November 24 -26 will see the return of Dub Web Fest, Ireland’s celebration of online storytelling. Now in its third year, this film festival curated for online programming will have among its programme a MasterClass workshop in editing to be delivered by the experienced and renowned Irish editor Tony Kearns. From advertisements of the likes of Lynx, the Lotto and Playstation to acclaimed music videos including ‘Just’ by Radiohead and ‘Firestarter’ by The Prodigy, chances are high that you’ve seen his work, even if you haven’t realised it. More recently, Kearns has edited a number of feature films, including Cardboard Gangsters, the true crime drama set in the heart of Darndale. Film In Dublin spoke with Tony ahead of Dub Web Fest, to get his insights into the editing process.
Film In Dublin: Your career is one that has progressed from editing commercials and music videos into editing feature films, can you describe the different approaches you might take to editing film in different forms like this?
Tony Kearns: The requirements for each form dictate the approach needed obviously. Music videos are the simplest in that you are usually editing images over a music sound bed or there is a small amount of extra sound sync material to add but generally it’s straightforward in terms of the elements you work with. TV commercials add the need to utilise sync audio and music with graphics (brand identity etc) which have to be squeezed into a tight time format (30 seconds to 90 seconds) which you don’t have with music videos in that the time is the length of the track. Film drama editing is a much bigger entity as you have to juggle multiple scenes, add sound effects, use temp music and make sure that it all hangs together over a much longer time frame. My analogy is that music videos and commercials are speed boats which you can turn around and reshape quickly and films are ocean going oil tanker ships where you can’t see the prow from the bridge and it takes a lot of effort to turn the thing around.
FID: You’ve worked on music videos featuring prominent artists like Radiohead, Blur and more, was there ever much involvement from the bands in steering that speed boat or was that more left to the people behind the camera?
TK: The bands and artists that you mention there took a very keen interest in the making of their music videos, helping to select the directors and working very closely with them on the realisation of the idea behind the videos. Generally there was a healthy collaborative working experience in that the director was allowed to do their thing with respectful input from the artists, there was a sense of mutual trust in working to achieve an extraordinary result. Jarvis and Steve from Pulp, for example, had studied film in St. Martin’s College in London and contributed a lot of ideas for their videos. In these cases, the band would approve the cut and the record company would be more in the background. With more pop oriented acts the record company and management would have a more influential role in the making of the video. Rarely would the director have complete freedom, an example of that would be Chris Cunningham and his videos for Aphex Twin, Bjork and others.
FID: You’ve mentioned that films are a bigger entity and a more difficult process in turning around. Have you ever felt that a story has undergone a big change in the editing room from how you saw it in the beginning, after your choices in the edit?
TK: When you have the first cut done of a film with all the scenes shot from the script in order and working well, you then have to decide which scenes are working well enough to stay in the film. The transition from page to screen can show which scenes worked better on paper than when they’re in the edit, in terms of narrative flow, pacing etc. Another reason is the running time of the first cut which is usually longer than the ideal running time so you go through and trim the fat to get it shorter as it were. Decisions are often made about changing the order of scenes to enhance the film and discover new storytelling and dramatic possibilities which work better than originally envisioned. Often a particular character’s (or characters) part in the film is drastically reduced for any number of reasons. I often find that scenes that myself and the director would be very fond of have to be culled for the overall good of the film. Often you have to accede to other people’s opinions, say, after a test screening, to make changes that you weren’t considering as well, which hopefully open up other creative decisions that make the film even better. So the final cut is always a very different film compared to the first cut.
FID: What’s the hardest decision you’ve made in cutting a scene from a film i.e. the scene you loved the most-and why did the film work better without it?
TK: To be honest, there’s been scenes in most of the films that I have edited that I’ve really liked that didn’t make it into the final cut for many varied reasons. Once they’re gone and the film is working better you have to forget about them and move on. It’s always hard to let them go but you have to be unsentimental and prepared to try all the options for the good of the whole film. In terms of why scenes are cut, it’s to improve the pacing and rhythm, remove unnecessary exposition, reduce some characters’ presence to improve that of other characters and simply because they weren’t working as well on screen as they did on the script. Sometimes myself and the director will defend the retention of scenes in the face of requests, in notes from producers and financiers to remove them but you have to listen and think carefully about these requests as well and respond in an honorably, professional manner.