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Finely Sliced: Giving Films Purpose with Milena Z. Petrovic

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Uppercut editor on rhythm being “the heart of editing”, her director father’s advice and the importance of exploring more than just films

Finely Sliced: Giving Films Purpose with Milena Z. Petrovic

Milena Z. Petrovic is a uniquely-talented storyteller who grew up in a family of artists in Serbia. She began editing and directing at the age of 12 and graduated from the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade as the best student in a generation. She’s gone on to win numerous awards for her feature, documentary, and commercial work thanks to her visual perfection, balanced poetic narratives, and striking style.

Get to know more about her approach to editing with her Finely Sliced. 



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

 

Milena> I put a lot of time and attention into making selections and organising footage. This is something I like to do without help from an assistant because I want to see all of the footage myself – not just all the takes, but also the pauses in between takes. I get a sense of the whole shoot – the atmosphere, the energy, everything that went into it – which helps me understand what the commercial is going to be. And if the footage is organised adequately, I can easily go back to a stage, replace footage, and reorganise things without interrupting the flow of my edit.

I try to have directors involved as early as possible in the process. When they are a part of selecting footage, I can hear their intentions for each shot and take, and understand what they would like this film to become. This is also a great time for me to get to know them as a filmmaker and create a relationship by talking about music and things that are not directly connected to the project. From this, I get a sense of what they like and who they are, because a film is not just about the footage, it's also about the intention of the director.

The next step, after we have the full selects, is to find what I like to call the ‘hook’ of the film – a sequence, segment, or key image that is very easily recognisable as the iconic moment. Then we can build upon this – finding a music track and doing a simple cut of this one little piece or moment, to get a feeling of what the film could achieve. Once we recognise the potential, I get really inspired to dig in and build the whole structure around it.



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?

 

Milena> My father, who’s a film director, would often say, “There are a million ways to edit a bad film, but there’s only one way to edit a good film,” meaning that a film is made and defined by its edit. An edit is so much more than the technical side because an edit gives a film tempo, rhythm, structure, and the immanent feeling of purposefulness. When Orson Welles was asked what kinds of movies he watches, he said, “Movies? I don’t watch movies, I go to the theatre.” When becoming a filmmaker, it's important to explore more than just films. I started editing and making short films when I was 12 years old, and my father was there to guide me from the start. I grew up surrounded by a great selection of books, classic movies, music, and comic books - I learned to equally love and appreciate classic Hollywood cinema and European author cinema. This inspired my imagination and ultimately helped me develop my craft.



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

 

Milena> You can only properly tell a story that you fully understand. A story is more than just a series of actions and things that happen, it’s also defined by how you tell it and the perspective you bring to the narrative. Without fully understanding the story, you can’t explore different ways of telling 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?

 

Milena> Rhythm is the heart of editing. Nobody can teach you rhythm, you have to feel it within yourself. It’s important to find musicality and rhythm in the movement of the pictures, which is actually possible to do without any music at all. It’s about understanding movement and motion the same way you understand notes on a sheet of music. Let’s look at it this way: whenever I look at a shot, I try to define its main rhythmic action – like a dancer who’s spinning or a static actor with a fast dolly moving towards him. There’s always a key melody to each shot, and each melody goes together to create the rhythm of the film. Rhythm and structure cannot be separated. Structure defines rhythm and rhythm defines structure. It’s important to create a melody of movement and to be able to look at visual movement the way you listen to music. A good example is musicals, because in musicals when you take out the music there is still a certain elegant melody that the movement itself creates.



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

 

Milena> I recently had the chance to work again with my longtime collaborators and friends  director Jovan Todorovic from Anonymous Content and cinematographer Claudio Miranda – on a project for Ad Council and Veteran Affairs, called ‘Boil’. The idea behind the film was to show how time passes for Veterans and urge them to reach out for help when needed. Jovan wanted to create a feeling of time ticking by rotating the camera, as it approaches each character, in a motion that resembles a clock ticking. This was shot through multiple scenes, and the trick was to edit all of the scenes together in a way where there was a continuous and seamless feeling of rotation. It ended up being very challenging because I was limited on the number of selections I could use since the film needed to be constantly rotating forward. But, in the end, I think it was executed beautifully and resulted in a very moving 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?

 

Milena> The relationship with the director is very important to me. There are a million things you can do with footage, so it's important to know the director's intentions. That said, sometimes their intentions can’t always be perfectly achieved and you have to have difficult conversations. I know it can be hard for a director to kill their own darlings, so I always make sure to keep the conversation focused on what is functional towards the film’s main idea. Sometimes, it will happen that the film that they wanted to make can’t be made, so we have to rework what we are doing in order to create a great film or a music video. 

This often happens with low-budget music videos, where everything the director wanted to create on set wasn’t possible so we then have to rephrase the main idea and concept. But there’s always a way to make something good, we just have to be able to look honestly at the footage and our wishes, and make the best decisions. In filmmaking, not everything is dependent on what I like or the client likes or even what the director likes - the most important thing is what’s best for the film. 



LBB> How does that relationship differ in your European work versus your US work? 


Milena> The difference I notice is that in the United States I work mostly just with the agency, whereas in Europe, I work with the director and only sometimes the agency. There are pros and cons to each situation. Sometimes working directly with the director makes the editing more efficient because they know exactly what they want and have a clear vision. But on the other hand, when I work directly with the agency, we have time to explore possibilities that the director or the original intention never had in mind. So, there are benefits to each side.



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

 

Milena> Both. Too much material is just too much - not enough is simply not enough.

All jokes aside, however painful too much material can be, it also gives a lot of opportunities. I find the biggest challenge is creating a wonderful edit with a small number of cuts. I had another wonderful experience with Jovan recently, where we made a music video where every shot had a specific place and all together we had 15 cuts in a 3-minute music video. You would think that would mean there would be nothing to edit, but really the fewer cuts you have the more visible each one is and the more weight falls onto each to be absolutely perfect. And when dealing with such an edit, if you do it properly, what may seem extremely visible actually becomes invisible. 



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

 

Milena> The commercial that I cut for the Samsung Galaxy Fold is a beautifully harmonised piece with a perfect rhythm. The piece is all about movement, and the idea was for human movement to parallel the movement of the phone. For the edit, we choreographed the dancing, music, and camera movements in a way that evolves and unfolds, just like how the Samsung Galaxy Fold unfolds. 

I also love the work I did for Diesel Hate Couture, which is a commercial that celebrates people embracing online hate – taking negative energy and converting it into positive energy. I think it's the perfect commercial – there’s a story, there’s a big cast, there’s great camera work and a beautiful soundtrack. It came together perfectly. It’s a celebration of movement and editing that builds from a very intimate and small feeling to a grandiose ending, similar to the way that great musicals of the Hollywood era end.

 


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. Are you seeing a change in the kind of projects you’re getting from brands and agencies?

 

Milena> I’m open to all platforms and all types of content, whether it’s vertical, for social media or online, a two-hour movie, or a 15-second advertisement, I use the same principles of editing on all. One of the beauties of film is that the same principles of classical editing are still very relevant today. While editing might be faster, audiences also don’t have as much focus and concentration as they did before, so that puts more focus on each cut. This is something that really inspires me.



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

 

Milena> My favourite editors are two Italian men, Pietro Scalia and Cristiano Travaglioli. They are also editors that work with two of my favourite directors, Ridley Scott and Paolo Sorrentino. My favourite films range from ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Black Hawk Down’ to ‘Il Divo’ and ‘La Grande Bellezza’. There’s also one more editor that I hold very dearly, Thelma Schoonmaker. She is able to edit films that are extremely progressive and youthful, regardless of her age - look at ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. The whole film is so wild and crazy and not only was Thelma 77 when she edited it, but also Martin Scorsese was 75 at the time.

My all-time favourite commercials are Pirelli ‘Let’s Dance’ by Daniel Benmayor, Honda's ‘Impossible Dream’ by Ivan Zacharias, and Levi’s ‘Odyssey’ by Jonathan Glazer.

 


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

 

Milena> It’s about the time and attention given to every single frame. In the commercial world, because the commercial is only 15 or 30 seconds long, there is so much more focus on every single frame, so you need to find a balance between emotion, story, concept, and timing. Because the price of every frame is higher, the time given to each minuscule detail is much bigger and one has to understand and appreciate all these elements while making an ad.

 


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

 

Milena> The only thing that I’ve noticed is that every trend is built from another. You have trendsetters, then you have trend followers, and then you have ones that just replicate and duplicate until a trend dies out and something new appears. In essence, new innovations and trends are actually very subtle and always rely on something that existed before.



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Uppercut Edit, Mon, 28 Mar 2022 17:12:00 GMT