Cutting Clues

Creativity talks to top editors about what they do and how they do it.

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The best commercials editors could be considered shepherds who can guide us through a vast and varied storytelling terrain. They'll impeccably carve out any sort of tale with maximum emotional impact -- whether they're working up to a punchline, immersed in a tear-jerking love story, or sent on a high speed car chase. What does it take to conquer a wide spectrum of film so well? When it comes to different genres, do they whip out different maps? Or, is there a single compass that serves as their guide? Creativity catches up with some of the industry's top multi-talented editors for insight on how they navigate through the diverse advertising landscape.

You know them well. Commercials that weave together a string of apparently non-story-driven scenes, full of talking heads, lush landscapes or crisp graphic shots. On one hand, such spots offer a lot of creative freedom, as "you can be more like an artist," explains Mad River's Jason Painter, who has deftly applied his skills to a slew of visual and comedy work. "It becomes this abstract canvas, and you can apply a brush to wherever you want at first. Then of course when the agency and the director come in, they also have a vision so you have to collaborate with them." But outside of unleashing their inner Picassos, are there any guides editors use to make such spots play out just right?

NYC2012 "Bugler's Dream"
Crew Cuts' Sherri Margulies and Big Sky's Chris Franklin both say that on spots like these, it often helps to form your own personal plan of attack. "Even if I'm doing a visual montage, I'm still always looking for a story," Margulies notes. "And it might be a story that only means something to me." Such was the case on the recent NYC 2012 "Bugler's Dream" spot out of Y&R/N.Y., in which she pieced together dramatic and quaint scenes of the city, all set to a multi-instrumental Olympics theme. "I made it a day to night journey -- it starts in the morning, people are going about their business, you get to what happened midday, then move toward night. That made it completely logical to me, even if it's not that obvious to others." Franklin notes, "You kind of generate your own story to kind of edit to. You don't just put things in there because it's a montage. You want to apply some kind of symmetry -- it could be visual, sometimes it's based on motion. People's brains work really well with that."

It's no surprise that on projects like these, music and sound can help to serve as a pacesetting guide. Mackenzie Cutler's Jun Diaz, who recently cut the Nike Michael Jordan anniversary campaign for W+K/N.Y., as well as Fallon's "Chrismahanukwanzakah" campaign for Virgin Mobile, says, "In the Spike Lee spot, you could think of his V.O. as a song, just like on Virgin Mobile. The pacing and musical quality of the cuts are your tool here, and you can almost say it's like cutting a music video." The V.O. was what helped Jim Ulbrich of 89 Editorial, when his Coca-Cola "Summer Games" project left him with about 15 hours of footage covering 14 different locations. "When you're doing montage, it's more kind of throwing things around and seeing what sticks," he says. "But the script gave me something to think about as I was going through the footage. Usually going through you try to get your selects down to five to seven minutes, but I think I had that much for each location. I started chopping each of the different locations into a story. Based on what the V.O. says, you're looking at these bits asking how can I get this down to two shots? That's the real trick of it."

VW "Squares"
And what about something as seemingly simple as VW's much honored "Squares," cut by Bug Editorial's Andre Betz, or Honda's "Best Friends," edited by The Whitehouse's Rick Lawley? In the latter, each scene is similar, save for the characters and a couple angle changes. While Lawley says director Malcolm Venville and the agency's impeccable casting choices coupled with the side by side art direction played the main role in the spot's impact, on his strategy as the editor, "you don't want to put the guy who looks most like a car right in the first shot," he explains."You want people to find it out and halfway think, Oh, these people look a bit like their cars. You have to structure it so that people are involved from the beginning, but it's cumulative, and you get to your best stuff toward the end." While Honda's repetition yields an ongoing reveal, that on VW's "Squares" packs a punch in the final scene, with the bug's curvy body creating an eye-opening contrast to the series of squares. "At times, you want the scenes to feel very seamless, so maybe you'll stay within the same kind of composition to make it feel smoother," Crew Cuts' Margulies observes. "But sometimes you might want something to be jarring to call someone's attention to the cut." In the end, "the successful visual ad heightens emotion," offers Painter. "Whether it's a feel good, sentimental moment or a fast cut car commercial, a talking head spot, it all has to heighten emotion. Otherwise, it falls short."

As is often the case in visual spots, on documentary-style commercials, initially the storytelling slate is virtually blank for the editors. "When the story gradually takes shape it seems so obvious, but at the beginning you are loading over a hundred hours of film, you are looking at a hundred ways to approach the material and nothing seems certain," observes Jun Diaz, who has also cut documentary features like American Movie and The Kid Stays in the Picture. "Documentary cutting is probably the most rewarding as well as the most challenging assignment as more often than not, you are writing the script as you're editing." Big Sky's Franklin, who's also cut both feature and advertising docs, including the recent Laird Hamilton surfing commercial for Amex, as well as the Seinfeld film Comedian, agrees. "A lot of times what happens is a story starts coming out that maybe wasn't there before, you start seeing moments that really add a lot of dimension and layers, engage you and draw you in," he observes. "What you shoot for isn't just giving information," he asserts. "You really want people to build an affection for the piece, if anything, an affection for the people."

Discovery Channel "Milk Truck"
Editing action spots might seem like a Herculean feat, as it frequently involves cramming a lot of information into a commercial's Lilliputian frame. "Most of the time action definitely takes more edits, there's no question," observes Nomad Editorial's Tom Muldoon. "It's a lot of work to cut action sequences. But the film also dictates so much. Sometimes you don't have to put as many cuts because some directors will move the camera a lot, and it produces the same kind of frenetic effect that your editing will do. Every director has his own way of approaching things, so you have to look at that." Despite its apparent complexities, "I find action the easiest to cut because I think you can get away with a lot," says Chris Franklin. "You can move things along a lot quicker; time collapses in action sequences. The thing I think I fall back into, especially with action, is sound. It makes up a huge part because a lot of times in action much of what you're hearing, you're not seeing. Everything is moving so quickly, so sound is really working as a monstrous foundation to that. A perfect example is in the Discovery "Milk Truck" spot I cut, when the milk truck tips over and falls. We played with what the truck was going to sound like when it hit the ground. My assistant Mickey Wolf built that whole sound sequence for me, we fleshed that out and I thought, That's it! And it makes it funnier too."

Muldoon, who's also cut action sequences on films like Bad Boys II and Gone in 60 Seconds, finds small screen thrills a bit different from their theater counterparts. "It's funny, in a movie, what you see is double cutting," he observes. "Someone will go through a wall and you'll back the next cut up that's the next angle to go to, and you'll still have an overlap of three or four frames. But in TV, you don't tend to do quite as much of that. For some reason, your eye tends to blink at that, but on a big screen, the reiteration of the earlier frames helps. Maybe that's because on the small screen, we can analyze it closer, we know what feels continuous, what feels like an overlap. So in spots when you're match cutting, trying to create one flowing moment, you tend to make your cuts pretty succinct to where that last shot went out and the next shot comes in. If anything, you actually might jump forward a little bit because you're trying to save time."

In this industry, some of the most useful -- and lucrative -- chops an editor can have are clearly in comedy. Unfortunately, it's also perhaps one of the most difficult skills to dissect given the broadness of the genre itself. When it comes to comedy/dialog, "it's probably the hardest," offers Big Sky's Franklin. "There are so many different ways to approach performances. Are you going to go broader, smaller, deadpan? You have to have a sensitivity to how each one is going to play, and ultimately, what gets the laugh. Unfortunately, there's no formula that's going to make someone laugh every time. And certainly, what one person finds funny another finds boring or offensive or repulsive. There is a tricky balance there."

As a first step, it's usually important to ensure the back and forth feels natural. "If I were to teach a class on editing dialog, the first thing I'd do would be to set two people up to have a conversation, and then have a third person watching them," notes Sherri Margulies. "I've done plenty of tutorials and they tell you to do things in a very elementary, A then B manner that doesn't feel right. I'd use human observation. You would see how people overlap, how someone would start to look away, the body language. For example, when someone puts down their shoulder, that's a natural cutting point because they're changing their body position." Beyond that, "about all I can say is that comedy is all about performance and timing," notes Dick Gordon, a tried and true cut up who this month launches the New York branch of Spotwelders. "When watching dailies I love the feeling of recognition when a brilliant piece of film runs by. It's like prospecting and finding a big nugget. Those are always the moments that work." As for timing, that's about as easy to analyze as Robin Williams on Red Bull. "I think it must be similar to composing music, which I can't do," Gordon says. "You feel it in your head and you know when it's right."

Amex "Scorsese"
For Franklin, "What I usually like to do is play off a reaction and then back in from there. I think so much of what makes something funny is someone's response, as opposed to the thing that's supposed to be funny." As was the case on the dialog-loaded Amex "Scorsese" spot that he cut. "Scorsese holds up a picture and goes 'What do you think?' to the clerk," explains Franklin. "The kid goes 'It's pretty,' which is kind of funny, but then Scorsese putting the picture down and looking back at him is really funny." And again, like Gordon notes, it's all about those special moments. On another hilarious Amex spot Franklin edited, a car salesman and a traffic cop cave under the pressure of San Antonio Spurs hotshot Tim Duncan's icey game face. "If you break down that cop scene, what is it?" asks Franklin. "It's Tim Duncan looking at something. But it's just that moment. You can pick that scene up three seconds later, but all of a sudden his eyes are dead, there's nothing there. It's an intangible, it's so hard to explain. But it's all about the eyes. They're either alive or dead."

"To make something funny, I think sometimes you have to be willing to give up other aspects of the story," adds Margulies. "Sometimes simplicity helps the humor. I remember doing the Fedex 'Snake Charmer' spot about five years ago. We played with it, cut it in different ways, but it was funnier if we just stayed on the guy and let the snake bite him." With a lot of cutaways, "you might think it's a prop, it's fake, the snake didn't really bite him," she observes. "It was just funnier if you didn't go out of your way to create anything and just let the moment speak for itself."

Reebok "Terry Tate"
As for structure, "usually, the funniest spots are not funny throughout, but toward the end when something memorable happens," observes Nomad's Muldoon, who's also cut several comedy classics, including Michael Bay's famous Aaron Burr "Got Milk?" spot, as well as a slew of recent Mountain Dew spectaculars. "It's really hard to have a spot that keeps you laughing from beginning to end. Though there are a lot of them that do, it's a hard task." Hard, but not impossible, as Mad River's Painter has made evident cutting Reebok's "Terry Tate," which machine guns funnies throughout, as well as others for Kyocera and Nokia/ATT. "If it's a montage of funniness, so be it," says Painter. "If it's something that closes really strong, that's another way. It's a matter of picking the right pieces."

Ultimately, the editors agree that in cutting across genres, the only rule that truly applies is that there are no rules. "Generally speaking, the point of editing is to approach a job completely without prejudice," observes Mackenzie Cutler's Diaz. "It might be easy to perceive massive differences in all these genres, but in reality editors can have such a hard time articulating the differences between jobs because the basic approach and storytelling strategy are almost the same. It's not like you put on your action hat or your comedy hat. Ultimately, you're looking for that human element, regardless of the style or genre because people want to connect to what they're seeing. Even an action spot, without humanity, leaves people cold."

And in that search for the human element, it's important to let the film itself be the guide. "I think the real truth about film editing," says Rick Lawley, "is that every film has its basic principle. There's a fundamental truth to each different story, so you have to find that regardless of the genre. That's really the meat in the pie. The genre's just the wrapping, the fun bit. Your real work is done in establishing what the film is really about and how best to communicate that. Regardless of whether it's a stylized piece, a period piece, they all have their own basic truth, the story they're trying to tell. That's where we get lost."
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