The Editor’s Mind

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It’s a lonely walk for the editor in Nigeria. Unlike directors, cinematographers and actors, editors are excluded from the spotlight of successful film productions. The craft carries an air of mystery, not only among non-filmmakers but also within the industry. A good number have a vague idea of what it’s about. They are aware it’s a form of merging of images and videos, and that it involves sitting alone in a dark room in front of complex networks of timelines. Some even think it’s majorly about salvaging errors made during production. Only a few know that editing, at its core, belongs in a rarified space of storytelling. That the reason certain films are described as beautiful, seamless, pacy, or tensed, is because of an editor that knows the work.

The importance of the craft was best described by Stanley Kubrick when he said, editing is the only unique aspect of filmmaking that doesn’t resemble any other art form. It’s a time-bending dance across heaps of footage, in a search for patterns of images, scenes, and sequences that align with the existing intention of the director to evoke a particular mood. It’s no surprise that the best directors work with the same editors across decades. It’s a relationship akin to a marriage. One completing the other, covering up for the other, being an extension of the other. Martin Scorsese’s relationship with Thelma Schoonmaker comes to mind here. He once famously described her as his backbone. That’s how vital an editor is and should be.

Olakunle Martini Akande

Olakunle Martini Akande is a Nigerian editor with over six years of experience. He’s edited short films, features, documentaries, and TV. His most recent outing was in the critically acclaimed Road to Blow, a documentary that follows the lives of talents in the Nigerian Entertainment Industry. Olakunle is not the average Nollywood editor. Amid so much misinformation about the craft, he’s constantly trying to distinguish himself and rewrite a narrative that’s existed for far too long. He chats with the Filmrats club about his life as an editor and what the future holds for editing in Nollywood:

What is Editing to you? I’m aware of the textbook definitions, but I’d like to think you have a more personal one.

Editing to me is a lot like sculpting. It’s very similar to the delicate process a sculptor endures carving the most beautiful piece from a generic piece of rock. That’s the best I can do, right now, even though it still doesn’t feel sufficient. It’s a birthing process. A mixture of pain, tension, and relief, when everything turns out great.

That’s a rather poetic rendition of how you view the craft. It does suggest a special relationship to the craft. Does this approach influence how you work?

The most significant influence I can remember right now is how I approach every scene with the certainty that there’s gold to be mined. A lot of editors get frustrated easily and trust me, it’s easy to get frustrated. But I always try to make the best of every situation. If a scene isn’t working and after confirming that it’s not because of story lapses, I stay with it, cutting and shaping it till I carve out its hidden beauty.

This is an intensively poetic approach and I admire that. Do you think other editors work this way?

I’m not certain, I can only speak for myself and the ones I know.

Let’s walk back a bit. How did the editing journey start? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do or did you just stumble into it?

I initially wanted to be an actor. That’s where the journey started.  I tried minor roles on a couple of low-budget productions and things weren’t really going as fast as I wanted. Then I realized that, for young filmmakers, an easy way to get seen in this part of the world is to make your own films. I teamed up with a couple of like-minded friends to make a couple of short films but there was no one to edit them. I stepped in to do it and the rest is history. 

You have your roots in low-budget/indie filmmaking. How has this affected your approach? Have you had to think differently when handling bigger projects?

Not really. The same rules apply. It doesn’t matter if you’re editing a 30 seconds indie short or a Netflix original. Do good work, tell a story. The major difference as you scale up is the volume of work you have to do and, maybe, the many genres you have to work with.

The editor at work

What’s the editor’s relationship with the script, the director, and the actors?

The script is a guide to the editor. But the more intimate relationship is with what’s been shot— the footage. Most times the director has tweaked the script to suit better his established artistic vision, so it’s only normal that the editor works more with the latest iteration of the material. Of course, this doesn’t mean editors shouldn’t read scripts. It’s a must to read them, but be more aware of what the director has in mind.

The relationship with the director is one trust and measured reverence. The editor must accept that he’s trying to bring the director’s vision to life. The director, too, must understand that the editor is the first audience. The editor is watching through the eyes of the audience and is crafting an experience for the audience. A basic understanding of each other’s roles and how they overlap, which happens sometimes, helps build trust and aids the delivery of good work.

The relationship with the actor is a journey through the isolated scenes in a movie. The editor is presented with the expressions of the actor across the scenes and is tasked with cutting and shaping till it aids in the telling of a good story. By helping the performances service the story, the editor helps the actor look good.

Those are great thoughts. What are the common challenges you face as an editor in Nigeria?

The biggest challenge I face is underappreciation, and I know it’s not specific to editing, it’s problem creatives constantly have to face. The underappreciation is most expressed in how editors are paid. It’s not only lower than what holds internationally, it’s an eyesore. But it’s difficult to blame this on any particular person, it’s only a ripple effect of the tricky Nigerian situation. Another challenge I’m going to talk about is a bit controversial. Editing as a craft isn’t necessarily new, but film editing, within the clear confines of cinema, is not only new but commonly misunderstood. There’s a problem with education, meaning standards are quite low. So, a lot of time, editors have to learn on the go and experiment with this new knowledge on projects. Mentors who know the craft aren’t common, so learning is a personal process. The education problem also reflects itself in how directors and producers communicate their needs appropriately. For example, it’s not uncommon for producers to ask an editor to colour and fix the sound. They think it’s the editor’s job, and it’s not so. I understand it’s also a budgetary problem, but the way these producers insist on it, you’re forced to wonder if they know what really is the editor’s job.

Are there certain qualities in actors and directors that make the work easier for you as an editor?

A director with an understanding of how editing works is a treasure. Because this influences how he plans his shooting and understands the place of pacing. Also, the director must be able to let things go. There are shots or moments that, after shooting, you realize in the edit don’t serve the overall artistic vision. Ironically, these shots are always beautiful. The director must be ready to let them go.  Trust the editor and the vision, don’t let sentimentality add unneeded fat to the project.

As for actors, it’s a lot simpler. Help the editor help you.

What’s self-improvement like for an editor?

Improvement for an editor, or anyone else, is relative. But generally, I’d say unlocking new levels in your career, taking on tougher projects, and trying out new things. For me, I’m looking to work on projects heavy on exposition/narration. Projects like Wolf of Wall Street or any Wes Anderson project. Stuff with a lot of montage and voice-over. So, try new stuff, don’t get too comfortable with one kind of thing.

What resources do you consistently use to stay sharp?

Books— In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch (Editor of Godfather, English Patient, and Apocalypse Now). This one’s a personal favourite. It doesn’t necessarily teach you the craft, but it takes you into the mind of a genius film editor. Another book I go back to is The Eye is Quicker- Making a good film better by Richard Pepperman. Then I try to read anything on screenwriting because it’s very similar to editing. Syd Field’s Screenwriting is a personal favourite.

I also check the YouTube channels I follow. Accounts like Film Editing Pro, This guy edits, Every Frame a painting, and Studio Binder.

What advice do you have for young editors or anyone looking to become an editor?

Editing can be learned in three to four days, it’s that basic as a skill. Storytelling is where the greats distinguish themselves. So, anyone can sit down with Adobe, DaVinci Resolve, and Avid to learn how to stitch clips together, but for folks that want to tell cinematic stories have to go steps further. First of all, you must love making films. Because that means you love watching films and videos about what makes great films great. By doing this, you’re observing how stories are told visually. So, when you practice with the editing software, you’re not stitching stuff together, you’re actually looking to tell a story. When you’ve done some work on yourself, you should look for a mentor that’s doing well at the craft. Mentors are willing to help when they see you’ve done some work on your own.

Young editors can take comfort in the fact that the standards are low, the barriers to entry are almost nonexistent. You can get your laptop today and be the biggest editor around in a year. It’s that easy.

What’s the plan for the future? Any planned expansion into other fields? And what are you working on at the moment?

I also work as a producer and production manager. I’ve produced several short films and have plans to produce my first feature, in the not-so-distant future. I’m also working on starting my post-production studio so I can provide jobs for others.

At the moment, I’m working on a Netflix original, a feature set for cinematic release, and Venge, a telenovela currently airing on Africa Magic.

More about Olakunle’s work can be found on his website and his Vimeo page.

Isaac O. Ayodeji

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