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

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

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

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

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

For the past month I’ve been toying with making a new Death Grip trailer that’s more “mainstream” and suited for international markets. It’s been far more difficult than I had imagined. Here are the things I continually find in error while I cut this thing:

  • No one-liners
    One-liners tie the story together in a really dumb, hit-you-on-the-head way. I didn’t shoot them because, duh, “the film should speak for itself!” In the final product, it works great, but for a mainstream trailer it’s problematic to not have Hollywood-style one-liners. Next time I’m shooting them for the trailer, and nothing else.
  • No slow motion
    Death Grip has no slow motion. It a choice where I wanted the action to speak for itself at 24fps, no more and no less. The end result feels expository, . Trailers often do have slow motion, though, and they should. It would have been incredibly easy to shoot the stunts in slow-motion with a separate DSLR camera. I can’t recommend it enough, even if your film doesn’t have them. Shoot the big stuff in slo-mo too!
  • Lack of VFX, Titles, and Color Correction
    I waited too long to do the visual effects (muzzle flashes, blood spurts) and other finessing touches, thinking I could wait until the “smooth” cut of the film was done, and I’ve found myself pressing people hard to get these things done more quickly. It’s a miracle they haven’t straight-up said “no”, so I gotta hand it to the graphics guys (Shaun Finney, Joe Golling, and Drew Daniels) for being so dedicated and reliable.
  • Finding music for the trailer that fits
    This one is tricky. I could have cut the trailer and have it scored, but that’s arguably beyond my skill set. I need music to cut to for promotional materials. Instead, I scoured royalty-free sites for good “trailer” music, which for something like Death Grip was hard. It couldn’t be poppy, rock, slow-paced, horror, too big, too small. Nothing out there seemed to fit right. I found what I needed at www.musicloops.combut the track cost me $75, and I can’t even use it on the DVD with the license they give. A better solution would have been to hire the composer earlier on, plan the trailer with him, give him a few days to write the cues, spend a week or two cutting the trailer to the cues, and then deliver the trailer to the composer to tweak the music, add live instruments, etc. The process would have taken maybe 3-4 weeks tops. As is, I’ve been searching for the perfect music for over a month. Lesson learned: get your composer as early on as possible.The same goes for sound mixing.

All things said and done, producer and co-star Rebecca Ahn and I have cut a trailer that we’re proud of, despite these setbacks. It’s action-packed and badass. We’ll release it soon.

Here’s the previous trailer, which is less “mainstream” and more festival-friendly. Sales agents and distributors at the American Film Market commented that it was too slow for an action film, which inspired the upcoming trailer.

With the rough cut of Death Grip done, I decided I’d do my editing fixes while replacing all the audio with the external sound. I’m guessing this will take me about two weeks, which puts it just in time for the holidays, and soon after that we’ll (hopefully) have copies in the hands of various interested sales agents. We’re trying to get a contract with one of these groups well before the Berlin market, which is February 9th, since Berlin will be the next market where we could seriously promote the film. So the next few weeks are going to be very, very crunched for me, and I’m looking forward to every minute.

An issue I’m having is finding a decent Blu Ray burner for my iMac. Not one I’ve come across in stores is compatible. I’ll have to go to Amazon. You disappoint me, Retail. In the meantime all I can do is burn DVDs, which make an otherwise fabulous looking film look like something from my parents’ VHS collection.

I’ve laid all the bricks for Death Grip, and I did a one-man preview. I’m happy as hell with it, and I’ve got eight hundred notes, none of which even touch sound. But I wanna sync audio already because a rough cut still needs to be heard. I downloaded Plural Eyes, which allows you to sync your camera audio with external audio. If anyone has used this program for a feature film, I’d love to hear from you. Because it looks like I did things in reverse order. I may have to sync all my sound manually now.

Which doesn’t exactly bother me. I’m a neat freak, and I worry what a robotic monstrosity will do to my 1500-shot sequence when it tries to lay a bunch of sync sound on it. It’d be like going into a Supercuts that doesn’t speak English. I’d rather spend some extra time on this beast and re-tune my edit as I go, and I’ll be tweaking sound so much that I doubt the time differential would have been that great had I used PE.

Still, I wish someone could do me the favor of renaming all my sync audio. Any takers?

Watch Lea Seydoux’s back fist magically turn into a hook punch at 0:31.

Maybe they chose to promote this fight because it’s two good looking women trading fists. Guys like that, but we also like stuff we can see, and we want time to focus on what the hell they’re doing. That’s why we liked the Total Recall cat fight. It’s slower, but damn, that’s hot.

Edit: I have to give mention to Joyce Godenzi and Aurelio for the ultimate Hong Kong-style cat fight. Godenzi fights like a freaking man. It’s awesome.

Editing often equals grief. So it’s fair to use the same five stages.

Stage 1 – Footage Review (Denial)
After a review of the footage, you realize the edit is not going to be the cakewalk you thought it would be. You blame your actors, DP, wardrobe and prop department, and your previous self for all the errors you’re going to have to deal with over the next three months.

Stage 2 –  Rough Cut (Anger)
The film’s not going to edit itself, so you go head-first in an attempt to sort this mess out. Smoothing out continuity problems and plot gaps is dirty work, so get ready to be angry. Showing the rough cut to others will result in more anger. Have a squeeze ball handy.

Stage 3 – Kill Your Babies (Bargaining)
The rough cut can only mature into a real film if you remove a scene or a shot that you hold dear. Never did you think you would cut your favorite fight scene or the funniest gag in the film. It just doesn’t fit. Toss it. If anything, it’ll look good as an extra on the DVD.

Stage 4 – Sell Out (Depression)
You’ve chopped up your film and now it looks nothing like how you once thought it would. Your sure-fire jokes didn’t bring any laughs during screening tests, and the ironic political humor you treasured left the audience confused or just offended at the end. What’s worse, you’re beginning to empathize with the audience you once despised, and it’s occurring to you that maybe your brilliance isn’t so brilliant. You’ve had to cater to people.

Stage 5 – End It (Acceptance)
Your final screener gets the best audience response you’ve ever seen. You’ve edited your jokes well, and you’ve cut all the fat out of the narrative, so the audience is engaged all the way through and they talk about it on the way home. You realize that editing is a two-way machine, that the audience is integral to the artist’s vision. Rather than blaming the audience for not “getting it”, you thank them for allowing you to “get them”. That’s all they ever wanted, and they’ll pay you well for it.

Check out this Cinemetrics site, which has a database for Average Shot Lengths (ASLs). Here are the Die Hard films:

Film title: Date: ASL: MSL:
Die Hard 1988 4.8 3.3
Die Hard 2 1990 3.1 2.1
Die Hard: With a Vengeance 1995 1.8 1.7

No big surprise. Here’s a comprehensive chart of US feature films:

As film technology advanced, editing got quicker. But shot lengths during actual production didn’t seem to change much, especially while shooting fight sequences. Watching behind the scenes clips of action scenes, I’m surprised at the number of times they shoot an entire fight sequence from multiple angles, often upwards of 30 seconds in length, then cut it up into 1-2 second shots. Usually it’s shot just to cover everything. Dialog scenes are shot with more meticulous blocking and lighting, and each shot has its purpose. Close-ups are meant to be close-ups. But when it comes to fights, the cameraman won’t mix choreography with a close-up, but instead they’ll repeat choreography in a close-up. It’s like repeating dialog lines but muffling them because there wasn’t enough material to work with.

If the choreography isn’t important enough to tailor it for the close-up, then why do a close-up? It becomes filler, like background characters batting around, “I’m good, how are you? What is it you do? Oh that’s interesting” while more important things happen elsewhere. So the fight’s just a gag, an effect. The editor has to then look for the shot segments in fight scenes that “work”, and those last for 1-2 seconds. In dialog, since the production team has already given him ten takes that “work”, he can focus on finding the amazing ones and letting them play out.

Fights can be shot in any way, whether it’s using coverage or not, or a mix of the two, but if the shots aren’t specific to parts of the choreography then there will be a natural dip in the shot quality. Audiences won’t be able to put their fingers on it, but every time a cheap fight comes into their brains, they’ll switch from narrative mode into MTV mode, where they don’t process shots for their narrative value since no narrative value can be found. The moves turn into psychological effects meant to stimulate, like taking a caffeine pill over enjoying a good coffee. Shooting an action take with the intended angle gives it purpose, and people can read that, even if it’s 1 second long.