Dan James, an editor for 15 years, has worked on numerous high-profile tv programmes editing films featuring Jamie Oliver, John Bishop, Gordon Ramsey and perhaps most notably the BBC's very successful motoring series, Top Gear. Dan has been responsible for editing many of their famous car tests like the La Ferrari 2015 and iconic road trip adventures, including the Vietnam Special, Bolivia Special and recently the Patagonia Special. Dan tells us about his career, how it all started with his first job as a runner for a production company and what an editor does.
Do you have any formal training? i.e. Film school or university?
No, not at all. I was a professional bass player through my teens and twenties before it began to dawn on me that maybe I wouldn’t be able to make a decent, long term living at it.
How did your editing career start?
Honestly? It began when my wife was doing make-up on music videos and the production company needed an on set runner to operate playback. After a couple of months I was employed by said company as a production assistant and eventually one of the directors took me to one side and said that if he showed me how to operate the knackered old U-Matic editing system they had in the office then I could cut a showreel for him.
Are you a filmmaker or photographer too?
I love photography and I have also been known to occasionally shoot some B-roll and pick ups.
What got you your break as a broadcast editor?
I just joined a small edit agency and from music videos it was a relatively small step to working on short insert VTs and then onto larger shows. A lot of it was luck. Being in the right place at the right time with the right people.
The edit has such a huge influence on the final look of a film and yet most people don’t understand the process of editing. Can you briefly describe a typical workflow?
Break down the rushes into individual camera roll sequences. From there divide each roll into scenes involving ‘sync’ or ‘pieces to camera’ (PTCs) and ‘non-sync selects’, making sure you create safety duplicates at each stage. You’ll have PTCs in-car and static with which to create your story and you’ll interweave those with the voiceover as per the script. That is your ‘sync lay’ or ‘radio edit’. Next you ‘block out’ the music tracks through the sequence to give the film ebb and flow and ‘hold and release’ if you will. Then you can begin with the painting and decorating. That’s the first pass.
How much creative control do you have when you put together a film?
Beyond the obvious editorial constraints with a show like Top Gear and the collaboration with the individual directors, I’d have almost total control of the feel, the music cues driving the narrative arc and the unique characteristic style of each film.
Can you edit a series like Top Gear and not be a petrol-head?
You can but you need to able put the viewer in the front seat and convey the feeling of, for instance, breaking the grip of the rear tyres in a high speed corner, applying opposite lock with the steering and having the back of the car swing round behind you. You can do that in three or four shots but there’s an undeniable truth to be able to understand the physics and characteristics of an individual car.
Top Gear editing is always very original, how do you keep that fresh?
Just keep watching everything you can. You’ll get the silliest little ideas for transitions and moves and shot orderings from anywhere and don’t believe anyone who says they don’t watch mainstream telly. Just keep your eyes and more importantly your ears open all the time.
Apart from the technical aspects of editing, what qualities do editors need?
You need to recognise the internal rhythm of the film you’re working on. It will be in there and it’s vital to convey the highs and lows and, again, the ‘hold and release’ of the piece.
Do you work from home or do you have to commute?
I personally work better in a concentrated and structured timeframe and environment. Commuting to and from a facilities house gives me time to think about the films away from the edit and visualize the film before I crack into the working day. Also the small matter of technical support goes a long way…and someone to go and get your lunch too.
Are you ever involved with the filming or are you just issued with lots of footage to put together when it’s all done? Quite often the director and I would plan the style of a particular static sequence for a track test and how it would affect the overall look but more often than not you’d just get a pile of rushes and a script.
How long does it take to put together a typical road test film?
For an 8 minute track test, from receiving rushes to picture lock, would take on average 10 – 15 days including changes. A more involved road / location film over a couple of days would be anything from 3 – 5 weeks and the specials could be 14 – 16 weeks.
Working on Top Gear must be great for your CV. Is there anything that you want to do to top that?
A move into drama and film would be my next logical step.
What do you love about being an editor?
The ability to create an emotional response in the viewer by weaving seemingly disparate pictures and sound in endless permutations.
Is there anything that you dislike?
Weaving seemingly disparate pictures and sound in endless permutations. No, honestly, there’s absolutely nothing I could dislike. Even all the mindless donkey work at the beginning of an edit. This is the most intensely creative job I could have possibly landed myself with.
Is there a piece of work of which you’re most proud?
It would have to be a Top Gear film and despite being hard to pick a favourite from all of them, the Vietnam Special was a film very close to my heart.
What was the best career advice you were ever given?
Shut up and listen.
What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career as an editor?
Keep asking, keep listening, keep pestering, get experience anywhere you can near an edit.
Is there a question you always want to be asked about your work?
Shut up, I’m working.
Dan's website: www.dandantheeditingman.com
Dan on IMDB: www.imdb.com/name/nm1300089/
When your films achieve over 13 million views and you get a Vimeo staff pick, you're on the filmmaking map. Danny tells us about his work.
Our interview with the ex-editor of The Telegraph Magazine who tells us about her career and what it's like to work on a busy picture desk.
Gail has worked on major documentary and drama productions both above and below the water. She tells us about her career.