Sophie On: Editing Ashes

Hi Guys,

   A little while ago, when principle photography on Wasteland was coming to a close, and there was only one shoot day left for Jar of Angels to schedule, I breathed a small sigh of relief; surely I wouldn't be able to fit any more film shoots in before the end of the year? Although I'd enjoyed my previous commitments, now was the time to concentrate on the post-production of Ashes and Stop/Eject, and nothing more.

   That lasted a couple of weeks, tops. A job proposition came out of nowhere (I actually got it whilst I was in the taxi that was bringing me home from my holiday), and now I am costume designer on the latest Anglo Klaxon Picture. So I've had to put my passion projects to one side for now; I'm knee deep in this new work and the whole thing shoots next week, so it's a wonderful little whirlwind which will end as quickly as it started.

My edit suite, tackling Scene One(A)
   But before I put Ashes to one side, it was in a pretty good place because the first edit had already been assembled. And the reason it's come to a temporary halt at the same time that I took on the new job, is because I'm currently the editor of Ashes.

   I haven't edited one of my own films since Deep Red Sun in 2008. Around that time I met many people who specialised in editing and had much more experience than me, so I started delegating and instructing rather than being a one-man (filmmaking) band. The Opening Night was therefore edited by the wonderful Laura Healey (then Brimley) in 2010, and other editors came to work with me after that.

    Having extra sets of eyes on projects is always a good thing, but the one side effect was that I lost faith in my own editor's skills. I still took on small paid corporate jobs and happily edited my video diaries, but the idea of editing a fiction film myself felt like treason.

    So why did I end up editing Ashes? To cut a long story short, I know the footage better than anyone else, and I couldn't resist having a go!

   Of course, I won't be the only editor on the project. It's often bad for a director to edit their own film alone because they're biased, plus - confidence or none - I lack the skills to do the whole thing myself. I can cut films together, I'm good at creating pace and mood, but I don't do colour grading, sound mixing, or visual effects. I may not even have final cut. My current edit will basically act as a template for a select set of eyes to study, and possibly reassemble.

   I put the first cut together in about a day, using my storyboard as a guide, and to remind myself how I'd wanted it to look before we started shooting (which meant I could be sensible about omitting takes we didn't need). Having got the necessary shots in order, it gives me chance to step away for a bit, and come back to look for creative ways to tweak it. But already I'm starting to see how the edit could come out very differently in someone else's hands.

    When I re-wrote Ashes last year, I added the scenes set within Sarah's mind because I wanted to write something darkly fantastical - something which I knew would be macabre but beautiful on camera. And it was these fantasy scenes which attracted most of the crew. These scenes gave the project more of a visual justification and allowed used to have a lot of fun with the sets, make-up and lighting.

   I know fantasy like the back of my hand. My Dad raised me on all the 80s classics, cheesy or not, and Lord of the Rings is the reason I got into the world of films. I even wrote my dissertation on medieval fantasy epics. In my teens, I got into the work of Tim Burton - as everyone did - and developed my love of fantasy to incorporate the gothic and twisted too.

Two ways of filming Scene 3: on HD SLR (left) and vintage Super-8 (right)

   So, in spite of the added production values, the fantasy scenes in Ashes were the most straightforward to shoot - and putting them into the timeline was too. There was minimal acting needed in these scenes, so I didn't need to search for the best performances, and DOP Neil frequently nailed the camera moves in one take. (In fact, the only big challenge has been deciding between using the digital footage we shot for Scene Three, or the footage we shot on Super-8 film. There are arguments for both; with the digital footage, we get a sharper look at Sarah's facial features, but we would have to spend money to give it the dreamy vintage depth of the super-8.)

   Confident in my knowledge of fantasy, I didn't actually research the genre at all prior to the Ashes shoot. I was so much more concerned on nailing the drama scenes, partly because we needed to correctly portray the delicate subject matter (yes, we do go on about that a lot, but it's important) and partly because it wasn't an area I'd directed before, and I needed to prepare myself for it. So I found myself drawn more to films such as Shame, Stealing Beauty and American Beauty (the film I watched most this year), all of which let the camera act as an eye observing the human form, and all of which portrayed emotion with beguiling, sometimes changeable pacing.

Tension in Ashes. Photo: Neil Oseman
   So, with myself firmly manning the steering wheel, I spent most of the editing time working on the drama, teasing out the tension and working through take after take of the most emotive, sometimes heartbreaking performances from Sarah Lamesch and Adam Lannon. I revelled in playing with the pace - stretching it out, pulling it in and pushing it out again - so we get to a place where so much is said without words, and then when the characters do speak, no one is a villain,  and both are on an equal footing in a terrible place.

   Okay, so none of that will make sense until you see the film, but my point is that I think I have created a short which is exactly half macabre fantasy, and half drama, so I'm certainly happy with that.

   In general, I think I'm moving away from fantasy, for now, and keen to tackle the next drama script. In fact, I already have one of those in development, although it can't have my full attention for a while. But if that wasn't a case, or if the current editor was one who wanted to move in the opposite direction, they could push the darker elements further. It could be a full-out physchological horror, throwing the realism in at the end as a curveball so that it hits home with a bang. The edit could be a complex multitude of cuts, effects, and sickening tension. And if you need an example of that type of edit, you need look no further than the incredible cut of Feeding Jack, a film by some talented filmmakers that I know. The pre-production for it must have been an intricate labour, but it still inspires me every time I see it:

  That's where another - perhaps more specialist editor - could take Ashes. But would this be better? It would be visually more striking, but we run the risk of losing the drama I've been so keen to portray.

   Well, this has been a rather long blog post, but hopefully you should all know where Ashes is at now - and at least it proves I definitely haven't forgotten about it! 

  For now, I'm glad I'm forced to step away from the edit suite. It gives me time to come back with a clearer head; and it's also time to let the other (carefully chosen) people have a look at it too. Whatever the feedback, I'm ready to hear it now; I think I've given the edit a good start.

Sophie x


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