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Suite on the Set: Film Editors Increasingly Work Alongside Directors During Shoots

Cutting a film while it's being shot shortens production time and eases workflow

When most people picture a film editor at work, they see someone in a dark, quiet room — illuminated only by multiple monitors — meticulously cutting together scenes that arrive from sets all over the world.

But for films using elaborate visual effects or stunts, those days may be long gone.

The editors of “Baby Driver,” “Blade Runner 2049” and “Dunkirk,” were all embedded with the crew on set to make sure footage was ready for other departments or make sure spectacularly complex stunts were cut together just right. The hope was to stay on schedule, prevent reshoots because something doesn’t work, or — worst of all — discover the need to reshoot after the film has wrapped and there’s no more money or time.

“I used keep away from set and there was a reason for that, it was to preserve my heart of stone and not be swayed by the pain of getting shots,” says Joe Walker, editor of “Blade Runner 2049.” “On ‘Blade Runner’ I had to be there because there was a short schedule. For example, once the scene in which the new Rachael appears was shot, it had to be turned over right away to visual effects right after it was cut, that same night.”

While “Blade Runner 2049” was in production for about a year and a half, the complex edits and vfx made for a tight timeline. With Walker on set early, he was able to give helmer Denis Villeneuve the kind of feedback that would help keep the overall production on track. He was also able to discuss with the vfx team specifics that helped them create what Villeneuve wanted for the film.

“Dunkirk” editor Lee Smith was also on set to make sure the intricate aerial sequences staged by helmer Christopher Nolan were cutting together just right since trying to reshoot them would have cost an already-ambitious production so much more time, money and planning. Smith arrived on set a few days before shooting started and stayed all the way through post.

Smith believes he’ll continue to be part of productions on set as they start shooting since it gives directors and the crew a sense of how their work is playing out on screen immediately while they’re still on a particular location.

 “Chris [Nolan] trusts me to make sure that it’s all working and coming together,” says Smith, who has worked with Nolan since “Batman Begins.” “He doesn’t want to look at ongoing cuts because he wants to focus on what’s happening on set and then he’ll look at dailies at night and have comments if things are moving away from where he wants it to go.”

The structure of “Baby Driver” also made it crucial for editor Paul Machliss to be very close to the action from the very beginning of the shoot. Helmer Edgar Wright had a script that synched its action to specific music cues from the outset of the film.

“Sometimes the cutting room comes to set and then a lot of second units have editors on set to guide the process of shooting the action,” Machliss says. “The music in ‘Baby Driver’ is constant, it drives the entire film so this is something you could not shoot and then try and put together in post. There was a mix of production and post-production happening at the same time, and there had to be a constant reference point for Edgar and the crew.”

Machliss adds that even if it seems impractical to have an edit suite on set, there’s always a solution. “We were shooting in the streets of downtown Atlanta and they found a way to strap my editing laptop in the follow vehicle and literally we were going backward as the car was going forward, and Edgar sat next to me and we were dropping shots into the cut to make sure every moment worked.”

Even with editors on set, however, their cuts are continually refined later either on set or in an editing suite, often until the very last possible moment.

“There are things you just don’t have time to do on set,” Machliss says. “But being there means you’ve got a good idea about how it will go and avoid any unpleasant surprises.”

(Pictured above: Jamie Foxx and Ansel Elgort in “Baby Driver”)

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