Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with “The Aeronauts” editor Mark Eckersley

Mark Eckersley is a London-based editor who has cut features including Dredd, Filth, The Woman in Black 2, and Wild Rose, among others. He has also edited episodes of the fantastic TV shows The Crown, Black Mirror and Peaky Blinders.

Today we’re discussing his movie, The Aeronauts for director Tom Harper. I saw it in the theater, but it is available on Amazon Prime Video.

This interview is available as a podcast. 

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

HULLFISH: Mark, you’ve not only done a few features with Tom before, but you and he started out working on short films together, right?

ECKERSLEY: Exactly. He’s the person I probably have the longest relationship with. We started doing short films together when I was an assistant editor and a VFX editor. We used to kind of nip in on the weekends and use cutting rooms to dit his shorts. I’d just be doing it for free.

I’d be working during the week as an assistant VFX editor and then going in on Saturdays and Sundays working with Tom on his short films. I did a couple of shorts with him and then one of those did really well and won some awards and he hung on to me when he did a TV pilot. And then we did a low budget feature together. We still pinch ourselves a bit now, when we’re doing a decent budget film. Ten years later, it’s pretty, special.

A lady at Film4 put us in touch. I was actually assisting on a film called Brothers of the Head, which Film4 was producing. She said she knew someone who had written a short and they’re looking for an editor. They didn’t have any money. There was goodwill required, really. We’d got to know each other on this film, Brothers of the Head (2005) and she said, “Do you want to go meet Tom in a cafe in North London?” And I said, “Yeah. Great.” I was trying to make the transition from assisting to editing. It’s an incredibly hard chasm to get across.

Assistants now ask me, “How do you make the leap?” People can tell you how to do it, but it’s a thousand different stories, and you just have to kind of, keep doing the shorts, keep trying different avenues, see what works. For me, this short with Tom kind of caught and got some attention. From there I managed to start full-time editing.

HULLFISH: It’s not the first time I’ve heard this story. I just talked to Nat Sanders, who was nominated for an Oscar for Moonlight a couple of years ago, and he just edited Just Mercy and he said the same thing. When he was trying to break in, and he went to Sundance and watched a bunch of shorts and found a director that he thought was really awesome and went up and talked to them after a screening and said, If you need somebody to edit, I’m your person.

ECKERSLEY: Wow.

HULLFISH: That’s how he got the connection with the director that he worked with on his last film.

ECKERSLEY: That’s impressive: cold calling people at festivals!

HULLFISH: Yeah, I thought so too. But, he did it based on a film that he really loved. He felt passionately that it was a really good director, instead of just saying, “I’ll just talk to anybody who will hire me,” right?

ECKERSLEY: That’s even more special, isn’t it? If you admire someone’s work and then get an opportunity to work with them. Fantastic.

HULLFISH: Yeah. So much social media stuff I see with people warning that you can’t work for free. It’s not worth it. But then somebody like you, you know, you started your career and were able to work on great films with this director because you were willing to work on a short film.

ECKERSLEY: Yeah, that’s true. It was hard because I was had a day job during the week. I was working on Danny Boyle’s film, Sunshine, as a VFX editor and then on Sundays, we’d come in and edit the shorts. So it was a tiring time. It’s nice to be just doing it during the week rather than the weekend.

HULLFISH: You don’t want to pick up any extra work doing shorts now?

ECKERSLEY: (laughs) No. That’s good to leave to the assistants. People ask, “How do you learn about editing?” But I think you just need to get at the coalface and do it and make mistakes (“the coalface” according to the Oxford dictionary is “Doing the work involved in a job, in real working conditions, rather than planning or talking about it”) And learn about it through that. There’s no better way to learn than that, really.

HULLFISH: So you’ll walk in on Monday morning and see there’s a new project in your Avid Projects folder and you’ll know it’s your assistant’s latest short film.

ECKERSLEY: Exactly. That’s a good sign rather than a bad sign.

HULLFISH: Yeah, I think so too.

I really loved this film. It was beautiful.

ECKERSLEY: Thanks.

HULLFISH: Beautifully edited and visually stunning.

ECKERSLEY: George, the DoP, and the VFX guys, they all pulled the stops out and did a spectacular job. It’s a visual feast, which is part of the reason I was attracted to it — as well as the chance to work with Tom again — who I’ve worked with a lot.

HULLFISH: I was really intrigued by the pace changes. I think of editing, as you may, as very musical — with dynamics. You can’t just have things going at 11 constantly. Talk to me about the pace changes — from the excitement of the balloon prep and launch to the kind of stately pace once they get up in the air. Is it evident from the shooting, or from the script? What makes you change the pacing and rhythm of your edits?

ECKERSLEY: It was kind of inherent in the script. But then it was also a conscious decision to try and give people time in the skies. And actually, that’s very easy once you’ve got the final VFX shots in the sequence. It’s trickier when you’re just looking at a blue screen. Like, how long do we want to stare at this blue screen for and how long do we want the shot to be? It’s a tricky thing. And that’s the kind of learning curve of visual effects is pacing when there’s absolutely nothing there or the roughest temps — when you’re just dealing with an animatic or a previs it’s very hard to pace precisely how long you want to hang on a shot.

But the momentum at the beginning of the film was in the script. In the DNA of the script was just getting people into this air and up in the sky as soon as possible. Obviously, there’s an alternate version of the film, which would tell all the backstory first and then get into the sky. There’s very much a desire to get everyone into this 19th-century spectacle and carried away with the balloon and then tell the story in real-time.

One facet of the movie is that all the flashbacks interrupt the balloon flight which is actually told in real-time; so that the length of the film is actually approximately exactly the length of, a real balloon flight at that time.

Giving that energy to things at the beginning, getting everyone swept up in it, and then having a bit of time to sit down and relax once we were up in the sky.

HULLFISH: Did the original shooting script actually have a much different structure than the final film?

ECKERSLEY: It did in terms of where the flashbacks occurred. So it was in the script that it started with the fair and we went up into the sky and then we went back to revisit the backstory of James and Amelia and how they got to meet each other and how the balloon flight came about. So that was always written into the script, but we played quite a lot in post-production about exactly how much of the flashbacks you wanted and when and kind of which bits of information and how much you’re willing to go back to the ground for.

Originally they were parsed out more evenly through the whole film. So actually there were flashbacks much later on. And in the process of test screenings — and actually Ted Hope (Co-Head of Movies at Amazon Studios) mentioned early on, “Are we not better to get on with all the flashbacks earlier and then let Amelia and James just take flight and enjoy the flight for the last three-quarters of an hour?” and through test screenings, it became apparent that was the right way to go. You wanted more frontloaded backstory so you got to know the characters a bit more at the front and then you could just enjoy the flight.

Probably every test screening had a slightly different roll of the dice in terms of the flashbacks and exactly how much backstory we wanted. And the early screenings we had, people felt they didn’t get to know James enough — they wanted a bit more or Eddie Redmayne’s character — so actually they did some extra shooting of building his backstory and meeting his parents a bit more and his altercation with the Royal Society, so there was some extra shooting done to flesh out his backstory just to help people engage with him earlier.

Amelia was a very rich character already and was very engaging and James was more subtle as a character, so I think people wanted a bit more information about him and a bit more motivational background. So we got that changed as we went along.

HULLFISH: I’ve talked to several editors about the idea you mentioned of how difficult it is to pace a film when you’re looking at a boring bluescreen shot instead of a visually stunning final VFX composite. A shot of Eddie in front of a bluescreen might be worth 2 seconds. A shot of Eddie in front of an amazing vista of towering cloud formations inside an amazing balloon is worth 10 times that. Were you post-vising inside the Avid or was a VFX editor comping temp VFX for you? Or were you just cutting in the un-comped bluescreen shot and guessing?

ECKERSLEY: Initially — literally — just using the bluescreen and guessing. We did have a visual effects artist working with us in the cutting room, so It’s just an evolving process where initially it was literally nothing and you were just in a total guessing game about what was there and then that process evolved to where we’d get temps done that were kind of halfway there and then temps that were much more evolved and then towards the end of the process, you got to see a much better sense of exactly what the shot was going to be. Framestore was giving us some great temps and so you could get a sense of how long you want to hang out just looking at the clouds and enjoying the quiet as well.

HULLFISH: There’s a great scene — they take off and there are a storm and some mayhem that takes place as they’re passing through the cloud layer. Can you talk to me about cutting that and specifically your shot selection, because you’re in this balloon gondola, which is very small and close-quarters, so all of your shots are very tight. You can’t or don’t pull back much.

ECKERSLEY: It’s interesting. To go back a step: Tom’s idea behind it was trying not to have two magical camera positions. It’s got a kind of epic fairy tale feel to it, but we all talked about rooting it in reality so that we wouldn’t do the kind of magic realism cameras. You’ve also got to watch yourself on visual effects because anything is possible. You can put the camera anywhere, and gt it to move in any way. So you need to have a real discipline about not getting carried away with camera positions and how cameras move — where they fly and what they can do.

We tried to preserve a discipline of: “Could you actually have really shot that?” If you actually shot it, it would have to be shot from a helicopter. So there was a restriction on how close the helicopter could get to the balloon. If there’s a camera position in the balloon, what physically could a daredevil cameraman do? They’d either be in the basket with Felicity and Eddie or they’d be potentially climbing up a rope or hanging off on a rope off the balloon. But we didn’t want to have any magical cameras, effectively chopping through the ropes or, chopping through the balloon.

In the best-case scenario, you could feasibly get a camera in that position. So I suppose that was the overriding idea behind all the camera positions. And then also, Tom very much felt — in terms of the editing style — that he didn’t want it to be a very fast cut. More of a documentary, reality-style aesthetic. He much more wanted to live with the characters in the balloon and have longer shots — for us to be a bit more disciplined about when we chose to cut, rather than cutting as much as you would in a normal film — to try and allow those pauses you would get in the natural flow of events inside the balloon — the natural flow conversation — rather than necessarily always cutting for pace or speeding up. You’d get a sense of just existing in the basket with the characters. We spent a reasonable amount of time getting that right: of how much time you wanted to exist with the characters and how many times you wanted to accelerate things and move things forward.

HULLFISH: I really love some of the sound atmospheres while they’re in the basket.

ECKERSLEY: Lee Walpole was our supervising sound editor and sound designer and he did a fantastic job on it. He did a lot of very detailed research and signed up for a lot of organizations that specialize in recording wind and the sound of air and things like that. I think what impressed me was the spareness of it. It obviously would have been quite easy to overcrowd the film with sound. I thought he did a fantastic job of allowing a space in there.

And Steven Price, the composer, also moved into the area where he was using a lot of instrumentalists blowing over mouthpieces and the sound of the air and trying to weave the score. He had a discipline where he only wanted to use wind instruments when we were in the air. And so the string instruments would be while we were on the ground. But while we’re in the air, he’d just written a wind and brass score, which is otherwise absolutely beautiful. But a lot of that comes out of the wind and floats on the wind and then dissipates on the wind as well.

So it was very much Lee and Steven working together about that sound of the wind and how the music would drift out of that and decay into it. It was great to sit in the mix with them and listen to everything. It’s fantastic.

HULLFISH: I noticed a bunch of really nice pre-laps.

ECKERSLEY: Inherently the film is kind of two different timelines or actually when you break apart, it’s even more than that. Obviously we’ve got the journey, which is kind of the hero’s story. Then we’ve got what’s going on on the ground simultaneously with the balloon flight. Amelia’s sister and the Royal Society and then also all their backstories. So James’s backstory, Amelia’s backstory, and then her psychological trauma in the past. It looks quite simple but when you break it down, it’s actually quite a complicated structure. And there are quite a lot of different timelines to jump between.

Hopefully it presents as a kind of classic adventure. But when you break it down, it’s actually got a lot of different storylines that you are dipping into. So actually, we wanted to kind of bind those together and give it a kind of a more organic feel jumping between them. So sound would very much help with that. And the pre-laps obviously gives you a forward momentum, which is helpful in terms of just, carrying you forward into the next scene. But we were aware we wanted to use those just to kind of try and organically bind all those bits together, which could have been felt very disparate and separate.

HULLFISH: There’s a really nice shot-selection choice I wanted to talk about. There’s a kid who looks through a spyglass and the John Trew character looks up to see the balloon in the sky. But you don’t cut to a P.O.V. of looking through the telescope. You look at a big wide shot where the balloon is barely visible. I love that choice. Can you talk about that? Did you even have a shot that looked like it was through the telescope?

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in THE AERONAUTS, Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

ECKERSLEY: No. That was a deliberate plan to tell the story of the fragility of the balloon. We actually wanted to keep the separation between the ground and the sky and keep the fragility of this tiny dot. Even now in the 21st century that would be terrifying, but in the 1850s was insane. Their adventuring spirit and how they threw themselves into danger was awe-inspiring. But we were aware of trying to preserve the separation between the people on the ground and the sky and then never lose sight of how tiny the balloon and the adventurers were in relation to nature and everything else.

HULLFISH: There’s a scene where they’re talking in the basket and you cut wide to see the balloon tiny against a gigantic cloud bank the sound cuts to dead silence.

ECKERSLEY: Louis Morin — who’s our VFX supervisor — went up and did some amazing helicopter flights — high altitude balloon flights — and got some great footage. That is mostly real footage stitched together. That’s actually a real high altitude balloon flight. When we saw some of those rushes, we knew we had to use that. Absolutely fantastic. We shot a lot of high-res plates and stitched them all together into these very high-resolution images. Some of them were just absolutely sensational. So there was very much a sense that we had to use that and just hang on it. You can just enjoy it for the spectacle. We can jump out of the story for a minute and just enjoy the moment, really. That was definitely something we tried to preserve all the way through.

HULLFISH: When you were temping music, one of the things that I noticed, at least in a couple of places was using temp, often at the end of a scene as a transition into your next scene.

ECKERSLEY: Yes. I think that was something we initiated, and then Steven (the composer) has incredibly good instincts about where and when to bring out music. We left that to his instincts. Maybe we disagreed about one or two points of where he wanted to bring in pieces maybe a bit earlier. But I think broadly, Tom and Steven and I all very much agreed about where cues existed and where they were needed and actually where they WEREN’T needed — we can just let this sit and just exist on the wind or effects.

HULLFISH: I’m interested in the discussion that you mentioned about changing some of the flashbacks. When Amelia says she’s going to abandon him. Was it in the script at that point? Did you feel that you needed that flashback moment to link to a specific moment in balloon flight?

ECKERSLEY: That was probably one of the most interesting up-for-discussion questions. At that point, we know that she’s ultimately going to go on the flight, so it’s quite interesting that it’s kind of a false jeopardy, but hopefully, we thought it worked in terms of character.

Some of those flashbacks just flesh out their relationship and getting to know the characters much better in their earthbound lives in a way that you don’t get from the skies. So it’s more about the effect of Pierre on her — her husband who died. It was her coming to terms with that psychologically, so it’s not so much a story beat, it’s more of a character moment.

Felicity Jones in THE AERONAUTS

Something we talked about was when we would allow her to let go of Pierre because early on Pierre existed much later in the script, but it felt that she became a bit burdened with Pierre later on and she couldn’t let him go and move forward in the future with James. So that’s part of the reason why we pulled Pierre’s story earlier in the film — so that she could deal with that psychological trauma earlier and let go of it and then be allowed to carry on forwards. It also felt that the correct moment for her to get rid of her ghosts and have done with Pierre was when she ascends the balloon. We felt that was the correct moment — through that climb and saving James — she redeems herself. And that’s the moment that she can then let go of Pierre and her past and move forward. That was also the moment we thought we want to be done with the flashbacks and allow James and Amelia to get on and enjoy the rest of the flight.

HULLFISH: When she ascends the balloon there’s a kind of an underwater sound as Eddie’s character is hearing her try to open the chute.

ECKERSLEY: That was all about Eddie’s hypoxia. That was a discussion about how subjective we wanted to go inside the character. Actually we decided to be quite restrained about that. There’s a slightly different version of it, which would be extremely subjective, both for James and Amelia, but we kind of cherry-picked moments to be very subjective and slightly hallucinatory with the sound or the images. That was more about taking us inside James at that moment and really landing the hypoxia for the audience and understanding what that meant.

People didn’t instantly get the hypoxia. That was something we had to put some glosses in — just a little bit of ADR or little bits of sound design just to nail it because I think initially we were probably a bit too spare with selling that idea. It was one of those story beats we just needed to put a little emphasis on and do a bit of ADR and do a bit of extra visual effects — just putting us a little defocus halo kind of vignette on some shots just to kind of sell the idea that his vision was narrowing and he was losing consciousness. It’s amazing that with a few little bits, the audience has completely got it. Any questions about that went away and people totally understood.

HULLFISH: Did Eddie’s performance of that hypoxia have gradations that you could choose in post — more “drunk” or less “drunk?” Did you have to kind of adjust that throughout the flight to indicate the severity of the hypoxia?

ECKERSLEY: He does it because he’s so good and on it. He knows exactly what he’s doing in every moment. We were aware of just how long we needed to hang on him just so you told that story enough. It was also just so you got hints of it to start with and then you kind of started to understand — it was a gradually dawning thing if you understood what was going on.

HULLFISH: Near the end, Felicity’s character, Amelia, says something to the effect of It’s not how you look AT the world, but how you choose to live IN it.” Do you think that’s the theme of the movie? And did the theme affect your editing in some way?

ECKERSLEY: I think for me, the key story was her being able to come back and live in the world really. When we find her at the earliest in terms of storytime she’s asleep on her floor in a kind of “Withnail and I” flat, (a British black comedy about two unemployed actors) there are wine glasses everywhere and bottles of wine and she doesn’t want to leave her house. It feels like a very modern story. She’s just been widowed and is very down and doesn’t engage with the world anymore. I’m sure we’ve all had days like that, but James is the person she doesn’t realize she needs to meet to redeem her and get her back on track and get her back engaged with the world.

By the end, she can rediscover who she is and put Pierre, to bed in the past and bring that adventuring spirit to everyone else.

HULLFISH: This far into your relationship with Tom — after doing five features and a couple of shorts — has your collaboration method changed or how do you two collaborate?

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in THE AERONAUTS, Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

ECKERSLEY: Now we’ve got such similar taste. We probably did have such similar taste when we started out. I think that’s probably the overwhelming thing that gives you a relationship with a director or hopefully with an editor as well. You just share a taste. It’s never really a style. I think the styles are dictated by the material and what the film is, but we do have extremely similar tastes in takes or when to cut or performance.

It’s quite a subtly evolving thing. If anything, it’s just more of a shorthand. You can move faster without speech because I kind of instinctively know how he would want something cut. Also probably be more candid quicker. When you work with someone for the first time, you are obviously feeling your way into the relationship and just working out what the other person’s taste is. But once you’ve been working with someone for a while then that need to feel your way into relationship doesn’t exist anymore. You can just be very candid and very straight and know how the ground lies straight away, so that’s a great thing.

HULLFISH: When you were cutting the flashbacks in, we talked about it on the macro scale. What about on the micro-scale? When you were deciding the exact moment, were you finding a character having a look in their eye or was there something about a specific part of a conversation that you felt: “this would be a good time for this specific flashback?”.

ECKERSLEY: Yeah, very much. It very much came from the characters and at what point you wanted more information about them. So the flashbacks probably weren’t such a micro-level thing. There were more longer story arc questions about when you wanted information about the characters and what kind of information you wanted at that point.

So I think the micro is more about just how to finesse the actual transition. What was the most effective way to move from the present balloon flight into the past and which timeline to jump back to or whether to jump back to the ground? That felt like a much more macro storyline decision rather than the micro.

The micro is much more about just the most effective, impactful way to do that, really. Who to cut from? What size of shot? At what moment in the scene?

HULLFISH: You also worked on a couple of great TV shows, The Crown — which I interviewed Pia and Una — and Peaky Blinders. Tell me a little bit about working on The Crown and Peaky Blinders.

ECKERSLEY: The Crown was a delightful experience. I only did one episode of the first series, but because it was the first series, it was very exciting and a terrific bunch of editors. Very, very good people involved in it. So it was a real delight to work on.

For TV, it had a very good budget. And we were given a serious amount of time to get it right. We were all working together in Soho. We had six or seven cutting rooms running simultaneously. That’s a lovely thing about TV that you don’t get in film. Films obviously are a much more solitary experience.

Particularly because it was quite a civilized schedule, there was a real camaraderie that evolved between everyone. We watched each other’s episodes and discussed things. I remember it really fondly.

HULLFISH: That was cut at Molinare?

ECKERSLEY: That’s right. Yes.

HULLFISH: Then you’re not only just with the other editors from your show, but you’re also with other editors from other movies and other shows.

ECKERSLEY: Yes. There are a few bigger facilities who still have quite a lot of cutting rooms. When I was assisting that seemed to be the case. You’d meet a lot of people in corridors and that was a wonderful thing. You just bump into people. Then it seemed to go through a few years where there were a lot of smaller facilities that kind of shrank and you wouldn’t bump into people so much. Now, actually, again, in Soho, there seem to be some bigger places with, 40, 50 rooms where you’d get a floor.

I’ve just recently been working with The Crown. Series three was on one floor and Armando Iannucci’s new series is on another floor, and there are a couple of features in there. So there’s a lot of interesting people in the building and that’s a great thing.

HULLFISH: You mentioned the schedule on that and how the schedule was reasonable. Do you feel like there’s any difference anymore between cutting TV and cutting a feature?

ECKERSLEY: The gap is definitely shrinking because I think TV programs are going way more ambitious. They’re getting much better budgeted. And films are going one of two ways: they’re either going smaller budget or much bigger budget. So TV is kind of occupying all the middle ground, which is probably the right thing to do in terms of telling longer stories and longer character arcs.

When I was making the transition from assisting into editing, TV schedules, combined with my inexperience, seemed very tight. Budgets are very tight. The demands are very high. I think now that’s still the case. But actually, you have more time to get it right, and there is the possibility of doing pickups in later blocks to work out the story arcs of the whole series. It is definitely a more satisfying experience. Because there are a lot of big, wealthier players moving in terms of Netflix, Amazon and Apple and Google. There are a lot of people with a will to make interesting projects at a good budget level. It felt like for about 10 years that wasn’t the case.

It’s a really exciting time. I say that to assistants. It’s a great time to be making the leap because there’s a lot of shows around at the moment and there’s a lot of need to cut stuff and interesting stuff to cut. There’s not a paucity of fantastic drama out there.

HULLFISH: I’m looking at the scene-card board behind you — the stills of the scenes from your current project. Tell me a little bit about what the advantage is of seeing them up there. What does it do for you to have them on a board and to be able to move them and be inspired by seeing stills on a board?

ECKERSLEY: It’s just data visualization, really. Obviously, in the Avid you’re just looking at a timeline and it’s very hard to get an overview of the film in the Avid. It’s very easy to move stuff around and play with stuff. But in terms of just psychologically getting a perspective on the whole film, I can’t imagine doing a project without having scene cards now. I think it gives you an overview of the whole film, and often it’s very hard to see a problem just looking at the Avid screen, Whereas when you get an overview of the whole of act one — you’re thinking, “Why is Act one not quite working at the moment?” — And then you can just visually look through the scene cards and see that the first 10 minutes are working, then there’s the thorny bit between 10 and 20 minutes and then the 20 to 30 is working well.

I think just in terms of looking at story beats and looking at how they’re joined together and if they’re the right distance from each other. Maybe it’s partially my psychology as well. It’s just easier to get an overview of a big section of the film in terms of how the story beats join together and structurally how the film is working and which big sections work really well and then where the problems are that you smack into.

Then often — just by staring at the wall for long enough you come up with a bizarre solution that occasionally is right. I think the more ways you can look at film differently, the better. I even think just watching on a different monitor in a different room is actually quite helpful. You get into a kind of habitual way of viewing something.

One editor told me once that they used to flip the film over on the old Steenbecks so that they could watch it in a different way. I think there’s a lot to be said for that. It’s just forcing yourself to watch things in a fresh way. Like, I’ll always force myself to watch the film mute — with no sound at all. I think that’s invaluable, where you sort of see things in a different way. And also just listen to the film. So turn off the video and just listen to the film. Then you can often see where the pace lags or where dialogue scenes are a bit loose. It’s just different techniques for kind of fooling yourself into watching things afresh for the first time. I think any of those devices or tricks — like scene cards or watching the film silent — are absolutely invaluable because it’s just trying to get yourself to be the first audience again. Then problems just rise to the surface incredibly quickly when you freshen things up and suddenly the scales fall from your eyes and you suddenly realize we’ve got some big problems that we can we need to sort out.

HULLFISH: The other thing that people point out when you go to another room is that — if it’s another room that doesn’t have a keyboard for your NLE — you don’t have the urge to hit the pause button. There’s nothing you can do but watch it as an audience.

ECKERSLEY: Yes. And that’s why screenings are invaluable as well. Just actually going and sitting in a cinema. Seeing it in a different context on a big screen is invaluable, but then also just getting 20 friends and family in there, those screens are invaluable as well. Half of it is the feedback, but half of it is actually just being forced to sit in a room with 20 people and really feel it — feel that experience with them. There’s nothing better than that for knowing where you’ve got pace problem or certain issues or bits of comedy aren’t working or are overdone or people don’t understand things. Decontextualizing stuff is absolutely paramount.

HULLFISH: And I’m assuming you pull your assistants in for that kind of early feedback.

ECKERSLEY: Yeah, very much. They’re always the people who give you feedback first. Hopefully in a candid way. I’m working with assistant Kelly Allen at the moment, who is always very candid and great for feedback.

HULLFISH: Do you ever have your assistants cut a scene that you’ve already cut, just to give you a fresh perspective?

ECKERSLEY: Yeah, totally. We had just done this on the current film I’m working on, actually. Kelly’s just been cutting a courtroom scene, which is quite a tricky courtroom scene. That’s very useful for just generating ideas. It’s also useful for us to talk about afterward about why she’s made certain decisions and discuss why I’ve made certain decisions. It is very useful for me, in terms of why she’s made certain decisions. Or then me having to justify why I’ve made certain decisions.

HULLFISH: If you can’t explain it to somebody else maybe you have to rethink it.

ECKERSLEY: Like I’m talking nonsense here. Having to articulate it is invaluable. It also forces you to think more deeply about certain things. If I need to actually try and articulate why I made certain decisions then you actually start self-questioning a bit more.

HULLFISH: The process of just cutting the scene in such a small part of cutting the movie, right?

ECKERSLEY: That’s just a learning experience of seeing things that are of a bigger and bigger level. I think when you start out, you spend a lot of time trying to get the “micro” right. Trying to get the actual scene right and getting a scene working, but actually, if the scene’s in the wrong place, or it doesn’t fulfill a story function and just needs to be cut, you can waste a week on a section of the film that’s fiddly and tricky to cut, but actually you need to work out, “Is the scene in the right place?” Is it in the most impactful place? Or is it the right length? Does it fulfill the right function? What function should that scene fulfill?

So actually you can be setting off on a micro-level, when actually that time would be better used working out the slightly more macro structures of the film and whether you need this whole section or whether it’s in the right place. That’s a real learning curve — the longer arcs of a film and exactly how they all interlock.

HULLFISH: How do you watch dailies? And what did is your approach to a blank timeline?

ECKERSLEY: That’s a really interesting question. When I started as an editor, I always wished more people had asked editors those questions. It’s a very interesting question of what do you actually do when you open a bin?

When I started off, I started making a lot of notes. I’d just watch all the dailies and make a lot of notes. But after a few years, I realized that for me it wasn’t the most effective way of doing things. I assisted a couple of great editors, John Wilson who cut Billy Elliot, and Chris Gill who worked with Danny Boyle a lot.

I kind of did what they were doing in terms of working on film. John would work in a trim bin and get little bits of all of the trims that he would like and put them in a trim bin so I started kind of doing the same electronically.

One thing I do, which is probably unusual, is that I ask my assistant to join all the rushes together in reverse order. So I’ll watch take 16 first before I watch take one. So I’ll watch like 16, 15, 14, 13. So then, I know I’ve seen probably what the director thinks is the best take. And then I’m kind of auditioning all the other takes against that. And then rather than making specific notes on takes — because I found it was just a bit limiting for me to try to articulate good bits because often a good bit is the smallest micro reaction or it’s not a line, it’s not even a reaction to a line, it’s some little weird thing that, an actor has done that is fascinating or feels that it can be really useful — so now I just rip out all the little interesting bits; both performance reactions, other quirky bits and just basically steal all the good stuff from the rushes and join that into a kind of rough order. So I’ve got a kind of selects reel that’s roughly in the right time orientation. So then I can just watch that and see: “OK. There’s some interesting stuff here. This is kind of where the meat of the scene is. These are the interesting reactions. This is kind of the nub of it — the kind of focus point of the scene.”

And that seems to work much better for me than trying to make notes, which then I found didn’t translate. It felt like introducing another kind of intermediary in the process. Like working from the timeline rather than trying to articulate it in language and then go back to the rushes and go back to those bits and choose them. But maybe that’s just cause I’ve grown up in the electronic age. Some of the older editors probably have much better memories in terms of being able to memorize six hours of dailies. Otherwise, I’m worried I missed stuff if I don’t do that.

That’s the way I generally work and then I’ll kind of winnow that selects reel down into more of a shape of the scene. It’s a slower way to work, but it’s more thorough. So sometimes if there’s a demand for the director to see scenes very quickly — in the afternoon or a big old scene that they’ve done loads of cameras on and they need to know what they need to shoot, then obviously I have to kind of work in a different way and then I just attack it and get everything into a rough structure and work out if we’ve got everything.

But if there’s less pressure on a dialogue scene where we basically know we’ve got everything, then I’ll try and be more thorough straight away and really do a deep dive. You’re obviously at the mercy of the crew. You have to respond to what other pickups do they need to do this afternoon in that location before we wrap that location. So you’re constantly responding — ducking and diving around them. But that’s my preferred way — where you get a bit of time to deep dive quite quickly.

HULLFISH: Everybody says they watch all the dailies eventually. But a lot of people say when you’re actually cutting during production, that maybe you just look at one or two circled takes.

ECKERSLEY: Exactly. Like that whole opening scene where obviously there’s a pressure to know what do we need on the following day. What are we shooting the next day? What have we missed? Then you just have to go into a totally different mode, so you have to just be very aware of what the crew is up to, really, and what’s needed from you at that point.

HULLFISH: Thank you so much for giving me so much for your time today. I hope your current project is going well.

Art of the Cut book cover
Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors

ECKERSLEY: Yeah. Enjoying it a lot! It was great to have a chat.

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter and Instagram at @stevehullfish or find me on imdb.

The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.


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Steve Hullfish has been producing and editing award-winning television since the mid-1980s. He has written six books, and edited four theatrical feature films (including two Number One New Movies in the US). He has lectured…

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