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Why a director shouldn't edit their own films

I was asked why a director shouldn’t edit his/her own films today. Again. So I thought I’d just do a post about it for future reference.

Why you shouldn’t edit your own films.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m an editor. Or I consider myself an editor (frankly, I’ve been writing longer, but outside of option money, I never made much as a screenwriter). Most of my career—probably 98% of it—was/is fixing movies in trouble. What that means is, a producer realized too late that he/she hired the wrong director or bought the wrong script. It’s usually both. Generally, new scenes would be written to fill the plot holes, I’d figure out what other shots I needed to make existing scenes work, then direct the new stuff then re-edit the entire picture. The other way I get hired is from a completion bond company that has taken over a picture. (NEVER get so bad off that a Bond company takes over. It’s a bad thing). Yes, there are people like me in the business. We work uncredited (signing non-disclosure agreements in perpetuity), and everything I fixed got a distribution deal (probably 99% of films made, don’t). I tell you this because I kind of know what I’m talking about. How an audience sees a film for the first time is sort of my bread and butter (as it is for every editor). As every serious editor does, I actually study how we as humans see the filmed image. Do you know, for example, it takes the human brain 3 to 5 frames to recognize what it’s seeing? I do. I’ve actually done tests. Do you know how an audience sees a film on a 40’ screen? Or where they are most likely looking? Or why they may actually like a particular film better on a small TV screen rather than the big silver? I do.

An editor has to know film grammar, screen structure, acting, directing, as well as the tools that we are known for; pacing and emotional impact.

A director shouldn’t cut his/her own film because of this: objectivity. As a director, you have none.

Here's what you need to know from the start: your eyes are lying to you. Think of it this way; we've all been trapped in an elevator with someone that has on WAY too much cologne. We think how can he possibly leave the house smelling like that? Here's how: on day one, he put on just a bit. By day 4, he couldn't smell it. His nose got used to it. So he puts on a little more so that HE can notice it. By day 30, he's on that elevator with you. To HIM he smells like day one. To us, it's a gas attack.

Well, your eyes get used to things MUCH quicker than our sense of smell. Next time you're editing, make a bad cut. Now, watch that cut 5 times. By the fifth go around, the cut will be much smoother than it was the first time you saw it. Your brain is filling in shit that is just not there. That's how our brain sees. Your eyes are equivalent to a 2 megapixel camera. Pretty shitty, right? You see with your brain. And all day long, it's filling in sight based on PAST experience. How do we know this? Because there have been people blind from birth that were given a new set of eyes. But they could only see a very blurry wash of color. Their brains had no reference. We see based on past visual reference.

Now think about that on the set. On the video monitors. Every single day getting shots that you’ve planned for weeks or months before. You know each and every performance an actor gives. You know that just to the right of that set wall is a row of lights. You know that the DP pissed you off that day, and you think the lighting sucks way in the background where those 2 extras are. You know a thousand things outside of that frame, that camera move and that performance. And you’re going to carry all of that baggage into the editing room.

Let me try to explain this way: I loved the movie “The Bourne Identity.” It was directed by Doug Liman (who I personally think is a good director, but should stay away from scripts and not re-write them). So I was very excited to know what was going to happen to the Bourne character in the sequel. Enter Paul Greengrass: shaky-cam director. The first time I saw the Bourne sequel in the theatre, I had know idea what I was watching. Shaky camera work, quick cuts, a complete abandonment of screen geography… The established filmmaker I was watching it with had to leave because he was nauseous. Physically nauseous. But here’s where I can let Greengrass off the hook — almost. He saw a completely different film than I did. If he is looking at a 7” screen on set, the picture is barely moving with that shaky-cam. But once you put that on a 40’ screen, a half inch move on that monitor turns into a 6’ blur on the big screen. But HE doesn’t see that 6’ move. HE KNOWS THE FOOTAGE. To him, it still looks like the day he shot it.

How about this: HE KNOWS WHICH CHARACTER IS THE BAD GUY. We don’t. Between shaky-cam and 5 frame cuts, we can barely make out who is who in a fight to the death. “Wait, is that Jason Bourne being choked in the shower?” We know Jason Bourne will win, but we want to see HOW he wins. It took two more viewings on a small screen for me to appreciate the film. Too late, I’d say. Paul Greengrass doesn’t know his own limitations… or ours, for that matter. By the way, actors LOVE Paul Greengrass (Franka Potente is a friend). Why? Because they don’t have to worry about hitting a mark, if they need to raise that gun 4” so it’s framed correctly, or much of anything that goes into the technical aspects of film acting. Pure character work makes Greengrass a favorite of actors.

Anyway, take that small shaky-cam example, and apply it to bigger things like a scene, an act, or the picture as a whole. Are you putting in scenes that are repetitive? Did you foreshadow that gun in scene 2 because the character uses it to kill someone in scene 14? There are a thousand little details like this that an editor thinks about, that maybe, just maybe, you are so used to by post that you’ll only know how to get from A to B, and actually kill the heart of your story. Why? Because you have no objectivity. I’ve seen it a lot: directors that ruin their own work because they’ve left emotion out of the cut.

While I don’t think you should cut your own film, if you’re just starting out, you need to edit your own stuff to learn. BUT ideally, you should let a real editor cut away to see what he/she has done with your stuff too. It’s digital, after all. It’s easy to have two cuts going at once.

If you insist on cutting your own film, here are some pointers:

When I started, we still cut on film. My favorite machines being two upright moviolas. Now, when you cut on film, you really THINK about how you are going to approach a scene before you even touch a frame, because it's a labor intensive process. What I notice nowadays, is because computer editing is so fast and easy, that young editors/directors just dive right in and start cutting without really thinking about the scene. They just plop down the first shot, and wing it from there.

Here's what I do, and I'll try to keep it short since I’ve rambled for so long already. (I could literally write a book on the psychological aspects of editing from both the editor/director P.O.V. as well as the audiences). Anyway, my process when I cut on film was this, and I still do it this way on Avid, Lightworks, whatever:

1. View the rushes once the assistant editor has done his/her thing with them. (In the old days, that meant syncing them up and getting them ready for the dailies viewing that evening in the theatre).

2. View the dailies again that evening with the crew on the BIG SCREEN. Screen size affects pacing. If you're making a film for the big screen, you must edit for the big screen.

3. Just before cutting that scene, look at ALL the footage for the scene a 3rd time. Think about how each shot looked on the big screen. Where were you looking, what got your attention (eye-trace). How is the pacing of actors and moving shots different on your small screen. Did the director jump the line, and if he did, did he give you a bridge shot? What's the essence of the scene? What does the body language of the actors tell you? Do they give you something to cut on? Is there something in this scene that needs foreshadowing for a scene that comes later? Just everything you consider when you are actually editing. Then stop. Think about how you will approach that scene before you cut a single frame.


If you sit at FCP trying stuff all day, you are doing yourself a disservice. Remember, bad cuts will smooth themselves out over time. Plan your cut first. If you're a director cutting your own work, it will not be as good as an editor that wasn't there planning shots, getting shots, and being on set day after day. As a director, you will see things that don't exist in your own footage.

By thinking through your cut before you start cutting, and being aware that you have lying eyes, you can mitigate your physical limitations.

If you do have an editor, stay the hell away from the editing room until a first cut is completed. This will give you a little time to forget principle photography, and your eyes will be a little more fresh.

Show your first cut to an audience before doing a second pass. Now I'm not talking about what the studios do: filling a theatre with a bunch of strangers and have them fill out cards. That's worthless, and can be destructive. BUT it is a good idea to have a dozen friends or so view it with these rules: they can't know anything about the story, much less have read the script. And mix up your audience with people in the industry and people outside the industry. Then LISTEN to what they have to say. It's invaluable.

Some years ago, a friend of mine was an assistant editor on this big feature. They did one of those awful screenings where they pull people off the street to comment on an unfinished film. EVERYONE said that they didn't trust the main character. Well, the studio went nuts trying to figure out how to make the lead more appealing. But the editor and my friend knew exactly why: the main character's dialogue track was just under 2 frames out of sync. An editor would notice, but a general audience won't. Studio execs won't. Hell, the director didn't even notice. And the execs refused to believe that that was the problem. A week later they showed it again, back in sync this time. The result: glowing reviews. Yes, a dialogue track very slightly out of sync affected CHARACTER. Let that one sink in.

And I’ll leave you with this: Raindance had an article on how directors screw editors. I added my own rules.

Read: How Directors Screw Film Editors

Yes, all you filmmakers, read and understand this raindance article. Especially digging yourself out of 2 shots without overlapping action.

If I could add to this list: inserts are not throw-away shots, and should be treated with as much care as framing that close-up of your star. So number

7: Bad coverage is no coverage.

8. Don't edit "in camera." Are you only getting a close up for THAT line? Well, stop it. I personally edit to an actor's rhythm. It may end up that a close up on THAT line works. Often it can look awkward and wrong. (this was actually covered in the original 7, but needs repeating. Lots and lots of repeating).

9. The worse your actors are, the more coverage you need. Please plan with a little breathing room in your schedule. Even the best actors can have a bad day.

10. If you cross the line, give your editor a "bridge" shot to get to the other side of the line.

11. Just because it took you 5 hours to get that crane shot, doesn't mean the editor will use it. And before you make him/her use it, please look at the cut carefully before you blurt out that knee-jerk reaction because that 5 hour shot is gone. You need to edit for story, not because something looks cool. Along these same lines, please remove "If I shot it, I want it in" from your brain. If we don't use a shot, it's because the story works better without it.

12. Don't call a "first cut" an assembly. We hate that. Tell your editor to cut his/her first cut as if it were going out into the world (leaving all the dialogue and scenes in, of course). Also, leave your editor alone for the first cut. Don't sit over their shoulder. Let them do what they do best. You'll have time to change it later, but odds are you'll be pleasantly surprised.

13. Your editor isn't a machine operator. Don't treat them as such. We’ve spent years learning our craft. We study psychology, story, and all sorts of odd things to make us better. We make a film better than the sum of its parts. Let us do that for you.

14. The words "per director" on the script notes sends a chill down our spine. For example "crossed the line; per director" means the script supervisor told you that you crossed the line, and you did nothing about it. Script supervisors are there to help. Listen to them. Also, don’t hire your little sister to script supervise. The SS is our only link to set, and we need a good one.

15. If you stared at the video monitor all day, you very well may think you have footage you don't have. Don't make us spool through hours of footage looking for that "lost" shot. If it’s not in the script notes, it probably doesn't exist. (This happens more often than it should. I shit you not). Go stand next to the camera, please.

16. A director should never, ever edit their own film. At
best, you'll get from point A to point B, but you'll lose the emotional impact that editors are excellent at finding.

17. Don't frame a shot for what's going to happen. For
example, you've got a medium wide shot of a guy sitting on a couch, but there's all this room on one side of the frame, and enough head room to land a plane in. This awkward framing means some character is going to walk into frame at some point. An editor is going to try his best not to use that shot until the 2nd character enters, but if there's not enough coverage, we're stuck. Camera people are really good at moving the camera. Start with a proper single, then pull back for the 2nd character. Every film I've ever fixed has at least one shot like this, and it's a nightmare to get out of if there's no coverage.

18. A good producer is gold. They can be incredibly helpful in the editing room. Don’t be afraid to lean on them. Keep a bad producer out of the editing room.

  • Dan, this is pure gold, thank you. Informative, well written, engaging.

    6 years ago
    • Wow, thanks Paddy. I was thinking "Shit, nobody is going to understand what the hell I'm talking about."

      6 years ago
  • This is so good!
    "I could literally write a book on the psychological aspects of editing from both the editor/director P.O.V. as well as the audiences." - Please can you?? I would love to read it! Thanks

    6 years ago
    • Thanks, Nicole. Focal Press saw a lecture I gave and has been pushing me to do the same. Maybe I should.

      6 years ago
  • Brilliant. I am now so tempted to write about why Directors shouldn't write their own scripts either :-)

    6 years ago
    • HA! Not sure whether you're giving me a jab or not, Marlom. But that's something I'd like to see (especially since I can't agree!).

      6 years ago
    • @Dan Selakovich :-) Actually it's not a general rule, but it is a serious point.

      Many don't have the technical writing skills they need to get from zero to Final Draft.

      I would suggest that Directors should write pitches, treatments, and even initial drafts, but at that point, get a writer in. At the very least they'll validate you, but 99% of the time they'll spot flaws and, this is the best bit, suggest fixes.

      Get used to the writer asking WHY a lot. WHY did he say/do that? Hint, when a writer says "why did that happen" what they mean is "that came out of nowhere, this is NOT GOOD" :-)

      Example - while that great high KO kick in the final melee looks great, up until that moment the character was a mouse. You have to foreshadow character as well as guns :-)

      Good writers will be relentless with the rule that EVERYTHING is character driven. Characters DO NOT act out of character just because it's a big scene. Go back, rework a little, so that what the character does in the big scene is now IN character.

      A lot of the time you fix a scene by changing an earlier one, or five :-) And hey presto, the mouse is still a mouse, but we've seen hints that, push comes to shove, the mouse MIGHT roar. Then, when she does with that big kick it's "wtf? ah, yes, of course she would".


      6 years ago
    • @Marlom Tander I can agree with that. I've certainly had my share of fixing character issues in the editing room. Sometimes it's not possible, though, and you wish someone would have said SOMETHING along the line.

      I recently saw "Edge of Tomorrow", a Doug Liman film where Tom Cruse comes back to life every time he dies. The HUGE flaw that the entire story hinges on, is that his ability to fight the same fight with new knowledge is completely ignored and even undermined by his betters. Why wouldn't they be over the moon with this new weapon? It made no sense, and was a weak effort to get Cruse to face the enemy all by his lonesome. Truly terrible and easily fixable at the script stage.

      6 years ago
  • One other thing I'd like to add about shaky-cam: we, as humans, don't see in shaky-cam. Ever. We DO see in dolly moves and cuts.

    Try this experiment: hold the index finger of each hand at arms length, about 2 feet apart or more in front of your eyes. Now, try to look smoothly between your left finger and your right finger. Just move your eyes, not your head. It's impossible. Your eyes stop, jitter, focus on the background... it's just impossible to look smoothly between the two. Now focus on your left finger again, but this time MOVE your left hand to your right hand. See? It's easy to follow. Our brains are set up for a dolly shot. All day long we are cutting from one thing to another. The visual information in-between our focus of attention gets cut out.

    My point is this: the farther away you go from how we see in real life, the more it takes away from your film. Your audience cannot get involved in your film. We can only observe it. Same with a series of short cuts. Our brains can't keep up, so a series of 3 or 5 frame cuts turns into visual gibberish. (It won't be gibberish for you, because you ALREADY know what the shots are, your audience doesn't).

    6 years ago
  • Great info there. Thank you!

    6 years ago
  • Thanks for taking the time to write this. It came just at the right time for me. I love to edit and I love to direct. Starting out I usually did one because I wanted to do the other...depending on the particular project. As I get further into my career I'm finding directing and editing the same project uncomfortable. Reading this article puts words to why I'm probably feeling uneasy. So thank you. Gonna save it for fiture reference.

    6 years ago
    • Thanks Ryan. When I have to edit my own scenes on films I've salvaged, where I direct additional scenes for the picture then re-edit the whole thing, there is ALWAYS one scene that gives me trouble. Early on, I learned to let my assistant editor cut those scenes that I directed, then fine-tune them together.

      6 years ago
  • a) yes you should write the book. Start today
    b) glad to hear someone else crit the old shaky cam / Greengrass thing. I watched the second Bourne the other day on a 27 inch screen and it was way better than when I remember my brain melting watching it at the cinema.
    c) do you think the same applies to documentary film editing?

    6 years ago
    • I think it's probably worse in doc editing. So often docs are found in the editing room, so the danger of assumptions is even worse.

      6 years ago
  • Thank you Dan, that's a lovely tutorial to be cut and pasted into file (I have) by all those seeking learned guidance. Stuff like this is what Shooting People does best. Definitely write that book Dan; don't know if it would make you worthwhile money but it would stand as a definitive contribution to the art.

    In any event the article as it stands is already doing that service.

    Anomaly always occurs however and occasionally directors are also genuinly great editors, but even then the old adage " being too close to the trees to see the wood" applies and another pair of well honed and skillful eyes is ALWAYS best

    6 years ago
    • Thanks, John. It's hard to convince a young director of this, because he refuses to believe his eyes are lying to him. " being too close to the trees to see the wood" indeed!

      6 years ago
  • Thank you Dan! This is why I like to be on set because it helps bridge the gap in the editing room. As an FYI: I know the term assembly annoys editors but I often refer to that as a term for "leave them alone and let them do their job" before it is a first cut (i.e. work in progress).
    My script supervisors often put notes that a director loved and then if I liked it, there is some subtle notation placed as well. I love a good script supervisor. Also a good assistant editor is a wonderful tether for an editor. I prefer them to be on set as well.
    But I think you put it best when referring to Bond work. There are those of us who do this work and we aren't credited. Doesn't mean we don't know what we are talking about though! Awesome post!

    6 years ago
    • Assistant editors have saved my bacon more times than I can count.

      I tend to stay away from the set for the reasons stated. When I see a cast and crew trying SO hard to get that shot, I try my best to use it! I still think about this picture I edited in the late 80s. One of the actors had this dog I became really attached to. The producer let him use the dog in one of the scenes. I spend hours of misspent labor trying to get the dog into the scene. It just didn't work, and I had to drop him. If I had stayed away from the set, I wouldn't have had that problem.

      6 years ago
  • With Respect Dan, thats the point of "Shaky Cam". its meant to be slightly disorientating. And i think its unfair to boil down Mr Greengrass' technique to "shake the camera and everyone can stand where they want".

    6 years ago
    • I didn't boil it down to that. I just mention that the actors like it because they don't have to deal with framing.

      Slightly disorienting? It's suppose to cause tension. It does, but not in the way filmmakers think. Think of constant shaky-cam this way: if you have a film that is nothing but smooth camera moves, the move when you really need it has no meaning. That push in to the detective when he realizes who the murder is, is lost because it's just another move.

      Have you seen "A Single Man" with Colin Firth? Shaky-cam is used once and it's extremely effective. It shows the panic of a character. It's the only film I can think of where it actually worked.

      Keep in mind that we, as humans, don't think or see in this way. When used all of the time, it puts a wall between the audience and the film. It makes you hyper aware that you are watching a film.

      Also, let's not confuse "hand-held" and shaky-cam. They are two different things.

      6 years ago
  • As someone who loves working with an editor for all the reasons you've stated, I only have one reservation - That is that all directors are different and someone like Paul Greengrass, has his own stylistic values which one either loves or doesn't - I think it's all so subjective! I think all one can do is communicate, communicate and communicate again to get the right film made. The thing I always remember is, we are story tellers - So, regardless of psychology or technique, the most important thing for me is an editor who understands narrative structure - and believe me, not many do! It's something one can develop, but if it ain't there to start with, it can't be brought out. Luckily I've worked with a few good ones, and it's a joy, as all stories and actors have a rhythm, which if tapped into is really good to work with, (of course if you have the coverage!) I also think that standing back and leaving a project for a while is the best way to make it work and avoid the 'too close' problem a lot of tight scheduling and director/editor productions bring. However, I am a writer, and I'd say that although both jobs are as important, the writer, in this country anyway, takes on board a far bigger risk and responsibility, and therefore I think deserves the credit and fees they get. However, I'd also say that Editors should get danger money for all the bad scripts and shoots they have to rescue! My answer would be far higher levels of training for both, and a return to the three jobs being seen far more as something for three people - or at least two very well trained people with scheduled down time and a brilliant producer! :)

    6 years ago
    • I don't disagree, Jane, but camera movement and placement must work for the film you are making. I bring up Greengrass and the Bourne films because they are an easy example to illustrate my point.

      For example, in the 2nd Bourne, early in the film, an assassin is chasing Bourne and Marie. But we never have a clear idea where the assassin is because Greengrass has dropped screen geography. We feel no tension because we don't know how close to death they are because there is no relationship between the chased and the one doing the pursuing. Shaky-cam and quick cuts can only up the tension if they are used sparingly.

      If because of this technique, you can't distinguish between the protagonist and antagonist, you've lost the audience--because in that moment, they are trying to figure out who is who. They are out of the film. It creates a visual hiccup.

      Now take that to a larger scale: how long do you think an audience would watch if you wrote a film where they couldn't distinguish between the protagonist and antagonist? There is a fine line between mystery and confusion. If you carry it too far, mystery turns to frustration, and you lose the audience.

      As for your other points, I couldn't agree more. It's important for the director to stay away as long as possible to gain some perspective. That's why I mention leaving the editor alone for a first cut.

      6 years ago
  • Thanks Dan et al. Directors must understand editing and both were taught when I ran the Brighton Film School. Film Grammar is essential to both and good drama schools teach it too, and I've met several actors who knew about crossing the line. Thoughts: Robert Wise moved on to direct and Roman Polanski invited his screenwriter Ronnie Harwood into the edit suite on The Pianist. Finally: An actress, being interviewed on the red carpet at the Oscars terminated the talk with "Sorry but I must go now. If I'm unlucky I'll end up sitting with a bunch of editors!"

    6 years ago
    • Franz: Roman Polanski! One of my favorites. When I saw "The Ghost Writer" (even though I hated the ending), a wave of amazement came over me. It was as if I'd been watching films directed by children between "The Pianist" and "The Ghost." Such a mastery of camera movement, staging, and editing. It makes me a little sad to know that I will never be that good.

      When I went to film school, I had the great fortune to learn from Alexander "Sandy" Mackendrick (Man in the White Suit, Sweet Smell of Success). Not only did he have an uncanny sense of screen structure, he knew how to teach it.

      I remember that declaration from the actress. I think most Stars know that they owe their careers to a good editor (or so I've been told).

      6 years ago
  • Dan, will you just write the book already? ;)

    OK, I know Focal may not be offering a massive advance and piracy hammers e-sales, but pre-sales could be doable. crowdfunded to take the place of traditional distribution where you'd take a 50¢ residual on a $20 book, sales beyond the advance equivalent being pure gravy. You already have credibility from previous works, so maybe can magic up some endorsements and the world isn't short of fulfillment companies...

    Or I'll bung you £5k buyout and put my name on it ;)

    6 years ago
    • Thanks, Paddy! Because of my contract with Focal, they get first crack at any film book I write. (which really sucks, I assure you)!

      Nearing the end of a novel I'm writing. Perhaps I'll take this film book off the back burner when it's done.

      6 years ago
  • As our copy editor says, If you edit your own writing you've hired an idiot for an editor.

    6 years ago
    • With all the self-published e-novels floating about, and having read a few, I would have to wholeheartedly agree with that, Peter. Thank god I have a good book editor!

      6 years ago
  • All very good points, but they are coming from the assumption of good editor / bad director - I guess, because you are working on fixing films (which implies that the director didn't do his job in the first place). I don't think there is one rule of do or don't here. I rather think it depends on each particular film / editor / director, etc. I don't think there is a question of the director being too deep into trees so not seeing the forest - it is obvious that it is very hard for a director to be able to see the film with fresh eyes, and letting the editor work independently on the film is a great way to counter this. But I don't agree that a director should never impact the edit of the film.

    6 years ago
    • Lauris, my fear of not being clear is evident in your post. It's not about bad direction. It's about our limitations as human beings. And a director should never impact the edit? That is so far from my point, that I don't know where is came from. By pointing out our human limitations, I'm trying to give the director and would be directors information that makes their roles MORE impactful. It's the director's film. Period. Full stop.

      I used to do a lecture on camera placement for emotional impact at NAB (the world's largest media convention in Las Vegas) every year. Without fail, and from people all over the world, I would have film school graduates come up to me and say something like "I've been to 4 years of films school, and we didn't learn half this stuff." I'm not trying to lessen the directors impact, I'm trying to push it to have greater impact.

      See, the thing is, to be the next Polanski, Hitchcock, Frankenheimer, or fill in the blank, the directors nowadays have to hit the ground running. All the masters we love had time to hone their craft. Those days are gone, it seems to me. No longer can you make a film every two years if you have a bad one. That way of learning your craft is gone, but to get better you have to make films. The sad part is, young directors don't really have that opportunity. If I point out mistakes that are incredibly common, or a way to mitigate those mistakes BEFORE that first feature, well, good on me. I've been in the director's chair as well as much more time at the editing bench. I've seen it from both sides--a lot. So I can say with confidence that, as a director, you will see your picture differently than your audience. If you know that going in, don't you think that would be a benefit? So no, there are not do's and don'ts dependent on who's directing. Objectivity, or the lack of it, is a human frailty. And those Cinema Masters already know it. I have never met, and I've met many, any director that's been at it for awhile to not get an opinion outside his/her bubble about their film as they work through it. On set, that could be the script supervisor, the producer, the cameraman. In post, it's the editor, the producer, and a hand picked audience of friends. The only ones that don't go to this trouble are first timers that have had the auteur theory drummed into their heads by well meaning film teachers and historians.

      And to be clear: hell yes, there are a lot of bad editors out there. I have no delusion that we are golden gods of the film world. It's more common than not to get a bad editor. When I was learning Avid 20 years ago, in a class of 12, there were only 2 professional editors--including myself. The rest thought that if they just learned the machine, they too could call themselves an editor. Now that you can get software for free and learn it in your spare time, it's even more prolific. This post is just as much for editors as it is for directors.

      6 years ago
  • Sorry Dan, you have a lot of good advice but you can't jump to the conclusion you do.

    Here's why:

    6 years ago
    • Ben, you've made the mistake of thinking that I am eliminating the director from the process. I honestly don't know where that comes from. Yes, the first cut. But that is incredibly common, at least here in Los Angeles. For the editor to NOT be working during photography is the biggest budgetary sin, but a creative one too.

      To trot out the outliers is not an argument. Especially Soderberg. Those films he didn't cut are more impactful, in my opinion, than the ones he did cut. My favorites of his, The Limey, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, were not edited my him, but Sarah Flack and Anne Coats (Lawrence of Arabia ring a bell?). Compare those to "The Girlfriend Experience". Are you kidding me? Talk about a clunky edit.

      I can also make the opposite argument; why is it that Robert Wise, editor of lesser known films like "Citizen Kane" never edited any of the films he directed like "The Day The Earth Stood Still" or "West Side Story". He certainly had the chops. There are many directors that came out of the editing room that never cut any of their own work. Possibly they know something you don't.

      You're a writer, Ben. Are you telling me that on multiple drafts of a screenplay that you never eliminated something the story needed simply because you were too close to it? Or to have a reader say something along the lines of "I'm not sure why, but your first draft had a lot more heart than this draft."

      Steven Soderberg was going to produce a friend of mine's script. Soderberg loved it, but had some changes. My friend incorporated those changes, then more suggestions from Soderberg. 18 months later: "Well, this isn't something I really want to put my name on," after getting the script he asked for. These directors have the same problem as the rest of us. To raise them deity status, then assume you or anyone one of us is at that level seems very odd to me.

      And think about this: of the directors you name, think about their clout in the industry. Do you think that they can't pick up the phone to the best editors in the business and have them look at a cut? They can and they do.

      At one point I might have agreed with you on a director cutting their own short. I felt that the limited time commitment could waylay the human limitations. But not too long ago, a producer friend asked me to cut a short for him. The director was this young kid that had directed a few shorts, and edited some shorts for others. I did the first cut. It was liked very much by the screening group (the actors, producers, and a few friends). Then we did the director's cut. It went from cinema editing to television editing, and everyone but the director thought it had lost its emotional impact. Given that experience, I now think it important that even on shorts things can turn to shit if you're not extremely careful.

      I'll leave you with this: have you ever had a good editor edit one of your films? Or did you edit them all yourself and simply assume that they were the best they could be? I will jump to the conclusion that you were the editor and director, otherwise I really don't think you would draw the conclusion you have.

      6 years ago
  • Thanks for that very valid contribution Ben. Dogma is always to be avoided and anomalies often out number other presumptions. It's very true that there are many great directors who are also great editors. As a multitasking producer of mostly lower budget projects for some three decades I've observed many times how the editor has contributed disproportionately to outcomes, made the difference between second rate and first rate, and also observed directors who had no need for an editor, but even then the input of others was always important. Interestingly though, the best directors seem to me to have learned most of their skills through editing. It's the editing process that reveals everyone else's skills and failings. I've seen editors excel at camerawork, sound recording and producing but very rarely have I seen a cameraman or other technical department person become a good editor or director.

    As I've pointed out many times on this forum, I've seen rank beginners become incredibly skilled multitasking film makers almost instantaneously and I've seen old hands with fantastic talents but only within a very narrow, and sometime shockingly narrow skill set. It give me reason to believe that many great film makers are born and not made. what I liked about Dan's article is that it provided valuable experienced insights that ought to be taken on board by newbies. A set of guidelines that can be broken as required, but at least guidelines that should be understood in order to be qualified to break them. Lets face it though, Leans, Soderburgs and Cohens are always inspirational examples of editing directors but are they representative of the generality? I don't think so.

    6 years ago
    • Thank you, John. To not dismiss my opinion out of hand is all I can ask. Use what you think might be a benefit, and trash the rest.

      6 years ago
  • I loved this Dan,
    I totally agree with all you had to say. As a writer and director I always want to have and good editor on my films... maybe ESPECIALLY as I write and direct! A good editor is your closest collaborator on telling your story and a close relationship is vital.
    Complete objectivity is impossible for the director. Even down to small but vital details such as the physical geography of the set. The director has spent hours on the set or location with the actors and knows every inch of it. However, only the editor can view the raw material, the rushes, and know if that physical geography is clearly represented... or if it indeed needs to be. The editor's mind is only married to the characters and the story whereas the director's can sometimes become married to cool shots, attractive locations or the 'lead's best side'! The editor is there to manoeuvre them away from these distractions and back to the story.

    6 years ago
    • Thanks, Marc! That boils it down beautifully. I tend to overwrite, and wish I had an editor for my posts!

      To repeat myself, because some seem not to get it: It's the director's film. Yes the editor can be an excellent sounding board, but they are not at all the last word. We are there to support the director, not take over. I'm sorry if that wasn't clear. So, one more time: IT'S THE DIRECTOR'S FILM.

      6 years ago
  • "These directors have the same problem as the rest of us. To raise them deity status, then assume you or anyone one of us is at that level seems very odd to me."

    Sorry Dan, I cannot be both creating Gods *and* levelling everyone to their standard. If I'm making everyone the same standard then we're all deities, which means we none of us are. Which means we agree with each other that "these directors have the same problem as the rest of us". They do, they face the same basic creative challenge that we all do in an edit. So to deny that any director has had any success editing their own work is blinkered nonsense.

    I think my post was quite clear. I'm in no way seeking to dismiss out of hand the many clear and valuable pieces of advice you offer in this thread. Nor am I trying to say that because the Coens edit their own work this means everyone else must… just that they could, it is possible and to pretend otherwise gets us nowhere.

    Forgetting all the Gods and Monsters, I don't think your argument stacks up with the brilliant advice you give. Your original post is alert to all the problems that an edit will throw up and gives great techniques for dealing with them. Your advice is great - but it destroys your own argument. If the devil is the distance any editor following your techniques can triumph, wether they directed the material or not.

    Crucially my blog post is not about editing but about the giving of advice. My problem is less with what you wrote than with the smug self congratulatory response it generated. By jumping to a false conclusion you give shelter to a bunch of stale clichés that do no one any good.

    I pick on Mark only because he was the most recent. When he says "director's [sic] can sometimes become married to cool shots, attractive locations or the 'lead's best side'!" he is trotting out the sort of nonsense that breeds contempt in the cutting room. I hear this line time after time but actually I rarely meet a director who isn't ready to sacrifice a good shot for a better way of telling the story. They are, at least, no more common than the editors who have blinded themselves with a dazzling jump-cut sequence or become bogged down in misinterpreted rules on pace.

    Dan, I know you are not trying to eliminate the director from the process but in order to prove the unprovable idea that directors cannot edit you have to falsely elevate the powers of the editor and paint directors as stubborn fools lost in their own arrogance. In doing so you help no one. The relationship in the cutting room has to be of mutual respect otherwise it's always toxic.

    Would I advise a director to work with an editor? Yes. And I always do. Usually me. Filmmaking is best done as a collaboration, but good, truly creative collaboration is very difficult to achieve and it isn't helped when editors get told that their director will be lost in the material and the irrelevances of the shoot. If you have to choose between editing your own work or dealing with an editor who thinks you are only there for "cool shots or the lead's best side" then I'd urge you to take control of that process.

    6 years ago
    • Fair enough. But I never said a director cannot edit their own work. Seems to me I gave advice that IF you're going to edit your own work, here's what to watch out for. I just question, given my experience, whether they should. Cliches are cliches for a reason. The big obvious examples make for a clearer discussion. It's hard, for example, to say "this line should be cut because the emotion of the scene carries better with just a look." That's a small vague thing that is hard to quantify, so cliches are necessary. The same reason I pick Paul Greengrass instead of Steven Soderberg. Some directorial styles are easier to quantify in a discussion of this nature. Also why I pick the Bourne films instead of Greengrass' brilliant "Bloody Sunday."

      Look at it this way: I've worked with a lot of great actors. Often they will give a performance that is better than what I imagined. Or a take on a character lifts it into the heavens. I'm sure you've had the experience as well. How is that any different than an editor? If they gave the exact performance that was in my head, the film would not be as good.

      6 years ago
  • Dan, This is such an interesting article which I found very useful. Unfortunately, I'm a director who is definitely guilty of taking over in the edit. On my 1st ever 'proper' (meaning financed) short film I couldn't let go of it and the final cut suffered as a result.

    What you say makes a lot of sense so thanks.

    You mentioned you are a writer as well, I'm currently looking for a feature film to get off the ground and I have some very real financial links with the middle east. If you have anything that isn't too violent or offensive (the nature of the finance requires that it's not) I'd be very open to reading some treatments or discussing further.

    My email is:



    6 years ago
    • Boy Jules, I think SP members are going to flood you with scripts!

      As for your short: the thing about creative work is that it is so easy to get defensive about it. I'm certainly guilty of that myself; but age, distance, and experience have a way of taking care of that. I'm certainly much better at letting go now than I was 30 years ago. Now it's just my mistakes that haunt me. To this day, I'll beat myself up for a shot I left a little long 20 years ago, or a performance that I know I could have made better if I'd just had a little more time in the editing room. That shit will humble and haunt you for sure. At least they do me.

      6 years ago
    • @Dan Selakovich yes I find it hard to watch some of my old work as you just notice all the things you hate whilst others don't at all. As you say, with every project it gets slightly easier to let go.

      Surprisingly, I haven't been inundated with scripts yet so if you are interested I mean't what I said.

      All the best


      6 years ago
    • Jules, I've dropped you an email that may be of interest - it's not a script, don't worry, but depending on your backers may be a first-class project to develop :-)

      6 years ago
    • @Jules Brown I emailed you, Jules. If you didn't get it, you might check your spam folder.

      If I don't have what you're looking for, I probably know someone that does.

      6 years ago
  • I have a split personality so i can do

    6 years ago
    • HA! That's what you'd need! So who's your other personality? An introvert named Nigel? That's my guess. I've noticed introverts tend to be really good editors.

      6 years ago
  • Dan: your comment Robert Wise reminds me about an editor colleague who went on to direct. I asked him if he intended to edit it too. "No way, but it'll be shot so tight all he'll have to do is cut out the slates and join it up!"

    6 years ago
    • Yikes! Damn, Franz, seems being an editor that he should know better! I'm certainly not that good. I'm guessing he was being a little tongue in cheek. So how did it turn out?

      6 years ago
  • Hi Dan, Very useful post (and discussion). While I wait for your book, any already written that you can recommend? Myrna

    6 years ago
    • Thanks, Myrna! Shit yes, I have a few.

      In the early 90s I was cutting a picture for MGM. Subconsciously, I cut when the actors blinked. Had no idea I was doing it. It drove the director nuts, and I had to add 2 frames to cut with their eyes open. It killed the pacing. Oh well. A couple of years later or so, Walter Murch's book, "In the blink of an eye" hit the shelves. He noticed that he did the same, and his conclusion was that he was in sync with the actor's performance. Brilliant. Of course I sent a copy to that director. HA! So Murch's book holds a dear place in my heart. If you want to know how an editor thinks, get it!

      "Alexander Mackendrick on Filmmaking". I went to film school at California Institute of the Arts where Alexander Mackendrick (The Lady Killers, The Man In The White Suit, Sweet Smell of Success) was teaching directing. Best experience of my life. Anyway, by the time one semester was done, you had handouts about 3" thick. A Brit named Paul Cronin took a lot of these materials and turned them into a book. No matter who I convince to buy this book, I always get this reply: "this paragraph alone was worth the purchase price." (It's always a different paragraph.)

      "Directing Actors" by Judith Weston. Most novice directors will tell you that this is their weak point. You've got 2 choices: take an acting class or read this book. You can't direct actors unless you know how they think.

      I used to teach a seminar on camera placement for emotional impact. The closest thing I've found to that is a DVD series called "Hollywood Camera Work". It's expensive, but well worth it. And it's packed. If you blink, you'll miss something. And it's 6 DVDs. I think it covers just about every camera move and placement ever. While it doesn't cover the aspects of WHY a particular camera placement works, it gets you thinking ABOUT camera placement and staging actors.

      A good book for basic narrative editing is "The Eye Is Quicker" by Richard Pepperman.

      A good basic directing book on shaping audience empathy: "Innocence of the Eye" by Ed Spiegel, based on Slavko Vorkapich's teachings.

      For basics on neuroscience is "Slights of Mind." It uses the techniques of magicians to explain how our brains work, but great info that is easy to transfer to filmmaking.

      And finally, just a fun read is "When the Shooting Stops, The Cutting Begins" by Ralph Rosenblum. He was Woody Allen's first editor, and is credited with turning Annie Hall into an award winner.

      Let me know if you have a specific interest (like how to be a gaffer). I'm sure I know of a book that will cover it.

      6 years ago
  • Hi Dan. What a fantastic list, thank you!

    I'm very glad to say that I have both read 'Directing Actors' and taken an acting class. Also really liked 'In the blink of an eye'.

    I will love discovering all the other books and DVDs.

    I just want to be a good director ;-)

    6 years ago
    • Don't we all! And good on you for taking an acting class.

      Here's one little tip that will put you ahead of 70% of anybody that's ever made a film: an actor carries his emotion in his eyes. Eyes are everything. So when you are shooting the CU, med, 2 shot... whatever, DO NOT put the lens at the same level of the eyes. Certainly don't put the lens even with the forehead. Put the lens even with the tip of the nose or lower, then tilt up slightly. This gives the lens the best position to read the eyes. If the audience can see those eyes clearly, that actor will make a connection with them. There, you just made an emotional connection with the audience.

      Anytime you place the camera, it has to mean something. Think about what you are trying to convey in the scene. Then consider how all of those placements work as a whole when you edit the thing.

      When I did my directing seminars, I talked about shared space and negative space a lot. Shockingly, most people that attended didn't know about this concept at all. And most had attended film school. If I could post photos here, I'd show you. Oh well.

      Have you seen Polanski's "Frantic"? Near the opening, there's a scene with a couple arriving at their hotel room. It looks simple, but it is one of the most beautifully complex scenes I have ever seen. If you can find a wide screen version (I think only available on blue ray), watch that scene over and over. It's a master class on directing all in that one scene.

      6 years ago
  • Great, thanks again for the tips.

    6 years ago
  • Really enjoyed the OP. Lots of useful information.

    6 years ago
  • Worth noting that sometimes it is worth trying to keep that control over your material as director / editor. I recently handed over (sold) my footage to a music label as they wanted to re-cut a video I'd shot to fit one of their tracks. What they edited was so far from what I would have wanted (lots of overlays/fx... cutting it together with their own totally different material etc) which is kinda distressing - and not just being precious over what I shot... Especially as it's already had over 100,000 views since being uploaded by them 3 days ago! Perhaps it's a different score in the world of commercials/music promos though?

    5 years ago
    • Hmmmm... yes, that's a little different than my "why's". My point is more one of objectivity, and how a director must handle that "lack of."

      But what you're talking about happens in the feature world, too. Once a distributor buys your movie, there isn't much control a director has over it. In fact, very few directors have "final cut" in Hollywood. I know, I've been one of those assholes that will recut a feature for a distributor. In my eyes, I made it better. Even in the producer's eyes, to the last man, they thought I made it better. And I'd say about 80% of the directors think I made it better. But, the thing is, I REALLY care about the film. There are editors that do this type of work that don't. It's just a paycheck. They'll do anything the distributor wants. I won't. I put up a fight, because some of their ideas are god awful (some are obvious, and I would have done them anyway). And there have been many times when I thought a film was great as delivered, and told the distributor shouldn't touch a frame. I've lost a lot of income that way.

      Commercials, as a music video is, is edited by committee. Something I'm not at all interested in. Anyone going into commercials or music video work should just expect this as a matter of course.

      5 years ago
    • @Dan Selakovich. I think with a short-form project like a music promo or commercial it's probably easier to remain more objective, partly because there's less material and also because it's more likely to be nailed down (or restricted) by your client before the shoot. But even there I'm sure an editor could make an interesting and possibly better cut of footage for a music video. I suppose I'm saying, as you've mentioned, that not all editors are going to improve your work purely because they have an objective (or at least a different) view of your footage - some might be working purely for dollar, others with their own agenda as in the case I described.

      I guess the key is forming relationships with editors whose work you know and trust, and getting them on board as early as possible. Tricky thing is getting enough funding to pay for them...

      5 years ago
    • @Matt Jamie I agree. And to be clear: I'm not saying AT ALL that a bad editor is better than no editor. There are a lot more bad editors around now than when I was starting out. I guess because everything is digital and you can learn it in your spare time. There's no working your way up from assistant editing like I did, and really learning the craft. Now if you're fast on the machine (I'm not), you're an editor.

      5 years ago

    I wonder what Kubrick would have made of it?

    5 years ago
    • I've seen that before, Marlom, and it's just as funny the 2nd time! I bet Kubrick would have loved it.

      It just shows what an editor can do. Plus I kind of admire trailer cutters. I am complete garbage at it.

      5 years ago
    • It's wonderful! I remember seeing it a couple of years back, discussing it with a film buddy, and he said 'That's how the Weinsteins made their money'... I am not a fan of most trailers, so many are cookie-cutter, identikit, that you can't really tell anything about a film from them.

      For instance 'Force Majure' (originally released in many markets as 'Turist') trailer shows the effects shots, a couple of amusing lines, and pretty much misses the whole of the 'relationships are difficult' stuff that the film is about. Actually a far better film than the trailer suggested to me - and the fact that each reviewer thinks it's about different things shows how it creates a great, textured canvas for the audience to protect emotionally onto. Worth a watch.

      5 years ago
    • @Paddy Robinson-Griffin It drives me mad, Paddy! Disney started this whole: "We'll give away everything in the trailer" business. But they had their reasons: they did a mass research thing and found that people were more likely to see a film in a theatre if they knew the ending. What?! We Americans really suck sometimes. I tend to leave the theatre during the trailers for just this reason. The other reason is that studios will cut a trailer to advertise what the movie ISN'T. To me, this creates bad word-of-mouth, because people are expecting one thing and get another. It's madness.

      5 years ago
  • Having worked as an editor and also directed, and having sometimes edited my own stuff and sometimes not, I'm going to disagree.

    I absolutely agree that a studied understanding of editing and the theory of it all etc is essential, and a lot of directors don't have that. However, many do have an intuitive grasp of editing. I was lucky enough to have been introduced to editing by Franz above at the BFS, and he really encouraged us all (as mostly aspiring directors at the time) to learn the craft of editing - and I think my work as an editor has informed my work directing hugely, and humbly suggest that it gives me the ability to edit my own stuff.

    I also agree that having objectivity is important, but only to an extent; to be honest, an editor isn't objective either, as editors fall in love with their work, and that's why editors should not work in solitude either.

    The main point is that working only by yourself is fatal to your film 99% of the time, but that doesn't mean you need to have a traditional director and editor set-up. Film production is changing and becoming a much more fluid process - especially in lower budget jobs and non-feature and non-fiction work. A director can be the editor if they have the appropriate skills, as long as they have someone to bounce off in the edit suite. An assistant, a producer, whatever...

    So I think it all comes down to the individuals involved and the project itself.

    Of course, most decisions of this sort are unfortunately based on budget, so most of us don't have the luxury of choice anyway!!

    4 years ago
    • I think you've misunderstood, or maybe I've misunderstood your point. Yes, the editor should do the first cut by themselves. With a solid editor, you'll get a better film out of it. But nowhere did I suggest that editors shouldn't work with the director or work alone after that first cut. In fact, I think I made the opposite point: get as much input as possible.

      The tricky thing about objectivity is that our human brains won't let us have it. That's not really an individual thing, but a human thing. We don't know our eyes are lying to us.

      4 years ago
  • Thanks for taking the time to write this and provide further clarifications Dan. Pure gold!

    3 years ago
  • Dan - great as ever. All the above should be published as a book! What I can tell you is that not only Roman Polanski was in the edit of The Pianist but also insisted the writer Ronnie Harwood was also there.

    3 years ago
    • And that's why Polanski is a master. Can you imagine any American director asking the writer to sit in? I know of none.

      3 years ago
  • Hi Dan,

    I've come to this thread (very) late - but I hope I can still raise a question. You argued very cogently for the reasons why directors should stay out of the editing room. What about writers who don't direct? I've never been in an editing room, and though I have read about the process, never seen it in action. Can writers learn from it in a way that helps their subsequent writing? Can editors benefit from having a writer there? Or is their prescence an annoying distraction?

    3 years ago
    • To be clear, I am absolutely NOT saying that directors should stay out of the editing room. I'm saying they should stay out during the first cut only.

      I've let actors watch when it was OK with the director. Actors can learn a ton. My writing has gotten a lot better, so I don't see why any writer couldn't benefit from sitting in. There are many times I've cut lines upon lines of dialogue because the actor did a look that carried all of that gibberish. In the things I've fixed, my pet peeve is exposition. So often you'll have a character, usually the female lead's best friend, say something like "but he's a VP at goldman, and he loves you!" Gag. Exposition needs to be slid in, invisibly while the audience is laughing, crying, excited... whatever. Over the years, I've learned to call the writer when a scene didn't make sense. The director has been long fired, so I can't really call him. He fucked it up to begin with. It helps a lot to know what the writer's intentions were. If the director were still on the picture, I'd never call the writer. That's just too politically dangerous.

      As for a writer contributing to a cut, instead of just observing, I think it would depend on the strength of the director. I can see that descending into a pig fuck (industry term, no offense meant). It's hard enough to keep a young director from just "trying shit." The more you try different cuts within a scene, the more garbled it gets, but you don't recognize it as a garbled mess. It goes back to that objectivity thing. Experienced directors don't "try shit." They have a clear objective for the scene, and I work damned hard to fulfill that objective.

      I think you can learn a lot just by watching a finished film of something you've written. Once you get over actors saying your words and how fucking cool that is, and gotten to the point of setting your ego aside, try to figure out why that line was cut. Or that scene moved. Or that character cut out completely.

      3 years ago
  • Thank you so much for posting this. This is actually really helpful and I'm printing it out to keep it to hand. It's really nice of you to share your experience with people who are just starting out.

    3 years ago
    • Thanks, Holly. Print the entire thread. There are a few that disagree, and that too, is helpful.

      3 years ago
  • Stephen - when I write I wear several hats. Dramatic improvisation as I act all parts but just happen to be typing at the time. Also I have edited (I have Avid MC at home) and have seen enough footage which just doesn't cut so wearing my editor's hat I know how to get out of one scene and into the next plus create other characters for dialogue interaction. For my I have got an editor who has cut over 50 films including 5 Bond pix as my director as he will know what will cut and get inside the 4th wall for essential CUs and POVs etc whereas a theatre director cannot get out of his seat in the stalls.

    3 years ago
    • Yep. Just be careful, Stephen. You can't put those camera directions in a spec script. But you can suggested them. My favorite is WE SEE. As in "WE SEE Bob slowly grab the knife from the table." That suggests a CU on the knife without saying "CU Knife."

      3 years ago
    • Oops. "suggest them."

      3 years ago
  • Lots of directors come from theatre. Sam Mendes didn't do too badly managing to get out of his seat in the stalls, with his first film winning an Oscar, Bafta and Golden Globe. Working with actors is far more important for a director. That's why the Director/DoP/Editor relationship is so important. A good DoP will also know how to cover a scene (based on what the director wants) and will always suggest or pick up an extra shots that may be needed by the editor or to give the editor more options.

    3 years ago
  • Thanks again Dan et al. I'd like to observe the process applied to a film I had nothing to do with: so if any friendly editors in the central belt of Scotland or Newcastle would let me into their editing room, I'd be delighted. In return I could offer "fresh eyes" on a script of thier choice.

    3 years ago