Behind the Story: Editing Film

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 I used to think that being an editor who is really involved in production gave me a head start in the editing process and allowed me to really dive into the story more, but it turns out the opposite is actually true.

Gabe Cox is the editor of Jacob Chen: An Adoption Story and served with Story Team for several years. We recently caught up with Gabe to talk about his editing process and workflow. 

Story Team: Going into a project, what do you require from the film team and director? How much are you a part of the planning process? Were there specific shots or sequences you requested? What was your process of developing that list of requested pieces?

Gabe Cox: The first thing I require from any director is a sentence or two about the theme they are wanting to tell through their film. Having a concise statement to check back with periodically will help in determining what is necessary, or not necessary, to tell the story. If an event or moment doesn’t ultimately point to the main theme, or the development of the main theme, then it gets cut. This can be harder than it sounds, because most stories will have quite a few interesting themes, or moments, once filming is complete. But, especially for short films, it’s important to find the strongest of those themes and commit to it, otherwise your strongest message will be drowned out in all of the moments that seemed great, but didn’t support the bigger picture.

It’s also my job to come at the story from a fresh angle. Having not been a part of production, one of my tasks is to watch all the footage and play devil’s advocate in order to help the director narrow in on the best possible thread for his or her story. While it can create difficult creative conversations, an editor’s role is not to simply click buttons, but to bring the best possible story to the surface. This by no means gives an editor the right to trump the director’s decisions. Instead, by asking questions, editors are forcing the director to dig deeper into their story and face questions that may have not been addressed in the chaos of production.

Once those conversations happen, the editor and the director will pretty quickly begin to see where there are holes in the coverage of the story and can begin to compile a list of things needed to complete the film.

Do you have tips for editors as they work with a team on a film project? What are some ways to be proactive and involved with the story?

I used to think that being an editor who is really involved in production gave me a head start in the editing process and allowed me to really dive into the story more, but it turns out the opposite is actually true. As stated above, being able to see a story with fresh eyes is one of the main values of a good editor. Being removed from production allows the editor to see only what the audience will see and not what the director has witnessed both on and off the camera. When you are part of the production of a film, you see outside the scope of your footage. In other words, you hear the conversations that happen off camera, you see the emotion that wasn’t captured, and you know precisely when and where every shot takes place. You have an additional map of the story in your head that the audience will never have access to. An editor who is removed from that will be able to connect more to the audience. He or she will have the ability to know more precisely how to guide the audience’s sense of time and space, emotion, trajectory of the story, etc. Obviously not every production will be able to afford not having the editor as part of the other processes, especially if you are a one-man team. But an awareness of how much you, as an editor, know outside of what is captured on camera is vitally important in guiding an audience through a film.

What does your editing process look like?

The first thing I do when I’m presented with a new hard drive loaded with footage is that I get comfortable, grab some coffee, and I view all of the footage, logging as I go. While it may not seem especially productive, specifically when watching something that you’re certain you won’t use, it is the most effective way of learning what you have available to craft the story. In that process you can also begin taking notes about how you might want to start piecing the film together. There is some value to having an assistant editor or intern log the footage for you, but even so, it’s the job of an editor to know what tools (the footage) he has to work with to create the best film possible. Regardless of who is logging the footage in the project file, editors need to fully immerse themselves in the content provided by the director. In the process, an editor may uncover hidden gems within clips that may seem insignificant to others.

After watching and logging everything, and making additional notes on the strongest material, I then read through the transcripts. While transcripts aren’t always a viable option due to budget or time, I prefer having that tangible resource to work with, if possible. I usually grab three different colored highlighters and create a color key that I use to mark only the strongest moments in the transcript which pertain to backstory, conflict, and resolution. Once everything is read and the best parts highlighted, I literally treat it like a puzzle, by cutting out the highlighted parts and organizing the pieces into a cohesive story. The final scotch-taped, Frankenstein “script” looks hideous, but it stays plastered on my wall as an incredibly useful guide to how I’ll start organizing my footage on the timeline.

The great thing about this process is that it can be done anywhere. The majority of directors that I work with live halfway across the country. They will ship me a hard drive, we’ll talk through the creative direction and themes they are looking for, and I’ll dive into my process as if I were working behind the next door down from them. Obviously working remotely has its challenges. A director can’t walk in at any moment to check on the film, and any edit updates I want to present require coordinating our schedules and uploading content online. It is, though, becoming markedly easier to do this with faster internet speeds and new methods of sharing information online.

If there was one thing you could tell the younger “you” just learning to create documentaries, what would that be?

Haha, what wouldn’t I tell the younger me? I think some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten as a filmmaker is to just keep creating and to embrace your failures. The first part is easy. Creatives must create. We’ll do it without even trying. That’s how we’ve been designed to function. But failure is always a hard thing to push through. There is an immense level of vulnerability in creating something for the public to see, and when that something is a less than stellar project, it can be debilitating.

The only healthy way for any artist to approach failure, and success for that matter, is to remember where our identity is found. It’s easy for filmmakers to get caught up in thinking that the foundation of who we are lies within being a creative. When we feel our joy marked by the success or failure of a project, that’s a clear sign that we have missed the purpose of our calling.

Above everything else, we bear the identity of Christ who sacrificed everything so that we could be brought blameless into our Creator’s family. Art is simply a tool used to respond to the core of who we are. It’s not meant to be our identity—it’s meant to reflect our identity. That’s a truth I struggle to remember daily.

This doesn’t give us the right to discard failure or excuse ourselves from pursuing excellence in filmmaking. We storytellers must strive to perfect our craft because the Lord deserves it. We bear a weight of responsibility in using the gifts that have been imparted to us to point the world toward all that God has done, and in a way that reflects the ultimate Creator. But if, in doing so, we forget the reason why we create in the first place, we miss our true calling in life and the joy that can come from it. We were made to worship, and in order to do that through our art, we must create out of an understanding of who we really are. Learn from your mistakes, dive deep into film theory, study time-tested techniques, push the boundaries of your craft, and then create as if Jesus was the only one watching.

Story Team

The Austin Stone Story Team is a community of artists who tell stories of gospel transformation. We are photographers, writers, editors, filmmakers, and musicians on a common mission to use our gifts for His glory.

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