Film Article: Interview with Zhelyaz Tomov – Film Editor

Written by Matt Butler October 15, 2017

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How does an editor go about editing a film? That was the big question rolling through my mind as I talked with today’s guest. Film editor Zhelyaz Tomov has been in the industry for over five years now, and while he’s hard at work on editing The Cleaner and the Deadman for next year, I got the unique chance to talk with him about some of his previous works (This Side of Nowhere and The Life of Marie: Marie’s Leben) and ask some burning questions about the editing process. An outsider meeting with an insider.

Matt: So, let’s start general. Take me through the editing process. Just a general outline of how you go about editing a film.

Zhelyaz: Well, first the footage has to be checked, audio and video files, if something is missing/corrupt, etc. Then synchronizing. After that, naming and organizing in scenes, takes, etc. That is the first step. After that, I start watching it and making notes, setting markers. Discussing different options with the director about pacing, actor performance, if they changed something during the shooting and it is not in the script. That is the general workflow. Depending on the project, there could be much more technical stuff involved, like creating proxies or converting. But that will go too much in detail and it’s different for every project.

Matt: So you like to be accurate and organized?

Zhelyaz: You have to be. In a feature film, you have a couple thousand files. Even on some short you could reach 1K or more. If you don´t organize them properly, you will end up in a complete mess in the middle of the editing process. As soon as you have to find a certain scene and take, it would be game over.

Matt: There’s an expression in film: “editing is everything”, and how the editor can change the tone or even the genre of the film. What are your thoughts on this?

Zhelyaz: Well, one thing that comes to mind is the performance of the actors. It varies from take to take. So you can influence the film a lot with that. Also, by taking parts of the dialogue away or even scenes, you can change the story a lot. Also the timing/pacing of the edit, and of course the sound, in terms of sound design. And the music, that can change the mood/vibe of a scene or a movie a lot, especially in horror and comedy movies.

Matt: And do most of these elements happen before you start editing? Between edits?

Zhelyaz: Most of those happen between edits. This process requires a lot of back and forward, experimenting. That is why it usually takes so long, except TV. TV productions are very tightly planned and there is no time for experimenting there.

Matt: Maybe that’s part of what people mean when they say something looks ‘cinematic’. It’s all that creativity.

Zhelyaz: Yes, that is part of the meaning. Also the look and framing of the shots, the locations, etc.

Matt: Yeah, it’s like that triangle of truth: Fast, Cheap, and Good. How you can only have two. Most TV shows opt for Fast and Cheap.

Zhelyaz: Yes, that is why you rarely see quality productions on TV.

Matt: I really appreciated the pacing of the edits in both films [This Side of Nowhere and The Life of Marie: Marie’s Leben]. What do you think it means for a film to have good pacing?

Zhelyaz: Well, the pacing you can aim at different results: building up suspense, or making a scene more intimate and personal. So it helps to emotionally reach the audience. Again, it goes with the support of sound. So as an editor, you should be able to feel the right length of each cut, if you want the sequence or the entire film to affect the viewers in the intended way.

Matt: So there’s an element of instinct?

Zhelyaz: I would say a big part of the editing process is instinct. You can train and develop it further, but you have to possess it if you are aiming at a career as a film editor.

Matt: So is that how it’s done then? You just have to start editing and getting a feel for it? Did you go to school or anything?

Zhelyaz: I did go to school. And even if it helped, you still need to get the feel on your own. It takes a lot of practice.

Matt: Would you say you have a particular style of editing?

Zhelyaz: Not really. I adjust it to the needs of the project.

Matt: Is that how most editors work?

Zhelyaz: Well, I bet everyone has their own methods. There is no right or wrong method, no golden way of doing things. As long as it gets you the desired results, everything works.

Matt: Right, and that changes from director to director, genre to genre.

Zhelyaz: Exactly.

Matt: You had a second editor for both This Side of Nowhere, Diana Matous, and The Life of Marie, Nevin Wolf. What’s it like editing a film with someone else?

Zhelyaz: Well, what happens is sometimes an editor moves to a different job, shortly after the start or in the middle of post-production. Or due to time/budget issues, the work is split between two or more editors.  It´s rare that everyone sits in the same room and is discussing the project all day. You just have to find a common language and style, so all parts of the movie look the same in the end.

Matt: Is that difficult? Finding that cohesion?

Zhelyaz: It is like finding the right girlfriend or boyfriend. It’s a process. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Matt: Has it ever flat out not worked out? Have you ever had to ‘break up’ with an editor?

Zhelyaz: Rarely, but I have turned down projects because I had the feeling that we wouldn´t get along and it would just be stress.

Matt: I’d love to see the editor’s equivalent of Tinder. Only instead of swipe left/swipe right, it’s L cut/J cut.

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Matt: There’s a scene in This Side of Nowhere, the one where David and Mädchen are hiding out in the woods. David starts talking about how they’ll soon have a better life, with food in the fridge and a roof over their heads. While he’s talking, you cut to Mädchen looking away from him. This shot lasts maybe three seconds, but it tells me all I need to know. She’s in disbelief; she doesn’t have faith in David’s promises. Is it tough to find subtle shots like this?

Zhelyaz: Good observation. We’ve talked with the director about things like that. He tried to get as much coverage as possible. Of course, finding those snippets requires time and a fine instinct. Going through all the takes and choosing exactly those 3 seconds.

Matt: Coverage meaning a collection of takes?

Zhelyaz: Not just. Enough angles and enough different shot sizes. So the edit doesn´t look a game of table tennis. Just back and forward.

Matt: Exactly. It has to feel natural.

There’s some real palpable stillness to The Life of Marie. That holding on a scene for a long period of time (or longer than viewers might be used to, whatever that means) has an effect of slowing down the piece. Is this just the result of cutting less? Or is there another element to it in the editing?

Zhelyaz: Oh. The film is just old school, a bit like a theater.

Matt: In This Side of Nowhere, in the scene where David’s held at gunpoint, the music starts to punctuate each cut. How often do you cut to music?

Zhelyaz: In that case, the music was composed after the editing. I use precomposed music mostly for trailers, etc. With films, it gets composed mostly afterwards. I used precomposed music here and then a composer came up with something similar afterward.

Matt: Makes sense. Would the draw to editing trailers to music be that it follows a familiar and marketable rhythm?

Zhelyaz: Yes, in trailers you need to bring up not only the story, but also present the production in the best possible way.

Matt: And with this new film, The Cleaner and the Deadman, you’re editing by yourself. What’s that like?

Zhelyaz: Well, the interesting thing about the film is that lots of it happens in different locations around the world, but all of it is filmed in Hawaii. So first, I have to consider all the green screen/backgrounds. Also, there are lots of sequences where time is passing, so I will need to create an interesting montage every time that happens.

Matt: It’s a question of what settings clash and which settings mesh well?

Zhelyaz: It is a question of what works, haha. And some experimentation.

Matt: So a big part of it is keeping your options open?

Zhelyaz: Oh yes. often you make multiple versions, then show them to other people and then, after the feedback, you go back and create something different.

Matt: How many different versions would you say you made of This Side of Nowhere and Life of Marie?

Zhelyaz: Good question. I remember having over 25 different timelines on The Life of Marie. And This Side of Nowhere was edited in blocks, so I can´t say for sure how many. Sometimes we just change the order of the scenes, sometimes take one out or put it back. Sometimes it´s a complete re-edit.

Matt: Do you find the process rewarding? Finding what works bit by bit?

Zhelyaz: Yes, I do. Otherwise, I would have the wrong job. 😉

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Matt: I’m gonna drop some more terminology. What are your thoughts on the Kuleshov effect?

Zhelyaz: Well, every editor uses those reaction shots, one way or another. It´s about the context they are used in.

Matt: So there really isn’t one set way to go about things I guess, right?

Zhelyaz: No, not really.

Matt: There are a few specific scenes that caught my eye. In This Side of Nowhere, after Frank’s partner accepts the bribe from the refugee, there’s a beat before Frank punches him in the face and throws him out of the car. And In The Life of Marie, as Marie is reading Anton’s letter to the countess, you hold on the countess’ face for a pregnant pause before Marie continues reading the letter. How do you know when’s the right time to cut?

Zhelyaz: It just has to feel right. A reaction should not come too early or too late.

Matt: And there’s kind of an innate sense of when that reaction has hit its mark?

Zhelyaz: Something like that. Yes, probably most of the guys have a similar approach.

Matt: What advice would you give to aspiring film editors?

Zhelyaz: They should just follow their gut, not just look at what others are doing. Finding a mentor is also a good idea, especially if you are a freelancer. It helps build connections. Don´t take no for an answer, and if someone tells you that you are not good or something, don´t listen, haha. The industry is abusive in its nature, so don´t allow yourself to be abused. Or at least try to keep it to the minimum.

Matt: That’s some solid advice.

Zhelyaz: I know 😉

Thanks to Zhelyaz for this enlightening conversation. It felt cool to talk about film so casually with someone whose work I genuinely admire. All the best on The Cleaner and the Deadman

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About Matt Butler

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is a strapping young English Major with a fiery passion for the art of cinematic storytelling. He likes long walks on the beach and knows the proper use of 'your' and 'you're'. (Example: I hope YOU'RE having a wonderful time browsing our site, and I hope you enjoy YOUR time reading my film reviews. I wrote them just for you.)

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