A remote video editor collaborates with his team while working on a project from home.

To Be On Set or Not to Be On Set? For Editors, It’s an Important Question

Adrian Pennington

October 12, 2021

Editing is often misconstrued as something that only happens during post production. In fact, content creation increasingly relies on editors' skills in shaping story throughout the process—before, during, and after principal photography. Video editors are among the core group of filmmakers that directors bring on board to share feedback in production.

Whether or not they join production on set is usually a matter of directorial preference or budget—and in many cases over the last year, COVID-19 safety and travel restrictions meant it wasn't possible at all. In either case, advances in remote editing tools have removed communication barriers and allow editorial input from any location.

But what exactly is the objective of a modern video editor during film production?

What Is the Video Editor's Role in 2021?

One of an editor's key roles during a shoot is to present assembly cuts. These allow the director and other creative heads or producers to see what is—or isn't—working, so they can plan the next day's schedule. While doing this in person isn't essential, it is often preferable to having these conversations at a distance.

"If I'm near to set, I can have informal chats with the director after each day of shooting," says editor Tony Kearns (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch). "I get a better idea of how the shoot is going—I can act in an advisory capacity to help the director with a tricky scene or two, and I also gain personal insights into the people who are working on set, which helps me to relate to their contribution to the project."

Directors may also like to have their editor on hand to shape VFX-heavy stories. Chris Lebenzon, ACE, relocated to London for 18 months during the making of Dumbo, a live-action film built around a CG main character. This included five months of principal photography at Pinewood and editorial near director Tim Burton, who lives in the city.

Maintaining Objectivity

Still, many editors value the objective distance that comes from not being on set, where they can be distracted by the paraphernalia of filmmaking.

"I think it's really important for an editor to maintain an objectivity to the material that allows them to be the 'audience'," says editor Jake Roberts, ACE, (Hell or High Water, Devs). "Whenever I have strayed onto set in the past, I find that, inevitably, my response to the dailies is influenced by what I experienced, be it the mood on set, the response to a certain take by the crew, or simply witnessing the scale of the effort required to achieve a particular shot. None of these things have any bearing on whether something should appear in the film, and yet they can't help but cloud one's judgement."

Troubleshooting

The video editor's role on or close to set also includes troubleshooting problems that may arise in post. A great example of this is editor Paul Machliss on the movie Baby Driver. He began cutting on set in order to ensure the complex choreography of the action scenes lined up with the soundtrack, a key element of the film.

"In order to make it work, I had to be there at the moment of creation," explains Machliss. "I was there every day, at the moment of every take—we had to make sure we got it right. At that moment, the art of post production actually becomes intertwined with the moment of production—making the cut was just as important as making the take work."

Pre-Visualization

Director Wes Anderson builds his unique vision for pictures such as Moonrise Kingdom and Isle of Dogs with regular collaborators in production design, cinematography and editorial. This begins with extensive pre-visualization.

"During the shoot, I'm more often than not on set to discuss anything that we feel needs to change or any issues that are coming up," says Andrew Weisblum, ACE, who went on location in France for The French Dispatch. "On location, we look at dailies together—and if Wes is concerned about something and wants to reshoot it, I can cut together a version to figure out if we're in the clear or we need another angle. This way, we'll get something that improves [the scene] by 10 percent."

Rapid Editorial

Sometimes, the editor gets a request to attend the shooting of specific scenes. Both Elliot Graham, ACE, and Tom Cross, ACE, accepted director Cary Fukunaga's invitation to a hilltop town in Italy—the location of a major action sequence for No Time To Die. Their directive was to rapidly assemble an edit from multiple units to ensure the footage matched up and that no time was lost.

How Remote Editing Changes the Calculation

There are immense creative benefits to letting editors and other filmmakers put their heads together throughout the production process. Advances in remote editing tools, many of which leverage the cloud, mean filmmakers can get those same benefits no matter where they collaborate from.

The technology isn't new. However, it has been driven to the foreground by COVID-19 production protocols as directors connect with editors and editors connect with assistants and VFX departments. Virtual collaboration is seeing widespread use throughout shooting, editorial, and the later stages of review and approval.

After spending the entire shoot of News of the World on location in Texas, William Goldenberg, ACE, performed editorial remotely from his home in Santa Monica with director Paul Greengrass, who was in London.

"For the first time in my career, it was almost more important to be on location during production as it was to be with the director in post every day," Goldenberg told IBC. "We were able to work online remarkably easily . . . I feel like I had another layer of knowledge about the story because of how much time I spent with him."

Videoconferencing and real-time sharing of sessions directly from the NLE also enables productions to keep more of their team remote during photography. Tony Kearns, for example, cut a four-part BBC TV drama in late 2020 while he was in Dublin and the shoot was taking place in Manchester.

"We [would] download the previous day's rushes each morning and have all the scenes cut that day," he explains. "Assemblies were sent back via secure portals."

Collaboration, No Matter Where Your Team Is

Even as the pandemic fades, remote, cloud-based production techniques are set to remain integral to the industry. Whether on or off set, the reality is that filmmakers—including video editors—require flexibility for a slew of reasons: cost savings, geographically distributed teams, to foster creativity and/or objectivity, to enhance work-life balance, and more. Teams need to be able to work collaboratively, even when they aren't in the same place. Technology offers this freedom.

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Adrian Pennington
Adrian Pennington is a journalist, editor, commentator, and copywriter on film and TV production. Follow him on Twitter @Pennington1.

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