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“Every film I work on has that pressure but I can't worry about the budget, I just want to make a film people like;” Star Wars Editor Maryann Brandon on Editing
31 Mar 2021 : Nathan Griffin
Maryann Brandon
On Tuesday, IFTA hosted Oscar-nominated editor Maryann Brandon (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Trek), and IFTA-winning Editors Úna Ní Dhonghaíle (Rosie, The Crown, Death on the Nile) and Mick Mahon (Gaza, Breaking Out) for its Editing - Skills in Focus event, which was supported by Screen Skills Ireland.

The event was moderated by Director, Editor and Author Declan McGrath (Lomax in Éirinn, Mary MacAleese and the Man who Saved Europe).

Brandon shared the skills and techniques that have seen her edit some of the biggest blockbusters of all time, including Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Wars: The Rise of SkywalkerVenom, Star Trek, How to Train Your Dragon, and much more. After speaking about her process and her work to date with Declan McGrath, she was joined by leading Irish Editors Úna Ní Dhonghaíle and Mick Mahon for a roundtable discussion on the key skills and techniques that they use to make top level work. 

Brandon began by talking about the challenges of working on mega-budget films such as the Star Wars franchise and the difficulties of editing VFX-heavy work. McGrath asked if she ever wishes she was working on a small drama devoid of effects.

“Are you kidding? I’d love a small drama!,” Brandon exclaimed. “These big films I work on, there are no sets, it’s all green screen, so you have to edit around it. I would love if there was a big burning building in the background there but there isn’t . So I make up a story in my head and build it from there. It’s always great to have some something to work towards which you can change then. “

“There could be explosions and horses going on and I would be just working away on my portable Avid.”

Brandon spoke about the importance of imagination and decision making for editors on these kind of films, especially if you don’t have previs (pre-visualisation).

“I work with JJ Abrams a lot and he doesn’t like to work with previs too much. You have to use your imagination first and foremost,” she explained. “We do use pre-vis  but there is flexibility.”

In the last battle on The Rise of Skywalker we were trying to figure out where to intercut…. going back to Rey fighting the Emperor or going back to the battle up above…and there was a lot of decision making around that in terms of where you cut between them in terms of the story and momentum.”

Brandon spoke of her process of working on set and how even at this stage the edit can be vital. “On the Rise of Skywalker, we were under a lot of pressure to get the work done. The FX are art and they are beautiful but they take time.

“I took my mobile Avid to the set and worked with the director (JJ Abrams) and others to see what we could work on while they were shooting something else,” Brandon explained. “It was helpful for him too as looking at what they had worked on helped him to decide how he would shoot later scenes. There could be explosions and horses going on and I would be just working away on my portable Avid.”

Brandon frequently co-edits with other editors, most notable Mary-Jo Markey, and she spoke about how collaboration, with other editors, and the wider crew, is crucial on projects like this due to the sheer amount of footage that is generated.

Second units, and splinter units are very important on films like these; you get a massive volume of footage. That’s where a second editor is vital. You may shoot a big set piece over 2 weeks and you can slap an edit together but you always have to move on to the next thing. So a partner is great. You can talk things through but also I love collaboration. I have a great relationship with VFX, and as many people on the set as I can, so then I can understand what they are going for. “

“Sound effects are as important as the image.”

On music and sound Brandon explained how she is very hands on in terms of the sound in the edit. “I think, for me on all the films I do, sound is one of the things I create,” she explained. “I use sound effects in my editing. Sound Effects are as important as the image.”

They are so useful for telling you when a scene ends. The sound of a door opening can get you out of a scene instead of cutting to the door opening visually. I carry a lot of sound effects with me .On a film like Thor (Blood & Thunder) I have a colleague who creates sound effects. I can call him/her and say ‘I need some weird monster sounds here’ and he will come back with some weird monster sound effects, which is great!”

She also works in the edit to get dialogue in the mix that may not have been recorded yet. "Sometimes if I need an extra line from an actor. I'll get a recording from their phone so I can have something to work with. It helps

On working with Legendary Composer John Williams she said: "I have never met a nicer man. He's always saying ‘oh cut whatever you want’ but I'm not going to cut John Williams."

McGrath and Brandon then discussed the issues of communicating information to audiences in these franchises. Star Wars is a prime example of this difficult balancing act as there are hardcore fans who pore over every piece of information as well as more casual fans who may need more basic information conveyed. 

"That's a script issue,” Brandon answered. “A good script will have that well balanced. Sometimes on something like Star Wars, it's great to throw out deep cuts that super fans will get but then you do have to explain things to people. I mean everyone should know Yoda but then there is a balancing act in terms of making sure the previous film is summarised. You can't do a recap like on TV So you have to keep it informative without boring the people who know.”

Brandon has worked extensively with directors such as JJ Abrams and explained how that relationship and trust is vital to the work of an editor. She also explained how an experienced editor can be of enormous benefit to emerging directors.

"On Love Endless the studio asked me to work with the director Shana Feste as she didn't have a lot of experience on films at that level,” Brandon told the IFTA audience. “I met her and agreed to do it because she was great and I wanted to be friends with her. A good editor can advise a director on things like performance and share my knowledge with her on the process. She was amazing but I was there to help."

“In terms of my first cut, I put myself under no pressure to have my first cut be the best cut or even close to it. It’s very much a process.”

The Conversation then turned to the importance of preview screenings with audiences and how they impact the edit. McGrath asked her about the pressure placed on editors from the feedback from these screenings.

Brandon: "A lot of times you go into previews knowing you have problem areas and often the preview will reveal something like it's actually a problem early in the film that didn't communicate enough to make this scene make sense. It can reveal if something is funny (where it's meant to be funny!), is something jarring them that shouldn't, is the ADR working, and so on. The biggest thing you get by far however, is do people like the film?”

Declan McGrath: “And they have to like it on this level!”

Brandon: (Laughs) “Yes they do! Every film I work on has that pressure. But I can't worry about the budget, I just want people to make a film people like. I don't worry about budget. I don't know what it is most of the time or who got what? And I don't want to know.”

Brandon also explained that, despite this pressure, there is always confidence in finding a solution. "Any problem we get in previews, I am always confident we can find a solution. You sit in rooms with people like JJ Abrams, (co-editor), Mary Jo Markey, and so on, and they are so great it will work out. I never feel like it's on me. There's always a solution. I never feel down after a preview. We'll always find a solution and it's always exciting.”

They were then joined by celebrated Irish Editors Mick Mahon and Úna Ní Dhonghaíle to discuss how techniques and skills in editing apply across the board. Brandon began by highlighting the respect she holds for all editors. "I have so much respect for editors because it's so hard. I respect what you (Mick and Úna) do so much as it's a hard process no matter what the budget is.”

McGrath asked the assembled panel, who have all also directed, how that impacted their work as an editor. 

Mick Mahon: "I always tell directors not to edit themselves and recently I directed and edited myself, which ended up being the longest editing process I've been involved with." 

Úna Ní Dhonghaíle: "I think an interest in directing is great for an editor. Editor, director, writer, documentary director,  whatever we are all working on; it's all story. I hope there is more movement from one to the other soon and that it is less hard to move from documentary to drama, which can take an age, or then from drama to feature, it can take a lot of convincing."

Maryann: "Oh yes, do not edit your own work because you need distance from your own work. I've been there too."

They spoke about the process of editing and emotion in conveying character and Brandon shared her experiences on editing anti-hero characters like Marvel & Sony’s Venom. "Venom is tricky because he's a monster you know and you need to make him likable and that's a real interesting challenge for an editor. "

The panel then spoke about their editing style with Mahon pointing out that this isn’t really a concern at first saying "Your style only comes in later in the process. First you build the cake then add the icing.” Ní Dhonghaíle added:  "I would never impose a style on a project. Your job is to bring out the director/writer's vision.”

Music can be a trap sometimes.”

The conversation then returned to music and editing and Mahon shared some advice on how it can particularly impact documentaries in the edit. 

"Music can be a trap sometimes. In documentary, it has a slightly different function,” Mick explained. “It can be very leading and lead you to places that may not be needed. We got offered music from Brian Eno for Gaza but it was too cerebral, great but too cerebral, then we got new music late on and it was possibly a bit too late as I didn't give it the time to breath and give it more space. Also, if you are using Max Richter or Hans Zimmer as a temp that can be a trap too, especially the longer it sits on the cut. You also don't want your composer to feel beholden to that sound.”

The full IFTA Editing - Skills in Focus event will available on the IFTA website in the coming days





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