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freelance writer, director, communicator and consultant; Showrunner on multiple national episodic television shows

Monday, July 5, 2010

Having your DP do the Story Edit? Think Again.

   First let me say that having a Director of Photography on your team that can picture cut is a wonderful thing. This makes them a better storyteller with what they’re passionate about (hopefully): that is telling a story visually, thinking sequentially and thinking ahead.

Now more often than not (in guerilla reality, documentary and corporate production), I see situations where the DP (staff or contract) is asked, required (or wants) to story cut a project. I don’t think this is a budgeting thing as much as it is a misnomer that has escalated over the last few years as technology has progressed making specialized tools of the trade more affordable to everyone in the industry.

It’s not my intent here to get creative contractors all riled up by suggesting they forfeit a revenue stream. Nor am I trying to suggest that a staff DP or editor isn't up to the task.

What I want to do is address a workflow that in the corporate setting is almost always somewhat broken. And this broken workflow affects how the team interacts internally and externally, their satisfaction of work performed and the quality of the product.

Let’s cut to the chase (pardon the cliché)…
In a story cut, the editor and director (sometimes one and the same) are focused solely on matching the story to the best takes available, nothing else. Assuming any technical issues are fixable, all takes and clips are fair game. Story comes first. That’s it.

Being a picture-cutting DP myself on occasion, I can say first hand that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to separate story from that great irrelevant, random B shot sequence you may have captured. A DP cutting story will tend to force these great shots and sequences in at the story level- whether they’re needed or not. So then what you get is a storyline that may drift and could be remotely confusing- but hey, that great sequence is in there. And that’s a good thing right?

It’s never a good thing to confuse the audience at the story level. The best cinematography possible simply isn’t going to save a wondering storyline.

Where I’m coming from…
The first real story edit I did was in 2006 for director David Gibbons cutting footage shot by college students to create a feature-length documentary— a project called “14 Days in Great Britain”. Now, since I hadn’t shot a single frame of this footage, it was all fair game and I was totally unbiased. I focused solely on story flow, sequiter soundbites and nothing else. This footage was not fully logged and what was (by the DP), focused pretty much exclusively on the best B roll they’d shot. No one had transcribed the interviews, so it was up to me to find the story, where really, at that point, no obvious flow existed. How I found this flow is the topic of another discussion. (Ping me and I’ll write it up.)

Bottomline, Gibbons had only 3 minor content changes in the entire 86 minute piece because the story was so focused, direct and understandable. About 7 weeks after I started the project, the piece premiered in the UK at a number of venues including BAFTA. The workflow was simple: storycut> picture cut & postscore> final mix & color grade> master. This operation happened smoothly and swiftly. The director allowed me (the editor) to work in my sweet spot and as team leader, I was the only person who interacted with my assistant, the composer and the sound mixer. Communication was direct and effective. The project's DP had done his job and had moved on to other work.

Before we go too far…
Whilst speaking of the UK, I’d like to mention that HD DSLR guru Philip Bloom has got to be one of the premier digital media DPs out there today. And the speed at which he is able to post his completed shorts online is simply astounding. Without fail, when you watch his work you will be mesmerized by the picture. Now, what did I just keystroke?... “…mesmerized by the picture.” When I watch his work, that’s all I think about: nice, nice, beautiful, well-composed shots. But what about story? Yes, it’s there in his work, but because he’s cutting it himself, he’s going to give us the best shots in the bin; that’s his priority, story is second. With a great DP doing your story cut, it simply always will be in my opinion.

Now this isn’t to say that Bloom or anyone else at his level can’t wear the director’s hat and focus on story. They are totally capable if they have the passion AND the ability to allow their hired DP to work without micromanagement in the field and a trusted editor that gets the same freedom in the edit suite. And I don’t mean a free-for-all; just proper direction, communication, governance and workflow.

An obvious summation…
If the Director is DP, then the story cut will most likely be driven by picture. IF the DP and director are two distinct individuals, then there’s simply going to be some tension and hurt feelings (creatives tend to be low EQ) between what each feels motivates story (picture or script). And since the director should prevail (because story comes first), it’s the DP that could be disappointed at the end of the day.

So, back to the topic at hand…
Where should your FCP-on-an-MBP-wielding DP fit in after the shoot? Two words: color grading. Once your story cut is solid and picture is locked, if your DP is capable and has a great ocular palate, then allow your DP to make these (and only these) shots laid out by your story editor beautiful beyond description (staying within the tone and manner of the story as directed, of course). If he/she isn't trained to do this, then by all means they should sit with the colorist and director, learning, observing and contributing.

What this does, and what this article has been about, is ensuring that three key players in media production are in their sweet spots. The DP and editor have freedom and creativity: governed, but not micromanaged by the director. The DP’s job is mostly in the field; the story editor’s job is mostly in the suite. Some collaborative overlap is healthy, but the roles most be clearly defined and each should know their limits.

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