Whitehouse Post editor on adapting to the North American editing role and why "musicality is everything"
With clients ranging from Ikea to Nike, and Macy’s to Black Mirror, Ben Canny has solidified himself as a go-to for surreal and visual work collaborating with top agencies including Wieden+Kennedy, Bullish, BBDO NY, and McCann. Comfortable wherever he is editing, Canny has travelled across the globe to work with directors including The Perlorian Brothers, Matias & Mathias, Andreas J Riiser, and Jakob Marky, bringing to life delightfully absurd stories featuring dancing dolphins, a young man’s romantic relationship with a giant hand, and a smart home malfunction brought on by a trip to the dentist.
LBB> Why did you get started in editing? And what has the journey been like up until this moment?
Ben> I fell into editing. I trained originally as an actor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama here in London but after a few years of auditioning and small jobs, I hit a bit of a crisis and decided the actor’s life wasn’t for me. I told my agent to hold all my calls (*cough*) and took a chance on work experience at Flynn Productions. They offered me an in-house job in the ‘library’, at that time printing treatments and burning showreel DVDs for the likes of Sam Brown and Paul Gore. Yes. Hard copies. There I worked my way into the editing department and was one of the two in-house editors there for about three years. Once working in production, I was naturally drawn to editing; the storytelling, the musicality, and the geekiness of it. It seemed to me that in filmmaking it was the nub. It felt a bit like a magic trick, and still does!
I decided to go freelance in 2010 and it has been a bit of a circuitous route since then. I spent many years working on branded content type work as a freelancer. But the stars aligned when I got a chance to work with director Jakob Marky. We hit it off and that led to a long collaboration with him and Bacon and then representation with Art Official in Scandinavia. Working with the directors at Bacon I was able to slowly build my commercial reel, that ripple effect has continued and with a bit of hustle and luck, I have managed to land representation with Whitehouse in the UK and US and School Editing in Canada. It has taken me some time to get here, but I now have a reel that I am proud of and feels true to me.
LBB> The first cut is the deepest: how do you like to start an editing project?
Ben> I feel like this is something that is constantly in flux, and I am still learning and evolving my process. But I think it is all pretty standard stuff! First, I put on some music. Get in the zone so to speak. Then I like to get an overview of all the footage and scrub through everything. Then chat through with the director. In the past, I have been almost overly thorough in the selects process, doing at least three passes on the rushes to try to get the footage down to a tiny pool of fantastic footage. But more recently I have been trying an initial experiment to build a rough assembly by just intuitively grabbing moments that feel right and then comparing that with where we end up down the process. What I have found is that nine times out of ten the initial intuition is right. That isn’t to say you can skip the rest of the process. That would be a dereliction of duty! But I have found it helps build confidence to trust my instincts in the edit and to feel out various routes through the creative without getting bogged down.
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?
Ben> I think I intuitively approach editing musically. That isn’t to say that I rely on music to provide the tone or emotion but rather riff on the innate musicality of a scene or edit. There is a rhythmic push and pull in any edit whether it is a dialogue-heavy comedy or drama, or a kinetic beauty cut. Having a background in acting and music this feels like the most natural approach for me. I think you can feel if it is working in your bones. I am definitely a ‘try it and see’ type of editor. For me, editing is much more somatic than cerebral.
Musicality is everything. I think a good edit is like a good, improvised drum solo. It really is something that I feel out as I go. Swapping things out, back and forth, throwing things around the timeline. Play it. Doesn’t work. Try again. Drop in another take. Feel it out... Eventually, it starts to feel like you are creating a flow. Rinse and repeat. I definitely like cutting to music, but you can’t rely on it. I learned that it is too easy to lean on music to provide the emotion you are after. But equally don’t be afraid of the shorthand that music can provide to lock everything down and magnify the tone, or perhaps subvert it.
LBB> How important is an understanding of story and the mechanics of a story?
Ben> I am sure that many people would disagree, but for me, I rely much more on intuition and instinct than an academic understanding of story structure. Emotion should rule the roost - and yes story is next on the list - but it is emotion that is driving your decisions. If you don’t feel anything, you are dead in the water.
LBB> Tell us about a recent editing project that involved some interesting creative challenges.
Ben> Without a doubt the most challenging recent project was the Sandy Hook Promise job that Jakob and I completed last year. We were tasked with creating three TVC’s with some fantastic copy and essentially an open brief, utilising found footage. We had about four weeks to do it from conceiving the creative to delivering all three finished films. I received 4000 separate stock clips - I was practically drowning in material. And there was the added responsibility to do a good job for such an important organisation. In the end, we brought in a second editor to help get it over the line in time, but it was an intense four weeks of creative energy, and I am proud to have been a part of it.
LBB> In the US we know that editors are much more heavily involved across the post-production process than in Europe - what’s your favourite part of that side of the job?
Ben> This is a bit of the process that is relatively new to me as I have only started working in North America in the last year. But creatively I absolutely love sound design. To me, it is absolutely integral to a good film. Sorry to the DOP’s out there, but you can have pretty mediocre footage and still have a good film with a good cut and sound. But bad sound design, like a bad edit, ruins everything. I really enjoy building a solid sound edit in the offline, and then seeing that all come together with the professionals is an absolute joy. However, in general, I am looking forward to getting more involved in the US and becoming more fluent in the entire post process and the offline editor’s role in it.
LBB> In a sentence or two, describe your editing style.
Ben> Committed and friendly in the edit suite. Intuitive, quirky, laid back and musical on the timeline.
LBB> Can you explain the impact that someone’s style of editing has on a project?
Ben> Really it is our job to be versatile and have an answer to whatever the script requires. In some ways, you become the sum of the directors and creatives that you have had the opportunity to work with. Through those choices and relationships, you develop a voice and hopefully, you build a body of work that resonates with you. That said, within the realms of a 60 - 90s commercial edit there are still opportunities to bring yourself creatively into the mix, places where you can deviate, or accents you can hit that can both hopefully elevate a project and create a continuity of style in your own work. For me, it is these smaller moments, like the fish following the protagonist in the Anyfin commercial, or the flashback sequence in The Relationship, that I get the most satisfaction from. These unscripted, un-boarded story moments that I managed to squeeze in that I think make the piece better. I try to work some of these moments into every edit I do. It doesn’t always get through the various feedback rounds. But I try!
LBB> What’s harder to cut around – too much material or not enough?
Ben> This is one that seems to split editors a bit. With commercials, I definitely prefer more targeted and crafted footage to work with. I can see the argument that the more you have to work with, if you are thorough, the better the film should be - but it never seems to work out that way for me. Maybe it depends on your personality? If there is too much material, the air is somehow sucked out of the creative process. But more importantly for me, less footage usually indicates a director that has discipline and clarity in their vision. When working on a very well crafted, tightly boarded commercial you can focus on realising that vision in the most effective way, without wasting time drowning in rushes. Of course, this isn’t a catchall. It all really depends on the job, but if I had to choose, keep the footage tight!
LBB> Which commercial projects are you proudest of and why?
Ben> To be honest, I don’t think I have one specific edit that stands out as my favourite. I have a few where there is some element that I am proud of, and those tend to be the ones where I have influenced the creative in a way that I think has made the spot better - the jobs where I have some creative agency:
In ‘The Relationship’ I introduced a flashback sequence that I think helped hammer home the comedy of the final frame. In ‘Smart House’ it was crafting an improvised performance into a cohesive whole.
In the Black Mirror ‘HNY’ Trailer, there was a kind of meta edit going on in subverting the TV footage to tell the story that we wanted, which was all created in the offline.
In the Thomas Barford music video, it was an exercise in resisting the urge to cut it like a dance edit. There is something undefinable for me in that film, in its restraint.
With Komplett, I was just happy to be working on a western! As a gamer and a geek that pretty much was the happiest I have been on a commercial job so far.
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?
Ben> For most of my early career I was working almost exclusively on online branded content but now I am mainly working on 60s - 90s TVCs and all their associated cutdowns and social formats. So, I am not sure I have seen a big change aside from my own career progression. The 60-second TVC seems to still reign supreme as far as I can tell.
LBB> Who are your editing heroes and why? What films or spots epitomise good editing for you?
Ben> It’s got to be Roderick Jaynes. I love everything that guy touches. I find it hard to disassociate my favourite editors from my favourite directors and films because they come as one package. So, people like Sally Menke, Dylan Tichenor, Joe Walker, Walter Murch, Terry Rawlings. Michael Kahn. Raiders of the Lost Ark continues to be one of my favourite films of all time. Indelibly seared on little Ben’s brain.
LBB> What plans or projects are you looking forward to?
Ben> I am so excited to have joined Whitehouse Post this year and looking forward to seeing where this next step in the journey takes me. I am also hoping to get the chance to work on a feature over the next few years so am going to have to start banging on some doors!
LBB> Do you have any tips for young editors starting out right now?
Ben> Say yes to everything! I know it is a bit obvious. But just take on every opportunity you can conceivably manage. You want to build up your reel and most importantly your network. Editing is all about relationships and it is only by putting yourself out there, working hard, doing favours, and taking risks that you will hopefully meet the people that you will be working with for much of your career. And those collaborators are what it is all about. It is the process and working with great people that will provide the most rewarding experience in an editing career.