Steve Semel Discusses How He Edits

Steve Semel is an editor who has been working in the business for many years, often working in the comedy genre. His latest film is not, however, a comedy -- THE WAY OF THE GUN. He has also edited AIRHEADS, THE TRUTH ABOUT CATS AND DOGS, I'M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA, JURY DUTY, and the Martin Lawrence film YOU SO CRAZY.

This article is excerpted from a longer piece that Semel wrote for EditorsNet.

Editing 202: An Overview of the Process, Minus the Inspiration

By Steve Semel
Aug 21 2000

from EditorsNet

The following is a quick rundown on how I go about business in the editing room. I always keep a steno pad by my Avid that notes each scene and its number of setups. (This list is prepared by my assistant while the material is digitized.) When I cut the scene for the first time, I simply cross out the entry in the steno pad. In this way, I always know what I have left to cut, and I apportion my time accordingly -- I don't like to walk into the cutting room the day before the director is due to watch my cut of the film and discover that I have a scene for which there is five hours of untouched material. I'm constantly referring to my steno pad: This scene should take me half a day, this scene two days. These pickups a day and a half. My cut is due in four days? Looks like I'm working late for the next three nights. Sometimes those all-nighters just can't be avoided; when that happens I take a deep breath and dig in.

A note from Norman: I find this more trouble than it's worth. On the latest Avids you can put bins into folders, so I keep a folder of completed scenes, leaving the uncut scenes out in the project window. Anything which is still in the project window needs to be cut. I also keep a copy of the film continuity taped to the wall near my editing setup. In the left margin I check off each scene as it is shot (actually, as I receive and watch its dailies). I then check off in a different color, the scene after I've cut it.

I am not suggesting that anyone else needs to follow me down that particular compulsive path (though I have yet to discover any part of the filmmaking process that suffers from being over-organized), but I mention my little steno pad to illustrate a point: Every editor should develop a plan and a schedule for the entire post-production process, from film editing to music to sound design to titles, negative cutting and on-line. Do not lose sight of where you are in this convoluted and amorphous process, and adjust the plan as you go.


On the day that I sit down and begin to cut the first scene that has been shot, processed, synched, logged, screened, telecined and digitized into the Avid by the assistant editors, I am mindful that after production stops, I will present my first cut of the film to the director. Hopefully the director has given me notes at dailies as to preferences in takes and angles (but not always), and hopefully the director and I will have had time to look at each edited scene at least once out of context, and hopefully I will have had the time to execute the director's notes when it comes time to view that first version.

My fondest hope is that when the director sees the whole thing put together for the first time, he or she isn't paralyzed by the difference between how the scene played in his or her mind and how it plays on the screen. When this happens, directors tend to stop watching the film a quarter of the way through as they sit in the darkened theater, lost in equally dark thoughts as the first cut continues to unspool. I say this not because I'm pessimistic but because, despite my hopes and whatever precautions I've taken, most directors would agree that their most depressing day on any particular film is the day they watch the first cut.

Once past that first tense milestone, the director generally comes into the cutting room on a daily basis during the picture editing process. On the first day we formulate a plan. A feature film director normally has 10 weeks from the end of principal photography in which to forge a cut, prepare a temporary soundtrack -- with the help of some combination of the film editor, the music editor and the sound designer -- and screen it for the producing entity. I've already used anywhere from a week to two weeks out of that 10 to finish my first cut of the film, depending on the amount of film shot. The director then has eight or nine weeks to create the director's cut. Within that period of time, we want to re-edit and screen the film several times. Each successive version should be tighter than the last, with more music and sound effects, as well as added narration, inserts and titles.

The craft of editing is not about sitting down and making a scene perfect and then moving to the next scene and never revisiting the first, because the requirements of any scene will change as the process proceeds. Dialogue will become superfluous and you'll have to figure out how to cut it out. The take of an actor's performance that gave you goose bumps in dailies will come to be seen as over-the-top when you watch it in context. Some bit of essential plot logic, a 30-second speech in the script, may boil down to one off-camera line of dialogue, and you'll need to recut the scene accordingly. You will come to realize that entire sequences have to be dumped. These realizations won't all happen in one pass through the film, so the filmmakers must apportion their time so that they can go through the whole thing a number of times.


As the editor, I try to discuss the music in the film with the director as early as is feasible. Their ideas, either for specific temp music or for a particular composer or genre, help provide stylistic or structural clues to a scene -- or the entire film -- that the director may not otherwise be able to articulate to me. If the director will allow me, I like to present the first assembly of a scene, shown out of context and with music or, if no music has been previously suggested, with some temp music that works for me. My idea may go over miserably, but at least we have started down the road toward figuring it out. The problem may be the music, it may be the editing, it may be the actor's performance. It's probably a bit of all of those things, since editing is always a process of revision and reconceiving and more revision and more reconceiving.

Generally speaking, the sooner music is added as an element of the editing process, the better the final music and film will be. Prerecorded music often allows you to arrive at what works best. (I am ignoring the crucial issue of music licensing fees here.) If an original score is to be written for the film, the process of trying temp music allows the filmmaker to generate a dialogue with the composer about what the filmmaker is looking for. The composer may have a completely different take on the score, but at least there is a point of reference from which to begin that crucial conversation. Bad filmmaking happens to good people when the composer is brought in at the last minute, after the picture editing has been completed and he only has enough time to take one pass at writing the score. When this happens, and the score arrives at the final sound mix, you may come to realize that the music is completely wrong for the movie. And it's probably too late to change.


I am always hopeful that a director has a sound designer with whom he would like to work. Usually the director doesn't have enough time during production to think about post-production sound, but as the editor, I do. For example, if specific sound effects are missing from a scene while I am cutting it for the first time -- either because the scene was shot silent or because the production sound is unacceptable -- I'll ask the sound designer for that effect to put into my cut. In these moments, the key is to be as specific as possible.


Will your film open with simple, white titles on black (like Woody Allen), with titles over picture or with a separate title sequence? If it's titles over picture, make sure the shots over which you want to place titles don't obscure important faces or objects or distract the audience from some piece of essential dialogue. If you plan to use a separate title sequence involving graphic effects, you need to determine as soon as possible if your software can handle it or if you need to go to an outside title designer.

In most films I've worked on, the fundamental concept of the titles changes dramatically during the process. The director originally had intended to have the titles play over the first scene, but then we discover the scene plays so well that we don't want to mess it up with titles. So we try titles in black after the first scene, but that slows down the pace too much. Then we try titles in black at the head of the movie, but that seems too plain. Graphics would help, though, so we decide to bring in a title designer. Is there money in the budget? No? Back to titles over the first scene. And on and on and on.


Narrative film editing and post-production can be a confusing, often maddening ordeal, and in most cases the process ends not when the filmmakers are completely satisfied with what they've created, but when time or money (or both) run out. Fortunately, there are many time-honored procedures and guideposts to provide a framework in which to toil. By adhering to that framework, you can help stack the odds for a better film.

© 2000 EditorsNet

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