The Art of Editing - An Inteview With
Shelly Westerman and Tracey Wadmore Smith
By Shirley Criag
Good editing is at the heart of filmmaking. Editors can turn a mediocre film into a good film, or a good film into a great film. It's takes great patience and collaboration and a wonderful sense of story telling to become an editor. This month I had the privilege of talking to two great editors, Shelley Westernan and Tracey Wadmore Smith who often work together. Their most recent collaboration was About Last Night a comedy romance which was released into theaters this past Valentine's day.
Tell me about your experiences on About Last Night? Did you work closely with the director, Steve Pink, or did you basically do your own thing until the director is done shooting?
Shelley: We were on our own during the shoot. The production schedules now are so fast and utterly demanding. I believe we shot for just under 30 days. No time is scheduled for watching dailies together as a team. This movie was shot entirely on location in Los Angeles. There wasn't a central place to meet and watch footage, as the production team was constantly on the go, moving from location to location. Our cutting rooms were on the Sony lot. We'd watch dailies on our own, in the editing room, Tracey, myself and our assistant Ilana Lewis, taking our own notes and discussing each day's footage. We'd have intermittent phone calls with Steve Pink, and at times we'd send him Quicktime files to review cut scenes, but we never saw Steve until production wrapped.
Once Steve joined us, we were together every day. We'd gather as a group and work together closely, cutting and reviewing as we went along. At times Steve would leave us with notes and Tracey and I would divide them up, then review our own work together before we presented to Steve the next day.
It was a wonderful collaboration. Steve was very open to giving us the freedom to experiment and try things on our own, and he was extremely open to listening to our feedback when we didn't think a scene was going particularly well. Though we worked really hard and struggled with some of the material, as is normal on any film, we also had a lot of laughs. It was a fun, creative environment.
It must have been great to have so much freedom, but have you worked with directors who like to cut themselves - actually hands-on on the computer? Is that a challenge?
Shelly: I've worked with a director who liked to "play" on the AVID from time to time. It's definitely challenging, mostly from a managerial standpoint, but in my case, it gave the director a better understanding of what I was trying to do and gave us a short-hand "editing speak".
Tracey: I worked with a director who knew exactly what he wanted editorially but since he didn't know how to use an Avid he really just wanted his editor to be a pair of hands. Creatively it wasn't the most satisfying of jobs for me. Fortunately I've never worked with a director who could physically cut on an Avid but it's only a matter of time!
Do you start cutting after the first day of shooting, so you are assembling the film as it is shot and do you communicate much with the Director as he is shooting?
Shelley: We are hired before shooting commences and we're instrumental in setting up the cutting room, communicating with the production crew to establish the workflow, and yes, we're definitely assembling the film as it's shot. There's great emphasis on staying up to camera, even if it means quickly roughing out a scene just to make sure you've got the coverage you need. It's crucial to the entire process, as often times we're able to talk to the director and pick up additional needed shots, or even reshoot scenes if we feel that we may need stronger performances.
Tracey: It depends really, on a case by case basis but we at least try to talk or email daily with the director, often times we have to communicate through the directors assistant if the director can't pick up the phone. If the crew is shooting locally or on the studio lot we try to make a point of visiting the set.
Do you cut on Avid, Final Cut Pro. Any preference?
We cut on AVID systems, which is our preference.
Did you start editing in the digital age or did you cut your teeth on film, and if so, do you miss film?
Shelley: I started as a film conformist. Editors had been working on the AVID for a few years, though we'd conform 35mm work print to match the AVID sequences and then screen on film. It was a wonderful experience, both tactile and meditative. It was also a valuable lesson in how the digital workflow translated to film, something that is now sadly absent, as film labs and 35mm prints are nearly extinct. Even though I never edited on film, I'm grateful for the experience of cutting and splicing work print, of following the process through negative cutting, color timing and checking prints once sound and picture were married. Can you tell I miss it?
Tracey: I started assisting in a film cutting room. I grew up in the UK and I initially worked on a popular British TV. show called Jeeves and Wooster with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. We shot and edited on super 16mm film, it was great... then I moved into features and started working with 35mm, which I loved even more than super 16mm, except however when I had to carry the heavy film cans through Soho, London to have them coded! As an assistant I truly loved working with film. However, I never actually cut on film and most of the editors that I've talked with say the digital age has certainly made editing a much faster and more efficient process.
How did you get your start in editing?
Shelley: I had another career, working in Data Processing at the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta. (I'm not sure what they call it now, maybe IT, Information Technology?). I knew I wanted to work in the film industry. Halfway through my college education at Georgia State University, I dropped the Finance 101 class and enrolled in Film History and changed my major from Business to Communications, with a minor in Theatre. Knowing I ultimately had to get to New York or Los Angeles, I took a transfer to the NY Federal Reserve to work on a major computer project. I volunteered at film festivals and contributed time to non-profit film organizations, making contacts and establishing ties with the local NYC film community. I found out about post-production internships and took a leave of absence to work at Spin Cycle Post (now defunct). While I had to answer phones, clean the kitchen and stock the refrigerator, I was also shown some basic film skills (how to pull 35mm work print, how to generate AVID change lists). I was a bit older than most of the interns and had managerial experience, and I learned quickly. I was offered a job as a film assistant editor on Todd Haynes' VELVET GOLDMINE. I gave my notice and left the Federal Reserve Bank after eleven years!
Tracey: I completed Art school and then went on to study graphic design, the film and photography element of my degree was by far my favorite so I thought I might try and pursue a career in cinematography. I wrote to one hundred production companies in central London looking for a runner/p.a. position, I received two replies. The first reply said thanks for your enquiry but we aren't currently hiring and the second asked me to come in and interview. I got the job, I was very excited. Carnival Films, the production company had film cutting rooms in the basement and I would spend as much time in the cutting rooms as possible. The assistants taught me how to sync rushes (dailies) at night. I loved being in the cutting room and before that experience I was never sure what filming editing was. After that, I never gave a second thought to my cinemaphotgraphy dreams. After a few months I asked the head of the company, Brian Eastman if I could leave my full time runner position and become a freelance editing p.a. when they began shooting a new series. The production company is still successful and I'm forever grateful to Brian for giving me my first job and the assistant editors that taught me how to sync rushes.
How do the two of you work together? Do you cut different sequences, or when of you takes one half of the film..how does it work?
Shelley: We don't really have a method, but adapt how we work depending on the project. With ABOUT LAST NIGHT, Tracey was pregnant when production began, so I assembled most of the movie. When she returned, we would bounce sequences back and forth, look at things together, then discuss the best way to approach each scene. Sometimes we'd pick scenes we were in the mood for! I'm hesitant to use the word "organic", but it was very easy and collaborative, without ego. When we had a lot of director or studio notes, we'd simply split them up. We both worked on each other's scenes, everything was passed back and forth.
How did you meet and how long have you been working together?
Shelley: I was the First Assistant on James L. Brooks' HOW DO YOU KNOW. I'd started the film on location in Philadelphia, then moved to Los Angeles for post production. Several months into post, Tracey, as Editor, joined the team. That was in the spring of 2010. I joined her as co-Editor on her next project, an independent film AS COOL AS I AM, and we recently finished our third collaboration, ABOUT LAST NIGHT, in December, 2013.
Who have been your greatest influences? And did you have a mentor?
Shelley: I feel like we learn so much from EVERYONE we work with. I'm grateful to have worked with such esteemed directors as Nora Ephron and James L. Brooks. Spending any time with Todd Haynes is a treasure. I'm as equally in awe with all of our other team members, our composers, our visual effects artists, our sound departments.
I've been lucky enough to have a few incredible mentoring experiences. Richard Marks has been one of my greatest influences. I first worked with him on YOU'VE GOT MAIL and stayed in touch through the years. Though he's Los Angeles based, when he worked in NYC, I assisted him. He was the one that brought me to Los Angeles on HOW DO YOU KNOW. I was also very close to Geraldine Peroni. We worked together on JESUS' SON and THE WIRE. She tragically passed away almost 10 years ago. Meeting Tracey Wadmore-Smith has been life-changing. She was the one that really opened the door to transitioning from assistant to editor. She not only provided the job opportunities, but she made sure I was comfortable "in the chair", she'd show me how to improve scenes, how to think about story structure, and most importantly, how to have the confidence and strength to manage the always complicated personalities and politics that are inherent with every show.
Tracey: My greatest influences are Sam Mendes, Jim Brooks, Richie Marks and Frank Darabont. With that said I'm learning all the time, every film I cut is a new and exciting experience.
Tariq Anwar was a big influence in pushing me towards becoming a first assistant editor but then I moved to the states and didn't get to see much of Tariq for about ten years. During that time I had been an assistant editor for the director Andy Tennant. Andy was really the person that believed in me and he gave me my first editing break on a pilot and then my first studio feature SWEET HOME ALABAMA.
Do you have any advice to young editors on how to get into feature film editing or their foot in the editing door?
Shelley: I've always been very serious about training young talent. The first obvious job to aim for is Editorial Production Assistant (PA). Often times those jobs come through the "network". I frequently ask other editors and assistants for recommendations, and I always keep resumes on file. If you are hired on a show, I always tell people to keep their eyes and ears open at all times. Nothing is insignificant. Watch and learn how a cutting room is run. Pay attention to EVERYTHING, how the craft service area is stocked, how camera reports are filed, how to read production reports. Just knowing how a room is organized and how a cutting room is run is crucial. Make sure you have basic office skills, not necessarily the editing software, but know WORD, EXCEL and FILEMAKER PRO. Keep in touch with your contacts. Attend film functions and get to know the community. It's all about the networking.
Tracey: Being on the Internship Committee with ACE, I think its important to support upcoming assistant editors. Shelly's advice is spot on, I've watched Shelly mentor many assistants, she's quite incredible at it. Neither Shelly or myself went to film school and we don't believe it's an essential qualification to get your foot in the door... at least in one of our cutting rooms. Its more important that you have a true passion for film, a desire to learn and a relentless drive to succeed.
Any other advice you'd like to share?
It's important to know what's going on. Read INDIEWIRE and DEADLINE. I got my second job, YOU'VE GOT MAIL, by reading the NYC Mayor's List. I saw the job entry, I called the production office and I was able to get through to the editorial staff. I didn't know a single soul, but I went for it and that job opened so many doors for me. It's where I really learned how a movie was made, from start to finish. With BEE SEASON, I was obsessed with the book, I absolutely loved it. I heard it was being made into a movie and I went nuts! I called everyone I knew, both east and west coast, trying to figure out a way in. A few weeks passed and I received a phone call from editor Lauren Zuckerman who said "I don't know who you are, but your name keeps coming up, so I thought I should call". We were on that picture together for 16 months and we're close friends to this day. You must have determination, patience and grace. Know that often times, the person I hire may not have every single skill set that I'm looking for, but if you're someone I can spend long days and nights with, I can teach you anything.
Great advice. It has been a pleasure listening to your experiences and I'm sure our readers will love to read your insights into this business. Thank you.