Editing is an often underappreciated art. A good editor knows how to bring to life the raw footage so that it expresses the story the writer intended. Bad editing, however, can make even a good story appear lame and the actors weak. Steve Hullfish not only understands the art of editing, but is helping educate his fellow editors by sharing words of wisdom from the best of the best. In his column Art of the Cut, he interviews industry leaders and gets them to share their secrets of success. Now he’s put together a book filled with all their advice. I’m excited to interview Steve and introduce filmmakers to his invaluable expertise.
When did you first develop an interest in filmmaking?
I started shooting stuff with my dad’s 8mm camera and then a VHS camera. I’ve always loved photography, music, theater and writing. Film seemed like a great way to combine all of those interests. I’ve been producing documentaries since I was in college.
What is your educational background?
I graduated with a B.S. in Mass Communication from the State University of New York, College at Brockport.
What are some of the films/tv shows you’ve worked on?
I worked on a lot of sports television – broadcast college and pro sports – when I first moved to Chicago in 1985. Then I produced some TV shows, including The Addams Family Album with John Astin and Reel Choice in Chicago. I also edited The Oprah Winfrey Show for more than a decade and edited for Bill Kurtis’ Investigative Reports on A&E. After that I was a special events and marketing producer for VeggieTales and produced their Singalong with Jonah and How to Draw Bob and Larry videos in addition to numerous TV specials and all of their DVD bonus features for all of the releases until about 2008. After that I co-edited the Kendrick Brothers’ Courageous and War Room feature films. Then, one of the crew members on War Room – Judd Brannon directed his first feature, Champion which I edited and that will be out Spring of 2017. And I just finished a expose documentary about Hillary Clinton called Clinton Inc. that should be in theaters and on-demand before the elections. Beyond that, I’ve done a lot of marketing projects for other faith-based films, like Courageous, Miracles from Heaven, When the Game Stands Tall, Voiceless” and others.
How did you get started writing filmmaking books?
I have written six books on the post-production process of film and TV. Two of them have gone into second editions and are in multiple languages (Chinese and Korean). I have been recognized as a top trainer of other professionals and the books are just another way of getting my expertise out to those that want it. I train companies like NBC Sports and Turner Networks and even churches all over the world. I never really thought of myself as a book author, but I had an idea for a book back around 2000 and kept working until it was done. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and I vowed that I’d never write another, but then the next book kind of “happened” again and again… I’m starting work on my seventh now. People who want to make films need knowledge. The technology is opening up the number of people who CAN make films beyond the limited number who could kind of go through the “Hollywood” system, so how can those people gain the knowledge about the way it should be done? I’ve done DVD training and in-person training too, but books is a big way for people to learn.
Tell us about your upcoming book.
For the last two years I’ve been interviewing the top film and TV editors in the world. These are people who have won 14 Oscars and been nominated for more than 40, (not to mention multiple Emmy winners). The people in the book worked on Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, Avatar, Titanic, Lawrence of Arabia, Mad Max, Apollo 13, Breaking Bad, Friends, Big Bang Theory, Mad Men, House of Cards, … you name the giant movie or the hit TV show and I’ve interviewed them. I recently realized that every movie or TV show I’d seen in the previous week was edited by someone I actually knew! Some of these people I’d interviewed for over two hours. Most interviews were an hour.
Because I’ve edited films and TV, I knew the right questions and the right follow-up questions to ask. I recently had an Oscar nominee quote back advice I’d given him a year ago. After 50 interviews I had over 300,000 words of transcripts. My publisher wanted a book of about 130,00 words (500 page), so I had to radically trim it down to just the VERY best advice from these monsters in the industry. Some of the behind the scenes information they gave me on some of the biggest movies and TV shows ever is really amazing. I knew I didn’t want to just put one interview after another, so I broke all of the interviews down into categories and then turned those categories into chapters with most of the 50 editors discussing that topic, back-to-back. Some agreed with each other. Some dissented. Some did the same things as everybody else and some had their own unique methods. To get all of that advice and see how some of it was in agreement and some wasn’t is FAR more valuable than just having a single voice describing how they do it.
My last book was the same thing – I got a dozen experts to describe the way they worked instead of having it come just from my own personal experience. I really think that with all of the “secret” behind the scenes information on people’s favorite movies, it will have a broad appeal to movie fans. Also, it gives a great insight into the mind of an editor, so film directors and film students will definitely get a LOT out of it. And of course, for fellow editors, it’s a wealth of information. Many famous editors I spoken with have said that my interview series is the best information about our industry, which is so nice to hear. The book will be available on Focal Press in April of 2017. All of the interviews are already up on the web if you want to read any of them. Check out my blog at http://www.provideocoalition.com/tag/art-of-the-cut
Also on the web are five articles I wrote about editing “War Room” and “Courageous.” They are pretty technical, instead of spiritual or artistic discussions, so those articles are probably for editors only.
And of my previous movie “Courageous”
As you’ve interviewed all these top film editors, what have you noticed that really distinguishes them from the ranks?
The biggest thing is a real sense of story and how they can improve a film. It’s been said that “there’s the movie you wrote, the movie you shot, and then there’s the movie you have when it’s edited.” They’re all very different. The editor is the first person to see the story play out in time. Shaping that story is a huge job. If you look at the shooting script for any movie and then watch the final version, they’re often radically different and they’re never identical. Another big thing with the successful editors is that they are deeply empathetic. They are good at the political situation and social skills necessary in the edit room with the director and producers and executives. They are also intuitive and honest in finding and molding the best performances from the actors. We all feel a deep responsibility to the actors.
What’s the best editing advice you’ve ever received?
Be patient. I work hard to subjugate by ego. Sometimes I KNOW that a line or a scene should be deleted, but I need to let the director get to that same conclusion WITHOUT me getting to that point before him. I heard this from multiple people and I know that it’s something that I have struggled with and has definitely caused friction in the past. The editor needs to realize his advice is valuable and important to the project, but that it is the director’s vision and the editor is there to facilitate that vision making it to the screen. Be open to change. Realize that the movie is going to be different in a thousand ways from the way you first edited it. Director’s need to understand this too. There’s an old saying in writing, “You have to kill your babies.” It means that there are these precious moments in your film that you LOVE, but you finally realize that they’re hurting the overall story and you have to throw them on the editing room floor. Those are hard, hard decisions and very painful for directors and writers and editors to make, but you do it for the good of the film. You can’t be precious about anything.
How important is quality editing to the final project?
It’s absolutely 100% critical. I have a collection of quotes about editing from the top directors and producers in film and every one of them is basically along the lines of “The entire filmmaking process is in the edit room.” Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas… you name the director who has made good films and they are very happy and comfortable in the edit room. Editing tells the story. Editing shapes the characters and the performances. Editing manipulates the emotion of the audience. I wrote my last book because I heard Lupita N’Longo thank her EDITOR in her Oscar speech for Best Supporting Actress for “12 Years a Slave.” That was an actress who realized that the way her performance ultimately appeared to an audience was strongly shaped in the edit room.
What’s the biggest mistake that you see amateur editors making?
Editing to make it seem exciting instead of to have an effect on an audience emotionally. I spoke to many big-time action movie editors and they all said that if you aren’t invested in your characters emotionally, even the biggest, flashiest action scenes in the world will fall flat. Why do we care about all this action? That’s the key and that’s the editor’s job.
What words of wisdom would you offer to anyone looking to work as a film editor?
The patience thing is huge, that I mentioned before. Also, just checking your ego at the door when you walk into the edit suite.
I’d like to mention to your faith audience that the biggest thing for me about editing War Room and Courageous – two of the biggest faith-based successes of all time – was NOT the chance to cut two big movies, but what my time with Stephen and Alex Kendrick did for my faith. Those two men are the real deal. They are awesome prayer warriors. They are solid in their faith. They showed me time and time again that they WALK their faith WAY more than they talk their faith. I also experienced just a fantastic Godly community at Sherwood Baptist Church. I was invited into an accountability group with a group of men there that truly changed my life. (We met at the home of the “I love you Sheriff” from Courageous!). It’s a fantastic community of real believers that live their faith every day, honestly. I went in to cut a movie and was deeply affected spiritually. I was a believer before, but I really deepened in my faith while I was there… and was actually baptized by Alex Kendrick at the end of editing Courageous. If you ever wonder about the type of people making Christian movies, and whether they’re “real Christians” or just in it for the money and fame, I can tell you from long-time, first-hand experience that the Kendricks are the real deal. (and so is Judd Brannon, who I just cut Champion with.) Their hearts are in the right place and their theology is sound and they care about doing the right thing for the right reason. Those are the kind of people that God will bless, and I certainly pray for that blessing for the Kendricks.