The craft of editing: Interview with Mark Day – editor for the BBC and feature films incl. Harry Potter and About Time
I’m incredibly excited to present this interview I did with Mark Day last week. Mark has been in the TV/film industry for over 30 years and has edited numerous TV series and feature films, most notably the latter 4 Harry Potter films. He is greatly enthusiastic about his craft and it’s encouraging to hear his exciting prospects for the craft and those starting out.
When did you first get interested in film editing?
My father worked in the film business as a cameraman, so it was already in the blood. I knew I either wanted to work in the camera department or editing, but I decided it was best to get into editing as people might think the only reason I got into the camera dept. was because of my Dad.
I started out working for the BBC and got onto the trainee assistant editors course. The great thing about the BBC then was that you could work in different departments and gain experience in all of them; for example, you could work in science, current affairs, drama, children’s TV or documentary. I then got the chance to assist a very good editor at the BBC called Ken Pearce who edited high end drama and through him I also met Innes Lloyd who was a highly successful producer and this is how I got my break into drama as he offered me my first film to edit at the BBC which was called Number 27, written by Michael Palin.
Of course, I also love the ability of storytelling and the manipulation of ideas, images and sound that editing gives you.
Would you say that television is a good way to get into the film industry then?
Absolutely, without a doubt. If you can handle the schedules in TV, then you can definitely handle them in film. I think it’s easier to go from TV into film, rather than the other way around. Also I got to work with some amazing directors like John Schlesinger and Jack Clayton. I also met David Yates there, which was the beginning of our long term working relationship.
Have you always edited on non-linear systems?
No, I started out at the BBC using super 16mm and then I progressed onto using the first non-linear system, which was Lightworks. However, when I came to editing Harry Potter they always used Avid, so I did a crash course in That system and edited a couple of dramas for the BBC also using this software.
How much creative freedom do you get as an editor?
It depends on what genre you’re doing. When I edit a TV drama, I’ll receive the shot rushes every day during the shoot and then I’ll put the scene together in the best way that I think works. Then gradually over the course of the shoot the scenes will build up and then by the end of the shoot I’ll have a rough cut, which is called the first assembly. This is my cut and from here, you work with the director very closely and get into the real nitty gritty of how the edit will look by examining every scene extremely carefully vis a vis performances, pace and rhythm.
On Harry Potter, it was slightly different, as obviously it was very visual effects based. So, David (the director) and I would work on scenes very closely together whilst the shoot was happening. We’d have to get many scenes ‘semi-locked’ and then turn them over to the visual fx department who would work on them and hand them back to us and gradually the film and visual fx would evolve in tandem. Sometimes edits would change and visual fx would lengthen or shorten which all costs money as every frame can be very expensive. Your feel for the film will always develop, until you’re absolutely sure of what you really want.
How important would you say the relationship with the director is as an editor?
Incredibly important. Most directors rely on their editor a great deal. It’s brilliant when you get on well with someone. David and I had worked together for the BBC on a show called ‘The Sins’ and from then on we’ve done loads together and always got on really well. David and I have been working together for 11 years and we have a great time when we’re working together, as filmmaking should be fun although sometimes it can be stressful. However, at the moment he’s off working on a fox pilot in America, which I couldn’t do as I’d already accepted working on ‘Ex Machina’ with Alex Garland, so I couldn’t let Alex down.
How was it working with Richard Curtis on ‘About Time’?
Richard is a lovely man, so working with him was great fun. I’d worked with him a bit before, as he wrote a script called ‘The Girl in the Café’ which David directed and I was editing, Richard came into the cutting room a few times. He was great to work with and is a very accomplished director.
What is it that really excites you about editing?
Getting the raw material and then molding and shaping it into what becomes the final film is just such an exciting process. A film is constantly evolving and changing and the editing is absolutely significant to finding out what works and what doesn’t. You become completely involved with the film. It may sound weird, but when I’m editing, I like to get into the characters and feel as though I’m actually in the scene. This helps me understand where to cut and where to go with the edit.
Do you find that after seeing the footage so many times over, your vision may become somewhat distorted from that of an average viewer?
That’s an interesting question, but you have to try and stay objective and pretend it’s the first time you’re seeing it. I’m constantly asking myself the question: how will an audience react to this film? It is tricky, you may see the same piece of material 50 times or more, so you have to try and stay objective, which is a skill in itself.
Can you name any favourite movies where editing stands out to you, or do you see continuity as the most important thing?
I don’t actually. However, when I first started out I used to think that continuity was so very important, every cut had to be perfect. You’d make sure an arm wasn’t up in one shot compared with the next. But, if you are actually really involved in the film then you won’t notice these things, and that is the beauty of editing. There are horrendous errors that can happen; sometimes it just can’t be helped. You see these programmes on TV where they show all the mistakes, which is true, but sometimes you can’t help it. For example, if you have to cut out a whole load of dialogue then you will get those continuity errors.
There are so many movies I love like Chinatown, Citizen Kane, American Graffiti, Annie Hall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, L.A. Confidential, City of God and all those classics. I just love films.
When watching a film, do you find your sensibility for editing getting in the way at all?
It all depends on the film. If you’re not enjoying a film then you will start to pick it apart and notice the directing, editing, music, all the myriad of craft that go into filmmaking. I like to get lost and engrossed in a film, and it’s annoying when you sit there and this doesn’t happen.
What would you say is the most common mistakes editors make who are starting out?
It’s a tricky one. Editing can be an infinite process as there are a million ways you can edit a film. I know when I was starting out that I just wouldn’t know where to begin with a scene. You have so many rushes it can become overwhelming. Do you start on this shot or that shot? There can be so many angles to choose from. The more experience you get, the more you will work this out. The first thing I do at the start of the day is watch all the rushes, however, now, as I’ve been editing for so long, I can actually work out the cut in my mind before I start to edit.
Any final advice to give on the craft?
I would definitely say that editing is a great craft. It’s not as recognized as much as a director or cameraman or designer as most people can understand that as they are seeing it. However, with editing it’s almost an invisible art so it needs to be done well and people won’t notice this. I think people are becoming to understand the craft better with all the home movies being made and iPhones being used to create videos. It gives more people an opportunity to edit and make films and appreciate the art of good editing.
What’s your opinion on the digital revolution?
I think it’s great. As long as you have a good story to tell, you can shoot it. It’s been done many times now on low budgets with digital equipment. Things make it to the cinema on very low budgets. You basically need a good story and people who are passionate about it for it to work. It shows that you don’t have to shoot on 35mm to make a good film.
Thanks Mark. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you.
Same here Charlie. Thank you.