Storytellers love double-entendres. Philip Pullman, in the trilogy His Dark Materials, fashions young Lyra’s alethiometer on a navigator’s compass, while the creator of the story’s multiple universes drafts them using the tool of the same name.
The time-shifting series Doctor Who began its eleventh series with The Woman Who Fell to Earth, introducing the thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whitaker) and the first woman to play the role. While the title alludes to her introduction, it may also apply to another important character.
Creators of science fiction and fantasy use language in creative ways to gain an edge while pushing the boundaries of the possible. Generations of scientists and historians describe being inspired by stories that sought the edges of understanding–that asked, “What if?”
David Fisher is on that edge, expanding his considerable talent as an editor while also seeking the boundaries of editing in the science-fiction and fantasy genres. He edited the episode of Doctor Who, directed by Jamie Childs, that began the 37th overall season of the show, and is also editing episodes of the series His Dark Materials for BBC One and HBO, to be premiered later in 2019.
We at Avid are lucky to have the chance to talk with David about his work on these shows, his career, and of course, editing video with Media Composer.
How did you get into editing?
I studied a BA (Hons) in Media Production at Northumbria University (in the north-east of England, where I’m from). I got to know every single different aspect of filmmaking and TV and the kind of thing I gravitated towards was editing. Some people will get their lucky break and become an editor straight away. But a lot of people start off as an assistant editor.
After graduating in 2006, I managed to get my first job as an assistant editor on Wire in The Blood (Coastal Productions) and over the years built up contacts and gained more editing experience while assisting (editing recaps/teasers/series promos, assembly editing). In my own time I would edit music videos, write or direct short films with the goal of editing them.
I think for me, going to university learning different roles was a great training ground and then being lucky enough to get a job in post production (where I knew I wanted to be) helped give me the right knowledge and training to pursue a career in editing.
Some people as part of their education get to do apprenticeships. We had quite a few different apprenticeships on Doctor Who. It was great because we had three cutting rooms running at the same time and a VFX department, so a trainee could learn different sides of post production (assisting, editing and VFX) one of the trainees Alistair, has actually gained employment from this and is now part of the VFX department (doing temp VFX).
I’ve worked on a crime drama for ITV, Vera, which is shot in the northeast of England, which is always nice to see locations from home (its 10th season is shooting this year). Other shows I’ve edited are The Bay, Shetland, Grantchester, No Offence and Mr. Selfridge (which was the show I got my first editing credit on). I'm currently editing the last two episodes of the first season of His Dark Materials for HBO and BBC One.
What do you like most about editing?
I would say editing drama covers a lot of different aspects which I love, editing picture and sound, temping with sound effects and temp score. Also the different stages–first reading the script, getting rushes daily and assembling, working with a director in a fine a cut and presenting to producers and network executives. Each step keeps the job fresh and rethinking what the story is about and how to make it better. That’s the key element, making sure the story is working and engaging.
Does experience as an assistant build a practice for you, that becomes what you teach new team members?
Yeah, definitely. It was great being an assistant editor, because on long-running drama and things like Wire in The Blood, there were four blocks, which means four different editors, usually. Being one assistant, you've got block one fine-cutting with a director, while block two is shooting. So you're looking after a fine cut, but you're also getting material in from the second block. That way, you’re seeing two different sides of the editing process.
I found that being hard working, keen to learn, the editors wouldn’t mind me sitting in on the editing process. For me, it was great because I got to see different people's techniques. I could see that communication with the director is very key. And it was great to see the different dynamics between different editors and different directors.
As a result, I learned different skills, how different people operate. I love the technical side, organizing the Avid project in a certain way so everything is accessible. It's about how you work as well, and how you want to do things. So for an assistant it is quite a learning experience. You learn the admin side, the personal side, the technical side, and it's just about finding what's best for you to then progress and hopefully become an editor and take those skills on to then work with directors yourself.
Is it important to have a strong relationship aspect on the editing team?
Yeah, I’d say so, because the editor is assembling and the director is on location or in the studio shooting, you’re the first line of getting the material and working your way through what they've shot. And obviously, you have your blueprint from the script, and maybe you've had conversations with the director, but then it's the editor’s interpretation of the material and knowing the story, and how to put it together.
So really, you're kind of alone for however many weeks, say it’s a six week shoot, and then you fine cut with a director which is where the strong relationship aspect comes in, as you then open up the cut that you have assembled to new ideas and trying things to get the duration down for tv but also keeping it entertaining and coherent. From there the next relationship is presenting to the producers and feeding their ideas in. Where it’s about, is it working? If it’s part of a long-running show, does it all suit the overall tone of the series.
From there, then it goes off to the network. And that's another relationship, that's another conversation. It is, again, communicating with the producer, but more the director and then field those questions from the producer to see that we're actually getting what they want. The key relationship is with the director at the end of the day.
What is your work relationship like with assistant editors?
When shooting, there’s a lot more workflow and communication with the assistants, because they take the material and transfer it into the rushes, and label it the way I like for my project and how I work, and then transfer the bins.
Communication from both sides (editor/assistant) is key. They kind of keep the ship running really, and make me look good.
We’ve got three great assistants on His Dark Materials, Hayley Williams, Craig Haywood, and Ben Mudge, who are running between three cutting rooms at the moment because we're all in fine cut. We're quite close to the end of locking everything now for HBO and BBC, so they’re doing a lot of turnovers and a lot of exports. But they keep everything afloat and everything going so they're really vital to the running of everything.
Do you find that teams that gel together often stick together on different projects?
Yeah, I would say so. I’ve worked a lot of great directors, the way things work with scheduling of shoots, I’m lucky enough to work with one director and as they are either on the lookout for their next project or are in prep, I’m lucky enough to be able to work with another director who is shooting and can bounce between the two.
What is it that's interesting about science fiction and fantasy?
I grew up watching television and film in the '80s, the first film I remember seeing at the cinema was The Princess Bride, I loved the fantasy and mix of comedy. I’d go to the cinema all the time growing up and throughout school/university, since school I knew I wanted to get into the media industry.
I've been a massive fan of Doctor Who since I was a kid, so I've always gravitated towards sci-fi and it was a bit of a dream come true to be editing it. Jamie Childs (director) brought kind of Spielberg-esque style to it and it was a joy to edit
I think again with His Dark Materials it's another fantasy world and I'm quite drawn to those kind of stories. It's the escapism and it’s entertaining.
Every job I work on is different, I’ve worked on crime dramas, period dramas, sci-fi. I find all the stories interesting but I also love what each different type of genre brings, strong performances from actors, different locations, different lighting and look from the director of photography and a different style and directing varying on each job.
Have you seen progress with the ability to create special effects in television?
Yeah, absolutely. I do think it's progressed a lot. DNEG on Doctor Who does a fantastic job. I think a lot of our episodes were more practical, since that's the direction that the director wanted to take and in the first episode it was about making it real world again, bringing new people and a new audience to Doctor Who and then the doctor crashes into our world.
I think TV has grown and budgets are allowing for more visual effects, with advances in technology it’s making vfx look real and making the small screen look big.
Doctor Who and His Dark Materials have such richly-known backgrounds, did you find that intimidating?
No, I don't think I did. Every new job’s a different challenge. I spent many years learning my craft and working towards becoming an editor. It was a dream of mine to edit Doctor Who, it was great timing to get the call from Jamie Childs, “Do you want to come and do Doctor Who?’” and I was just like, “I’ve probably never told you this, but I'm a massive fan and been a massive fan for years. And you just have no idea how much I want to edit this”.
But no, I definitely didn't find it intimidating. I just found it quite exciting because the cutting rooms are where they film some interior scenes including the Tardis.
I got to go through the old props department, the costumes and just seeing things from other seasons. I could work alongside the production office and see the sets being constructed. It was just really exciting more than anything.
If you had a wish list for Media Composer features, things you would love to see in the product, what would you look for?
To be honest, I think you've done a few of the things that I wanted, such as background bin-save, which is now a feature—for years I was praying for that.
And the other thing that I just realized with this new update, was the live timeline. Being able to solo audio tracks while still playing and also to be able to delete things in the bin while it's still playing is absolutely fantastic. Keeping that seamless playback with the director while I can still do a few things on the side as well.
We're using version of 2018 point 12.1 at the moment and I think it's great. It's really cool.
You describe the script as like a roadmap. Do you find that it changes a good deal before the show is delivered?
Really, when I get on to a project, it's usually pretty much the shooting script. Being an editor. I'm not really there for the process of developing the script and getting different versions.
At the moment I’m near the production office on the job I’m on, and the sets, and I am seeing the process a bit more now because they're gearing up for season two at the moment. But I haven't been given anything to read because I'm just concentrating on the last two episodes of the first season.
I think as an editor, it's probably different for other people. But for me, I'm handed the script sometimes a week before we shoot on different productions. You can tweak things in the edit as well, which does happen, and can change story strands, and put some more clarity into things with ADR and things like that. But usually I'm just handed a script and then we kind of go for it from there.
When you visualize the script, does it usually match what you see in the cutting room?
Reading the script, you kind of have your take on things, but then the material kind of dictates how it goes together, how the director has envisioned it. Sometimes on Vera, for example, it’s a ‘who done it’ crime drama, you get these big final scenes where the main character Vera has cracked the case and she’s figured out who killed the person you saw in the opening tease.
These scenes can end up being over eight-pages of dialogue, usually with two people, Vera breaking down why the killer did it and that person telling her why/how.
These can be quite a challenge because, over eight pages of dialogue, the director will cover it in certain ways to sustain that kind of scene for that long. So, different wides and mids, different angles and different shots on the line.
In the assembly process, it may end up being about eight to ten minutes. The challenge of the editor is to tell the story, keep it fresh with coverage/editing and keep it intriguing.
Those are the kinds of things that you need to take a step back and ask, "Are you over-playing that wide for too long? When is the right time to play the close ups?"
You’re going through a lot of material and a lot of daily rushes, which can be shot 2 camera or more. It's just quite a process. Those kinds of scenes may take you a couple days to assemble because it's just keeping it all in your head—remembering the story that came before—because they don't always shoot the episode in order. The challenge in that is not to spiral too much into the scenes. I think that's probably where getting up and walking around and getting a break for a few moments come into it, for putting those kind of big scenes together.
What advice would you offer new editors & assistant editors?
For assistant editors wanting to make the step up to editing, I would say edit as much as possible, short films, music videos, trailers/recaps. This not only gives you a showreel but you can also learn so much. I would say edit as much as you can, each job you learn something new.
An assistant who is hardworking wants to learn and wants to be there. I’ve worked with many great assistants, Hayley Williams and David Davies on Doctor Who keep the cutting rooms running smoothly as they look after up to 3 editors at a time as well as turnovers to sound/picture post. While also editing next times and sizzle reels. It was very impressive to see and be part of such a well-oiled machine.