How to Cut 10 Hours of Footage Down to a Finely-Tuned 3 Minute Film
What do film editing and guitar building have in common? More than you might think.
Last month, NFS readers were introduced to Contra, a UK video production company that specializes in bringing gorgeous narrative styling to corporate projects. In that first article, we shared a film about Glitch, a young girl who became homeless at the age of 16, but eventually found her voice in spoken word poetry with a little help from a UK nonprofit called XLP. That article detailed the entire process of bringing Glitch's story to life, from a hasty run and gun production on the RED DRAGON to an edit that was done in 6K RAW.
Now our friends at Contra are back at it, this time with a brand new piece about an extremely talented young luthier named Alex Bishop. The new film follows Bishop through the six month process of building an exquisite gypsy jazz guitar from scratch. In that time, the Contra production team shot upwards of 10 hours of footage, which editor Will Hammond cut down into a finely-tuned three-minute film. His process for doing so – strangely enough – mirrors the process of building a guitar. It's slow, methodical, and the beauty lies in the details.
As mentioned above, the production of this piece took 6 months, resulting in 10 hours worth of footage, which then had to be cut down to three minutes for the finished piece. For many aspiring editors, this would be nerve-wracking. How do you take that much footage, cut away more than 99% of it, and be assured that what you're left with is as good as it can possibly be? Will Hammond, Contra's editor, describes his process for doing exactly that.
He describes the rushes like being the raw materials for the guitar. You start with solid pieces of exotic tone wood – California Claro Walnut and European Spruce in this case – and then you slowly, methodically start shaving away little bits at a time. You know the finished product exists in those raw materials, and it's your job to slow down, examine what you have, and figure out the plan of action for getting from point A to point B.
My first tip would be don’t cut too much too soon. It may sound counterintuitive with the 200:1 shooting ratio I had to contend with, but it’s impossible to know immediately how the final film will look, and discounting too much footage at the start limits the number of ways the film can come together. On this film I did 5 passes, cutting the footage down from 10 hours to 7, 7 hours to 2, 2 hours to 30 mins, 30 mins to 10, and 10 mins to 5 until I arrived at rough cut. While this methodical approach can be time-consuming, it allows you to really get to know the footage and the film comes together much more organically, which I think results in a better end product.
Next, Will describes how the process of editing a documentary mirrors guitar building in that you never quite know what you have until the project is finished. You always start with a blueprint, a script, and a solid idea of what you're trying to accomplish, but inevitably throughout the process, your raw materials will speak to you and surprise you, leading you in new directions that deviate from the original plan. As an editor (and a luthier) it's your job to pay attention to what those raw materials are telling you, and to change course as necessary in order to craft the best possible product.
During filming Alex would often mention that guitars wouldn’t end up quite how he’d envisioned them due to the grain and knots in the wood forcing him to shape it differently and the same can be said for film. It’s very rare that a film ends up 100% identical to the original idea, particularly with documentary as the story can shift both during and after filming so being able to work with footage in an open and flexible way is a trait that all good editors need to have.
For example on this project we had a couple of hours of interviews with Alex and had originally intended for the film to feature a lot more voice-over. However after the first cut we soon realised that too much VO meant you didn’t listen to the music. Whilst music usually plays a supporting role to the narrative, on this project it was critical that the visuals, voice-over, and music all shared top billing and the audience got the chance to appreciate them all equally. By stripping back the interview to its bare essentials and allowing the music to breathe, we were able to tell the story more effectively.
Lastly, Will talks about something that you've probably been told at every single step along your own personal filmmaking journey: it's all about story. Sure, you can utilize the flashiest editing techniques out there, but if those techniques don't add to the story – or even worse, they distract from it – then you've failed at your job as an editor. It's much like the guitar building process. The guitar can be more beautiful than any other guitar ever made, but if it sounds bad and plays terribly, then it's frankly a bit pointless.
Hopefully from watching the film you get an idea of how unique Alex’s guitars are; from the fanned frets to the Kandinsky-esque inlay work but at the end of the day what matters to him most is how it sounds. Similarly in filmmaking, the story should be the main focus. Although it sounds obvious and is something you hear all the time, you’d be surprised how often this salient point gets overlooked. I’m ashamed to say I’ve been guilty of this many times. Following this rule on The Craft of Sound was particularly punishing as there were so many beautiful shots. Knowing three minutes was our limit something had to be chopped; the clips which didn’t further the story, no matter how good they looked, were the victims.
Everything above you’ve probably heard many times before but there’s a good reason for that; most well edited films will have followed these simple rules. So take your time getting to know what you have to work with, be open to change, and always keep reminding yourself why you’re making it. Three things I’m sure Alex would agree with.
So there you have it. If you've got any questions for Will and the Contra team, don't hesitate to ask.