Award-Winning Commercial Editor Ellie Johnson on Using Sleight of Hand and Loving the Process

The beautiful thing about being a producer is that there’s no real job description. Also, the ugly thing about being a producer is that there’s no real job description. Every project is an opportunity and an obstacle, something that requires you to forget the things you don’t need to know and remember the rest.

For an artist, there’s no greater freedom than loving your craft. Some are cursed with an Ernest Hemingway-esque tension, doing battle with the book, bleeding at the typewriter and whatnot. Then, there are people like Truman Capote: “To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the music the words make.” If you can learn to love the steps involved in creating, then you’ve created a sustainable relationship with your work. You get out of it what you put into it.

For Ellie Johnson, editor and partner at tenthree, she’s found this sweet spot. She doesn’t want to direct. She doesn’t want to shoot. She wants to tell stories, to put pieces together, and manipulate audiences into feeling something real. She loves it.

“Nothing we do is permanent. That’s the beauty of editing. You can try many different things all at the same time,” she told us. “We’ve all got to move through it with an open mind and be responsive to what is actually on the screen in front of us, not what we thought we’d have, or what we thought it would end up as. You have to make yourself vulnerable because you’re asking your directors to be vulnerable.”

In our conversation, we talked with Ellie about the craft and process of editing, from falling in love with the edit suite to the politics of filmmaking to the magic tricks she uses. Here’s award-winning editor Ellie Johnson.

Filmsupply: What about editing hooked you?

Ellie Johnson: As I was growing up, I read a lot. I consumed books ferociously. I always liked stories and storytelling, but I don’t think I was as good at creating stories myself. I was good at taking something that somebody else had done and building on that. My imagination doesn’t come from nothing. Particularly with editing, I really enjoy something being there already. I enjoy being handed the pallet of colors, or whatever it is, and being able to build and develop and manipulate that. But it took me a while to be able to understand the possibilities within editing.

What kind of possibilities?

Being able to communicate to people through an experience. If it’s a documentary, you’re telling somebody’s story. You’re telling something that is very truthful and bringing that to a wider audience. If it’s a music video, you’re able to make the music more accessible, and to create meaning for people.

And the most rewarding jobs are the ones that get out into the world, and they’re not just shared within your own community. They go everywhere. People are talking about them, and your mum sends you a screenshot of somebody on Facebook talking about your work. It permeates the public consciousness. But, the whole filmmaking process has to go well to get there. You fine tune the reactions so carefully that it feels very much a part of you and your work when that happens.

If your job is based on an audience’s feelings, does that make it an invisible or thankless job?

I think it depends what type of editor you are. There are filmmaking styles that are much more edit conscious, focused on the transitions, that are in a little bit more heightened reality. I very much like invisible editing. I like not being seen. It’s not showy. You don’t become a star. There’s none of that. You’re working in your environment. People are coming into your environment and you’re just doing your job that you enjoy. I don’t ask for attention. We’re not seeking attention. I’m just doing what I can do to elevate other people’s art form, to make the directors look good, to make the DPs look good, to make the art department look good, to make the story sing.

I always say to young assistants and people coming up, “You are the person with the most power.” Once they wrap that shoot, nothing happens without me choosing for it to happen. It’s a hugely powerful role. It’s a hugely sensitive role. That is why a lot of editors are very empathetic people, very calm people, a lot of the time.

Now that you mention it, a lot of editors we’ve talked to are very zen.

Yeah. We have to keep everybody in check. You wrap a shoot and there’s so much drama, tension, and stress. It’s so difficult. There’s all these feelings and emotions and high stress situations. It’s this huge build up to pre-production, and worry and concern, and the shoot’s just this blur for everybody.

And then you come into the edit suite and it’s time to actually find the film. It’s time to problem solve and listen for the first time to what the film actually is. It should be calm. All of that unknowingness, all of that unease has to be exorcized because you’re in a position where the emotions that you create inside that suite will carry through the film.

How do you find that calm?

I try to be very conscious, particularly for the first time you’re working with a new director or it’s the first time you’re showing them a first assembly. It’s very scary for them. This is the first time their idea is being fully realized and brought to life. They’re terrified a lot of the time. I always say, “You can hate it, you’re allowed to hate it, and it’s totally fine. We can change everything. And in that, you should feel calm, and you should feel measured. This is not the time or the place to be panicking. We’re bringing it to life and doing everybody justice that has worked so hard on this project already.”

As an editor, you have to be hugely empathetic. You need to know how directors and producers feel. You have to know how clients feel and execs feel, too. You need to understand the comments and notes that are coming in. You’re also the audience’s mouthpiece. You’re the first audience that that film ever gets. It’s really important to be able to put yourself into their shoes as well.

Finding your voice as an editor seems to be so different from other roles, like a director or DP. Do you think that’s true?

When I think of who I am as an editor, I think about the time in the edit suite, not the final product. I think about the type of directors who I like to work with and the type of relationships I like to have. How I run my edit suite, rather than the final output. You are a point on this collaborative journey. It’s never solely resting on you in the same way it is with a director, and then you hope that it comes out with their voice at the end.

The politics are very interesting, particularly when you’re working with a lot of people, whether it’s the filmmaking side or the advertising side. It’s the editor’s job to negotiate between different people wanting different things, to understand what people are asking for when they ask for things. And through all of that, through all of those relationships, you still need to be doing service to the film and what the material needs to be.

How do you diffuse those situations and manage all of those egos?

A lot of it is people skills, because you see people at their worst. You create what the director thinks they want, then you work together and you collaborate, and it becomes your baby. Then the agency comes in and suddenly you’re having to defend the decisions that you’ve made, and they’re changing things.

It’s a very strange process, making an advert. It’s a bizarre process that can be an emotional rollercoaster. As an editor, you’re also doing this all day every day. You’re switching to a new job every two or three weeks. So, you have to understand when somebody is feeling abandoned, if they’re not feeling listened to, and how you can make them feel more connected with what we’re creating.

Nothing we do is permanent. That’s the beauty of editing. You can try many different things all at the same time. We’ve all got to move through it with an open mind and be responsive to what is actually on the screen in front of us, not what we thought we’d have, or what we thought it would end up as. You have to make yourself vulnerable because you’re asking your directors to be vulnerable. You’re asking every creative person in your room to be vulnerable. You have to do the same thing.

Is it inspiring to encounter all of these different points of view?

Yeah. You build off of each other. When there’s a new director you haven’t worked with before and they come in with a different point of view, you’re thinking, “Oh, this is interesting. How is this going to develop?” They’ll have little tricks they’ve learned during their careers and they all become a part of your toolkit, to a degree.

It’s funny you refer to them as tricks. Do you think of editing as a sleight of hand?

I talk about manipulating people quite a lot. It sounds awful, but that is what it is. I’ve learned how to invite an audience in before giving them an emotional punch. Or, I’ve learnt how to make people think they know what’s happening, or what to expect, and then bring it round into a sucker punch. Those are my little tricks. As you said, it’s this sleight of hand of inviting people along with the journey that you fully control.

And often they go unnoticed.

Yeah. I try to hold off on music for as long as possible, because music is a bridge to emotion. It can be used to create emotion where there isn’t any in the edit, when you should have found it in the edit, really. As a viewer, if you know that they’ve slapped a really emotional score on this thing to really make you feel something, as humans, we’re sophisticated enough to go, “Actually, no. I don’t like you doing that to me.”

You have to be much more subtle. As a film viewer, more as a consumer of media and everything, I’ve always really enjoyed finding things myself. I enjoy solving things myself. So, as an editor, I don’t like over explaining. I like to let the audience do some work. I’m not afraid of audiences not getting everything.

But, it’s definitely a balance. Over-cutting is one of the biggest mistakes that can be made. It’s very obvious because you feel like things are being moved around for no reason. I always feel like I need to have a reason to cut. If nobody in the room can give you a reason to cut, why am I doing that?

There are definitely times when the editing can be obvious. If you’re doing a montage, something spanning a huge breadth of time, or if you’re trying to make a point out of similarities, then the editing can be a little bit more obvious because it becomes part of the storytelling motifs. But the majority of the time, you just want it to be immersive.

Ultimately, we’re having a conversation with people, we’re not running around a room having that conversation. We’re connecting with somebody, we’re locking in with somebody, and within that, we should show restraint if the material requires it to allow audiences to connect. Or, we can tear them away from it, if that’s what we’re trying to do emotionally.

Do you see yourself sticking with editing?

A lot of editors have ambitions outside of editing. I don’t. I love what I do. I wouldn’t choose to do anything else other than what I do. What changes is the arena that you’re working in. I’ve had really great relationships with a lot of people, and I’m super happy with where I sit in short form, particularly in London, doing music videos, doing commercials.

I’ll get to a point where I begin to take steps into long form to see how that feels, to see how TV and features feel. But it’s still storytelling, which is what I like doing. I like working with moving images to create these stories that hopefully have an audience somewhere and are enjoyed by people. I will be an editor for the rest of my career. The arena may shift and take different directions, but let’s see what happens next. It’s always going to be about storytelling. It’s always going to be about editing.

Read our conversation with The Mill LA’s Head of Editoral, Victor Jory and his perspective on what it means to be a complete editor.