Now that the crew has shot all of the angles and takes, it’s up to the editor to choose the best pieces and seamlessly put them together into a compelling scene.
I begin by watching everything that was filmed for the scene. Then I select the ideal setup for each moment of the scene, and decide which take of that angle to use, based on the quality of the actors’ performances and the camera work. I work my way through the scene moment by moment, building my “cut” out of all the best pieces.
A large part of my job is evaluating the actors’ performances, then elevating them as best I can. That means being realistic about who is working well in the scenes, and who isn’t. I’ve edited all kinds of actors — awful ones, amazing award-winning ones, and actors who performed terribly on set but looked brilliant once they were pieced together from many different takes. My job is to make them all look great.
Most people assume that I start cutting with the director sitting alongside me, telling me what takes and angles to use, but that’s not so. The director can’t be in Editorial with me until they’ve finished the whole shoot.
So I start cutting by myself while the director continues filming.
I rely on the script supervisor’s paperwork and the dailies to tell me what the director is thinking. They will point me towards the performances the director was aiming for. I won’t see the director until two or three days after shooting has finished, by which time I will have done a cut of the entire show on my own. So the editor (with some guidance from Scripty’s notes) is the person who makes the initial decision about which performances appear onscreen.
Because I’m not on the set, I have a different perspective than the director. My perspective is unclouded by the struggle to capture the footage. I only see the footage as it exists, without any backstory from the set. Whether a shot was difficult or easy to film makes no difference to my analysis of its worth. Being removed from the set gives me a clarity that people directly involved in the day-to-day shooting may not be able to obtain.
When I watch the dailies, sometimes I don’t agree with the director about which take is best. The director is surrounded by chaos and pressure on set. They have to make very quick decisions and can’t easily compare what they just shot to what they shot ten minutes ago, or even ten days ago. But in the cutting room, it’s just me in a dark room with a big TV. I have lots of time to watch takes over and over again, to compare moments, and to think deeply about the performances, the story, and what the actors are doing. I think about what each character has already been through, and what’s going to happen to them later in the story. I think about their beat-by- beat objectives. I think about their arc within the scene and within the larger show. I think about the tone meeting we had before the episode began shooting, where the showrunner talked about their goals for each scene and for the larger episode. All of these factors are in play when I am judging per formances. Then I start mak ing decisions about how to construct the scene and which takes to use.
In the course of assembling the scene, I’ll decide which angle to use for each moment, which size (closer or tighter), and which take of that size to use.
At the beginning of each scene, I’ll generally want to show the audience the space where the action is taking place and who is in the room, so I’ll probably start the scene in a wide shot. If I want to withhold information from the audience about where we are, or who is in the room, then I can start the scene in closer shots and wait until just the right moment to use the wide shot to reveal things. Because the editor controls what the audience sees, the editor can also control what the audience knows and feels.
As the scene progresses and the conflict heats up, we’ll generally move from wider shots to closer shots, thus allowing the audience to get closer and closer to the actors’ faces and see their emotions more clearly.
Throughout the process, I’ll do whatever I can to bolster all of the actors’ performances. My personal opinion is that performance is the most important thing in a scene, so I will always choose an average shot of a great performance over a beautiful shot of a bland performance. Sometimes I will even use a take which has slight camera focus problems if the performance is really incredible.
Most viewers don’t realize that editors often take pieces from different takes to build the actor’s final performance. Let’s assume the director filmed five takes of Elaine’s close-up. That means I can mine five different close-up performances for the beats I need. Generally I will see one performance that stands out above the others, and that becomes my go-to take. I’ll try to use that take whenever I cut to Elaine’s close-up. Let’s say her best performance was the last one, take 5.
But there may be some lines or moments that Elaine didn’t quite nail in take 5. She did an interesting look that I liked in take 4 after Joe said, “My good word.” In take 3, when she said “My life doesn’t have anything to do with you anymore,” she put an extra slap on the reading that I really liked. The camera badly missed focus when Elaine leaned forward to get the coffee mug in take 5, so I need a different take for that action.
The audience shouldn’t realize I’m switching takes, so if everyone did their job correctly on set, Elaine will appear to be sitting in the exact same place in every take, with the exact same lighting and the exact same background action happening around her. I also need to be careful that switching takes doesn’t upset her emotional through-line, so I can’t cut from a take where she is elated to a take where she has tears of sorrow running down her face. She needs to be in the same emotional space from cut to cut, or transitioning from one emotional state to another, otherwise the audience will know I pulled a trick on them.
Every time I cut to Joe, I get to choose which take of Elaine to return to. Likewise, every time I cut to Elaine, I get to choose which take of Joe to return to. I only have to stay in a take for as long as it’s good. Once it starts to go south, I can cut to a different take or shot where the performance didn’t falter (or where something more interesting started happening). In this way, I can edit the scene so the audience only sees the best on-camera performance from each actor for any given moment.
If I’m building my cut around take 5 of Elaine, but I want to get that interesting look in from take 4, here’s how I’d do it.
I’d start with Elaine in take 5 for her line of dialogue before the look — “How do I know you’re going to stop if I pay you?”
Then I’d cut to Joe for his line that triggers the look — “My good word.”
When I cut back to Elaine for her look, I can use her take 4 and nobody will ever know I changed takes.
I’ll cut back to Joe to see his response to her look…
…and when I return to Elaine’s shot for “So there’s no guarantee,” I can be back in good old take 5.
Shawn Ryan, the creator/showrunner of “The Shield,” used to say, “The actor only has to get the performance right once [in each setup],” meaning it’s OK if an actor is mediocre in four takes of the close-up, as long as they nail it in the fifth take. Technically he’s right, but I’m sure you want to be the kind of actor who nails it in every take and doesn’t rely on the editor to save you. You can take heart in his message, because when I see your magic take, I’m going to try to use it every time I cut to you. I’m going to build my cutting pattern around that wonderful take. So if you go home feeling awful that you batted one-out-of- five, don’t worry too much. I saw that fifth take. Once the show leaves my cutting room, nobody else will ever know about the first four. Just make sure to send me a fruit basket when you win your Emmy.
Sometimes there’s a take where I like the camera- work or your facial expression, but your line reading wasn’t as good as a read you did in another take. In this situation, I can try to replace the audio of the “bad” read with the audio of the “good” read to get the best of both worlds. It only works if the timing and rhythm of the performances is the same, otherwise your lips won’t match what we’re hearing. When someone wants me to do this in the cutting room, they’ll ask, “Can you put the good take in his mouth?”
We often cheat reaction shots as well. A reaction shot is a silent shot of one character reacting to another character. Reaction shots help the audience track what the characters are thinking as the scene progresses. For instance, if the school principal is droning on endlessly, we’ll want to cut to a shot of a bored, yawning teacher. That’s a good reaction shot. Editors will pull reaction shots from any part of any take they can, as long as the shot conveys the right message. That piece of the teacher yawning might have come from after the director yelled “Cut!” (Good camera operators keep filming for a few seconds after cut is called, specifically so they can capture those kind of nuggets.)
It’s very interesting to see the effect of someone’s words on the person they are talking to. Imagine a husband telling a wife that he is leaving her. Who is more interesting to watch as he says the words? The husband having the courage to say it, or the wife reacting to the bad news? That’s why we sometimes don’t stay on an actor for the full run of their dialogue. Partway through, we cut to the listener so the audience can see what that character is thinking. This also gives us the opportunity to switch takes on the speaker when we cut back from the listener!
Often I will elongate or shorten the space between when one actor finishes their line and the other actor begins theirs. A long pause can create anxiety or make the character appear unsure of what they are going to say. A short pause has the opposite effect. It makes the character appear to be more certain and engaged. For example, when Joe asks, “Are you taping this?” imagine there is a long pause before Elaine replies, “You know I’m not.” That pause would make her behavior seem suspicious. Maybe she is taping him and can’t decide whether to lie about it. But if she answers instantly, she’ll seem impatient and angry that he’d accuse her. In the cutting room, if someone wants me to make the actors respond to each other more quickly, they’ll tell me to “pick up the cues” in the scene or “cut out the air.”
Along with working the performances, I’ll also add sound effects to the scene (such as the background sound of diner patrons, phone rings, gun shots, etc.) and music (like the ominous strings that play as Elaine decides whether to pull out the gun).
When I’m satisfied with my cut of the scene, I’ll put it away and move on to the next scene, where my process starts all over again.
Jordan Goldman, A.C.E. has worked for nearly 20 years in Hollywood’s TV and film industry. A coveted editor for top-notch cable dramas, he has cut over 70 episodes of television, including seasons of “Sons of Anarchy,” “24: Live Another Day,” “Terriers” and landmarks like the finale of “The Shield and the pilot of “Homeland.” His work has earned him an Emmy and an American Cinema Editors Eddie. Goldman earned his BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is a member of the Editor’s Guild, the American Cinema Editors, the Television Academy and the Directors Guild of America. Find out how to get the book at http://editorsadviceforactors.com.