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Finely Sliced: Toby Conway-Hughes on Testing His Editing Endurance


Marshall Street Editors editor on telling real stories, cutting to a musical beat and finding the gems in an interview

Finely Sliced: Toby Conway-Hughes on Testing His Editing Endurance

Toby Conway-Hughes from Marshall Street Editors chats to LBB about the art of editing and gives a personal insight into his career so far.

LBB> The first cut is the deepest: how do you like to start an editing project?

Toby> I like to start editing a project before it's even been shot. Prior to a shoot it can be so useful working with the director, storyboard artist, DOP and post supervisor to work out how we can shoot and edit complicated scenes, plan technical shots or figure out how to compress a story to fit a 60 second script into 30 seconds of screen time. Only this morning I used my iPhone to film tests with a cardboard box and one my daughter’s Barbie Dolls to see how the edit could work for a tricky scene in an upcoming shoot. The clip ended up being shared with all the heads of department and now when we get on set we all know exactly how to shoot it and I don't end up with rushes on my desk that don't work.

LBB> Non-editors often think of editing just in technical terms but it’s integral to the emotion and mood of a film. How did you develop that side of your craft?

Toby> I love working on ads with a documentary slant, with real people telling real stories. These types of films definitely use a storytelling craft over a technical craft to get across mood and emotion. Making human story style ads will often involve watching hours of fascinating interviews and rushes. Finding the gems in these interviews is the easy part. Knowing how to make a film that makes sense and has feeling and an emotional arc takes experience. Having done a lot of this type of job I’ve become more and more confident when choosing storylines, mixing up structures and experimenting with dialling up or dialling down emotions. One thing I have learnt about the mood or emotion of a film is that gut instincts and initial reactions to the feeling of watching something for the first time are normally the best. Often after going through lots of layers of approvals a film can start to lose some of its mood and emotion. Each person’s ‘one small tweak’ can add up and really impact the feeling of a film. It’s our job as editors to notice when that’s happening and to keep steering the film in the right direction.

LBB> How important is an understanding of story and the mechanics of story?

Toby> It sounds simple to say that every story should have a beginning, middle and end but when you have 90 seconds or even as little as five seconds to do all three of those it’s not straightforward. As a commercials editor I’m constantly looking for ways to condense a story or tell a story in a new or interesting way that keeps the viewer entertained but also that makes sense for the film’s purpose. A first edit will often be way over length and you’re thinking ‘how am I ever going to get this down to the correct duration and it still be understandable and entertaining?’ You then start to find short cuts, shots or lines of dialog that work really hard to tell your story economically and more often than not the film ends up better and for it.

LBB> Rhythm and a sense of musicality seem to be intrinsic to good editing (even when it’s a film without actual music) – how do you think about the rhythm side of editing, how do you feel out the beats of a scene or a spot? And do you like to cut to music?

Toby> Even without music I often find myself slightly swaying around in my chair, bobbing and nodding my head as I watch and work on scenes. It might look a bit odd but I guess it’s my brain feeling the rhythms and flows of information that are happening on screen. I’m fascinated by Walter Murch’s theories about blinking. About how we blink each time our brain has processed a new bit of information and that these blinks are the edit points in our thoughts. As an editor I love that I can experiment with the rhythm of shots, thoughts and emotions. When the pacing is off it’s uncomfortable viewing but when its right my head bobbing feels good! Cutting to a musical beat is occasionally good but done too much can make your edits points too predictable. Cutting on emotional or story beats feels better to me.

LBB> Tell us about a recent editing project that involved some interesting creative challenges.

Toby> I recently cut a spot for Nationwide which was part of the UEFA European Women's Football Championship 2022. The 60 second spot follows a 12 year old girl’s emotions whilst playing football. Filmed in documentary style, we never actually see a football throughout the whole spot as the camera is always close on her face, capturing her different emotions throughout a series of matches. Underneath the pictures, we hear her voiceover taken from real interviews talking about the importance of being supported by teammates, coaches and family as well as the abuse young children often get from parents on the side lines. Creatively it was challenging as the hero interview wasn't able to take place until right at the end of the edit process so I was cutting not knowing what the girl was going to say and therefore not knowing what facial reactions might fit where in the film. I recorded my edit assistant saying what I thought and hoped the girl might say so at least I had something to cut to. I built an edit with rhythm, peaks and troughs and had to hope that she would say soundbites to fit the emotional ebbs and flows of the edit. In my head I was thinking we could script the lines for her to say in the interview but our client was insistent that it all had to be 100% real and unscripted. Although it made the edit process challenging, in the end it’s the authenticity of her VO that really makes it a believable and charming film.

LBB> How important is your relationship with the director and how do you approach difficult conversations when there is a creative difference of opinion?

Toby> An editor and director relationship is so important. A lot of it comes down to trust. Trusting your shot selection, trusting your ideas and trusting that you’ll fight for their vision of the film when they can't be there for agency or client changes. I know that when a director trusts me I feel more confident to be more experimental, try things, make mistakes and hopefully come up with good new ideas along the way. They also need to trust that you’ll be honest with them about your creative opinions even when you don’t agree. 

LBB> What’s harder to cut around – too much material or not enough? (And why?)

Toby> Of course it depends on how good the rushes are but in general not enough rushes is a nightmare. It can be daunting to be faced with tons of takes and endless options but the opposite is far more daunting. There is nothing worse than scraping the barrel and using shots that you know aren't good enough. Actually there is…being asked to slow shots down to make up for the lack of rushes.

LBB> Which commercial projects are you proudest of and why?

Toby> I’m most proud of the jobs where I know that the end result would have been completely different had another editor cut the film. Where I know I have put my stamp on the job whether that be in a creative or technical way. I’m also proud of the jobs that are a test of endurance. The ones with a ridiculous turnaround and a mountain of rushes which require a few days in the editing chair with zero sleep. Maybe I’m weird but I quite enjoy the occasional one of those.

I’m proud of ASICS ‘Eternal Run’ as it was a complicated idea with over a hundred hours of footage and some crazy deadlines that turned into a seriously epic story and went on to win a Cannes Lion Grand Prix. I’m proud of the eight 90 second films I cut for NatWest & ITV over the last year featuring Alison Hammond as I had a lot of input in the pre production stage of these. They are non scripted but between myself and director Caswell Coggins we created a formula to these that made for some really genuine and surprisingly emotional films. I’m proud of Baileys as I cut it in lockdown with directors and agencies watching me edit for weeks over zoom whist my six and seven year old children ran riot in the background. I’m proud of all the charity jobs I cut as they are a labour of love but hopefully help a few people.

LBB> There are so many different platforms for film content now, and even in advertising something can last anything from a few seconds to a couple of hours. As an editor, are you seeing a change in the kind of projects you’re getting from brands and agencies?

Toby> Most of the work I do is still traditional TV ads but I do also get some interesting jobs that don't fit into that box. Social media, streaming platforms and new technology all give brands a chance to do something different. An example of that is a 40 minute documentary I cut sponsored by Campari to celebrate 100 years of Federico Fellini. The doc which is streaming on Amazon Prime Video follows a team of super smart people at UNIT 9 as they use artificial intelligence to create a Feliniesque short film. Another recent project was cutting a live augmented reality experience for Elton John whilst he played in Hyde Park. These kinds of jobs just wouldn't have existed until recently.

LBB> Who are your editing heroes and why? What films or spots epitomise good editing for you?

Toby> I remember watching Raging Bull as a kid and it was the first time I’d been so amazed by a film’s editing. It was the first time I wanted to know who the editor of a film was or was aware that editing was even a thing. Of course it was Thelma Schoonmaker and the next day I got my parent’s VHS Camcorder and started making my own movies, generally featuring me having boxing matches against my brother or me blowing anything I could find up with French bangers. 

LBB> How does editing in the commercial world differ from the film world and TV world?

Toby> I’ve not done a huge amount of long form so not the best person to answer that one. 

LBB> Have you noticed any trends or changes in commercial editing over recent years

Toby> The main change I find is in the amount of deliverables (although I guess that’s not really new news anymore.) I’ll often cut one hero film and then a whole bunch of social versions each with their own aspect ratios. Making a film that is fit for so many different purposes, durations and aspect ratios needs planning and shouldn’t be an afterthought. You sometimes have to think quite creatively to make all these versions work well.


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Marshall Street Editors, Fri, 02 Dec 2022 11:24:55 GMT