Chris Franklin’s resume is extensive. He’s edited spots for American Express, Verizon, Nikon, Mastercard, and hundreds more. He’s received Cannes Lions Awards, Webby Awards, Emmy Awards, and an Oscar nomination. He’s on the board of AICP. He founded Big Sky Edit. It’s quite the list. But, what so many don’t recognize about someone at Chris’ level is that he didn’t just get here because he’s good. He got here because he loves it.
“I’ve been doing it a long time, but I can honestly say, I love it,” he told us. “The things you can do with footage and the response you can get out of people by just putting things together the right way is powerful and fun. I absolutely love it.”
It’s this infectious love for the craft that makes Chris such a wealth of knowledge and experience. He’s passionate about sharing with younger editors and keeping the craft moving forward in the best way possible. We recently took some time to chat about a few things Chris has learned over the years and came away with a crash course in what it means to be an effective editor.
1. Embrace Fear
It can be a tough pill to swallow: that you’re going to be dealing with fear for an entire career. But you may as well get comfortable with it. As Chris points out, if you don’t have a certain level of anxiety when it comes to your work, that may be a key sign that you’re not pushing as hard as you need to push.
“For every person I’ve seen succeed and who have it in them, I’ve also seen people that mechanically understood what they were doing, but it just wasn’t there. They developed frustration. It’s hard. It’s hard, just like anything else. You’re sitting in front of a blank page, in front of a blank timeline, and trying to fill it. You’re thinking, ‘Oh, crap. Where am I going to go with this?’
You never lose the fear that this might be the one that takes you down. And I think that’s good because it motivates you. It sparks you. Keeps you on your toes. You’re never relaxed, thinking, ‘Oh, yeah. I got this. I know how to do this.’ Every time you’re working, you’re going to think ‘I didn’t realize that was going to do this or this was going to do that, just by juxtaposing a couple of shots or putting a piece of music against it or adding sound effects.’ You always discover something new. There’s always something to learn.
If you fall into the situation where you really think you’ve mastered it. It’ll take you down. It always will. Because you can always discover something new.”
2. Have Your Reasons
It’s easy to get caught up in style and aesthetics, which can turn your project from ‘timeless’ to ‘trendy’ faster than you can say, “Speed ramp.” But, if you can back up the tool or technique you’re throwing in the timeline with real narrative reasoning, it’s a safe way to ensure you’re headed in the right direction.
“There have been a few trends in editing. There was the whole ‘speed up, slow down’ thing that everybody was doing for a while, which got really tedious. Don’t give your piece a shelf life. You want to make sure that you don’t put a stamp on it to where two years later people say, ‘Oh, that was done when that was big.’ You want to create something that’s timeless and still has an impact.
So much is available to editors now. They can apply every tool available, or every style they have, and manipulate it. But the one thing you want to make sure of is that you have a reason for doing something. Do you have a reason to do what you’re doing? Are you trying to advance the narrative? That’s the hard part because you get excited about using different styles or tools and it can get out of hand.
Drone footage was like that for a while. I get it. You need a helicopter. But you don’t have to show me all that footage. It’s about making sure that it’s all being done in service of the story that you’re trying to tell.”
3. Find Perspective
Time is a powerful tool, and in short supply when you’re editing a project. Regardless, Chris said editors need to create time, rest, and space because it not only makes for a better person but a better end product. You can’t shut your creative brain down, but you can give it the space it needs to thrive.
“Keep working on sections, and then step back and look at it from the beginning. Try to look at it with fresh eyes. One phrase I hate is, ‘You’re too close to it.’ It’s not that I’m too close to it. I just have an opinion about it. If I’m building it, I probably understand it more than most people. But, it’s important to step back and understand it from an audience’s point of view.
Another thing I say is that nothing good happens after 8:30 at night. [Laughs] It just doesn’t. Recently, an assistant editor was working on something and she said, ‘I’m going to be working on this thing all night.” I said, ‘Don’t do that. You’re only going to get frustrated.’
You’ve got to stop when you feel that you’ve hit a wall. If all of a sudden you get a burst of inspiration, fine, but don’t make it a habit. Just stop. Put it away. Let it heal. And then, first thing in the morning, look at it with fresh eyes. It is incredible how, something you left in the evening that you think is just awful, when you look at it in the morning you realize, ‘Wait a minute, this works.’
When you’re fresh, you can do in a half an hour what you might have labored over for three hours in the evening. Go for a run, get your blood flowing. Rest, reboot. Your brain is feeding you little ideas that are going to spark when you wake up.
Editors need to treat themselves fairly. You think you can sit there for 16 hours a day and keep working and working and working, because you only have so much time, but there is a remarkable amount of diminishing returns if you keep pushing.”
4. Value Sound
Sound is a make-or-break element for any project in the editing bay, and it should get its fair share of attention—which, according to Chris, is the majority of the attention.
“Sound is the secret weapon for any edit because it’s not tangible. Someone is going to look at an edit and say, ‘I didn’t like it because of this, this, and this.’ They might point out scenes or visuals, but a lot of times it’s because of what’s happening with the sound. They’re responding, but they can’t pinpoint it, because it’s not tangible. It’s not a scene thing.
I think 70 percent of any good edit is what’s happening with the sound. It can drive you away or disengage you if it’s badly done. If it’s trying too hard to do something, it can really push you out. If the voices don’t sound good, if they’re not balanced well, it’s going to push you out. The audience is always going to respond to that. It’s like walking into a beautifully furnished room, but there’s a smell and suddenly it’s not a good room anymore.
Picture editing is difficult, there’s no doubt, but so often you can make a picture work because of how the sound is making you think. You can have a cut and think, ‘This cut’s not going to work because A to B to C doesn’t make sense.’ But you put a sound effect against it and it works. It surprises you. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
Sound is the most essential part of any cut. When people put cuts in front of other people to judge, if the sound isn’t good, it won’t be judged well. If the sound is bad, it’s not going to get a good response. It’s just not.”
5. Study Feedback
You can’t know how the world will respond to your work until you put your work out into the world. And, Chris pointed out that this moment is invaluable. All of a sudden, you’re getting a perspective and reaction that’s entirely different (and probably more honest) than your own perspective. You may not always trust other perspectives, but they are always valuable.
“Be ready to respond when you put your work in front of other people because you’re going to see it differently. You’re going to think you have it nailed, and then you put it in front of other people, and as soon as it starts running you realize it’s different. It’s not what you thought it was going to be. You’re going to see it through other people’s eyes and understand what that is.
The hardest time that any creative has, is taking criticism. With editing, or with audio or visual effects, it’s very singular. It’s you alone with that thing that you’ve created. Then, you hand it to someone and ask them to critique it. You can’t avoid the fact that you’re going to think they’re critiquing you personally.
To understand what people are saying, that’s something you have to develop. A lot of times, what they’re critiquing is not what the problem is. They’re critiquing something they may feel is an issue, but may be a response to something that happened five minutes before or 10 seconds after. There might be an issue they’re trying to understand, but you have to understand why they got to that point.”
6. Fill Your Well
Lastly, no great edit happens by accident. If you’re feeling a certain way after experiencing a creative work, it’s because an editor, or writer, or artist, designed it that way. As a creative yourself, you have a wealth of experience and knowledge at your fingertips. So, watch that spot, film, or whatever, and break it down. Who knows what you may find.
“Have patience. Read, listen, and watch as much as you can. Fill your well. Read books with well-told stories, and understand why those stories work. Watch things that are good and bad, because everything is valid, and try to understand why it’s good or why it’s bad or why you respond to it. Try to learn from that.
Everything is a story, right? Growing up with music, I could listen to a three-minute song that I love over and over and over and over again. Why does that hit you a certain way? Why can you listen to it over and over and over again and never ever get tired of it? Try to analyze what is happening in it; break it down. It’s the construction of a piece that allows for a response that you can’t turn away from. It’s because it’s an incredible piece of creative output. It’s magic. It’s truly magic. And when you break down the elements you realize there is a lot that went into building it. It comes from a real place.”
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