Interview with editor Yufei Skylar Zhang

  •  When did you decide that you wanted to be an editor? Did you try your hand at any other type of filmmaking positions?

It was probably while I was attending AFI, where I got my MFA in Film Editing. I have a BFA in Film Production with an emphasis on Directing. Growing up, I’ve always wanted to be a director/writer and I was lucky enough to have the support of my family to go to film school. I loved the whole experience being a director in undergrad for 4 years and I have always edited my own films. I realized that there is so much I need to learn from my collaborators, and just simply people around me, the world around me. I decided to apply for AFI as an editor, and learn more from others as I improve my craft in editing and storytelling in general. But after attending AFI as an editor for an intensive, non-stop-editing first year, with 6 shorts cut back to back, I realized how much I enjoyed my newly-found role as an editor and 5aIt’s not that I no longer want to be a director. I would like to have a career as an editor. I still enjoy writing in my free time and I would love to eventually make my films.

  • How do you prepare to start editing (organizing scenes, takes, files and folders)?

It’s actually interesting how many people take the post production department as an afterthought. Very often producers and directors don’t even think about hiring an editor until they’ve got the film in the can. The truth is, the best experiences I have as an editor, are the cases where I was brought on in development. Editors should be included as part of the process in pre-production. It is something crucial that they teach at AFI and it is the case in the industry as well. Our work as editors doesn’t only start from watching dailies. We are in all the creative meetings and shot list meetings where directors and DPs get our opinions on the coverage and choreography.  When it really comes to the cutting of the film, I would sit down with the director first and get a sense of what they think of what we’ve got. I’d definitely watch the dailies as much as I can and pay extra attention to the circled takes and try to understand what the director likes about them. It’s very important to have everyone on the team on the same page. We are all here to make the film the best version it could be and we need to keep an open and clear communication. 

  • How do you decide when/where to make a cut? 

It’s all about the story and the emotion of the scene. I guess it’s really about directing the audience’s attention and emotion subtly. Sometimes a film needs aggressive editing and you want the audience to feel the cut and it’s part of the storytelling; whereas more often, you want the cuts to be invisible. It could be very intuitive for me in feeling the cut, and sometimes you really want to hit hard on the Kuleshov effect. There are  no rules really. There are a million ways to cut a scene and I start by feeling the footage and the scene out. 

  • How can editing change the tone or emotion?

Fundamentally! There was this exercise that we did at AFI with our great mentor Matt Friedman who got an ACE Eddie Award nomination for his work on The Farewell. He would have us cut the same scene between two people with the same footage in two polar-opposite ways, one completely according to how the scene was designed and one trying to counter the emotions and the performance as much as possible. And we’d watch the two cuts back to back and they would seem like they came from two different films. I still remember this and think it was a really effective way to demonstrate how much impact just simple choices made in editing can have on the material. 

  • What kind of problems come up during editing?

Haha, everything from everywhere. Anything that went wrong in production ends up on our plate. Our class of editors at AFI had this customized t-shirt made with “Fix it in Post yourself” on it. I mean I can understand it. The pressure on set is tremendous on the crew. Mistakes happen and problems come up. Sometimes the best take with the most incredible performance happens to be the one where the focus pull was late or soft; Maybe the child actor keeps looking into the camera; maybe the audio signal was lost due to interference and we don’t have sound for half of the scene; the director and I would get into arguments, always, etc. But we know we are all here for the film and we always find a way to solve the problems.

  • How does your work as the visual editor feed into the work of the sound editor?

Although we’re picture editors, I do spend a lot of time on creating a soundscape for each cut that I present. And that’s part of our job. Sound is so instrumental yet too often overlooked in a film. A detailed temp sound design and mix is the secret weapon of good picture editors. It makes the viewer focus on the film itself and not the clothes rustle or a dead silence and will serve as the base and reference for the sound editor’s work. It just makes the cut better.

  • With all the adjustments, how much can a movie end up deviating from the original script?

I think it is important for everyone to remember that not everything will work out exactly the way we envisioned it in pre-production. Once the film is shot, it’s time to throw away the script and the meticulous designs made in our heads on how the film “should” be. We have to look at the dailies and see the film in there and make the best film out of it. It’s not anything bad really. The film is evolving and every stage of filmmaking is shaping the film in its own way. Many directors feel discouraged after the shoot because they didn’t get certain shots or performance how they had envisioned them. It is when we refuse to see the film as is and try to force it into a version of our idealization that we truly jeopardize the film. I have worked on films that turned out to be completely different from the script and how we envisioned it before production, but still they turned out to be very good films nonetheless. And the audience would never know, and more importantly, they don’t care. No one cares how it’s supposed to be. It’s only the finished film that matters. 

  • How much creative input the editor has, or how do you get your director to accept your ideas?

Ideally, we should be involved in pre-production. Occasionally, I’d do a complete first cut on my own without the influence from the director and we work the cut from there. But I find it varies from director to director. Sometimes the director is very open to ideas and inputs from the editor, and sometimes the director is more strict on their vision, which they have every right to be. After all, it is their film and they have the say. But I do think the directors who are more receptive gain more from the process. At the end of the day, we might disagree with each other but we’re all here to make the film better.  And I think most of the directors I’ve worked with recognize that. It’s my responsibility, though, to bring out new ideas gently, friendly, and professionally. Everyone, especially the director, has their ego, and we need to respect that and each other. It should never be personal. 

  • Were you influenced by any directors or film editors in the development of your craft over the years?

It’s so hard to name one director or editor! But one film that struck me and made me see filmmaking differently was Dog Day Afternoon and its remarkable editor Dede Allen. She reinvented film editing in such a profound way in this film. It was such a mix of revolutionary jump cuts and seamless editing techniques that boosted the emotions and realism in the film. Just talking about it makes me want to watch it again.

  • Quite a few directors that once they find their editor, that’s who they continue to work with. Do you find that that’s the case with you?

Totally. I have a few directors I have worked with repetitively. We are not only close collaborators, but also close friends in life. My director from Vincent, Gabriele Di Sazio is one of them. Before Vincent, we collaborated on a film at AFI, and we continued to work together after Vincent. We went to his hometown in Sicily and shot a film on 16mm at the end of last year and we are working on the cut right now. It was an amazing experience filming abroad in Italy, and it is just always a pleasure to work with Gabriele.