October 11, 2018

Editing Masterclass: Here Are 5 Lessons from the Ruthless Werner Herzog

herzog about film editing
Let's have a look at some insights about film editing from the extraordinary filmmaker, Werner Herzog.

If there's one filmmaker that takes his craft to the extreme, it's Werner Herzog. For example, he moved a ship over a mountain because otherwise, he would be the "man with no dreams." Yes, that's what he said. He went through the minefield walking in from on the cameraman to get the shots he wanted. He also threatened Klaus Kinski with death to get him back on the set and I believe he really meant it. 

He directed numerous movies that will be remembered for ages. Among many, we could mention Grizzly Man, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, Fitzcarraldo, or his latest documentary available on Netflix Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World.

You may recall from an article about the eye-trace in fast-paced sequences that the average shot duration for his films in the past 20 years is about 21 seconds, which is very long in comparison to other directors. What he puts on the screen is sometimes bizarre, sometimes weird, but it’s always thought-provoking.

These are very good reasons to treat him as a great inspiration and a teacher worth listening to. I think it’s always good to learn from the extreme because it gives you a new perspective and that’s where the progress and shift in your mindset begins, in the place where you question the way you used to think.

Below is a video where I talk about five film editing lessons I've learned from Herzog's Masterclass:

I’m very picky when it comes to buying online courses. For example, learning software feels natural to me, but I know that what I cannot learn myself are things that come with experience. Obviously, you still need to learn from your own experience and make your own mistakes down the road, but when I face an opportunity to learn from the masters, I don’t hesitate. 

The content of this video is based on the Masterclass I bought a few months ago. I must admit that it was worth every penny. Let us discuss the most important lessons I’ve learned from the chapter about editing.

herzog into the inferno

1. Look at the footage as if you had found it from somewhere

I’ve heard that some filmmakers like to take a break between shooting and editing to distance themselves from what they already know about the footage from being on set. However, Herzog puts it in a new way for me. He says you need to feel and act like someone else handed the footage to you. If you don't, you may be so connected to it that you will want to use it even if it doesn’t work in the context of the story. If doesn't, it should not be there even if it took a lot of money to get those shots.

Herzog also says that he always wants to have an editor even though he could probably edit himself. He values a new perspective and someone who will question his decisions and ideas. He wants an editor with critical thinking abilities, not a yes man who does as he commands. The editor is supposed to bring something new to the table. As an editor myself, I like that mindset.

2. Take appropriate notes when watching dailies for the first time

When you’re watching the footage for the first time, you should write your observations down with some kind of timecode. It is supposed to help you memorize the footage. It’s a process you can't learn all at once but it can be essential for the editing process down the road.

Another interesting approach is putting an exclamation mark alongside the strong moments (or even a few exclamation marks if the moment is especially powerful). Next time I’m working on a documentary or a short fiction project, I shall try it out. It will probably take a few iterations to get that process the way that works for me but I feel like it’s very wise advice and something that will help with crafting a story.

werner herzog timecoded notes method

3. Stay away from endless tweaking and new iterations

There is nothing worse than the loop of endless opinions and leaving yourself too many options. You should know what’s right for the film and you should make up your mind without looking for help from the outside (unless you really need that help).

There is nothing worse than the loop of endless opinions and leaving yourself too many options.

That involves footage selection, juxtapositioning of your shots, music choices, and so on. I think that Herzog is trying to say “When in doubt, go with your gut." I like this approach and even though many will argue that every decision should be thoroughly considered, Herzog's approach requires the best asset that a filmmaker can have: a strong vision.

when in doubt, trust your guts

4. Get the RIGHT feedback

You need the right people to tell you the truth about your film. It doesn’t necessarily mean the large testing audience, though these are great for testing the humor in your film. But besides that, you want people who will honestly tell you how they feel about your film.

The term "Final Cut", by definition, means the right to decide how a film is ultimately released for public viewing. Herzog stresses the fact that the real final cut always belongs to the audience and their reactions at test screenings is what should shape the final cut.

final cut definition

5. Find a way for the footage you can’t ignore

If you’ve seen Herzog's films, you know that sometimes there are shots so unique that you will remember them for the rest of your life. Herzog gives the advice that if you have footage so strong that it cannot be ignored by anyone, you need to find a way to put it in the film. He wrote a scene into a film just to put the powerful footage into a context of a theme and in his opinion, these are things we need to learn and do as filmmakers.  

For me, this is inspiring. For Herzog, it may even mean inventing a fake quote that he will sign with a name of some famous person. But if the footage is really strong, you need to find a way.

werner herzog masterclass

These are only a few things I’ve learned from not even a 20 minutes long chapter about the editing. This masterclass is just amazing. My favorite chapters include the Set Rules and Camera Techniques. There are so many great stories he tells it just makes you excited and proud to be a filmmaker.

What do you think about these tips? Do you use some of them in your filmmaking process? Let us know down in the comments.     

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3 Comments

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October 11, 2018 at 7:17PM, Edited October 11, 7:48PM

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Good one :D

October 12, 2018 at 4:22AM

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Piotr Toczyński
Film Editor, YouTube Creator

Very disappointed the list didn’t turn out this way:
“Lesson 1: Defeat Klaus Kinski at all costs.
Lesson 2: Nature will destroy you.
Lesson 3: Nature will destroy you.
Lesson 4: Nature will destroy you.
Lesson 5: Watch Jack Reacher.”

October 11, 2018 at 7:46PM

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