5 Things I Learnt from Editing

I used to do a lot of editing work alongside DPing, and although those days are now behind me, their influence lives on. Every day that I work as a cinematographer, I use some of the knowledge I gained while slaving over a multi-coloured keyboard. Here are some of the most important things I learnt from editing.


1. Performance always wins.

The editor will always use the take with the best performance. What this means for the DP is that there is really no point requesting another take because of a missed focus pull, bumpy dolly move or dodgy pan, because inevitably the performance will not be as spontaneous and engaging as it was when you cocked up the camerawork, so the editor will use the first take.

Of course you need to make the director aware of any significant technical issues, and if they want to do another take, that’s absolutely their prerogative. But the editor will still use the first take. So get it right on the first take, even if that means pushing for another rehearsal.


2. Your darlings will die.

You know all your favourite shots? All the ones you’ve been mentally ear-marking for your showreel? The beautifully-lit wides, the fancy camera moves, that cool scene with the really interesting set? Yeah, half of those won’t make the final cut.

That wide shot is used for a single second before they cut into the meaty mid-shots. The camera move slowed the scene down too much so they chopped it up. That scene with the cool set looked great but didn’t advance the plot.

Two things to learn from this: 1. Do a great job, but don’t be a perfectionist, because you might be wasting everyone’s time on something that is destined for the cutting room floor. 2. If you want that shot for your showreel, grab it from the DIT, otherwise you might never see it again.


3. Bring ’em in, let ’em leave.

I can’t count the number of times, when shooting a close-up, I’ve advised the director to run the whole scene. They just wanted to pick up a few lines, but I convince them to let the talent walk in at the start and walk out at the end. That way the editor has much more flexibility on when to cut, a flexibility which I know that I appreciated when I was the one wrangling the timeline.

Any angle you shoot, push to cover the entire scene from it. In most cases it takes only slightly more time, and it’s easier for the actors because they get to do the whole emotional arc. And the editor will have many more options.


4. Spot the Missing Shot.

The ability to edit in your head is incredibly useful on set. If you can mentally assemble the coverage you’ve just shot, you can quickly identify anything that’s missing. Years of editing trained me to do this, and it’s saved annoying pick-ups several times. Officially this is the script supervisor’s job, but smaller productions may not always have someone in this capacity, and even when they do, another person keeping track can’t hurt.


5. Respect the slate.

On smaller productions, the clapperboard is often treated as an inconvenience. People sometimes chat over it, directors giving last-minute instructions, or actors finishing their showbiz anecdotes before getting into character, rendering the audio announcement unintelligible. On no- or micro-budget productions there might not be a 2nd AC, so the board gets passed to whoever’s handy at the time, who has no idea what the current slate or take number are, and the whole thing becomes a meaningless farce.

Which is fine for everyone except the poor bastard in the edit suite who’s got to figure out which audio clip goes with which video clip. It can add hours of extra work for them. I’ve been there, and it ain’t pretty. So, for the sanity of the (assistant) editor, please respect the slate.

5 Things I Learnt from Editing

Slating 101

Slating Brendan O'Neill's Fled. See www.sticklebackproductions.blogspot.co.uk
Slating Brendan O’Neill’s Fled. See www.sticklebackproductions.blogspot.co.uk

With dual system sound now the norm for even micro-budget shoots, a clapperboard (or slate as they call them in the US) is an indispensable bit of kit. It’s always best to keep this under the purview of the clapperloader or 2nd AC, rather than giving it to whichever crew member is free at the time. Otherwise you often end up with the camera operator calling “mark it” followed by an awkward pause because that crew member has left the set to perform some other duty, or has been too busy with other duties and is now scrambling to update the numbers on the slate. Incorrect slates can give the editor headaches down the line, so it’s important to get it right.

Slating Harriet Sams' The First Musketeer. See www.firstmusketeer.com
Slating Harriet Sams’ The First Musketeer. See www.firstmusketeer.com

With that in mind, here are the basic rules of slating.

Labelling the Board

The production name, scene number, DP’s and director’s names and the date are self-explanatory. DAY/NIGHT and INT/EXT (interior/exterior) are intended to ensure the labs process the film footage correctly, but should still be circled appropriately on a digital shoot. Shutter and frame rate information can be obtained from the camera operator or DP. Some slates will have a space for a roll number, and since “rolls” (memory cards) are recycled on a modern shoot, it is best to ask the DIT (Digital Imaging Technician, or data wrangler) how they would like these numbered.

Slates and Takes

The slate number should start at 1 for the first shot of the first day, and increment every time the camera position and/or lens is changed. Sometimes a director will ask instead for the slate number to match the numbers on their shotlist or storyboards, but this is a bad idea because inevitably shots will be dropped or added and it becomes very confusing. Besides, if the slate number simply starts at 1 and goes up, the DIT can easily tell if a shot is missing from their hard drive due to a card being overlooked or some technical fault.

The take number should reset to 1 each time the slate number changes, and increment every time the camera stops rolling, with certain exceptions and variations outlined below.

(The American system differs in that it omits slate numbers. Instead a letter is appended to the scene number, so the first shot filmed of scene 7 would be 7, then 7A, 7B, 7C, etc.)


The clapperloader should always have the board up to date and ready to go. He or she should have checked the length of the lens being used and found a position for the slate in which it’s fully in frame and legibile. A torch may be required if the set is moodily lit.

The sound mixer will roll their device and announce “sound speed”. ┬áThe camera operator will then roll and ask the clapperloader to mark it. By this point the slate should already be in frame so that the first frame recorded, when the DIT looks at it as a thumbnail on their hard drive, has the slate on it.

Only the slate and take number need be announced, e.g. “30 take 3”. The board should then be clapped nice and cleanly to produce a sharp click on the soundtrack that is easy for the DIT or assistant editor to sync. If it’s necessary to clap a second time, the clapperloader should announce “second clap” or “second sticks” immediately before.

Slating a pick-up for The Deaths of John Smith. See www.thedeathsofjohnsmith.com

PU and AFS

If the director decides to do another take but to begin the action part way through rather than from the top, the take number should still increase but pick-up (PU for short) should be appended to the number. For example: take one, take two, take three pick-up, take four pick-up.

If camera and/or sound roll but cut before the board is clapped, the take number remains the same for the next attempt.

If camera and sound roll, the board is read and clapped, but the crew cuts before action is called, the take number remains the same but AFS (After a False Start) is appended.

If action is called, even if it’s immediately followed by cut, the take number always increases for the next attempt.

A mute slate for The First Musketeer
A mute slate for The First Musketeer


Sometimes the camera rolls without sound, if the mixer feels he or she cannot get any useful sound. In these cases the clapperloader should circle MOS (Mute Of Sound) on the slate. They don’t need to clap the board or announce the slate and take number; they simply need to hold the board up long enough for it to be read by the editor. As an additional indicator that there is no accompanying sound file, the clapperloader should hold the board with their fingers between the sticks.

An end board on Fled
An end board on Fled

End Board

Sometimes it’s impractical or inconvenient to shoot the slate at the start of a take, so instead it’s shot at the end. At the start of the take the camera operator announces “end board” instead of “mark it”. When the action is finished, the director typically forgets that it’s an end board (American term: tail slate) and calls “cut”. Hopefully the sound mixer and camera operator remember not to obey this command, and the latter calls “mark it”. The clapperloader should then mark the take in the usual manner, except that the board should be held upside-down. They should conclude their verbal announcement with “end board” or “on the end”, e.g. “27 take 2 on the end”. Only then can camera and sound cut.

Slating 101