Interview with Ion Webster

Ion Webster’s edits (as JackBlack) at 90to5

 

90to5: Ion, would you like to introduce yourself and say a few words about how you got started as an editor?

Ion: I was a projectionist in high school, which led me to discover American
Cinematographer magazine. The more I read, the more I considered the possibility of
a career in film. After graduating from university, I sought an apprenticeship with a
production company, but was unsuccessful. Instead I went to film school, first in
London, England and then in Toronto, Canada. During my second year I was
fortunate to make a 16mm documentary that impressed the company I had originally
approached . They hired me as a trainee assistant editor.

Later I became a freelancer, alternating between editing documentaries and short
dramas, while still working as an assistant editor on features. To find the
opportunities I moved to Montreal then later to Toronto. Eventually I began editing
television movies and some features. I continued to do documentaries from time to
time, because I believe what one learns in one genre can be applied in the other.

How does that work? Simply because I believe documentaries have something in
common with dramas: scenes unfold and the audience grasps the story (usually).
In classical documentary, it is primarily the structure that communicates the story.
Documentaries today, particularly those intended for tv, are often narration driven.
You know the drill: Lay down the narration and cut video on top of it. Drop in
relevant interviews, and you’re done. That, I would argue, is not a true documentary.
It’s more like a news report.

Since film is about structure, I think the more structuring you do, the more skillful an
editor you will become. Structuring docs helped me to learn how to tell stories in a
compelling way. Cutting drama taught me how to set up and pay off conflict and
comedy.

When problems arise in editing, I remember that film is THE BIG LIE. Then I look for
ways to cheat. That is perhaps the most exciting and challenging part of the process.
It forces me to think outside the box. If nobody notices what I’ve done, I’m satisfied.

90to5: What were the most fun projects you worked on?

Ion: One project I really enjoyed doing was the mini series “La Dame de Berlin”. It was set
in the mid nineteen thirties in Berlin and Paris, using historical events and
personalities as a backdrop. These included Adolf Hitler, Eva Braun, Hoffman (who
was Hitler’s photographer), the Bugatti family (of automobile fame) the then
innovative Leica camera and the Maginot Line. I went to Paris for the picture editing,
and learned about post production there. Eighteen years later, I visited one of the
forts in the Maginot Line which we had used as a location. The caretaker even
remembered our shoot.

On another occasion, I was struggling with a novice director’s comedy. A
distinguished American editor was hired as a consultant and gave me many useful
tips. He found one scene too slow and suggested dropping it. I agreed it sucked and
asked for the chance to revise before rejecting it completely. The revised scene stayed
in the movie and got me another job on a film with ten times the budget. I wouldn’t
have predicted that.

90to5: Are there any other editors whose work you admire?

Ion: Some editors I admire: Verna Fields, Walter Murch, Ralph Kemplen, Ernest Walter,
Yves Langlois, Ralph Rosenblum, Ron Wisman; the Eisenstein,-Pudovkin school. I’m
sure those who want to know more will consult imdb.

90to5: How do you tackle editing tasks and what advice do you have for aspiring editors?

Ion: Some things I’ve learned:

An editor should know the material thoroughly, so take the time and make
notes in the database or mark up shots with flags. It saves time later when you’re
under a deadline. Do not fall victim to the “I just look at the circled takes” method there
could be gold in the dregs.

How would I define “good editing”? I think it has to do with knowing when NOT
to cut. That comes with a deeper understanding of the significance of a moment,
as given life by an actor’s performance, and a director’s guidance. Developing an
effective rhythm for a scene will flow out of this deeper understanding. In the case of
trailers , it’s simple: no shot shall exceed 21 frames. (I counted them).

When a crew is shooting in a distant location, and new rushes (dailies) arrive, an
editor should stop cutting and screen the material asap. Words of encouragement
and notes evaluating coverage are appreciated by experienced directors and
producers. It reassures them that you are watching closely to help catch oversights
and it is a priority during the shooting period.

Practice diplomacy and discretion. An editor may easily find himself or herself
caught in the middle of a power struggle in post production. If asked awkward
questions regarding the conduct of another person, be prepared to say ” I don’t feel
I’m at liberty to discuss this. Why don’t you ask so and so directly?” The controlling
idea here is DO NOT LIE. It will come back to bite you sooner or later.

Protect your sources. Early knowledge of a project can help in getting your
name considered. Once a contact advised me that a particular project had just been
green lit by a broadcaster. As this was not yet public knowledge, I contacted his firm
with an offer of interest. The producer stepped out of a sound mix to return my call
and angrily demanded to know how I was informed of this confidential decision. I
politely declined to name my source. He assured me he would find out anyway.
Perhaps he did, but not from me.

Be wary of projects that get out of control. People can wither under the
pressure, and wind up quitting or being fired. This creates opportunities for others,
but at a certain risk. Assess the risks carefully, because the film and television industry
can be quite ruthless at times. Money drives the system, and often overwhelms all
other considerations. It is up to you to protect your health.

Develop a thick skin and a commitment to keep trying for opportunities.
Because there are usually more people available than positions on offer, you will face
rejection. Try not to take it personally. Try to remain optimistic-after all, film
production is a thankless activity, but somebody’s got to do it.

When faced with challenges due to tight schedules, prepare a detailed strategy
and make personal contact with all the people who will be interacting with you and
your team. Explain the goals of the project and the significance of any special
requests you are making. This will allow your colleagues to share their concerns
before the heat of battle, so to speak. You will plan and execute better, by winning
over those who might be less than enthusiastic in the face of your demands. It’s all
about team building.

I like to make a list of the controlling ideas that I’m trying to express.
These are worked out with the director in discussion. A good director will explain
those aspects of his or her approach that may not be immediately obvious in the
shooting. Symbols, counterpoint, subtext—these all merit discussion and notes.

Good directors will take suggestions from editors. Cultivate relationships with
directors who trust your judgement and will give you some freedom to create.
Otherwise, editing will become an exercise in button pushing. There’s an app for that.

If you are cutting for the big screen, you must evaluate your work on the big
screen. Sometimes you may see things you never noticed before. Example: A boxing
scene opened with a wide shot of the crowd and ring, The next shot showed a closer
angle of the entrance as the key characters entered and found their seats.. The
problem? Those characters were already present in the wide shot, lost in the murky
crowd, but that wasn’t visible in the cutting room.

Every idea is worth trying, no matter how off-the-wall. Even if unsuccessful, the
process may help kick open a door to a new idea that provides the solution to the
problem.

90to5: What are you looking forward to?

Ion: I have a great interest in 3D, having done some conversion work on scenes which
appeared in Saw 7. I’ve studied the history and I would like to cut a 3D project. I
would also like to make a film in Russia.

90to5: Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and insights!

 

Ion Webster is a member of Canadian Cinema Editors and the Directors Guild of Canada.