It is common on independent and amateur films for the editor to see the raw footage and throw up their arms in exasperation. The pathway is often unclear. The material described in the script may not be present. Many of the shots may contain problems that need to be cut around; audio problems, focus, undesirable camera moves, continuity errors, errant objects on the screen, bad performance. Often times, there is insufficient coverage or the action from shot to shot does not overlap.
Yes, these are all challenges to the editor. However, the editor cannot just say “this doesn’t work” and live with a bad movie because it is hard to cut together. If you forfeit the quality of the movie because you feel like the production team didn’t deliver good enough materials to you, you are not worthy of the title of editor and you don’t understand your job. Editors are problem solvers. At an independent level, the production team is always going to deliver a bunch of problems to you. Independent films are much more difficult to edit than studio pictures for this reason. The production team is under-resourced, shooting quickly and they often lack experience and organization. This combination is going to produce materials that are less than perfect. Your job is to find solutions and there is a solution to every problem.
These solutions require creativity. Sometimes the solution is as extreme as moving away from continuity editing, where each shot connects logically to the next to form an unbroken sequence of action through the scene, to a collection of shots that convey the story in a metaphorical montage.
One thing to remember as an editor if we are dealing with footage that is less than perfect is that it is easy to get preoccupied with solving problems and not telling the story. The story is the most important thing. The longer you spend with the edit, the more sensitized you will be to technical problems like continuity, perspective problems or poor quality image. Remember that you are cutting for the audience, not another editor.
Once you have reviewed all the footage, you must make decisions about shot selection and shot order. You have action in a scene. You should have coverage of that scene from different angles. Now you must decide what angle you want to use to cover which parts of the scene. This is where an editor can learn how to be a director, by reading director’s intent and seeing how he or she created the materials for the scene. Review the lesson on the Director’s Visualization. See how scenes are constructed and the relationship between framing and the dramatic curve. The director had a plan for how this scene ought to go together – read the material and follow their game plan.
When you select which shots you will use for the rough cut, choose the ones that tell the story in the best way possible. You may have to live with a bad edit or poor image to convey the emotion of the scene. You should always select good images over bad, compromise on an imperfect image if you need it to tell the story and reject footage if the quality is so poor that it would distract the audience from the story.
The director can help you in this part of the decision making process. Once you have a rough cut assembled that plays to your satisfaction from start to finish, bring in your director and screen it for him or her. Show them areas of concern and ask for input. Offer solutions to issues with the edit and screen different versions of solutions. The director will make decisions on how they want they project to develop, these notes will provide you with a plan for moving forward.