The Work Editorial editor and creative partner speaks to Addison Capper, in association with 750mph, about the pros and cons of remote editing, putting on a show in the edit room, and carving out a life as an editor after being a touring musician
Audio post production company 750mph has partnered with Little Black Book on a new interview series called ‘Uncompromising on Craft’. The series is dedicated to learning from the sharpest minds in adland who transfix eyeballs, set the industry benchmark and make the work that we all wish we'd made.
First up in the series is Biff Butler, an editor and creative partner at Work Editorial's LA office. Originally from the UK, Biff moved to Los Angeles in 1999 as a musician, releasing albums and touring the US. The band eventually broke up and gradually Biff carved out a life as an editor.
LBB's Addison Capper picked his brains on the up- and downsides of remote editing, the importance of putting on a show in the edit room, and a cheeky enjoyment in playing with a shot's aspect ratios.
LBB> There has been a whole lot written in the last year about remote shooting but something I've heard a few times recently is that people have been surprised by how tricky remote editing has proved. As an editor, what are your thoughts on that? How have you found the experience?
Biff> The last year or so has proven to be very difficult for a number of reasons, but in terms of editing I have found it to be quite a gift. Not only is the absence of an arduous commute a welcome change, but the ability to work with people around the world without having to travel has been ace. I have a large family, and as much as I miss the group in the edit room, the ability to have lunch and dinner with my kids almost every day would otherwise have been unheard of. Even something as simple as taking a break to walk my dog, catch up with my wife, or change a baby's diaper - these small actions that keep us grounded actually help nourish the creative brain, I think.
There is a drawback to the efficiency that all this provides. When people log onto a session, there is often an immediacy with which people expect things to have happened. It's almost like the window on their computer where the edit is happening is just another task to complete, another problem to solve, rather than a space in which we are hanging out for the day. It took me a while to understand that it's my responsibility to chip away at the formality, to reintroduce the notion of us all hanging out to make things. This virtual world works against us when trying to build connective tissue between creatives, but it just takes a little bit of extra effort to make up for it.
Dealing with conflicts can be tricky or working together to problem solve. Because we are all in separate places, there's not the opportunity to say, "let's step away a sec and think about that..." Usually I like to encourage a walk around the block, to get some fresh air. Creativity in groups is all about trust, and it's hard to trust a little square on the laptop screen with a low-res face in there. I've done jobs where these hurdles were really difficult to get over, but on the whole feel like I've made relationships where I'm genuinely surprised that I've never actually met the person in real life!
The most glaring difference is that we have far less control over the client's experience. We are really a service industry, hosting clients and creating an environment that can serve as a creative sanctuary. We could have the biggest, best monitors to show our work, blasting it on huge speakers. Now, we just hope everyone has a decent internet connection.
LBB> With that in mind, how have you ensured that over the past year your level of craft has maintained the levels that you'd pursue during 'normal' times?
Biff> Honestly, I don't know. There is really something special about playing an edit in the presence of somebody else, no matter their ‘qualifications’. There's something about feeling where someone loses interest or laughs or gasps or whatever. That becomes a sort of creative sonar if you will.
I thought there would be an advantage to having a camera firmly planted on each person's face, as I can now watch everybody watching the cut, but it's really not the same. Too many poker faces. It really has to come back to trust. When we all trust each other, feel comfortable making mistakes, doing something messy, better things come about. There are people who just aren't suited to allowing for this, and the work will suffer as a result.
We’ve all had to recalibrate our own personal creative bandwidths too, I think. I listen to the inner voices questioning if I really want to work on something, or really want to watch something, probably more so than ever, just because otherwise it’d be nonstop, given the physical barriers have been removed and we could just keep working 24/7 now if we wanted.
LBB> Naturally, there was a trend for stock / found footage in 2020. What kind of challenges does this present to you as an editor? What are your experiences like of working with that type of footage?
Biff> I don't think there are challenges in the type of footage necessarily, but it does complicate things when the scope of material is infinite - until it isn't. There is something empowering about knowing ‘this is the footage, you need to make it work with just these pieces’, but when the job allows for anything to be used, you're suddenly in both Edit Mode and Search Mode. Those are very much opposing forces, very different ways of thinking. I think the entire industry found themselves struggling to make work that differentiated itself from the pack, as our work quickly became cliché.
I did find, for example, like when that split-screen Nike spot came out, creative directors would tell me, "Hey, look what they did! Can you make us something like that?" I love having the bar raised, but there is often an underestimation of how much goes into making work that is great, rather than just good. These things feel more instant now because you can pluck your shots from a website and seemingly get your edits the same way, but these still take time that shouldn’t be short-changed.
LBB> Something I find intriguing about editing is that, to the naked eye, it's more invisible than any other part of the filmmaking process. Most people can spot a nicely framed shot or some big VFX, but really the edit should drift into the background (in a good way). What are your thoughts on that? Is that something you keep in mind during an edit?
Biff> You're right, I do think good editing should be invisible. Rather than trying my best to keep in the background, I do consider when to make the edit choice felt, when to add a little jolt, or make things uncomfortable. On the whole, though, I would rather my choices go unnoticed.
LBB> You were in a band before becoming an editor - excuse if this is a cheesy question but does your musical knowledge play into the skills of being an editor at all? After all, both are really all about the rhythm!
Biff> Yeah, there's a rhythm, but I try not to adhere to a metronome most of the time. If there is a noticeable tempo, it's only established so there's something to break later on.
The biggest thing I get from my time as a musician is a respect for the music in the spot. We really should get ‘music supervisor’ credit much of the time - it's such a big part of what drives the emotion, and gets so short-changed during the whole creative process. I work a lot with a composer called Andy Huckvale, who I started making music with over 20 years ago. When I read a script or see footage, I might have an idea for how this should sound. We'll talk it through once, and he brings it to fruition almost instantly.
I also think there's a performative element to what I do. Honestly, anybody can edit, but it's how to handle the room that makes a career I think. How we improvise, how we keep the creativity flowing in a group of set-weary creatives who have been fighting the good fight for months. That's the skill that goes unspoken, the show we put on.
LBB> Tell me a bit more about you how you became an editor. You were living in LA at the time right? How did you wind up as an editor?
Biff> The truest answer is that I became an editor by editing.
The band had just broken up and I was living in LA. My hobby had been taking pictures and video and playing around on a computer, setting things to music. Around this time, a good friend of mine had a job at a place which, as she phrased it, "only did editing", so I walked on over one afternoon and introduced myself, said I wanted to learn and wanted to work. It turned out that not only did they edit, but they had been responsible for some of the coolest commercials and music videos that I grew up loving.
I didn’t hold back in taking footage and experimenting after work hours, and eventually I was encouraged to share my work in formal presentations. Next thing I knew, work was being approved for Microsoft and Nike, just from messing about. Once I saw something I did on TV, I guess I was an editor.
LBB> I read that you were particularly inspired by the title sequence for Se7en. What hooked you about that particular sequence?
Biff> As a 15-year-old in a movie theatre, seeing this demented scrapbook montage set to Nine Inch Nails was pretty mind-blowing. Now this is an example of ‘look at all these edits’. It was such a visceral and tactile insight into this creepy and disturbing psyche, for a character we don't meet until the later part of the film. More than anything, it made us ‘feel’ something, got us into the mindset, before the movie had even begun. I remember seeing it and thinking ‘I want to do that’, wanting to evoke a feeling on screen and through the speakers, in a way that felt raw and real. I still strive for that.
LBB> You're also a bit of an advertising nerd, on top of just the editing side of things. How important do you think that is for a commercials editor? Should they be interested in and clued up on the advertising business as a whole?
Biff> I think it helps, sure. If you don’t love ads, what are you doing it for? I certainly went through my Naomi Klein ‘No Logo’ phase as a kid, but also grew up loving Air Jordan and buying into the big brands of the time. But as a visual medium, I think there's something so prevalent about advertising, and something so cool that when it's done well, it's a business I'm still excited to be part of.
I do find it cute how people are actively in denial that we are making an ad. A director will call me to remind me not to include the car shots in the car ad, or a creative director will complain “it looks too much like an ad". I understand the sentiment, but I do often wonder if people are more concerned with selling their own portfolio or in selling the client's product.
Going back to the Se7en thing, how it was just a feeling rather than a story, it reminds me of Fincher's ‘Instant Karma’ spot - there was no story, but damn I wanted to go out and play sports in a pair of Nikes. What's most important, though, is to keep the perspective of a consumer. Is the ad working on me? I don't care how clever a script is if that means it's going to go over a viewer's head, or how fantastic a camera trick might be if it means I lose the point of the commercial. I'm never afraid to tell a client "I don't care" or ask "so what?" when reflecting on an edit through the eyes of the audience.
LBB> Who are your editing heroes and why? What films or spots epitomise good editing for you?
Biff> To me, a great edit is about control - does the editor have utter control over every frame? Angus Wall set the bar for me, and still does. I started off as a fan of his work, and I came up assisting for him as editor, then got to cut for him as director. There was a furiousness to his editorial style which was always thrilling to witness, and he has transitioned into a savvy businessman who relentlessly pursues ways to contribute to the creative process. He epitomises the notion of intellectual curiosity, and the pursuit to just make things better.
On the flip side, there is an ease with which Alyssa Oh approaches her work that I aspire to match. Although I have to think there is a quiet storm brewing while she's at the keyboard, you'd never know. Maintaining the appearance of effortlessness and joy is something I strive for, but to her seems to come naturally.
My favourite film from an editorial standpoint is probably Whiplash. It's damn near flawless.
Parasite, too, was an example of where I felt I was absolutely being led somewhere, every measure was calculated and the editor was in total control.
As far as commercials go, I gotta shout out Neil Smith's spot ‘Field Generals’ for Brand Jordan. It's just so well paced and exciting. Really, what epitomises good editing is something you don't take your eyes off. More recently, the work for NY Times ‘Life Needs Truth’, although I preferred the shorter ones on TV to the 2:30 one. Something about context is incredibly important to me when it comes to advertising, and seeing that piece on TV, it just leapt off the screen.
There are a lot of ads now that just outstay their welcome, that really ask a lot of the audience. ‘Oh you want me to go to that URL to watch a longer version of the ad I just saw so you can keep selling me this thing I don't need?’ No thanks.
I learned a long time ago that if directors are the farmers, then editors are the cooks. It's not as easy to make something delicious with bad ingredients. In our business, though, something the client changes their minds, and suddenly they're asking for a pizza, but all we have is the recipe for cupcakes. So when judging good work, it's often difficult without knowing what obstacles came up and what else the editor contributed.
LBB> Which recent piece of work of yours are you most proud of and why?
Biff> I have terrible amnesia as soon as a job is done, like an Etch-a-sketch, it all just vanishes, so really I can't think of anything other than what I'm currently working on.
I did work on something for the iPhone 12 last year which was fun. It was a great example of how well people can collaborate in this remote world, and the amount of problem solving necessary was pretty wild. Looking at the work now, it all just flows, but there were a few shots that simply were not intended to be used how we ended up using them, all in response to evolving needs from the client, like what features we had to show.
Other work I get particularly proud of is where I have fought for something and won, but isn't strictly editorial, like a piece of music. I don't feel comfortable waving my own flag here, but this is certainly an aspect that goes unrecognised.
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?
Biff> I really get a kick out of it all. It's still such a thrill when I see a spot conformed and coloured, or my rough composite shots made to look seamless. Mixing and sound design is where I love to play. Although we tend to apply sound in the offline, it's not until a true sound designer has done a pass that the cut really comes to life. It can be like going from black and white to colour. Music editing is something I'm really proud of, and the mixer can often help make it all that bit better. It's really the one area I'll stand my ground on during the post process; I don't form much of an opinion on telecine, for example. Those choices don't really affect what I've built, but if I get a mix back and there are certain sound elements that are missing or that need finessing, it can really un-do certain edit decisions. Sometimes these things are daft, like there was a phone-ring sound that got dropped in the mix on a spot I just did, and it kinda ruined the ad for me. I know that nobody will ever care but me, but it can be hard to differentiate between what matters and what doesn't, I guess.
LBB> Thinking about all of the changes you've had to work with over the past year, what do you see for the future of commercials editing? Are there any elements that you think / hope will stick?
Biff> Honestly, I see some better edits and storytelling coming out of TikTok so really the future is here already. As controversial as this might be, I do enjoy playing with varying aspect ratios. It always cracks me up when they [a director, DOP, etc.] go shoot in beautiful anamorphic, only for it to be shrunk down in an Instagram feed to the size of a thumbnail. Not that I prefer having to correct for dumb phones, but really if the work is going to end up in vertical format, we should really learn to play in that space a bit smarter.