Ever wonder what it’s like to be an assistant editor on huge movies like Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Kingsman: The Golden Circle?
Chris Frith has worked on all these films and was kind enough to speak with Film Editing Pro about his experience.
In this interview, Chris will cover some great topics including:
- The various responsibilities of an assistant editor
- How to organize your timeline and your footage on big projects
- When and where to add music to a cut
- Tips and advice for those looking to break into the film industry
- And quite a bit more…
We’ve got a lot to talk about. Let’s get started!
FEP: How did you get started as an editor?
CF: I got into filmmaking around 11 years old by creating short films. Back then, I was trying to learn and do everything. I enjoyed producing and directing but I’d find myself coming home from a day on set and all I wanted to do was look at the footage. As I got older I naturally gravitated towards editing. I realized that I preferred working on a smaller team and liked the amount of influence an editor can have without being the ‘face’ of the project.
As they say: ‘Good editing can make an average movie great, poor editing can completely kill a great movie’. The job is a bit mysterious and it’s the right combination of art, science, technology and creativity for me.
FEP: What does an Assistant Editor do exactly? Tell us a bit about your responsibilities and if/how they change over the course of a production.
CF: The old saying is that the editor edits, and the assistants do everything else. Movie making is storytelling and Assistant Editors take care of the technical workflow and logistics of putting the film together so that the editor is free to focus on the story and collaborate with the director and producers to make the best film possible.
During filming, this means coordinating between the set and cutting room, making sure everyone has what they need and supporting the editor with sound design, temporary VFX shots, or music.
During post production, the cutting room becomes the center of all other remaining departments (sound, music, VFX, 3D, marketing, DI, etc.) and we keep everybody informed of changes in the cut so as the editor refines the film, everybody else is up to date and only working on relevant shots and sequences. We’ll provide everything they need and as the work is completed we’ll get music, sound and VFX shots into the film for review by the director and editor in the cutting room.
FEP: Let’s talk about working with Eddie Hamilton. It seems as though meeting him was a big jump start for your career. Eddie said in a recent interview that he’s discovered most of his assistants by reading resumes sent via email. Did you meet Eddie the same way? How’d you get the job?
CF: Of course so many people have had an influence on where I am now but working with Eddie was certainly a major milestone. I had known of Eddie and his work for years before moving to London. I had found his website and interviews very informative and encouraging so I emailed him, really just to thank him and see if it would be possible to meet him and get some advice.
I never expected to be able to work with him so soon. He met me in his cutting room and I came in with croissants for the team and a notebook with lots of questions I had prepared.
I think he liked that but he ended up doing most of the questioning. I didn’t realize it at the time but I think that was my interview for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation! We talked for about 45 minutes and after I left he emailed and asked for my CV, then forwarded it to the other assistants he was about to start working with on Mission. They interviewed me a couple of days later and the week after that we all started working together!
FEP: We’ve heard that Eddie will occasionally give assistants the opportunity to cut certain scenes of the feature. How does that process work? What type of critique or review takes place?
CF: Yes that’s true. He’s very encouraging to those of us who aspire to be full time editors. He suggests we cut at least one scene each week but it’s pretty informal – if there’s a scene we like or something that looks challenging we can try it.
When time permits he will take a look and sometimes provides feedback or even uses what we’ve done. Occasionally, I’ll re-cut scenes that he has done to try and present a different idea, then sit with him to review and discuss.
FEP: One of the most important components to effective editing is proper footage organization. It can make all the difference in the ability to create a high-quality final product quickly. Can you talk a bit about your footage organization process from the time you receive the rushes/dailies until the time you hand off the content to Eddie?
CF: Sure. The process is pretty similar on all feature films. It’s important that the editor can access any shot from any scene in seconds. The footage is initially organized by unit (main unit, second unit, splinter unit, aerial unit, underwater unit etc.), then shoot day and camera or lab roll. We will add clip descriptions, camera information and all sorts of metadata that will help us and other departments later down the line.
Next we will sync with sound and then break down into each scene. Some scenes are shot over several days and each day we might have footage from several scenes. On each clip we’ll add markers when the director calls ‘action’ so the editor can easily skip to the right part and doesn’t have to watch the slate, resetting of camera or things like that. If the scene was filmed with multiple cameras we’ll sync them together to create group clips and mark those up as well. Anything that was shot at a different frame rate will be resped to 24fps and synced with sound so we have the option to use it in realtime as well as in fast or slow-motion.
Finally, we’ll cross-reference the camera sheets, script supervisors paperwork and the actual clips. We have to be 100% certain we have everything that was filmed and then hand it over.
FEP: Another earmark of a professional is timeline organization. Can you tell us a bit about your track layout for both video and audio? How does this evolve, if at all, as the feature moves closer to its final form?
CF: The timeline for a big VFX heavy movie can be a bit daunting at first. It’s important not to overthink, it’s essentially just a database referencing media.
We build the timeline starting with “drama” shots (non VFX shots) on the first couple of tracks. Then, the third and fourth tracks will have temporary VFX (made in the cutting room), followed by real VFX shots from vendors. Lastly, any subtitles or color correction tracks might go above that. Everything else is just for technical purposes – tracking VFX shots for example. Audio begins with a few mono dialogue tracks, then some mono, stereo and 5.1 sound effects, followed by 5.1 music.
It’s important to keep all of those elements separate so we have control in the mix. It’s also important to easily lift all the dialogue out of the film but keep everything else intact for foreign language versions.
FEP: Some editors choose restrict their editing solely to picture and dialogue, while others prefer to flesh out quite a bit more in the way of music and sound design. What are your thoughts on these two extremes and which do you prefer? Does it change based on the project?
CF: When you present your work I think it’s important to have a bit of polish. It’s becoming more and more expected of editors. Directors and producers are less forgiving of sloppiness. We have the tools to work in high resolution and make a great sounding mix so we should use them.
On my own projects I generally edit without music and make sure I’m happy that the scene is working before adding a temp score. Music is probably the single biggest thing that can enhance a scene and make mediocre editing look better than it is. I’m careful to make sure I’m using it as icing on the cake, not as a crutch.
Ideally, I’ll try and get the cut looking and sounding good before showing a director. Sometimes directors have preference as to whether or not they want to hear temp score but in general I like to take out all the green screens and do rough VFX, music and sound editing before showing anyone else.
I know other editors who put down music first so there’s no “right” way, that’s just what works for me right now. I’m still changing my process as I learn more, however I do think it’s worthwhile to take the time and make your cut look and sound as good as it can before presenting.
FEP: You have quite a bit of experience editing and directing other projects, including your own. How has your experience as an Assistant Editor on major films changed how you work on your own projects?
CF: I’ve learned so much from the amazing world-class people I’ve been fortunate enough to work with. Certainly my own abilities and standards have improved and seeing how things are done in a professional environment gives me more confidence with my own projects. For example, I’m a lot less anxious showing a first cut to a director or producer I’ve never worked with before. Even if they don’t like it or I haven’t quite captured the spirit of what they’re after, I know it’s still quality work and I can always do another version.
I’ve learned to be more brutal about my own work as well, constantly trying to improve and showing no remorse about cutting things out if it’s for the greater good. I’ve also used what I’ve learned on these big movies to organize my own projects the same way. The process and workflow on my recent independent films is now identical to that of a 200 million dollar movie, but at the end of the day, it’s all about good storytelling.
FEP: You’ve been an assistant editor on both television and film. What can you tell us about the major differences between the two, if any?
CF: I’d say budget, schedule and size of the team are the biggest things that affect you on a day to day basis. Storytelling is still storytelling, whether you’re doing it for a two hour film or over the course of a TV season. There’s a lot of high end television coming out these days though that is just spectacular, I think they’re becoming more similar.
FEP: You recently had the opportunity to edit on Rogue One. Because you typically work on Eddie’s projects, how did you get on this movie?
CF: While working on Mission I made sure to keep networking as much as possible, which was a lot easier because I had credibility in the industry. One of the other assistant editors on Mission got a job on Rogue, then hired me and another assistant as well.
It’s really important to understand that the industry runs on word of mouth and importance of your connections. I haven’t interviewed for a job since 2014 because people call and ask when I’m available. We all know each other socially or from previous projects.
FEP: Rogue One had quite a large editorial department. Was your role on this film different than usual? If so, how?
CF: Security and confidentiality were tighter but otherwise my role wasn’t that different. It was a large production with more than one editor and in addition to our cutting room in London we also had one set up in the U.S. towards the end of the project. We had more assistants but weren’t all in the same place or on the film at the same time. It was just a few of us when filming started and we added to the team as needed.
FEP: You are quite young and have already crafted an impressive CV. What advice would you give to other editors looking to follow in your footsteps?
CF: Thanks, that’s very kind of you. In addition to learning the tools and honing your skills, I would say that you shouldn’t be intimidated by the film industry.
Make a list of your favorite editors, assistants and post-production supervisors, then look at patterns on IMDb – who frequently works with who. If there’s an editor you admire, see if they work with the same assistants and find out why. Reverse-engineer their career. Did they assist when they were starting out? How did they jump from that to editing? Do they frequently work with the same director? See if there’s someone on those teams you can reach out to or go visit all the post-production houses and try to meet with someone and drop off your thoroughly proofread CV.
If you make contact, keep it short and simple. When I was getting in touch with people I was never asking for jobs, I would just thank them for the work they have done and the inspiration they provided me. If they responded positively, I might try and see if I could visit their cutting room for some advice. I would show up slightly early with tasty treats for the team. It’s important not to overlook the assistants, we’re the ones who do the hiring and our job or a trainee job is probably the one you are aiming for at first.
Set tangible goals with deadlines. That can range from “visit five post houses this week” to “meet 10 assistants this month” or “start work on a feature film by the end of the year”. Demonstrate that you are driven, passionate and focused. See if you can learn about proper cutting room etiquette.
If you want to be an editor, have opinions about other films/editing, then articulate why you like or dislike them well. Save up as much money as you can so you can take the jobs you want, not because you have to. Recognize that there are many paths to the same destination, maybe you’d prefer to edit something small rather than assist on something big.
Whatever you do, keep cutting! Cut on the job if you can, find side-projects, make your own videos or mashups from YouTube. Do something that keeps refining your skills for the job you want. The only way to develop the reflexes required to perform well under pressure is by actually doing the job.
Even in my position where I have been privileged to observe great editors very closely, I know I will only get better and more comfortable at editing by editing. In addition to having an incredible drive and holding yourself to high standards, remember to have fun and that sometimes progress can be slow. Even though there may be tough spells at times we’ve all been there.
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This article was written by FEP contributing author, Zsófi Szemerédy. Zsófi studies Marketing & Distribution at the National Film and Television School in London, UK. She also produces the Indie Film Distribution Summit. She’s been an ardent Star Wars, Harry Potter, and sci-fi lover since the age of 5.