We’re kicking off the third (!!!) edition of Enter the Edit, a series exploring the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editors. Our brand-new guide will be 2017 Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Leigh Johnson.
Leigh Johnson is a New York-based documentary film editor. She was editor and associate producer on the HBO documentary Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, won awards at festivals internationally, and won an Emmy for Outstanding Arts and Culture Programming. Her other editing credits include: The Exquisite Corpse Project, a documentary-narrative hybrid film featured on Splitsider; In Balanchine’s Classroom, a forthcoming documentary about the legendary ballet choreographer; and various web shorts for Adult Swim and The Onion. She is currently working with director Madeleine Sackler on a feature documentary that will be released in late 2017.
As the 2017 Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow, awarded to an emerging editor, she’ll be receiving a year of mentorship from veteran filmmakers, as well as the opportunity to participate in countless documentary events and screenings. Johnson’s three mentors – Penelope Falk (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Step), Maya Mumma (O.J.: Made in America, Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown), and Geoffrey Richman, ACE (Murderball, The Cove) – will provide the kind of education any doc editor finding their grounding dreams of.
We spoke with Johnson just before she was announced as the 2017 fellow. She will be presented with the award at the SXSW Film Awards Night on Tuesday, March 14.
POV: What’s your workflow when you’re starting on a new film?
Johnson: For me, it’s depended on the film. One of the things I love is how each film is its own unique world with its own quirks and challenges. I’ve worked in situations where the screening process took months of watching and discussing the footage at length with the director before we could begin meaningfully wrapping our heads around story. And I’ve had experiences where the broad strokes seemed clear from the beginning, and it was possible to dive into rough cutting scenes for a specific character or section of the film right away. On one project I actually rough cut dailies as they came in throughout production, which helped guide shooting.
No matter how the screening process goes though, I like being very hands-on in organizing the footage. I’ve had experiences where I’ve discovered weeks later that I wasn’t watching all of the footage for a particular scene or event because heads and tails of shots or interstitial moments had been overlooked. While this is actually kind of exciting when it happens because it means there are new possibilities all of a sudden, I try to avoid this by creating a library of sequences right away where every clip exists in its raw uncut form. Then my notes are what create a more detailed map within that sequence. The footage that seems uncategorizable or interstitial at first often yields the best surprises, so it seems good to treat it all equally at first.
I’ve found that staying open to ideas like this is probably the most important thing — whether they come from the footage, from the director, or from myself. I write down and keep track of these ideas religiously, even when they don’t seem any good at first! Every project I’ve worked on has eventually landed me in a completely different place than where I expected when we started out, and this kind of slow collection of breadcrumbs is what makes the process so fun.
POV: Do you have any specific goals for yourself for the Fellowship? Anything you really want to walk away from it with?
Johnson: Yes! I can’t wait to take advantage of this amazing career wishlist granted by the Fellowship Board. I’ve been wanting to take a Manhattan Edit Workshop class for years, and I’ve never been to festivals like SXSW and Sundance before. I’m looking forward to watching the Stranger Than Fiction films this fall at IFC. And I already have a cart full of books on Powell’s website…
But mostly, I’m excited about getting to know new people in the industry. My mentors are all brilliant editors and delightful people, and I feel beyond lucky for the chance to know and work with them. I hope to meet many other editors this year as well, so introduce yourself if you’re reading this! And I’ll be especially eager to meet directors and producers at events coming up, as I’m going to be looking for new work in a few months.
Awarded annually, the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship was created in 2010 to honor the memory of gifted editor Karen Schmeer. This year’s application deadline will be in the fall.