How editing got me hooked on movies, and why it’s such an important and underrated skill to develop whatever your industry or interests.

One Saturday morning in the early 1990s I was sat in my local library in a small town in the south west of England. I was 9, maybe 10 years old and was reading a book about the movie industry.

It was magic – the special effects, the incredible locations around the world, the armies of people who came together to create these amazing stories and experiences.

I especially loved the section in the book that explained how certain sequences were put together. This was before Pixar and their contemporaries elevated special effects to the levels we see today, so many of the things I read about were down mainly to sleight of hand and illusion – just like a magician. I was hooked – I decided right there I wanted to be a film producer.

Around that time a school friend and I watched the first Terminator movie. We were way too young of course, and it gave me nightmares for a while, but I still found it enthralling. The first time we bailed out halfway through because his sister came home and we didn’t want to get caught watching scary movies, but the second time we watched it all the way through. I remember vividly on this version of the VHS tape there was a section after the final credits going behind the scenes of some of the action sequences.

After some of the car chases, there were two scenes I’d seen before – in my book! One of them was when the Terminator punches through a windscreen with his bare hands. They used pneumatics to make the glass break of course, but when the finished scene was shown again at regular speed it wasn’t just the camera shots or the special effect I was most impressed by – the editing was what made it all come together.

 

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Last weekend I finally got around to watching Cloud Atlas, the hugely ambitious 2012 movie by The Wachowskis and the German director Tom Tykwer. Cloud Atlas tells six stories across different times in history, each of them gradually impacting the others as the movie progresses. For the regular movie fan it’s pretty hard to notice great editing – we only tend to notice it when it’s incongruous or uncomfortable.

However, with Cloud Atlas I noticed the cadence of the edits gradually increasing over time at the film’s crescendo came into view, and different elements in the plot starting to bleed into others. It was extremely clever and the 1000+ shots must have been meticulously mapped out (no pun intended) by the editor Alexander Berner. It felt fitting that earlier in the week I’d been grappling with a challenging editing project of my own – albeit only 55 minutes of linear audio.

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The first episode of my new podcast ‘Tickets’ went online last week. Practising what I preach, it’s been built lean to test the concept – in this case Skype calls, laptop mics and free editing software. So far the responses have been good – experiment validated. More episodes will be live in the coming weeks.

I always knew the edit was the tricky bit, but I underestimated just how much time would be needed to iron out the ‘um’s, ‘ah’s, pops and crackles. My lean approach meant it was tough to test my mic levels, and I needed to re-record a few parts and splice them back in, plus all the exports, imports and mix downs – this just for a simple 55 minute audio file. Recording time: 1.5 hours. Editing time: 8 hours. Uff.

The edit also helped me improve a lot of other things including storytelling, timing, voice projection and segueing between threads of conversation – in fact I learnt far more here than in the preparation and recording processes combined.

Suddenly those 8 hours didn’t feel so bad, and I’ve since been listening to and watching content with a new level of understanding of the craft and respect for the creators, producers and editors making it happen.

I may not have quite followed that dream at 10 years old and become a film producer (yet art least…looking to reigniting that one soon in a slightly unorthodox way), but just like the wonderful DJ and remixer Greg Wilson I’m giving full credit to the edit.

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