The art of leaving in and leaving out
Cheryl Potter has worked as both an assistant editor and an additional editor, assembling footage, looking at options for existing scenes and recutting, on features such as The Martian, Solo: A Star Wars Story, The Wolverine and Australia.
During this time she worked under and learned from some of the best editors in the business including Dody Dorn (Memento) Michael McCusker (Walk the Line) and Pietro Scalia (Gladiator).
One of the boldest moves in her career has been making the decision not to take on any more assistant editing roles, which she says was tough.
“They look at the assistant credits and don’t really know what work on a show is yours, so I decided that I was only going to cut from now on and take editing work… and then I didn’t work for six months.”
But one job led to another and now Potter has been busy cutting multiple episodes of high-end series such as Snowpiercer, The Alienist: Angel of Darkness, The Nevers and Hanna.
As we speak over Zoom, the London-based Aussie is in New Zealand working on a high-profile project, which is still under wraps.
First emotions, first cut
Put simply, Potter explains that the editor’s role is “to take the footage that has been shot for a film and put it together to tell the story” but, she adds, there’s usually a lot more to it than that.
She adds: “You have to think about character, and rhythm, pace and tone and work the story so it’s being told in an interesting and engaging way.”
She will generally join a production at the point when the film has started shooting so that when the material is being pulled together she can advise on any pickups, inserts and identify any issues while the cast and the sets are still available.
When she looks through the dailies, she says she often takes notes on her first reaction to each scene.
“I try and remember those first emotions because that was my initial reaction and you can only have that once. Then, when I come back and put the scene together, I might build a whole scene around that certain moment,” she says.
Performance and character, she adds, are king: “the rest you can fold in around that.”
“There’s no end to what you can achieve in terms of coming up with creative solutions in the cutting room to make a film work.”
Versions of a vision
For an editor, enabling the director to achieve their vision is quite straightforward, Potter says: it’s about ensuring that they know what they have and giving them the opportunity to see any version of a scene or the film they require.
She adds: “If they have a particular idea about how they’d like a scene to come together then that’s your responsibility to enable that.”
“If it doesn’t work as well or you have a better idea then it’s up to you to tactfully present that. And to be ready for the director to push back or to want to try something different,” she adds.
Does she ever clash with directors over cutting out scenes or characters that they’ve become attached to?
“I don’t think ‘killing your darlings’ is something that happens very often but it is a thing. There will be a particular scene that isn’t telling us anything new or giving us character information. Eventually you realise that it doesn’t move the story along, especially if you are trying to create traction and movement.
“But if it took a long time to shoot, or is visually very beautiful then it can be a hard sell. It can boil down to: show it in then show it out – you can only guide the director and reassure them that we can always add it to the ‘deleted scenes’!”
Collaboration in post
Besides the director and producer, the other key creative heads that she works closely with on a production tend to be sound, music and VFX.
“Visual effects probably even more so now because they play such an important role in how we tell stories,” she says.
She gives an example from her work on Snowpiercer, a futuristic series set entirely on a train:
“If I knew we were going to cut to the exterior of the train – and all the exteriors are VFX shots – I would go and see Geoff Scott, the VFX supervisor, and ask what the shot was going to look like because that might affect how long I’d allow for the scene and the shots I might have around it.”
“The communications that you have with VFX should be there from the beginning. And so often they are just brilliant,” she says.
This collaboration, she adds, also extends to other departments in so far as keeping them informed of what’s going on, so that they know what state the cut is in – especially if a big series of changes is about to be made.
Potter is a firm believer that a film can be ‘saved’ in the cutting room: a mediocre film can be turned into something great. And a terrible one can become watchable.
“I feel lucky that I’ve never worked on a show where we’ve had to reinvent it in the cutting room. But there’s no end to what you can achieve in terms of coming up with creative solutions in the cutting room to make a film work.
“I’ve been in situations where we’ve had a scene that’s been problematic and they’re looking to reshoot but then I suggest a way to recut to give us the information we need and remove the parts that aren’t working. If we can pull that off rather than having to reshoot then that’s gold,” she says.
While there’s a technical aspect to editing, Potter defines it as an artistic craft – but how has new technology affected the way she works and people’s expectations of what can be achieved?
“Technology has made editing a faster process. You can now have your dailies hours after shooting and that can raise expectations. It is possible to slam together a scene really quickly and this can be helpful for an early view.”
“But on most of the shows I’ve worked on there’s an understanding that you’re going to need time to polish a show, to sit with it and see how it’s playing as a full piece; to see how the tone sits and the characters sit, and that can’t happen instantaneously on the first rush,” she says.
Potter is also positive about digital camera technology and its ability to produce endless reams of footage.
“Film was so expensive and lots of thought needed to be put into exactly what to shoot. Digitally, there doesn’t need to be that economy. You can run an extra camera; you can keep the cameras rolling between resets.
“But that’s not to the detriment of the cut by any means, and that extra thought process which used to be being put in the prep on film is now happening after the cameras have stopped rolling. And what that’s doing is elevating the position of editor. Surely we can make better films because we have more choices?”
While New Zealand is opening up again following an earlier lockdown, Potter says that the pandemic hasn’t really changed the way she works and, apart from the need for good connectivity, she reports that it’s pretty much business as usual.
“Editing remotely is something that I’ve been doing for quite a long time in one form or another. I’ve often worked on shows where there’s been a cutting room in LA, one in London, one in Hungary and we were finding ways to all watch versions of the same cut and talk to each other. The film industry was already far ahead in working remotely before it was forced upon us.”