ASSISTING ON FEATURE FILMS
By Fiona Macintosh (an Assistant Editor.)
(Written for the ASE & TAFE Assistant Editors Course, 17th November 2018.)
How I Came Into my Assistant Role!
I started out with a degree in film & screen media production from Griffith Uni in Queensland. The degree gave me a good understanding of the main roles that exist in film and a passion for editing but no idea on how to actually get anywhere. I ended up moving to Sydney and doing a Grad Cert in Editing at AFTRS – this course was really interesting but it was the people I met through it that really helped to put me on the path to getting my first Assistant job. One of my lecturers was cutting a short film, I was interested and so she taught me how to sync rushes. Our main lecturer invited guest Editors to talk with us every week and it was here that I was introduced to the ASE. I joined and volunteered for the committee, and that was my ‘in’ to the industry.
I got my first job as an Assistant Editor through the ASE, working with a fellow committee member on a film called "Predestination", and from there I have gotten all my work either from the ASE or from word of mouth from people I have worked with. Well, that and Market Day lunch at the EQ next to Fox Studios – where all the Editors come out of the woodwork to feast.
The Hierarchy of the Cutting Room(s):
As with every department, Editorial has its own distinct hierarchy. The Editor (or Head Editor on larger films) is the Head of Department. Then there is the Post Supervisor, who talks to the other departments and lets the Editor cut. The Post Co-ordinator, who makes sure that post is on schedule. The 1st Assistant (or Assistants) who head up the Assistants team, the 2nd and 3rd Assistant Editors, then there are the Runners who help everyone out by keeping us fed and making sure that deliveries reach their destinations on time!
In large teams of Assistants on big budget films there are lot of different tasks that the Assistants need to do, sometimes simultaneously and always with very tight turnarounds. Different teams have different ways of divvying up those tasks. I know one Assistant who firmly advocates that every Assistant should have their own assigned tasks, and that only they can do those tasks. From my point of view, this system has benefits, as they become expert at doing those tasks quickly and efficiently, and they hold all that information in their mind so if anyone has a question about it, they know instantly. But there are also major flaws - it gets really boring doing that one single task, and, more importantly, if that person is sick, then no-one else in the team can do their job.
I prefer the system that I was introduced to, that the 1sts lead by example, teach the other Assistants and then whoever is free can jump on the next task. Of course some Assistants might have strengths and skills in certain tasks, but this approach does mean that everyone can learn new skills at every stage. I am a great believer that everyone should be able to do everything, just like Assistants on smaller budget films where there is only one of you!
The Types of Jobs I Do:
Back in the film cutting days, I hear tell that the Assistant Editor's role was to stand in the room with the Editor and pass them film rushes. Today’s modern Assistant Editor role has similarities but also requires a lot more technical/computer knowledge. The Assistants, or AEs, are the central hub of the film - everything must go through us, be it reference cuts, rushes or deliveries. We are the guardians of the Editor’s cut.
So what would I do on a typical day? Well, it depends on the stage of the project. On big feature films you might be brought on in pre-production. At that point there are no rushes, so the modern storyboards are done digitally, a process known as previs. AEs bring in these really basic animations, with some temporary “scratch” dialogue and temp SFX for the Editor to cut scenes that we will send to production to be filmed. (Well, to be the basis of what they shoot.)
Production, when the shoot is happening, is one of the busiest times for editorial. We have to import and sync the daily rushes for the Editor as well as do deliveries of the dailies to both production and the studio, as well as have an AE in editorial for the full time that production are shooting. (This causes some very long days.)
Even when we reach the post-production stage, there are different phases within it. At points while the Editor is cutting, it might seem a little slow but there are always tasks to do, from doing assemblies and sound effect passes to creating and maintaining the VFX database of all the VFX shots in the film, and keeping the Editor’s sequences tidy. There are the deliveries to keep the other post departments - Sound, Music, VFX and Grade - up-to-date with the current cut so that they can start working. And when they start sending you deliveries, the AE must import them and hand those over to the Editor. Then there are the screenings (and there will be many) for the director, the studios, family and friends, test audiences. Each screening is different and comes with its own challenges. Finally, there is the delivery phase where a flood of deliveries (usually VFX) come in, and the final deliveries to the other departments go out. Then there are the QC checks on the grade and the final, final deliveries to the studio or production house.
On top of all that you are there to help the Editor to cut, to fix their Avid when it crashes, to be an extension of their brain, and to know what they mean when they walk into your room and say they are looking for that cut of that scene, you know, the oompa-loompa scene.
And now we take a breath – it really is a lot when you lay it all out. But not entirely what is critical knowledge for the job…
Critical Knowledge for the Job:
I don’t know if I would use the term 'knowledge', I believe that there are more critical skills that AEs require: teamwork, patience, organisation, adaptability, technical, and of course google-fu.
Teamwork – you might be working in a large team of AEs or just by yourself, either way you’ll still be dealing with people, sometimes in rather stressful situations.
Patience – whether importing or exporting, things take time and plenty of it.
Organisation – I can’t stress this enough. Keeping your project organised is vital, you are not the only one using it. There have been a number of times when I have come onto a project midway through without a proper handover period - keeping the project clean, well organised, clearly named and labelled really helps this process for yourself and others.
Adaptability – Assistants need to know their stuff, but we are always working in different teams and for different Editors, and every Editor has their preferences on how they like to have things handed to them and how they like to work. Offer suggestions and supporting evidence but do not try to force anything onto an established workflow. Remember, we are there to make their job easier!
Technical & Computer Skills - this is another important one. We are the Editor's first port of call when something goes wrong with the computer or program, so having some basic knowledge of how computers work and the editing program you are using can come in handy. However, you are not IT and are not expected to be able to fix everything – so know when to hand over to the professionals. And remember, “Have you tried turning it off and on again?”
We are also AEs to learn - being an AE is part of the path to becoming an Editor. Talk to your Editor. If they give you scenes to assemble, ask for feedback. And above all, learn from them!
Finally what I call “google-fu” or the mysterious art of being able to efficiently find solutions and material online! Seriously, if I run up against a problem I’ll google it first!
On all the films that I have worked on, we work in at least two projects if not more. From memory, on "Gods of Egypt" we ended up working out of six different Avid projects. But for the most part there are always two projects - one for the Editor to cut the film in and another for the Assistant to work out of. Both are equally well organised. The Editor’s project is where the cut happens, but the Assistants' projects are where we live. In our projects we import the rushes and media & do the numerous exports & deliveries.
Jobs Specific to the Animation World:
Animation films run a little differently to live action films, although there are a lot of similarities with VFX heavy films. In animation films the edit room is the central hub throughout the whole process. On the two animations I worked on, the films were written in the edit (quite literally, with Editors coming up with jokes & scene suggestions). Now in theory, this is out of the ordinary – but I will believe it when I see it!
There are, however, some jobs/terms that are, while not unique, more akin to the world of animation. I would say the two most time consuming tasks given to AEs on animation features are logging and publishing.
The process of logging in animation is vastly different to that in live action films. In a live action film logging takes place during the production phase as part of the rushes ingest process. On the other hand, in animation-land logging is the process of dissecting and transcribing the audio record sessions so that the Editor can locate the best take more efficiently.
Publishing is quite similar to the VFX turnover process in other films, but on a much greater scale (as essentially the entire film is VFX shots). This is how we communicate the contents of the cut with the “Floor”, that is the animation artists and production teams. In live action this is generally done on a shot-by-shot basis, but in animation we prep whole scenes at a time.
Each shot is given a unique identifier code, generally a few letters signifying the scene, eg COR for coronation, WIN for window, WN for "Welcome to Ninjago". Then a 3- or 4-digit code represents the number of the shot in the sequence. When the first publish is done, shot numbers are assigned in 10s (ie, shot 1 is 10, 2 is 20) - there will always be new shots added to a scene and it's handy to leave gaps in the numbering to insert them. This also makes it easier to find the shot when bringing the updates back into the cut.
Next we need to communicate all the metadata associated with that shot number, ie frame in/out, duration, and any effects (eg speed or resizes). This is predominantly done through locators and always on screen titles. Having large onscreen text makes it hard to miss for the artists when they are watching the cut back.
Like Publishes in animation, film Deliverables need to communicate as much information to the other post departments as possible. When our Editor is happy with each reel, we get to prep them for delivery. This involves a watermarked QT, stem wavs for DIAL, FX & Music, AAF and an EDL. This is repeated for each reel for each department (because each has slightly different requirements).
Tricks I’ve Learnt:
Always carry a notebook with you, particularly when visiting your Editor – they tend to rattle off 10 things at once and expect you to remember everything.
Ask questions – while you have your Editor make sure you fully understand what they are asking you to do, even if that means repeating back what they just said to you. I once had an Editor ask me to mute a track, but didn’t specify which way – there are three different ways to mute audio in Avid.
As I’ve already said, google-fu is invaluable, whether tracking down some temp media off YouTube, to error solving.