Inside “The Editor” with Dave Penn and James Locke-Hart

The editor is misunderstood. He’s not just the guy who follows the script and stitches it together. She’s not the one who sits and takes orders from clients. The editor is the judge. They are the ones who decide which shot stays and which one goes. They are the ones who make your heart stop. They are the ones who make you laugh. Editors are more than just assemblers. They are the ultimate storytellers.

There’s one video that sums it all up –The Editor

The Editor is a promo for Inside the Edit – an upcoming online creative editing course.

Promo creators, Dave Penn and James Locke-Hart, talk about their simple visual style, the secret to sound design and their upcoming project together.

First, let’s talks with Dave Penn, the co-writer and motion graphics artist of The Editor.

James Locke-Hart (left) and Dave Penn (right)

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Why animation? It’s a piece about editing, but you don’t see editing.

Dave: The Editor was always intended as a promotional piece. We wanted to evoke the process and satisfying nature of editing, the skill it involves, rather than literally presenting a series of edits. A short-form edit isn’t the best medium to sell long-form editing, in my view. I’d discovered this cutting my showreels back in my days as an editor; there is no way you can show the varied skills of a long-form editor in a two minute edit montage. What you end up creating is, really, just a kind of condensed portfolio.

We wanted to celebrate and focus in on the process, craft and art of editing, and the fact that it is a highly considered endeavour. Motion graphics felt like the right choice to try to make that argument in under two minutes.

How did you approach the script?

Dave: Though I was seduced away from editing fairly early on by motion design, I still have real affection for it. This is probably why I enjoyed the scripting stage so much, perhaps most of all. I always prefer being involved in a project from inception. Paddy  (founder of Inside the Edit)

came to me and was very excited about his Inside the Edit course. His enthusiasm was infectious. He hadn’t had much time to think about the promo because his days had been dominated by writing and making tutorials. He was really receptive to suggestions. I suggested that his first draft didn’t seem general enough. My feeling was that we didn’t need restrict ourselves to talking about television and documentary editing, for instance.

Was the first draft of the script too specific about things like A-roll, L-cut, things like that?

Dave: Exactly. I saw the script and I was really excited about what Paddy was going for. But he was still tied-up in all the tutorials he was creating for Inside the Edit and it was difficult for him to disentangle from that mindset. The script also lacked shape as a motion piece and I knew I could address that. It’s funny but, I kind of ended up editing the editor. That’s probably what I brought to the scripting process. And I felt it would be a missed opportunity not to try to create something that not only functioned as promotional material, but also as a homage to the vital role of the editor, something that people might want to share.

“As a viewer, you’re not supposed to think about editing. Editing is invisible.”

How did you decide on the geometric shapes and the simplicity of everything?

Dave: In most cases, an editor isn’t attempting to bring attention to him or herself, in fact quite the reverse. Hence the pivotal nature of their role can be easily overlooked. I was keen to have this concept form the focus of our piece. Equally, I didn’t want my design or animation to distract, dilute or confuse this message. I started playing around with some visual ideas. But to begin with I found literal constructions, verging on the illustrative, would creep into the design. I thought, “This isn’t doing it for me.” Once I reduced it down to very primitive forms, I felt we could tell the story so much better. We could support and propel the script rather than just visually paraphrasing it. We wanted to compound the argument, not just mimic it.

How hard was it to visualize the graphics for this very abstract topic?

Dave: It was a bit of challenge at first. But working with more abstract forms can be liberating too. My primary concern was to resist being literal. Once I fastened on the geometric shapes, things started coming together quite quickly.

“The impulse is to begin animating as soon as possible. I like to get every transition clear in my mind, particularly for an animation of this nature. It saves time in the long run.”

I read somewhere that it took you like two or three days to put the storyboards together. 

Dave:  The impulse is usually to begin animating as quickly as possible. I was coming up with the concept and look at the same time making the storyboards so it was more of an evolutionary process than it often is. Then I wanted to get every transition clear in my mind, it’s particularly important for an animation of this kind. And it really saves time in the long run. It came to feel like a puzzle, putting the storyboard together.

Because I had given a decent amount of time to the boards, I could relax a bit because I was confident then that the motion would fall into place without a struggle. But looking back I might have spent a little longer still on the boards, if anything. There were a couple of transitions that I didn’t really think through at that stage, and one whole line of the script that I just didn’t get around to storyboarding. That line turned out to be the only part that I ended up having to revisit, and those transitions required the kind of wrestling at the animation stage that I prefer to avoid.

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I dare you to watch the “The Editor” on mute. You’re missing half the experience. It’s the quintessential example for sound design in a motion graphic piece. It’s just perfect. James Locke-Hart tells us what inspired him. He also talks about the sound effect that will change the way you hear this video forever.

James, do you go through a similar pre-production process when you’re sound designing?

James: Planning can definitely help during the storyboard stage. One important goal is to allow the audio to flow in a way that it carries the listener through the piece. By thinking about the structure and progression of the audio, you can captivate the audience so that they are never left bored. I got to see Dave while storyboarding, early on. Instantly, I was inspired. It gave me a couple of ideas on what to create.

Just from talking with Dave and looking at the script, I had an idea of which parts I wanted to enhance and other parts I wanted to step back and let the visuals do the talking. I think sometimes you can throw too many sounds into the mix, which results in the listener being overwhelmed by the abundance of information. In those cases, nothing is going to punch through, so you have to think about centering the attention of the listener on the sounds you really want them to hear.

You’ve really got to think about the frequency balance too, so that the sound effects don’t start competing with the music, unless that’s what you’re after. You have to think about where everything is going to sit in those bands, so they don’t end up clashing. In the end, it’s nice and clean. Everything sits in its own space.

Dave: I knew from working with James before that I could hold back at certain points, because James’ audio would sell the point with just a visual suggestion. Without good audio design, you can labour and overload the visual. A lot of people don’t recognise the importance of hiring a quality sound designer. Often they try to get by doing it themselves; I think that’s a real mistake because it becomes an afterthought, and that always shows. You need another mind completely absorbed by it. I hoped that this video could make that point, too.

A lot of people don’t sound design their videos. It’s tragic.

James: For me, this project was a dream. I love the simplicity of the sounds. It allowed me to create nice, detailed, subtle sounds that could give these simple geometric shapes character. It also allowed me to concentrate on the delicate art of foley. It definitely wasn’t a project that called for a huge, crash bang in-your-face soundscape.

How do you come up with the sounds?

James: I usually vocalize the idea, in my head. Sometimes, those vocalizations make it in. That’s a really good starting point. Or sometimes, I end up creating something completely unexpected from experimenting and playing around. For The Editor, there were little nods to video editing processes, such as the timeline scrubbing, which were all created from manipulating various voice recordings. I used a plugin that alters the pitch and speed of the audio, similar to a record player. So a lot of those moments were created by tweaking the controls in real-time to Dave’s animations on screen. It was a bit like conducting an orchestra.

I also have a library of sounds that I delve into for certain elements. I try not to take sounds directly from libraries. Instead I’ll play with them, editing and processing them as source elements to build new sounds.

Dave: It’s like Christmas morning when I get my work back from James with lovely fresh, thoughtful audio accompanying it. You’re seeing something that you have grown almost too intimate with, and becomes new again and about ten times better than before.

There’s this bit at the end of the animation where I’m trying to suggest a timeline of flowing clips forming. I really like James’ audio interpretation of that. It’s like overhearing hundreds of simultaneous conversations. I don’t know why that bit particularly grabbed me but I had a little shiver when I watched that with audio for the first time.

James: Paddy wanted us to create this busy atmosphere during that scene. He sent me a lot of audio from his tutorials, and that combined with a lot of crowd recordings I’d made, formed the majority of that section. I was trying to create this large sound that surrounded the audience. Using the stereo space effectively, with some simple EQ and reverb sweeps, also helped emphasize those movements. I think I managed to weave in some tonal wind samples in there too.

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James: Delving through some old location recordings also brought up some unexpected source material for this project. A couple of years ago Dave and I went away to Paris to come up with some ideas for projects. It was a way to get some inspiration.

Dave: We shared this little studio apartment, and we had no idea what it was going to be like; it belonged to a friend of a friend and we were going on a recommendation. I’d been picturing this palace because the friend who recommended it was living in a really plush place in a nice part of town. I was thinking, “Well, anywhere that’s okay with this guy is okay with me”.

Was it a hole in the wall?

Dave: The room was as big as an average… laundry room. It had a double mattress in the corner. Just the one. For the two of us.

James: I brought with me my portable recorder to record atmospheres and things that were interesting to me. Dave had this terrible chest cold. I didn’t sleep for days. Every night, he would make these terrible noises.

Dave: I’d like to point out that I don’t snore, ordinarily. Really. So I never considered that we would have a problem.

James: One night, I got my recorder out, I put it right by Dave’s face and recorded his snore. I played it back to him in the morning. He was shocked. It was like sleeping next to a dying animal.

Dave: Yes, I’m afraid it was a pathetic sound.

James: When we got to The Editor, I was looking through my recordings. I found these great ambiences, which ultimately formed part of the scrubbing and end sections. Then, I found Dave’s snoring. I said, ‘I have a place where I can use this.’ There were these amazing in-breaths. Every slow whoosh in The Editor is actually that snore. The snoring became these sort of soft, quite beautiful wooshes.

I’ll never be able to watch this video the same way again.

Did you guys get the sense that the video was going to become as popular as it is?

Dave: It’s hard to get your head around it. People have asked to translate it into other languages. You have to be pretty into something to want to do that. That’s pretty special for us.

James: Every couple of days, it would pop up and I’d find a version that someone had screen-grabbed and translated it. We thought it would touch a nerve within the editing community but we didn’t realize that it would be shared around the world.

What do you have coming up?

Dave: We have another project with Paddy. It’s for another aspect of the Inside the Edit offering. I’m a bit nervous about it, really, given that we’re trying to follow up something that turned out to be so well received.

James: This one has more emphasis on the audio. The music is going to take more of a lead in this one.

Dave:  It’s due to come out in a couple of months. It’s a companion piece to The Editor in a sense but we want to try and avoid relying on the same tricks. For a while I wanted to do something completely different however we do want the two to give the impression of belonging together. Last time – with The Editor – I started out doing my stuff and passing it on to James. This time, we thought maybe we try it the other way around.

James: I’ll start creating the soundscape once we have a rough idea of the piece. I’ll be researching various styles of music and thinking about inventive ways to edit them all together. We haven’t really talked a lot about it yet, but the audio script should tie it all together.

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