Technical vs. conceptual
To the layman, storytelling is one thing, and the technical aspects of filmmaking are a different skill set entirely.
In many cases, screenwriters are not heavily involved with the production aspects of a film. Those tasks are left to professionals who specialize in one area or another: lighting, sound, camera operation, etc.
There are many people who would categorize editors as being part of the technical side of things. Editing itself is highly technical, and, for the most part, editors rely on established techniques and methods to create a finished work.
After an insightful discussion with one talented editor, we can honestly say that this assumption is up for debate.
When a movie becomes itself
Yixia Li has been attracted to editing since first becoming interested in movies. His extensive work spans commercial promotions, music videos, short films, and even feature films.
His artistic sensibility has an international flavor, drawing on influences from mainstream movies as well as smaller art house films that often utilize unorthodox techniques.
Now based in Los Angeles, Li is in high demand, giving him the opportunity to pick and choose projects that speak to him on a personal and professional level.
Our discussion with Li covered his own unique approach to assembly and editing, as well as the general direction of editing in contemporary films and how audiences are likely to respond to these changes.
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The ins and outs
Do you ever have a say in how much coverage a production gets?
Li: Typically, no. Some projects have already finished the principle shooting when they reach out to me. Or sometimes I’m busy finishing up my last project while the next project is doing pre-production. But if we decide to do some pickup, I definitely become involved.
Luckily, there are a few projects that I worked on where I was able to discuss coverage with the directors. There was a short film I worked on where I was on board very early and we even discussed story structure. This director is obsessed with different transitions between scenes, so when he was creating the storyboard, I was next to him and we discussed what kind of transitions we could use to make the film more interesting. I helped him create a digital storyboard shot by shot. Then I put these images into the timeline and tested the transitions to make sure they could work.
It was a smooth shoot, and the editing for that project was much easier for me because I already knew a lot about the project and I already had the cuts in my mind. It was a great experience for both of us and I realized that this is what we need to do in terms of building relationships between directors and editors.
Do you prefer to let dialogue dictate pacing or cuts to dictate pacing?
Li: I usually let the dialogue dictate the pacing of the scene. When editing dialogue scenes, I usually watch all the coverage first and break down shots into four categories: master shots, OTS, inserts, and important moment shots. I cut back and forth between the first three and use the last one for some specific moments.
The pacing of the scene will change based on the characters’ emotions. For example, if two people start out calm and gradually get into an argument, the characters should become more and more aggressive, and then they will talk faster and faster. As the editor, I know this is where I should pick up the pace to emphasize the tension between them.
Do you often get to choose when and where to use score music, or is that decided by the director or other members of the production?
Li: I once heard that editors spend 10% of their time actually editing and 90% of their time finding temp music.
Finding music is a difficult process for me. Usually, in the third or fourth rough cut, the director will ask me to drop some temp music in the timeline. There are some temp music websites I use that have a decent amount of music that I can use, but it’s always challenging.
Instructions from directors can be very vague. I’m ok with that because I understand it is an exploration process and we have to try a lot of different things. Once we have something in the timeline, it’s easier for the director to give notes.
Most of the films I’ve worked on so far, the composers were brought on after picture lock. So I haven’t had the luxury of requesting original music while editing. But I imagine it would be a pretty cool process to have a composer on board during the editing process.
Commitment to the craft
How long, on average, would it take to assemble and edit a 30-minute short film?
Li: I’d say about one week. For a short film, I don’t have an assistant helping me so I’ll do all the transcoding and syncing. That alone could take at least two days. Then I start putting a very rough assembly together.
For each scene, I will watch the master first and cross-check it with the script, then go through all the coverage. I usually start from the last take, because usually, the last two takes are the best. After creating an assembly, I will sit back and watch the whole film again. Then I some of my mistakes and make tweaks. Finally, I add some necessary sound effects and get ready to export.
Would you ever explore physical film editing (i.e. Moviola editing)? Would it somehow inform your digital editing techniques?
Li: Unfortunately, I was late to the game. When I actually started editing, digital non-linear editing software had already taken over the market. When I was in film school, I worked on a presentation about the old-time editing deck such as the Moviola.
This is like me looking at a halidom, I can only learn how they work through books and online videos. We still shoot on film sometimes, but the footage will be digitized and then we drop them into digital editing software.
Old editing methods certainly had their effect on the industry, but they’ve mostly been overtaken.
What are some of your favorite examples of outstanding editing in famous movies?
Li: I’m a big fan of David Fincher. His work taught me how to identify those shots of important moments. I try to suggest this idea in every film project I’m involved in, especially when I have the luxury of discussing the shots with directors before shooting. We analyze the scene and figure out the key moments. Then we come up with a special shot composition for that moment to emphasize it.
I’m also a big fan of transitions. I remember when ‘13 Reasons Why’ was released. My friend and I watched the series twice to summarize the transitions they used in the show. The show jumps back and forth between the present tense and flashbacks. A lot of the transitions are amazing. They’re simple but extremely compelling.
In the future, do you think that films will all have much faster pacing? Is faster pacing the only way to keep an audience’s attention?
Li: I would definitely say no. As a filmmaker, I always believe that successful films usually have fast pacing in some parts, but slow down at particular moments. Faster pacing is absolutely not the answer.
We have seen a lot of great works with slow pacing. As an audience member, I embrace all kinds of films. I sometimes watch fast-paced blockbuster films for entertainment, but I also watch more artistic films. Some people like vodka when others like tea, some enjoy both at different times.
A good story is the only way to keep the audience’s attention. That’s the core of the film, and without a good story, no matter how good the director is, how expensive the budget is, or how brilliant the DP and editor are, it just won’t be good.
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Yixia Li is an editor based in Los Angeles.
Links to Li and his work can be found here: