You can always tell how successful an expert is by how tricky they are to pin down. With a number of projects in her calendar, Celia Haining is one busy lady, but when she graciously found the time to sit down and chat, she was every bit the expert I hoped for. Editing the likes of ‘Misfits’ for Channel four and the WW1 epic ‘The Passing Bells’ for the BBC, TV is only one string to Haining’s bow, after starting out in the cutting room for several award winning feature films. In a very honest discussion, Haining shares her highs and lows, her proudest moments and her invaluable experience in a very competitive industry.
First things first, how did you get here, have you always been interested in film and TV editing?
Unlike many of my colleagues I was not shooting my own films in the back garden at the age of two. As a child and teenager I was very affected by certain films – there were films that always stayed with me because they resonated emotionally or simply provided welcome escapism from ordinary life – but I didn’t dream filmmaking could become my job. I was better at arts than science subjects and that led into a degree in English and French. Most of the course units were literature but some were film theory. I realised the subject always fascinated me and chose to write my dissertation on a film.
No one could offer any advice on the next step. I moved back home, applied unsuccessfully for a few jobs and a couple of friends suggested joining the local film co-op Sheffield Independent Film. I went to chat to them, realised there was no point getting discounts on cameras and edit suites I had no idea how to use, but ended up answering the phone for them which led to all sorts of odd bits of hugely enjoyable training (soldering cables, learning how to storyboard) and then I got onto a film course the first year it ran in Sheffield – Northern Media School in 1992. I was incredibly lucky that as I was graduating in 1995 a feature was being shot locally ‘When Saturday Comes’ and I managed to get on as trainee (lots of tea making and putting numbers on the edge of the film!) and when they asked me to continue in post in London I moved there. It was a bit of a risk as I wasn’t being paid but it was such a smart move. At SIF, NMS, and on the feature with the editor and assistants I found everyone to be extremely giving of their time and advice so I was able to learn a lot in a pretty short time. Then being in a London cutting room at De Lane Lea meant I met other people in the kitchen and corridors and that’s how I got my second film as apprentice on ‘Twelve Monkeys’.
What is the most exciting part of your job?
Getting to know what makes the director tick, figuring out their vision and what motivates them. Every job is different so you’re usually getting to know a new group of people and often learning about a new subject. I would also say that every job teaches you something new which isn’t always apparent at the time. And you never know what is round the corner – being in Budapest for four months on ‘In Secret’ with the brilliant director Charlie Stratton was a complete surprise that came up in a matter of days!
Good answer! How do you decide what stays and what goes when editing a film?
Editing isn’t really about just cutting out the bad bits. The edit is the final write of the script. It’s deciding how to tell the story, for the last time. The editor is making a million choices every day about which shots to use and how. You need to understand the point of each scene in order to edit it. Then you need to figure out if there are weaknesses in the overall structure and if some scenes are repetitive and may not be needed. Generally edits should feel natural and be unnoticed so you’re looking at what the audience’s eye wants to see at that moment. It depends what the scene is and what you are trying to make the audience feel. Sometimes the material shot makes it obvious how it should be cut and sometimes you have many different options and you need to try things out.
Testing ideas can be surprising – the director will sometimes suggest something left field just to push it and see and it’s always amazing how often that leads to a great breakthrough. Frequently secondary characters and themes are sacrificed for the main ones – sometimes for clarity and sometimes just for pace.
How much influence does the director have in the final cut?
That varies a bit from film to film, but usually a great deal. It is their vision you are bringing to life. During the shoot some directors feedback regularly on the material you are assembling – some don’t watch any assemblies at all. After the shoot is over the editing process is often spent intensively working with the director. Some directors are very happy to give notes and leave you alone to get on with it for a day or two. Others want to revisit the rushes with you in detail. On films the final cut may be exclusively the director’s version but that depends on their contract – if they don’t have final cut in their contract then ultimately they don’t have control. In TV often there is a producer who has a great creative influence, particularly if it is a long series with many directors.
What are the main differences between editing a film and editing a TV series?
Film used to be more prestigious than TV – this is definitely changing. The most interesting and risky writing is all in TV now. Films need to make a profit so they rarely take chances. It used to be the case that there were big differences in the schedules – films would allow more time for editing than TV. This is still true at the top level I think, but low budget films often have schedules that are quite similar to TV. When I began working in TV in 2003 it was a bit of a shock how fast it was but I got used to it pretty quickly! TV shows are made with a transmission date already agreed which means your work will definitely be seen by an audience (unlike a low budget feature, which may not achieve a proper cinema release – again, things are changing and self-distribution and streaming content etc mean these things are in a state of flux) – always a bonus! From an editing point of view a TV series also allows a long arc for a character – in a film you need to get to know them and bond with them instantly so the challenges are different in that way.
That’s a great answer – thanks Celia! What has been your proudest moment so far, if you had to choose?
I think the work I am the most proud of is a show called ‘Hit and Miss’ which is brilliantly written and directed. It was a great thing to be part of and I loved working with the wonderful director Hettie Macdonald and producer Juliet Sellwood. The writing in itself was rather beautiful and unusual but then the way Hettie works makes every department able to really squeeze the best out of every moment. It was also a pretty groundbreaking transgender story – hats off to Sky for backing it boldly.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
It is almost impossible to give useful advice as things have already changed so much and are still changing fast. There is no set way in. Use any personal contacts you have and show that you are keen and focused and work hard. Whether you go into pop promos or trailers or tape opping at a commercials house or making tea on a big movie just prove yourself and keep your end goals in sight. The more experience you get actually editing the better, so keep working away in your own time if the first job(s) aren’t editing jobs. There are always shorts looking for editors.
That’s great thank you! Finally then, who do you dream of working with in the future?
I think if I could work with anyone my dream job would be with Spike Jonze. His work on Fatboy Slim’s ‘Praise You’ made me sit up and take notice and I absolutely adore the wit and imagination of ‘Being John Malkovich’, ‘Adaptation’ and ‘Her’. He has an emotional understanding of the human spirit, along with boundless creativity.
Thanks again Celia – best of luck with it all!
If Celia has persuaded you that your dream career lies behind the screen, why not take a look at the different film editing courses listed on the site and get inspired!