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Finely Sliced: Why Storytelling is Everything with Pete Koob

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Cut+Run partner/editor on why he starts every project with a Spotify playlist and how Fight Club inspired him

Finely Sliced: Why Storytelling is Everything with Pete Koob

Cut+Run partner/editor Pete Koob credits his passion for storytelling and music for what led him to his career as an editor. These talents can be found in full display in the award winning “Best Thing Since Sliced Bread” for Lil Caesars, “Click Baby, Click” for Adobe and the romantic “First Comes Like” campaign for Zoosk.

Whether lending his comedic timing to spots for Xfinity, CarMax and Phillips 76 or crafting cinematic narratives for Xbox’ dark and emotional 'State of Decay' short films, Pete has been recognised by the Cannes Lions, the AICP, the Clios, The One Show and the D&ADs, while also being named an AICE finalist multiple times.

In addition, he has collaborated with notable directors Matt Aselton, Isaiah Seret, Shawn Levy and Frank Todaro on category-defining, highly entertaining projects. While Pete is proud to call the redwood forests of the Bay Area his home, he enjoys relationships with clients on both coasts and everywhere in between.


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

Pete> I always start every project by making a Spotify playlist. No matter what type of piece I’m working on, I like to ask myself, “what movie are we making?” Then I build a soundtrack for that movie. It’s one of the best (and most fun) ways for me to start thinking about vibe and tone and it helps begin the dialogue with a director about those things. Sometimes we’ll use those songs as we start the actual edit or sometimes we won’t, but for me, leveraging music as a way to explore tone, pacing, and rhythm is an essential part of how I 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?

Pete> Again, I come back to music for emotion and mood. Obviously, a music track can do some serious heavy lifting when you’re talking about these things, but even on a piece that will never have music on it, I often will “score” the edit as a way to plot out the story and the emotional or comedic beats. Scoring the piece allows me to find the emotional framework that all the performances hang on and motivates shot selection and timing. A lot of my work falls into the “comedy / dialogue” category, and it may seem like music is a peripheral concern. But even on something that I know will never have music on it, I find it’s an essential entry point into defining the emotion and mood of the edit.

 

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

Pete> For me, storytelling is everything. It’s why I got into editing in the first place. On longer pieces, the importance of “storytelling” is much more apparent - we spend more time with our characters and the narrative is more complex. But even on 30 or 15-second commercial work, if you don’t know the story you’re telling, any success you have will be purely accidental. Storytelling is about understanding the characters and the stakes and then presenting those elements in a structure that is engaging for your audience - how the characters got there and why they’re acting the way they are.

Most people think of story as existing only in feature films or episodic television. But I like to think of ads as living within a larger narrative and the 30 seconds we witness is just a small window into bigger stories. Understanding this larger narrative, guides all my choices. It gives me a reason to choose the takes I choose or motivates the decision to build in a pregnant pause in a dialogue exchange. And then, on a more technical-micro level, understanding the visual or auditory sequence of information required for audience comprehension, is an invisible yet essential craft.

Particularly in shorter work, you have to have a very strong sense of the story so you can be economical in creating a clear narrative. Little details like having a character look down at their hand before cutting to a phone screen or hearing a front door close before seeing a kid just home from school walk into the kitchen - these things seem obvious and inconsequential. And to editors, they become second nature. But add up all these little narrative joints that an editor builds into a sequence and it becomes clear how important storytelling can be in 30 seconds.

 

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?

Pete> I feel like maybe I’m beating a dead horse here, but music is SO important. I’m not working on a lot of music videos or even pieces where the edit is literally cut to the beat of the track. But I find using music as a way to build out the structure of the spot, allows me to explore rhythm and pace in a quick and efficient manner.

I usually start by building a musical story to the time of the spot - whether that’s 30 or 60-seconds or longer - and then I use that to guide me towards finding emotional builds, turning points, dramatic reveals, comedic pauses - all the beats of the story can be mapped theoretically with music first.

Once that’s in place, I start introducing the visuals and the dialogue and the sequence evolves from there to accommodate these different materials. I liken this process to building a skeleton and then hanging the meat on it. Maybe once the flesh is on the bones the hands are too big or the legs are too long and I need to tweak from there. Then, once I have a cut in place, I turn off the music and make sure everything works without it. I never want a piece to be entirely dependent on the music either, because it is SO subjective and between the director, the agency and the client, there will always be second-guessing or diverse opinions about the music.

I used to get really attached to the tracks I put on my first cuts (sometimes I still do) but now, I like to think about music more as a tool to find the right rhythm and tone of a piece and let things evolve organically from there.


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

Pete> Although I’ve worked on my share of big VFX jobs, it wasn’t until recently that I cut a campaign that was entirely green screen and CG. In this campaign the actors were going to be comped into a CG world and some of the humans would be replaced by CG animals.

I’d never worked on something with so little grounding. We could move things around spatially and temporally however we wanted. In some ways it was liberating, but also very challenging because the director and I would find ourselves spinning on possibilities. So much of it depended on us taking a leap of faith that the CG would come out ok and that a pregnant pause and funny expression would translate from the face of a human actor to that of a dolphin.

We also had to find a way to present our edits to clients who might not be able to visualise the end product the same way we could. Luckily, the director was very adept at walking them through everything and ultimately they were following along and laughing at all the right places. We’re still in post production on that one, so I’m very excited to see how it will all come together.


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

Pete> Too much material is harder at the outset when you’re trying to find the first cut. Unless you have a history or a good dialogue with the director, sifting through a ton of dailies to discover the right story and performances can be very arduous. But once you get into revisions with the agency or the client, not enough material can really burn you.

It seems like every project reaches a point when someone is asking me to try something that I just literally do not have the pieces to build, and that is very frustrating as an editor because oftentimes, no one else really understands what you’re missing. So in that case, having all those extra improv takes or meaty pre/post-action footage can really save the day.

 

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

Pete> One of the most important things I’ve decided about being an editor, is that the job is really about helping someone (or a group of people) realise their vision. It's not “your” project. You have been brought in because someone thought you could help make it great. There’s always a writer who’s been on it for months or a director who has spent weeks figuring out how to shoot it. So the pieces I’m most proud of are the ones where those people who have hired you express an overwhelming sigh of relief or joy or surprise when they see the first cut.

One project that stands out to me in that way is 'Best Thing Since Sliced Bread' for Little Caesars. We only had about 36 hours from wrapping the shoot to showing the client a first cut. And when we brought them into the room they were floored. They just loved it, and I could feel all the pressure that everyone was feeling about making a Super Bowl spot just pop like a balloon.

To be able to give someone that feeling is tremendously rewarding. To have that feeling on a first screening, it doesn’t happen that often, but when it does, you know you’ve done something right. And it’s usually because the intention was clear and you were able to get to the heart of the matter in a way that resonated with everyone on the project. 


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?

Pete> A couple of years ago I would have said all the 6-second, 9x16 social pieces were the big change in advertising. All that social stuff is so ubiquitous now I don’t really see it as a trend anymore. Every time someone tells me the 30-second TV spot is dead, I get a huge traditional TV campaign in. If that work is dying, it’s certainly putting up a hell of a fight.

 

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

Pete> That’s such a tough question because the answer could change weekly or even daily. There are so many editors out there that I admire or who have influenced me, including a lot of up and coming editors that blow me away everyday with their fresh perspective and style.

But I’ll pick one film that came up in conversation the other day. Fight Club is a movie that emerged at a moment in my life when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do professionally. At the time, I was thinking of being a writer and I viewed most films through that lens. The script had always been the hero for me in terms of storytelling. But I remember when I saw Fight Club, it felt like I could actually see someone writing with the film. The impact of the editing was felt at every level of magnification. The overall structure involves a complicated weaving of time and perspective, dizzying pace shifts and one of the craziest character arcs of all time. Individual sequences, like the flashbacks unveiling the truth about Tyler and the Narrator is masterfully constructed. And then of course there is the editing within the shots, the flash frames of Tyler, subliminally hinting at the big twist at the end.

No movie exists without editing. But Fight Club relies on it in a way that opened my eyes to the power and impact of an editor on a film. Jim Haygood knocked it out of the park.


LBB> What advice would you give editors who are just starting out?

Pete> Find talented people you enjoy working with and try your best to keep working with them! Unless you are also a writer or director or a producer, you will always rely on other people to bring you something to edit. It's better if you like those people and if they’re good at what they do. Makes the whole thing easier and more fun.

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Cut+Run US, Fri, 06 May 2022 07:21:37 GMT