the independent world to do it any differently. I probably won’t either unless I can afford a competent editor. But as directors, telling the audience what to think isn’t our job. A film is nothing without them. Fans trust us to tell them what to think, but a mindset of “take it or leave it” won’t suffice for everyone else. Once shooting is over and it comes time to start cutting footage, we take the director’s hat off and accept our new role as servant until the editing is done. It’s only temporary. Or we can avoid servitude altogether by hiring someone else.

8 thoughts on “Editing for Death Grip is done – and Why Directors Shouldn’t Edit

  1. I agree. If I had the money, I’d let someone else edit my movies. Not only because I feel the same what you wrote, but I hate editing. Always have. It’s a long process and I’m too much of a perfectionist that it’s counter productive.

    1. There was a scene where we shot 5-minute-long takes of the entire bit from 8 different angles, plus inserts, cutaways of a differrent area, and I was stuck on the edit for literally a damn month. Totally counter-productive. Easier of course when our shot choices are limited. Then it starts feeling fun.

      Makes me wonder how the hell people edit reality television. I’d go insane.

      1. That’s why you’ll often see the great directors working with the same editors. It’s a blessing if you find someone who shares your film-making sensibilities but lives for the editing process.

  2. Normally I don’t bother replying to these type of articles but in the end it really depends on the individual director. However, speaking in general, I would say that what you’ve written holds true if you have a very competent editor who really knows the craft and then you can let them do their thing (or a close collaboration thereof), and part of knowing their craft is knowing how to pace and move an audience. What I believe is more important (and the reason I’m commenting here) is that you develop a trust in your viewpoint as a director and YOU DO direct the audience reaction. If you read biographies of great directors, with a prime example being the master Cameron, you will see that they do nothing less. The real spine that threads what I’m saying through what you’ve written is that you must know your audience and what and how they tick. The audience doesn’t know your craft and that is why they often give the worst technical feedback. (I’ve seen this so many times in reading screening cards and in discussion groups after screenings). Steven Spielberg witnessed this with the review cards he got after Jaws and vowed never to hold test screenings of his films again for audiences, and he hasn’t. So direct it all, take and carefully analyze the feedback, and then continue crating to the finished product. The great directors are often tweaking their films up to the last minute, so you confidently do the same. Learn from your mistakes and create a better product next time. I’m the audience — if you want to serve me, create some bad-ass shit I’ve never seen before. Please don’t make films by committee or audience decree — because those always come up short. Respectfully, Johnnyray Gasca

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