Oct 23, 2012 3:20PM

How To Be A Super Successful Film Editor

We interview Jamie Selkirk, most known for his work on the Lord of The Rings trilogy.
Jamie Selkirk. Photo: Diane Sagnier

Meet Jamie Selkirk. Aside from being a total legend IRL, Jamie is an Academy Award-winning film editor and producer, whose credits include The Lord of The Rings and King Kong. He founded internationally renowned special effects company WETA in New Zealand, alongside director Peter Jackson and special effects whiz Sir Richard Taylor, in 1987. Since then, the company has been involved in the creation of MAJOR films, notably Avatar, the Lord of The Rings trilogy, The Lovely Bones, The Legend of Zorro, I, Robot, Van Helsing, and the soon-to-be-released The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Want to know what's what in the world of film? Jamie's your man. 

Zac Bayly: How long have you been working in film?
Jamie Selkirk: I started in television in 1966.

What kinds of films or shows did you want to work on, originally?
I loved Westerns! 

You've got a bit of a Western-y vibe; I don't know what it is, though.
Well, thank you! [Laughs].

What exactly do you do, day-to-day at work?
I am a film editor. Basically, King Kong was the last film I edited, so that meant sitting in the cutting room and going through aaaaall the footage and picking out what worked and what didn't. We spent about nine months editing that film, because there was so many special effects involved in that film, obviously, and you've got to work out how it's all going to come together. Basically, my role in the making of a film is a lot of fine-tuning, then more fine-tuning, then more, until we arrive at a finished product. 

How do you decide what makes the cut? 
Well, you keep watching it, and try to work out what bits are boring, and then you cut them! You want a film to be exciting right the way through. When we did The Lord of The Rings — I edited The Return of the King and was co-producer on the film as well — we watched every role of film that was shot, which was a lot, at the end of the day of filming, and we talked about what could work better, what might need to be re-shot… Obviously, Peter [Jackson] and I have a fairly good working relationship by now. 

How do you keep a clear enough mind, after watching all that footage, to make objective decisions?
You've just got to do it as you go. You work out how you want to cut the scene and then try and piece it all together. So, it's like, 'We know we want a wide-shot there…' And then you pick the best performance takes, and you put it in a row, and you just keep honing it. It's a lot of work. 

Does it take as long to edit a film as it does to actually shoot it?
Hmmm… Well, it's a decision-making process, which, you know, takes as long as it takes. And sometimes it just doesn't work and you do need to go back and do another take, so it's hard to say.

What's the main thing to keep in mind when you're editing a film?
It's all about story telling. You have to pick the moments that best tell the story, and that's it. At the same time, you’re thinking about the music, what bits need to be heightened in drama…

So, it's about story telling and getting the rhythm of the film right. 
Yes. Getting the pace and rhythm of the story right is a very important part of the editing process. 

What's the best-edited film you've seen?
That's tricky… It's hard, because you never know what the footage is that they've had to work with. And the thing is, every editor will look at the footage and see something different, and put things together differently. Some directors do a lot of coverage, and that means an editor has a lot of scope, but others are very meager with what they shoot, because they know how the film should look in their minds, so it's hard for an editor to put their style into it. 

What is your and Peter Jackson's working relationship like? 
Well, originally I did all of the cutting, because Peter didn't realise how much you can manipulate a film in the editing room, but now he loves being in the cutting room. When we did The Lord of the Rings, we shot all three films in the first year and a half, and then we started cutting film one, and did pick-ups — shooting extra bits to fill in the gaps — the following year, and then we did the second film the year after that, and… All up, it took six years!

Did working on The Lord of The Rings make you super rich?
No! We were paid well, but we don’t make extra money if the film does well. 

And you, and Peter, and Richard, founded WETA?
Yes. Our first film, where we did special effects, was Heavenly Creatures, which is one of my favourite films ever. I enjoyed working on that film the most out of any film. It was very fun. And it was ground-breaking, because it was our first time doing special effects, and… What are we talking about again?

You founded WETA after Heavenly Creatures.
Yes! We bought a computer — just one — and decided we needed to do something with it. We thought, 'OK. We've got this computer, we've got this scanner, and we should do something with this'. [We laugh]. We thought, 'What are we going to do with this thing?' So, we started a visual effects company because we had a computer. At that stage we were very small, but because of that film we ended up with eight artists working for us. 

It's pretty incredible that you started with one computer and now your power bill is like $30,000 a week or something after expanding to do Avatar's special effects. 
It's something extraordinary like that, yeah.

If you could bring one character from one of your films to life, who would you pick? I'm pretty attracted to those avatars, to be honest.
I don’t know… Hmmm… 

What about one of the wraith's dragons?
Yeah, that'd be a good one! You could ride it to work! I tend to forget all the characters after all this time…

What makes you excited about your job after all this time?
Working with young film directors. That's what I like doing. It takes you back to when you started. These young guys with so much enthusiasm and no money… It's really fun. As the films get bigger, the budgets get bigger and… It's just much nicer focusing on little films. 

I know it's such a cliché to say 'I like their earlier stuff', but I feel like as directors get bigger budgets to play with their films become less and less exciting. 
They do! I think you're right! 

Why do you think that is?
Well, remember, the more budget you have, the more pressure is placed on you to make a commercially successful film. Often the director tries to make the best film possible, and then the producers come in and they're trying to make as much money as possible. In the American film industry, especially, the directors get sidelined. Peter is lucky because he's done well enough to have a lot of control. 

Last question: how does one go about breaking into film? 
I suggest you try and get your foot in the door anyway that you can and then work out what you want to do. At the end of the day, a runner [the film-industry equivalent of an intern, but they're usually paid] is the best thing to be, because you get to see how all the departments work and decide what's the most fun. It's a great world to get into, but it's a hard world to get into.

Zac Bayly

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