A story can be rewritten on the editing table – Steven Bernard
In 15 years, Editor Steven Bernard has used his editing scissors on more than 30 feature films, such as Thank You, Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani, the Golmaal series, Bol Bachchan, Chennai Express, Singham and the recently released Entertainment and Singham Returns and worked with some of the biggest filmmakers in the industry. Today, he is a name synonymous with the invisible art of filmmaking. In an exclusive chat, the blockbuster editor gives a peek into the creativity that unfolds on the editing table.
As an editor how do you visualize and approach a film? What are the key elements you consider while editing a film?
Every director has a vision for his or her film, and as an editor you want to know what the director has visualized. It starts with the narration and some directors prefer to give a bound script. So, while reading the script there are ideas that come to my mind, which I share during the initial meetings with the director. Most of the directors I have worked with have welcomed my inputs.
However, if you ask me – whether or not I plan a particular way to edit? Initially, no! That is because each scene has its own rhythm and also every genre is different.
Yes, one does have a basic idea of what to keep in mind while working on an action or a comedy or a drama-based film. In most of the comedies I have done, like Ajab Prem ki Gazab Kahaani, Golmaal, Bol Bachchan, Thank You, one may have noticed that there aren’t too many cuts. Comedy is more about the right timing. If an actor is portraying the scene in a smooth flow then though an editor has alternative angles as well as the freedom to cut, there may not be a need to do so. It is like watching a comedy play in one shot and unnecessary cuts are not required.
Another important aspect while editing is to keep the pace such that the audience is hooked on. Generally, a good movie is one that grips the audience and captivates their attention within the first eight minutes of the start, in technical terms that means in the first reel itself. However, sometimes the director wants it in another way and the story is built for the first 10 to 15 minutes. If that is how the storyline is and what the director wants, then you work towards it. At the end of the day, the editor needs to feel every scene, understand what sense and vision the director has for the film, and do justice to it at the editing table.
What workflow do you follow for the editing process?
As soon as the shoot is over, the dailies (rushes) come to the edit table. Usually most of it comes in with all the various angles, takes, etc. for each scene that has been shot. One of my assistants transfers the material (rushes) onto the edit workstation. Then the rushes are sorted and arranged according to the scene numbers and takes. Post that, I start editing each scene. An editor needs to select the most effective shots of each scene and combine them in the sequence to form a logical and smoothly running story. Also the insertion of stock music and sound effects, using editing equipment, is done at our end for the film preview. The onus lies on the editing to ensure that the best combination of photography, performance, consistency and timing are achieved.
After finishing the edit of each scene or when the full rough cut of the film is ready, that is when the director comes in and sits alongside to finalize the edit. At this stage the process of discussions, making changes to scenes and their final placement is done. This is when you start trimming the film and fine-tuning it before the final product is ready to be released in the theatres.
Can you elaborate on this line ‘Editing can make or break a film…’
Editing is given importance in the closed room, but has never been in the forefront. In fact, a lot of creativity happens at the editing table, such as taking a call if a scene needs to be removed altogether or even reshot. Even any reshuffling of scenes or shooting an additional scene for an effective and improvised screenplay and flow of the film is done here.
I recall a Hollywood director had said that a story is written and developed into a script, which is followed while shooting. After which it arrives at the editing platform, where the story can be rewritten. It is here that you can actually rewrite the script and screenplay before it finally goes out. To an extent, it is the final place where all the repair work can be done and the movie takes its final shape before it hits the theatres.
In a film where you are showing the entire canvas in a two or two and a half hour period, it is essential that a viewer should just ‘see’ the story while watching the film. The editing has to be ‘invisible’. A critic will also see the technical side of a film, but for the normal audience the reaction should be “maza aaaya” or it was perfectly paced. That’s what you need to achieve when you are editing a film.
What is the average time spent to edit a film?
It depends on the genre. For instance, comedy takes lesser time as compared to an action or a thriller film. This is because it has fewer action-oriented scenes and hence the visual treatment work is not so much as compared to an action or a thriller. Also, earlier people used to shoot on one or two cameras for specific scenes but now with digital technology most people are using multi-camera setups for nearly all the scenes. Therefore, there is a lot of material to go through and scan, which needs time. My time estimation for editing a movie is that if a movie is shot over 100 days then the editing needs 120-130 days, depending on the genre. As mentioned earlier it is not only the actual edit that I sit on but the process begins with the assistants scanning through the dailies and then lining them up for the edit.
Does the scale of a film make a difference to the editing?
Well, editing isn’t really affected by the scale. If I talk about craft, it is about editing a film well. It is all about the story. The scale only matters in the sense that cameras increase and you get more material to play with. Nothing changes the craft. A good editor spends equal time on a small as well as a big film.
Which is the most complex genre to edit?
My initial concern for any film is whether I will be able to justify the story through my edit and be close to what the director has visualized. However, I won’t call it difficult. I have done drama, action, romantic and comedy films. There’s no difficulty in my mind. Once you start a film then you get into the groove. I like to do one project at a time unless there is a time crunch.
However, generally it is perceived that comedy, where you have to make the audience laugh, is tough to edit. What I do while working on a comedy is that I note down whether or not I laughed while watching the rushes for the first time. Because by the time the edit is done (which is a process of three months) having watched the scenes a number of times, you lose the laughter element in the same jokes. Therefore, it helps me to record whether I laughed the very first time I saw it.
What are the challenges you have faced in the several projects you have worked on?
The basic thing is that an editor should get a fair amount of time to work and not have unreasonable deadlines. Every director shoots according to their style and is obviously curious to see how the scene has turned out. But, some scenes need time and the constant pressure does not help. My biggest challenge has been to give time to my family. If I can manage to work on good movies with reasonable time lines and balance my work and personal life, I would be very grateful to God.
You have worked on most kinds of films. Is there a genre you look forward to work on?
Two genres that I don’t do are sex and horror. As a Christian, I strongly believe in the Bible and follow it. Horror gives a negative and fearful message whereas sex leaves a vulgar and bad influence on the society; I chose to stay away from it. However, if there is a film with a particular subject that demands certain sequences then I will do it. For instance a recent film like Mardaani, which was a subject on flesh trade and certain scenes were required to portray the same. It is a positive movie with a strong message.
One specific area that I would like to do is biopics based on inspiring real life stories like Paan Singh Tomar, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag or No One Killed Jessica. Some great international biopics that have influenced me are Brave Heart and Saving Private Ryan to name a few. I haven’t done a film like that as yet. People feel that I only do comedy films. It’s sad that one gets labeled. But I have done action films as well as romantic comedies too. I feel an editor should not be labeled. Steven Spielberg’s editor, Michael Kahn, has edited most of his movies, from various genres like Schindler’s List, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, War Horse and many more. Therefore, an editor can do all kinds of movies. And doing a variety of genres will give me an exposure to work with different directors and understand how they approach a film. It will be a learning experience because, someday, God willing, I want to become a director.
What are your upcoming projects?
As of now I am working on Anees Bazmee’s Welcome Back. I am in talks for other films but haven’t signed a contract as yet so I would not like to speak about those projects at this stage.
– Rachana Parekh