In the edit suite for The Show, a new film written by and starring Alan Moore

Colin Goudie is a feature film editor with a career spanning over 35 years, editing everything from 16mm film to Digital 65mm, and has cut films in big studios, hotel rooms and even tin shacks. Most recently, he's known for his work on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Monsters, though he doesn't limit himself to big budget productions and can often be found editing lower budget documentaries and dramas too.

Colin talked with DPRevew about editing movies back in the film days, and the transition to a fully digital workflow.

How did you start out as an editor?

I got a placement at Nene College of Art and did a foundation course for two years where I discovered 35mm stills photography. I graduated from Nene and got a placement at Bournemouth College of Art School of film, photography and TV production.

Instead of just concentrating on stills photography, in year one I would actually go to the second and third year students and ask them if they wanted a unit stills photographer and, of course, everybody always wanted a free unit stills photographer. I did that, and of course the thing about a film set is there's always too much work to be done and not enough people to do it, so people would start asking you to hold this boom mic, could you alter those barn doors on that light, so you start to learn the process.

Of course, if you don't mess up people give you more and more responsibility. By the time I went into my second year people were asking me to edit their films, so I jumped ahead by a year. Then I left film school and I managed to get a job at the BBC in their trainee assistant film editor course.

Do you remember the first time you saw non linear editing and what was your reaction?

I left the BBC after 10 years editing on film and tape, and the very first job I was offered was for a tiny documentary series for the BBC about volunteering. There were 15 minute films and the director of one of the episodes had recommended me to the Series Producer. The Series Producer phoned up to talk to me; we got on well over the phone and he said I'd been highly recommended, but the film was cutting on Lightworks and was I OK with that? I said yes.

In year one I would actually go to the second and third year students and ask them if they wanted a unit stills photographer and, of course, everybody always wanted a free unit stills photographer.

I hung the phone up and then I picked it up right away and called directory enquiries and said, "Can you put me through to a company called Lightworks?" and they looked up the number and put me through. I said, “Hi, can you tell me what a Lightworks is and how can I learn to use one?” Lightworks ran a training course that was two days, and I went and spent a lot of money to do the course and then on the following week I started on the series.

I do remember that the other person – there were only two of us on the course – when the instructor talked about using the mouse, said she had never used a computer mouse in her life. I had because of my days at the BBC, because you had to do some stuff with the mouse and a bit of DOS work. Also, because I used an Atari ST as a gamer.

It's really interesting, everything everybody tells you that playing computer games are bad. But actually it turned out not to be because I understood about loading floppy disks, doing backups, using a mouse, what a DOS monitor was and how to type in code. All those things I learnt in gaming were really useful in an editing environment, and I did see other people struggle who had never done that.

I loved Lightworks straight off because for me it was finally a combination of of the dexterity of film editing, the fact that I can cut in a single frame, the fact that I can drop it in two-thirds of the way through a film or a third of the way through the film. It meant I didn't have to re-conform my tape like it had on on the U-matic based editing system. It also meant that I could keep all my previous cuts of the film.

A young Colin editing 16mm. It was a very delicate process.

Editors who have worked with film often talk about the physicality of it. Do you miss it?

No, mainly because Lightworks felt physical when you were using that controller. It was lovely to have your pictures at better quality than they had been on U-matic in the early days of offline. Of course, you did come a cropper because you had to digitize at a quite a low quality picture rate, so sometimes you would miss things.

I remember editing a show once, a World War II drama, and there was an extremely wide shot of the outside of St. Pancras station with hundreds of cast members walking through shot, and a shot like that eats up your data rate so things look very blocky.

It was only when they conformed the film and the guys were dubbing it, and the sound crew were laying in the footsteps, looking at the film frame by frame for footsteps, said, "Do you know there's somebody walking through shot with a Sainsbury's shopping bag?" Which for a WWII drama was a bit of an error. Nobody has ever seen it, I never saw it on the rushes because I only saw the digitized picture.

It was a learning curve. It really made me learn to look for those kind of things even more on a heavily digitized picture. It also made me fight vociferously for productions moving forward from that day that I would have more memory and be able to digitize my rushes at the highest possible quality.

I learnt to do all my wide shots at a higher quality digitization rate than the close-ups, whereas up until that time it was always quicker and easier to do everything at the lowest possible rate, which is what everybody did because memory was so expensive in those days. A 9 gigabyte drive was £2,400. If you do the maths on that it was £90,000 in memory alone just for an edit, so you cut your cloth accordingly but those are all learning things. It was the early days of nonlinear.

Colin and Gareth Edwards on Rogue One.

You've edited in some quite odd places. Normally, people picture director and editor sitting in a air conditioned room with coffee and croissants coming in, but that's not always been your experience has it?

Certainly among my peers I seem to have edited in more weird locations than many. I have done my fair bit of editing in suites, but I've also done a lot of location editing. I have edited at Soho and Pinewood and Shepperton, Skywalker Ranch at the Lucasfilm Presidio in San Francisco and also in the rim of a volcano, but it wasn't active.

I like location editing for the access it gives me to the director and sometimes to the cast. It's very useful if you befriend the actors on location and they become your mates, because when you go up to them and say, "Could you just record this line of dialogue for me so I can lay it into the edit and try out an idea with some new dialogue?" it's much easier if you know them.

Certainly among my peers I seem to have edited in more weird locations than many.

Obviously, having the access to your director when on location is great because if I look at the rushes in the afternoon that they shot in the morning and spot something that I need a pickup on, I can pop down to set straight away while they've still got the cast on that set. I can even show them a little rough edit that I might have done and say this is why I need this shot, so everyone understands why you need it, and I'll get it bashed out for you really quickly – there's no delay in that process.

Don't you find yourself out on a limb in those situations?

The drawback of editing on location is lack of technical backup, so if something goes wrong and you're on the other side of the world with a laptop and suddenly your card reader doesn't talk to your drive or your camera media, then you're really stuffed. I have made numerous phone calls to people in the UK pleading for some help down a dodgy phone line to get me out of a scrape or send me a new driver down the internet.

My joke I always used when I talked to the production manager was, I don't care about the quality of my hotel room so long as I've got a table and a chair, stable electricity mains supply and the internet, and you wouldn't believe how many times you can't get all four of those things. That can really affect your workflow.

If you don't have a stable electricity supply it's impossible to run your drives because they just keep dropping out the whole time, so suddenly the Producers are like, "Why didn't you cut anything today?" and it's like "I don't have a main supply to edit it, to run the external hard drives up on."

You get used to the fact of taking portable drives that you can maybe clone material from, and work off of on the short-term until you can get to some sort of electricity supply and recharge your laptop.

Colin editing Monsters on location.

You've also shared your edit suite with some non human occupants as well haven't you?

I've had an edit suite where a scorpion came in underneath the door.

I also worked on a BBC series which was edited inside London Zoo, in a large Portacabin. It was a real team experience with four other freelance editors, a bit like the old days at the BBC. The great thing about that was that the zoo keepers sometimes brought a few of the animals into the office. We had Coatis and even a Lynx come round; the Coatis ate our lunch (they loved yogurt) and the Lynx pawed the carpet. We all adopted them.

We did have a problem with some other wildlife at the Zoo. One day I came into my suite, turned on my Avid and then booted up all the others. When I got back to mine all the media was offline and I checked the same had happened in every other edit too. On investigation, the Technical Manager found that a rat had chewed through the fiber optic cable than ran between the edit suites and the main building where the drives were kept.

I've had an edit suite where a scorpion came in underneath the door.

Cheap plastic cable cost us days in edit time until it could be replaced by the armored variety. Cutting costs there actually didn’t work out too well.

If you could re-cut one film that you haven't made what would it be?

I'd inter-cut Dunkirk with The Darkest Hour and make one movie because I think there's a way of doing that. When I was a kid growing up epic films were Lawrence of Arabia, which had incredible battle scenes, and they also had really intelligent political dialogue scenes and these days it seems that you have to have one or the other.

Dunkirk is a spectacular looking action movie but I don't understand what's going on plot wise in terms of the history of Dunkirk. I mean, I know because I grew up watching World War II movies, I've talked to my dad who fought in the war, but for a modern audience in terms of teaching you about Dunkirk it's incomprehensible.

It doesn't have any plot, it just has incredible action scenes, The Darkest Hour is a really brilliantly made Churchillian biopic which gives you all the political background but has no scale, it's almost all people in rooms talking.

I think that if you took the rushes for those two films it would be fascinating to see if you could have a crack at making one 3 hour long Lawrence of Arabia style epic which told the story of Dunkirk and told the story of Churchill and made effectively the modern Lawrence of Arabia. You'd have to have the rushes, and you'd have to have carte blanche to do what you wanted, but I think that would be amazing to do that.

X Wings and kilts, not often seen together.

Thinking about Star Wars, what's your favorite film and why?

Empire Strikes Back, definitely.

I saw Star Wars (Episode IV) when it came out. I liked it, but it wasn't my favorite movie of all time, but I did enjoy it. I think one of the reasons why it wasn't my favorite movie is because it took six months to get from America to the UK and by the time we actually sat in the cinema to watch it they'd shown so many clips of it on TV you kind of knew the story.

When Empire Strikes Back came out it was all shrouded in secrecy, there were no clips. Up until that movie I had not seen the Godfather Part II, so basically I'd never seen a good sequel. Every sequel that I'd ever seen was not as good as the original film; Jaws 2 was not as good as Jaws, and it was effectively the same film.

With Empire Strikes Back I sat down to watch what I thought was going to be Star Wars part II, and I saw a film that took things in a totally different Direction. It introduced new characters, had Yoda, who has got to be one of the greatest cinematic characters of all time, and was not flagged up in the first movie at all all.

Every sequel that I'd ever seen was not as good as the original film; Jaws 2 was not as good as Jaws, and it was effectively the same film.

Then the Twist with what they did with the Luke Skywalker character and the Darth Vader character, and the fact that it ended on a cliffhanger, which in those days no movie did. Now every movie does it. I just remember walking out of that movie theater on opening day – I saw it at 10:30 in the morning at Odeon Leicester Square in 70mm, and all I wanted to do was go back in and see that movie again, which I couldn't do because it was sold out.

I just thought it was incredible, and I think that the score had some of the tracks from the original movie, but the Empire theme was new for Empire Strikes Back. Imperial March is not in the first movie, that is one of the most defining pieces of music in cinematic history, so to get all those pieces was incredible and the visual effects (VFX) were on a new level.

I understood how they did the VFX in the original Star Wars film, spaceships against black, because I really studied and knew about 2001 and how they did that. But, when they had sequences of snow speeders going across landscapes against snow in Empire... my little brain was going, "How did they do that?"

Colin editing at the BBC on tape.

Moving from 16mm to tape, and now on to digital, what's been the biggest challenge?

I think the biggest technical difference during my career as an editor has been the introduction of video tape, and now digital over film, because when we shot on film the average shooting ratio was 10 to 1. I remember when I made my University film I shot on a ratio of 1.25 to 1. I had 40 minutes of film stock to make a 25-minute finished drama.

When you learn that discipline 10 to 1 seems like luxury. The skill set, the training that most directors had in the first part of my career, was that everybody had come up through film and they learnt to shoot on a 10 to 1 shooting ratio, so they don't get the minimum amount of coverage needed, but have sufficient coverage – not excessive coverage – and that it was correct.

When I made my University film I shot on a ratio of 1.25 to 1. I had 40 minutes of film stock to make a 25-minute finished drama.

What happened with videotape was things started to become a bit more 'shoot everything that moves and we'll sort it out the edit', and that's a tradition that is even more prevalent with digital today. Traditionally capture was only in real time, now you don't even to wait that long so shooting ratios have exploded. That is almost always to the detriment of what happens in the edit because that means that the editor now has more footage to look at than there are hours in the day to look at it.

Unless you are on a very long schedule you need either the director to have gone through the material and come in with at least some notation, and some honing down clarification as to what they've shot, so that you only need look at the minimum amount for what you need to do the edit.

Quite often what I'll do is do that, and when I've assembled the film I will then talk to them and say, "What else have you got that I've not seen?" that we can now go back and look at with a view to improving some of the sequences, because you just don't have time to watch everything on a standard schedule.