An interview with Shaaron Murphy, film editor and teacher

The production of a modern motion picture is a massive undertaking. It’s a process that can take years, involving hundreds of people, with budgets of millions of dollars. From the producer to the grips, everyone does their separate part. And it’s the job of the editor to put it all together. The hundreds of people that have dedicated time, the millions of dollars spent, all the work poured into making a film — the core result is realized as the film is cut. And if the editing’s done right, you won’t even notice it.

Shaaron Murphy knows this well, as an editor herself. And as the director of editing in the School of Motion Pictures and Television at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco — as well as a teacher there — it’s her job not only to instruct in the “art of the cut” but to impart its importance to budding editors, directors, cinematographers, screenwriters, producers and others interested in making films. No small task, but as a student in her beginning editing class, I can say that she takes it seriously, and does it well.

I interviewed her recently on the art of editing and its importance to filmmaking — and to her personally.

What kind of stuff do you do for your job [at the Academy of Art University]? What does that job entail?

My job entails both teaching, which is actually my favorite, which drew me into this job, and I’ve been teaching at this school for 16 years, my job also involves hiring teachers, bringing in new talent, making sure that the students are getting all the education that they deserve as well as looking at leads for our equipment. We’re always changing the equipment according to what’s happening out in the world, professionally, and we are very consistent in staying with a professional model, and so that’s a huge part of my job.

As far as actually making movies, editing is your main… what you’re most interested in?

I’ve worked in many aspects of motion pictures and I went to film school myself, so I understand the entire process of motion pictures, but my favorite part, what I really love, is editing.

Why is it, that that stands above everything else?

The reason that editing captured my attention was that it’s a very detailed process, and it’s a problem solving process. And I like the idea of putting things together and seeing how they work. I enjoy the process of solving problems.

For example, if I’m in a scene where I have severals takes of an actor’s performance, and each take has a really strong moment, I like the process of finding a way where I’m going to be able to use all the strong moments, and still make a cohesive performance, and trick the audience into thinking that it was one golden performance from beginning to end.

And since you’ve done all the different aspects of filmmaking, like filming, and directing and all these things, does that change your perspective of editing and of trying to take the shots you like and trying to turn it into something final?

I think because I went to film school, which allowed me to have access to the entire filmmaking process, it gives me a little bit of a different view on editing than someone who comes in purely through editing and they haven’t directed, they haven’t written, they haven’t produced, all of the other areas of filmmaking. They’ve just been an editor. I don’t think that makes them less of an editor, but what it does for me specifically is that I really understand all of the other roles, and what to expect from people in other areas, and I think that allows me to have appreciation for everything that they’re doing, besides what happens in the editing room. As far as editing goes, you don’t need to be a director to understand editing. A person who gets into editing gets into editing because they like collaboration.

I enjoy being with directors. I like the idea of having someone to collaborate with, someone to discover what the piece is about with, I like finding their vision, it gives me something much more creative to do than if I was just working for something on my own. Because every director brings me a different project and a different set of expectations. So I find that very exciting. To find their expectations with them.

Do you think editing is more collaborative than other aspects of filmmaking or is the entire process really collaborative?

The whole filmmaking process is really collaborative. Everyone works for the director’s vision. Everyone is there working together as a team and as a unit. However what happens in the editing room is a little bit different because it’s so personal.

When you’re on set, you’re around an army of people. There’s everyone around you, even though the director is sort of staying in a small closed circle, with the people that are heads of departments.

When you’re in the editing room, it’s really the director and you. So it becomes very, very personal. And it’s very… a big element of trust is involved in editing. You develop, not really necessarily what people would think of as a friendship, but much more like a camaraderie, and… a process of finding the film through the footage, together. And I think that that is something that’s very different from shooting. Because you’re looking at all the things that you’ve brought in and now you’re finding out what works best.

There must be a lot of pressure on you as an editor, because you’re taking all the work everyone has put, so much work into this movie and you’re the one who’s turning it into the final piece everyone’s gonna get to see.

The editor has to be an audience for the film, first and foremost. That’s the real role of the editor, is to look at what’s been shot with fresh eyes.

I don’t like to be on set when people are shooting something that I’m working on, I wanna be the first person to view it, initially. And that allows me to have a much more discerning sort of opinion, about whether something works or not. There’s always going to be shots that have taken a considerable amount of time, people have worked really hard to get them, and we don’t use it. There’ll be portions of a performance that an actor really gave something very strong but we can’t use it. And so I have to be that person, who finds not only what we don’t use, but the pieces that we do use. And so I think that’s very different from being on set.

So you’re more unbiased, whereas the people who are on set, they put so much work into specific shots they want to keep them even if they don’t really fit?

Sometimes you’ll find that people really get married to the footage, that they really fall in love with something that they shot, because they know how long it took, they know what they were hoping for, they know what they wanted it to be. But if it doesn’t cut, it doesn’t cut. And you can’t keep it just because it’s a pretty picture.

So you also, as an editor, often have to take the tough stance, like “I know you like this scene or this shot but it just doesn’t work,” and you have to take it out?

Periodically when you’re working, you run into some rough patches, where you really have to kind of go to battle with the director, a little bit. You have to challenge them. You have to be able to say to them “this doesn’t work. This scene isn’t working. This part of the performance doesn’t work.” Or, you know, “we need to move something in another direction.” We need to take the scene and maybe move it forward in the film. So, there’s going to be times when they may be reluctant, initially, to do that.

But today, because we aren’t working on flatbeds anymore, you have the option, on equipment like the Avid, to make another version. You can make another version, you can say “look, I’ve tried this, take a look at it, see what you think, tell me your opinion.” And then you give them the time to absorb that. Because they’ve also been married to the script for a long time. They have been involved in this project before it was shot. So they had ideas about what they wanted, what they were going to see, how it was going to work.

They go out and shoot it thinking that that’s going to give them what they need to come in and cut it. And you get to the cutting room and you find out that there were unexpected moments, that it just doesn’t happen the way that you thought it would in the first place. And you have to learn to be flexible and rethink those things. And sometimes that process ends up being the best part. Because you find things that you never would have thought of before. And they work better than you ever would have dreamed.

When something like that happens, is that something you can create, or sometimes you just find something and it just comes together and it’s…

I think everything happens in the editing room because of your relationship with the film and the footage. And I don’t know that you can create a situation where you’re trying to modify something because just for the sake of modifying it, it’s always looking at the story.

The story is the core of everything. So you look at the story, you look at the performances in the story, and you start to say how can I make this the most compelling piece, based on the style and the direction that the director wants you to take it in. Because directors definitely have – you know it’s a genre, it can be something that’s based in genre, it could be something that’s based in some sort of emotional state that they’re going after, or a tone or a mood, and you have to carry that. So you never want to cut something that takes us out of those kinds of specifics. But if you have options that can take you further into them, then usually, I think… my experience with directors has been very positive. I think that most directors really look forward to getting into the editing room, and exploring all the possibilities. So when you do show them something, they might, like I said, first be a little reluctant, but later on, they can come back to you and say, “you know what, what you said two days ago, I wanna try that, I think that was a good idea.”

The editor is really integral to the process, but they don’t get the same kind of publicity, they’re not so visible as people like directors, or actors, or even in some cases there are some producers. Why do you think that is?

Editors are invisible to the same degree that the work that we do is invisible. It’s really an interesting, sort of a, paradox, because many many directors, many great directors, Kurosawa, Kubrick, many people have said that the film is made in the cutting room. This is where you make the film.

So, if that’s the case, and everyone is getting attention because they’re performing and they’re shooting and they’re writing and they’re producing and they’re directing, and no one knows who an editor is, or really even what it is that we do. Because there’s very little understanding. Some people think we just take the bad bits out. But there’s so much more to it than that.

I think what happens is we’re sort of the small, unsung heroes of the process, and we sit in the background, little dark rooms, with the director, where there’s not a lot of publicity. Nobody wants to shoot something in the editing room, the way that they want to do all of the extra pieces that they put in the DVDs for the film. Everybody wants to be on set, because it’s so exciting, it’s very romanticized, the idea of being on set, is very romanticized. Sitting in a dark room by yourself with a computer doesn’t look like a romantic notion. But believe me, it really is. It’s really a great romantic notion.

So I think, people, one, don’t understand what editors do in the first place, because it’s such a precise and very different process, unless you’ve done it, you really can’t understand it very well. Where people do understand photography, they do understand acting, they do know that producers – most people think producers just get money, but they at least have some idea about that, they know that directors direct the film, but what does an editor do? So, for editors to become famous is really not particularly likely to happen outside of the editing and filmmaking community, because within that community there are people who are renowned, there are people who are just, very well known. But that’s within the filmmaking community, not in the press.

So you said to you, there is this romanticism to editing. Even though you’ve been editing for a long time, it’s still like that?

Editing will always be a very passionate area of my life. When I start to cut something, initially, I’m searching, and I’m just searching, I’m looking, I’m trying to find what is it here that I’m doing with this piece. Each piece becomes its own challenge. So once I start to get into it, then I start to really love that. At first, you’re a little bit nervous. You go in thinking can I do this one. Am I the right editor for this piece. And once you start to get into the process, you start to understand that… you know often, you become actually like part of the film. It feels like I’m in this computer with this footage. That’s how I start to feel. I start to feel like there is no world outside of this. You fall into it, you start to get ideas, you start to take those ideas places, and when you’re doing that, you’re – what happens for me is I start to become very much unaware of the rest of the world. I’m just, I’m in this. And so I’m passionate about it. I don’t think that could possibly ever change for me.

You’ve touched on this a lot but I’m just gonna ask you directly, in what ways do you see editing as a creative pursuit?

When you think about editing and you think about it being creative for the editor, it’s really really related to a number of things. It’s related to your own personal experience, what you bring with you, your own process of how you approach a project, what you do in terms of your own homework, reading the script, understanding what’s going on with the characters. Because I need to know the characters as well as the characters knew themselves. I need to know their motives, their goals, their relationships, what are their desires, in order to create what all of that is, on the screen, in a compelling way. So that’s very creative for me.

And when I’m working with the director, it becomes a collaborative creative process. And that is something that – when it’s good it’s really good. And I’ve had to battle to get it good in certain instances, where you have to really fight your way in, where people are reluctant to let you have a voice, at the beginning, because they’re afraid. When you work with directors that don’t have an editor that they’ve worked with consistently, which is often the case, then when you first come in there’s kind of a testing ground, to see how you’re going to work together. And, once you move past that test, if you succeed, and you pass the test, then they let you in. And once that happens, then it’s a really great, collaborative, creative process where the two of you… I can hardly describe it. I have sat with directors where I felt like the director and me and the film were one thing. There was nothing outside of it. It was like the two of us together were in this thing. And we were working it, as one mind, essentially. And that’s a really exciting sort of creative process, when you get into that. That’s as good as it gets.

So how do you access your creativity, when you’re editing?

I don’t really have a hard time accessing my creativity. I think, initially, when I first started I didn’t know enough about it, it takes time to learn how to be an editor, and I think at first I would access my creativity by trying things that were new, that looked like fun. So I would try effects, and I would try different kinds of styles, and see what I could do and play around with it a little bit.

But once I got comfortable with editing, I just really feel that, in order for me to be creative, I just need to be sitting down and being focused and ready to do the work. I don’t want any distractions around me, I don’t want for there to be other things that I need to do, that I’m thinking about, I really wanna know that this is the time when I’m going to edit, and I love that. So I don’t have a hard time becoming creative.

What is the workspace you like to create for yourself, when you’re going to be editing, if you have something specific?

I like to work at home. And I like to work – if it can’t be my home, it can be someone else’s home. I’ve done this for a long time. Most of the projects I’ve done in the past few years have all been either my house, or the director’s house. And, back a number of years ago you used to get Avid to go. You get a whole system brought to a location, they would bring racks and decks and all of this equipment with you, and, it would cost you quite a bit of money to rent that on a weekly or a monthly basis. But I’ve worked in an editor’s basement where we set up an entire editing suite for nine months.

Now in the last film I’ve worked on, I worked for six months at my house and the last three months at the director’s house. In that case, we have a smaller setup. Avid didn’t require as much hardware any longer, we didn’t need to have all the decks there, because everything had already been created into media files beforehand. So now I worked on my dining room table. And that’s where I like to work. I’ve done documentaries this way, I’ve done short films this way, I’ve done features this way, and that’s my favorite place to work, is in an environment where we feel that we can control interruptions, I don’t want to work in a place where I’m surrounded by a lot of people, and a lot of busyness going on, and interruptions coming into the room, so that’s the kind of thing that I look for.

Since you’ve been editing for a while, how have you seen it change over the years?

The filmmaking process is in an evolution. We’re moving forward into new ways of shooting, ways of recording sound, and always moving into new forms of editing. I’ve been in editing from tape to tape in video, from flatbeds in film, through a number of different non-linear editing softwares, and one thing you have to be prepared for is change. Change is occurring in the way that they shoot, and in the way that they record sound, and that also affects the way that we cut. Because now data is being embedded into files, while they’re on set, that’s being delivered to the editing room, there’s messages within those files, there’s all sorts of information that we can access, what the cinematographer or the director felt about the shot when they were shooting it, something that they would like to see us do, that can be embedded, in the metadata, in the file, that’s delivered to the editing room.

So, I see it changing, and the changes that I see are almost a hundred percent technical. But the whole point of editing hasn’t changed at all from the very beginning. The whole point is why are you cutting from this shot, to this shot, how does it work, and what are you trying to say. How does it push the story forward, how does it make the audience feel, those are the cores of the piece, and no matter what you’re working on, those remain the same.

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