POV is kicking off their third edition of Enter the Edit, a series exploring the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editors. Their brand-new guide will be 2017 Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Leigh Johnson. They spoke with Johnson just before she was announced as the 2017 fellow. She will be presented with the award at the SXSW Film Awards Night on Tuesday, March 14.
POV: What’s your workflow when you’re starting on a new film?
Johnson: For me, it’s depended on the film. One of the things I love is how each film is its own unique world with its own quirks and challenges. I’ve worked in situations where the screening process took months of watching and discussing the footage at length with the director before we could begin meaningfully wrapping our heads around story. And I’ve had experiences where the broad strokes seemed clear from the beginning, and it was possible to dive into rough cutting scenes for a specific character or section of the film right away. On one project I actually rough cut dailies as they came in throughout production, which helped guide shooting.
No matter how the screening process goes though, I like being very hands-on in organizing the footage. I’ve had experiences where I’ve discovered weeks later that I wasn’t watching all of the footage for a particular scene or event because heads and tails of shots or interstitial moments had been overlooked. While this is actually kind of exciting when it happens because it means there are new possibilities all of a sudden, I try to avoid this by creating a library of sequences right away where every clip exists in its raw uncut form. Then my notes are what create a more detailed map within that sequence. The footage that seems uncategorizable or interstitial at first often yields the best surprises, so it seems good to treat it all equally at first.
I’ve found that staying open to ideas like this is probably the most important thing — whether they come from the footage, from the director, or from myself. I write down and keep track of these ideas religiously, even when they don’t seem any good at first! Every project I’ve worked on has eventually landed me in a completely different place than where I expected when we started out, and this kind of slow collection of breadcrumbs is what makes the process so fun.