I love a good soundtrack. Who doesn't amIright? For me though, it's become borderline problematic in everyday life. Watching just about anything these days, I am a bona-fide soundtrack creeper. Second screening, jumping onto iTunes or Spotify, finding the soundtracks, needing to have them before the episode or film has even hit the midway point. Starting out quietly positioned on the couch I'll proclaim unrestrainedly YAAASS! From nowhere. Startling my co-watcher.
This is just perfect, I'll squeal. Giving no other indication with any context from where I am coming from or that the car chase scene we are currently watching will work brilliantly with the buffalo - lion piece I had been working with earlier in the day. Or that the slow haunting metronome opening of a feature film will have me jumping for my phone to grab the track because it can't possibly wait.
I must have the track first thing in the morning, the ice melting scene from a few days ago must have its current music replaced with this new found masterpiece with immediacy. It's urgent. How will I possibly sleep tonight with this magnificent discovery!
Music is just damn cool, it drives a narrative to all kinds of places with its rhythmic poetry, it sets the tone for emotion. And what dear reader is editing if not emotion? I feel my edits, I make decisions based on feeling, what's right or wrong rhythmically based on tone, emotion, rhythm and pace (along with a tool box full of other things that we will unpack in other posts). But for now we need to set the tone for the scene, characters, story arc, parallel story lines and even a single moment. An icicle cracking and falling, a raindrop hitting scorched earth, an eye shift - these all rely on the tone we set for the moment that needs to be communicated between us and the viewer.
I also have a terrible tendency to fall hopelessly in love with my scratch music. But that’s how it should be, if you care deeply about your subject you’ll take care, and treat it as such in every realm of the process, be measured in your selection, music is a vital.
What dialogue are we having? A dialogue being communicated through billions of refractions of light diodes, electronics, sound waves, satellites, over oceans, thousands of miles and even time. When a piece is laid down, exported and sent out regardless of format for the purpose of viewership - an audience watches it after the fact, so with this arrangement undertaken there is an unwritten, unspoken contract between the creator of the content and the viewer and it thus creates a connection - a connection of the heart.
We know this because we feel it. An activated response to audio and visual through an accelerated heartbeat, eye dilation to excitement or even tears to sadness, a slower heart rate in rhythm to the beat of a track.
Natural history editing and laying the music is no different. Because it’s a decision and a feeling of emotion. How would or could it be anything else? The same person watching CNN later tuning in to the series' Mindhunter and Queen's Gambit with a glass of merlot is more than likely the same person who is going to watch your Natural History film or docushort - call to action piece with their kids tomorrow afternoon. I know this because I am that person, I am also surrounded by this target market. The first step to reaching a target market is understanding them. So I see no reason to treat them any differently than I would myself and what I like. So I use what is around, current and relevant. Scratch tracks are personal and I take them very seriously.
Putting forward your narrative with the incorrect music choice is detrimental to your piece. At any stage of the project. Take the time to do a thorough music search.
A mentee of mine with the Jackson wild Mentorship program
Flora Wallace-Smith (https://www.fwsedits.com)
recently asked me to walk her through my music process. I immediately began answering and as I began talking I realized, I hadn't ever really been cognizant about it much as a process until I started unpacking it with her, I became extremely conscious that it is actually more of a ritual than anything else. And if an editor loves anything, my god, do we love ourselves a ritual.
I’ve written my ritual points out below:
I mean don’t even get me started on Sound Design - dancing a tango with music and it's love affair with picture enhancing an edit to make it sing. There is something so magnificent about it, gets your blood racing, you sort of just want to go out and make something awesome, don't you...
Ps: Thank you to https://www.pexels.com for the awesome free images!
Like all super powers it is vital that it is used for good!
I can't speak for all editors, but for the few I have worked with and know well, this is definitely their super power.
It's not that we don't want to put anything on an empty timeline. As if the thick feeling of the looming deadline isn't enough to get your heart racing and creative juices flowing. I think that learning all about the inner workings of why the universe is so vast is just cool and it is definitely essential that instead of going through the hundreds of hours of footage required I should definitely first scroll through every single Bansky artwork ever created. Ever. Yes I should definitely do that first.
Photo Credit:Laura Goehner (Sundance Utah)
I've always thought I was broken, destined to only work well under pressure or let's be honest the sheer terror of an impending deadline. Our job is outcome based, it's obvious what you've done or haven't, so adding the pressure to exceed expectations of what is required of the output seems like a game of creative roulette...so why the actual F do we do it? The procrastinate bit I mean. The job part I totally get, it's really fulfilling, adds meaning etc, but come on it's like some kind of drug this whole procrastination BS.
Why do we chat at length in the hallway about anything really, knowing that in a few hours there'll need to be something amazing on the timeline. Yet I'll have an undeniable urge to go make a cup of tea.
I'll tell you why...
Because, I'll be stirring the cup, and bang it will hit me, somewhere in the recesses if my brain, a tiny little dim light will shimmer, an idea will bust out for a scene long discarded unexpectedly being reignited. Suddenly the shot I saw this morning and the song I heard three nights ago that will now work perfectly with the scene that wasn't working and couldn't be linked as a bridging moment to the bigger narrative of my arc, dear god, can it be? It's all going to come together... all because I dropped the spoon, the way the teaspoon landed leaving drops of tea on the counter, reminded me of a discarded phantom shot of a leaf with droplets of water reflecting its surrounding somewhere in the expanse of the delta (not a scene just a lone moment). But now it's definitely going to match as a transitional metaphorical moment leading into the flood scene that hasn't made any sense up until this moment and I definitely think the ending of that one song I couldn't make work from that soundtrack on that other scene will now be perfect for this new scene I'm about to cut as soon as I can hall ass back into my cutting room not stopping to talk to anyone because there's work to be done. I have found my zone! It's a thing of beauty when it shows itself. That little glimmer turns into a blinding ball of sun rays, one idea morphing into many and when you lift your head up before you know it, you have a timeline so full of blocks it makes your puzzle look so dazzling it shocks even you.
You see fellow procrastinators, that is why I definitely needed to scroll all the Banksy artwork this morning and I for sure needed to download three more soundtracks from features films and series I haven't even watched yet. Most definitely.
But the question still remains, why does Procrastination help the creative process so much, though? Recently a very good friend of mine Susan Scott (https://www.sdbfilms.com) sent me a Ted talk, she titled it, "Don't laugh, this is us, please watch to the end, it all makes so much sense"! I had watched it a couple of years back feeling like Tim Urban was talking directly to me. I had chuckled silently at the notion but again it had stuck in the back of my brain, filed away for later. I watched it again now with new eyes. I came to the realisation that I am many things. One of them being that I am also a contradiction! I am super organized. I live for a neat and well structured project but my notes are also generally all over the place. I search for music while also doing stringouts, I usually know what music is going where before I even begin editing, I know the tone and style before I've seen all the shots. I mostly cut the ending of the film first (once I've seen all the footage), I hardly ever cut the opening first and I almost always cut the middle last, there are exceptions, depending what I'm doing of course. I find watching trailers at nauseam inspires me, combing soundtracks is definitely a key to getting into the zone and if there is a "watch these 10 amazing opening sequences youtube clip" I might dabble going down a rabbit hole for a while only coming up for air when the sun has set way below the horizon. My best work is done super early in the morning yet inspiration and ideas come late at night - yeah I know right....I have however never missed a deadline, even when I am at my most procrastinator-y. If someone does try to mess with my mojo and process I do tend to become honey badger-ish and quite feral.
I am a procrastinator, I'm not sure I will ever be able to be any other way. But I also know this is my super power.
See the TED Talk that sparked this conversation:
You might be one of us too. Join the club, it's fun here, we learn to bake chocolate cream cookies, build tree houses, making a Christmas wreath from nothing but recycled bits, filling our brains with making small talk facts all while still screeching into making our deadlines ;-) oh and we know ALL the best soundtracks to cut to.
PS: It's also probably why I'm writing this blog...
There was a time not so long ago that if you had asked me to go on a shoot, I would have replied with a hard no! Editors are not supposed to leave the cave, it's bright out there, there are the creepiest of crawlies, very early morning calls, dust, extreme heat then cold dark nights and not to mention other people, argh ! I'm kidding, okay maybe I’m not.
But over the last few years I've started venturing more and more into the light, and I think I like it, I like it a whole lot. Living in the world of frame rates, vectors, rhythm and pace, you start to see the world a certain way. And that is not always a bad thing, you have a rectangular perspective. I can only see and hear what the footage says to me, people think I’m nuts when I say a certain scene is speaking to me, but it truly does, it does actually speak to me and other times it can be frustratingly silent. When I'm presented with hundreds of hours of footage and I need to start sorting it, I get ridiculously excited. This is my magical time. The first time I see the footage, it's all neatly packaged on its little shoot drives, ready to be unpacked and sorted. It's all shiny and new, full of all the fantastical prospects. The excitement is very real. Ready for the incredible adventure we are about to go on together. Music starts to peek out from all the crevices in my subconscious, every film and series I watch becomes a possible scratch soundtrack.
But, then I went on a shoot and that seemed to change things for me, a-lot. I kinda loved it, the cameras, the tech, the shot composition, the early mornings, the creepiest of crawlies, bigger scarier animals, the smell of the trees, dew glistening on tall grass stems, shot possibilities in every direction I looked, the overstimulation of my senses, the long hard days into the late nights, all of it.
I found myself in a conundrum of the where to from here pep talk. Are editors allowed to even want that? I thought we were supposed to not seek out the light, enjoying headphones and our own company, hissing as people try to make contact regarding lunch, poking us with a stick at times afraid to break us out of our epic music finding zones. Although let’s be honest here, get one of us chatting around a water cooler re a new software update and BAM you've lost forty seven minutes of your life you can never get back but you’ve gained experience you never knew you needed and don’t even get me going about backup, yikes love me a back up chinwag.
I digress, stepping into the light and dancing with the light are two very different things. I don’t want to hold a camera, I think that is an incredible skill set and best left to those who have both the passion and know-how. I want to tell stories being a co-author. This is where I find my real joy. So is there a place in this world for the Preditor? Can an editor leave the cave and venture onto shoot and still hold onto the perspective required to not see outside the frame? There was a time that I believed that to be the hard facts, I didn't go on shoot because then I can't fall in love with a moment. I only see what is within the walls of my frame.
I have what no one else on the crew has - objectivity. But now I’m unsure if this rule is still applicable to me. I find that I can be objective now because I now possess something else - experience. Do these two things need to be mutually exclusive? Can they be in a casual relationship or is it a monogamous marriage where you need to choose?
The last few months I’ve been working on a feature documentary filmed over five years. When I sat down and started going through the six hundred and fifty hours of rushes I realised that this was a multi faceted story and in my opinion needed to be an interview driven narrative. There was action in spades - check, there were brilliant characters - check but what we needed was emotion. so I pitched a formal interview structure. Since I knew the footage and story best, I made the logical choice to direct the interviews. Cue involuntary vomit. I was a wreck. This is a big deal film. Not only with who was involved and the subject matter, but the story. I needed to do right by the characters. They matter. This was a massive opportunity and sleep was overrated anyway.
When I sit in my edit chair, I am calm, I know my system, I belong there, it’s my safe place. I feel like I can create and go down any path. Try this and that. If it works and I nail it then fantastic, if it doesn’t I try something else. It's a fluid malleable process. Directing is not. Everyone looks toward you, constantly, as they should. Things go wrong pretty much the entire time.
Here's an example; when we arrived to set up for the first set of interviews I was prepared. Probably over prepared but prepared. Being an editor and being accustomed to technical failures I could adapt but nothing will prepare you for being out there. We had decided to film the interviews in situ (out where they do their work). Also its so great when you come up with amazing ideas for introducing characters in the comfort of your air-conditioned cutting room and when you’re out there in the searing sun you realise that your extensive and meticulously blocked out shot list hadn’t accounted for your own heat exhaustion and you are in fact not David Fincher, your subject is a professional and not an accomplished actor being paid for their time, does not care for your calling action nor do they want to do the same action five times just so that you have “cutting points” or as you keep repeating “ having options” in edit. Their faces are smiling, their words say “no problem it’s for the film after all” but his eyes say something very different. Being the body language expert that you are, an editor first and foremost, this too is not lost on you but you forge forward. Probably harder than is appropriate, this is your interview directorial debut after all doing what needs to be done correctly and with methodical proficiency.
Spoiler: It went well but not according to plan.
On day three we were running out of light, we had accounted for just about everything. I had managed to get the final interviewee to meet us at a lodge, his schedule was tricky to manage, being a busy professional doing busy wildlife saving work. We needed to be accommodating, what I hadn’t accommodated for was the honeymooning couple that arrived and decided to frolic pool side just out of our shot. It was a two camera set up and had taken two hours to set up to get the perfect shadow castings, the succulents in the shallow depth of field were going to be perfection. That was until we had the said honeymooners have zero regard to our presence and that in fact sound does indeed travel via sound waves and that our boom could pick up every single splash. My nerves were shot, the crew looked at me to do something, I found myself mid interview and I needed to hold it together. I didn’t really have much choice. I just kept going among daiquiri orders and splashing. The interview was over and we got what we needed, even with added non natural water sounds. I was beyond relieved, of course extremely grateful that we had lapel mics knowing they would be our saving grace. Yikes, what a stress!
Was it worth it? Hell yes! Would I jump at the chance again? Yes! Did I stick close to the camera team when walking deep into the think bush when one of the interviewees leaned down and proclaimed, “oh look male lion tracks, and how sweet a gennet track inside, and it's so great they’re so fresh” of course all I heard, was "fresh" and "lion". Now don't get me wrong, I love the outdoors, I am the president of nature's fan club but on foot with nothing but my note book, pen and a whole lot of mud on my sneakers. I felt a little uneasy. I also felt that I belonged there, being the only woman I needed to gain a little street cred and prove that I was not afraid of what lurked behind every corner and certainly not own shadow. It was exhilarating, the smells, the wind on my cheeks, the long hot days, it was all extraordinary! But you know what was also amazing...coming back and reviewing the footage in my cutting room too!
A few Takeaways:
Until next time!
xx The PrEditor
When an editor produces and directs there is a fun term we are known as, the PrEditor (an obvious play on the word Predator). The first time I was called this, I was both shocked and insulted. Being a lean into the slide kind of person and of course living well within the wildlife genre, I now love this term, regardless of how it was originally meant. Enter me, the "Preditor". This blog is a place I hope to create a journal space for my ideas, thoughts and stories of the cutting room as well as out in the natural world.