Tobias Suhm grew up in the Black Forest, a jaw-droppingly picturesque area of rolling green hills and towering trees located on the bottom left corner of Germany. According to Tobias, his childhood looked somewhat like a Spielberg movie, minus the impending doom and danger from some kind of gnarly creature. And it was those movies that he grew up, instilling in him an early fascination with films. That interest followed into his teenage years as he began editing the home footage that he and his friend were shooting on an iMac that he saved up for with pocket money.
After dabbling with directing and other aspects of filmmaking at film school in Ludwigsburg, he came to realise that he felt most at home in the tranquility of the edit suite as opposed to the hustle and bustle of a film set. Nowadays, that edit suite is in LA as part of the Whitehouse Post network of offices.
LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with him about the ingredients for a fruitful director-editor relationship, why editing remotely is much the same as before, and swapping the Black Forest for the Pacific Coast Highway.
LBB> You're from Germany - where abouts? And what was your childhood like?
Tobias> I grew up in a tiny town in the very south-west corner of Germany in an area that is known as the Black Forest. So basically I am a country boy. There were lots of farms, cows, forests and hills surrounding me as a child. My childhood looked very much like a Steven Spielberg movie, just a bunch of kids on their dirt bikes cruising through the hilly forests, minus the omnipresent mortal dangers from monsters, thieves, aliens and pirates, of course. Just a little side note: Tim Burton shot a scene for his version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in my hometown, if that gives you an idea of what it looks like. But to disappoint you upfront, the houses are not made of gingerbread.
LBB> How did you get into filmmaking in your younger years?
Tobias> From a young age I was always fascinated by movies, I grew up with all the Disney and Spielberg classics. We didn’t have a VHS player at home, so I always went to a friend’s house to watch literally every movie from the ‘80s. His older brother was kind enough to secretly provide us with all the R-rated ones that we weren’t supposed to watch, which was great. In my teenage years I started to read a lot of literature on how movies were being made and got more and more interested in the behind the scenes. During high school I saved up some money to buy my first iMac computer that had the very first firewire port and I edited our homemade short films that we shot on a miniDV camera.
LBB> What drew you to editing? And specifically commercial editing as opposed to long form?
Tobias> After I familiarised myself with the process of computer based video editing in high school, I knew I was interested in becoming a professional filmmaker. After several internships and runner positions at film production companies, I completed a film editing apprenticeship at a German broadcast station in Munich for three years. Afterwards I went to film school in Ludwigsburg, a small city outside of Stuttgart, Germany, still open to various career paths other than editing. The first two years in film school we were taught in all the major disciplines of filmmaking so I also got to direct a bunch of my own short films.
During those early directing, screenwriting and cinematography-ing opportunities, I realised that working with actors wasn’t really up my alley even though I enjoyed the collaborative work with the DP. After the shoots I always edited the short films myself and realised that it’s much more fun when no one is around and you can sit alone in a quiet room and focus on your work without the hustle and bustle on set. It felt like putting a jigsaw puzzle together which I always enjoyed doing as a child - the more pieces the better. I was also thrilled to see the movie come to life through editing. On a movie set it sometimes felt like being on a construction site, while in an edit suit it felt more like being inside a studio of a watchmaker, which was much more to my liking.
I pursued an editing career in commercials for purely practical reasons, as all my director friends that I went to school with were specialising in commercial film directing which led to us acquiring smaller commercial or music video jobs while still being students. This eventually led to me making my first contacts in the real world by working in commercials and music videos after I graduated. At the time it seemed to be much harder to break into feature films, especially since I wanted to work on a feature film project that I was really into for artistic reasons, rather than doing it just for the sake of it. After moving to Los Angeles I’ve had the opportunity to dip my toes into the feature film world and I hope to be able to pursue more feature film work in the near future.
LBB> How are you finding the challenges of editing remotely? Is it something you have practice with already? What challenges are you finding and how are you overcoming them?
Tobias> That’s almost business as usual. I’ve always worked remotely in one way or another. Working as an editor I’m used to sitting in a dark room in solitude, for the most part. When working ‘on set’ for example, I usually work from my hotel room away from everyone else and when making changes after a job has wrapped up I often do them from home simply out of convenience. Oftentimes agencies are based in different cities which means that you are not always physically sitting in the same room together, thus working remotely has always been part of the job. Since the lockdown it has become more of a challenge to keep my first grader entertained at home while trying to get some work done. But we’ve managed to work out a pretty good daily routine, as I’m sure we all have by now.
LBB> What are the projects from the past year or so that you're most proud of and why?
Tobias> I really enjoyed working on the Beardyman - ‘6am (Ready to Write)’ featuring Joe Rogan music video that Ian Pons Jewell directed. It's just full on bonkers and it was a real treat. It won the UK Music Video Awards for best dance music video last year. And, of course, Skittles ‘Yogurt Boy’ was another highlight to work on. I just love weird, dark, humorous, cinematic projects. Old Spice, I’m waiting for you!
I am also very proud of Michelob ‘Call from Nature’ for its calm, mesmerising energy which is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the two projects mentioned above. I like being able to roam around freely in any of these worlds and not being labelled a one trick pony.
LBB> What's your starting point when beginning to piece together the different elements of a story?
Tobias> When I start I take a quick look at the storyboards to understand what we are trying to do in the first place. Then I try to quickly forget it, take a look at the footage, and try to figure out the best way possible to tell the story and see where the road takes me. This way you can discover moments that you otherwise would not have stumbled upon if you stuck too closely to the boards in the first place. Once that’s done, I also make a safety version that stays as true as possible to the boards because sooner or later somebody asks to see that version anyways. Oftentimes when you’re cutting down your hero long version to a shorter length, you learn a thing or two along the way that you can then carry over to your long version and make it perfect.
LBB> You mentioned Ian Pons Jewell, who is a director that you work with a lot.How did that relationship come about? And what are the keys to a fruitful editor-director relationship?
Tobias> We first met on a job in Berlin a couple of years ago when I was still living in Germany and working as a freelancer. It was a fun project for a company called Hornbach which is like the Home Depot of Germany. That particular client enjoys a certain reputation in Germany for creating highly creative commercials that always incorporate a cinematic style paired with dark, crazy, offbeat humour, which is a style I am really into and which is obviously something that Ian also seems to be liking a lot. Because I was doing a lot of work for the production company that Ian is represented by in Germany, I was teamed up to work with him by one of the company’s producers with whom I had just finished another project shortly before. After watching all of his music videos, I was very thrilled and looking forward to working with Ian. “We instantly hit it off with each other and continued to work together ever since.
I think in a fruitful editor-director relationship it is very important that you not only speak the same creative language with each other but you also match on a human level. As an editor you should always be able to positively surprise your director when presenting him/her your first cut. The relationship that I cultivated with Ian over the years now feels like an absolute no-brainer to me which I am very happy about and I truly enjoy being a part of his creative crew. Work makes so much more fun and fruitful when you are collaborating with true friends.
LBB> And how tricky is it to nurture those relationships without the director in the suite with you?
Tobias> With Ian we’ve worked on so many projects remotely now that we both feel very comfortable working like this. There were even times when we were juggling two or three projects at the same time remotely, so I can say with confidence that we truly mastered the art of working remotely together. I have to admit, though, that it is a lot more fun to actually hang out in the same edit suite rather than being alone all the time.
LBB> What's keeping you busy in isolation outside of work?
Tobias> My seven-year-old daughter, who is now being home-schooled by my wife and me. I also walk our dog in the mornings and we try to stay active with lots of rope jumping and yoga. My wife happens to be a certified yoga teacher so that helps staying physically and spiritually active inside the house. On the weekends we usually take smaller road trips down the Pacific Coast Highway to see the ocean again even if it is only from behind a car window. We play a lot of board games and I also started reading more books again. And then there is always Netflix to fall back on.