The Final Edit: Q&A with Chris Denton

Chris Denton is an accomplished Video Editor in London. His work has featured on some of the most popular factual and specialist entertainment shows over recent years. These include Amazon Prime’s The Grand Tour, BBC’s Top Gear and Netflix’ Formula 1 – Drive To Survive.

Chris has proven experience on high-end projects, demonstrating a great vision and understanding for narrative.

Can you tell us about your earliest influences before entering a career in TV post-production?

To be honest, I’m not sure there are any specific early influences. Growing up my circle of friends was always very creative, maybe not in a media sense, but certainly none of us were ever destined for a 9-5 office job. At school I wasn’t what you’d call a model student, that old fashioned read and repeat way of learning didn’t really work for me.

However, for as long as I can remember, any visual medium has flicked a switch in my head and I completely engage. I have always been fascinated by the emotional manipulation of film and how it can momentarily transport you to an alternate reality. That appreciation is something that has stuck with me.

What led you to becoming a Video Editor?

Honestly, Kellogg’s Frosties led me to become a Video Editor. They used to put toys in the cereal packets and one week, when I was around twelve, the toy was a very basic editing software for PC that came with a collection of extreme sports stock footage. I thought it was the best thing ever and eventually began using it to make videos for a friend who was an aspiring musician. In truth they were probably shit, but at the time I thought they were right up there with Citizen Kane. Of course I had no idea then that doing this as a career was any sort of a possibility.

Fast-forward a few years and I got the opportunity that would change my life. My friend’s big brother ran a post-production company at Pinewood Studios and he offered me a work experience placement. I did that for around 6 months, trying to soak up as much knowledge as possible and do whatever I could to prove myself. Eventually he offered me an assistant job and I never really looked back.

Please describe a typical working day or project.

It’s hard to describe a typical working day because editing is an evolving process. Obviously, you have an idea about what you need or want to get done, but really it is about the typical working of a project. That for me always starts with breaking down the rushes into manageable and logical sub sections or scenes. This is a time consuming job but essential because you need to know your footage before you are able to best put it together.

After that I will then begin to build the foundations of the film, not worrying too much about pictures but focusing on sync and narrative. For me this ‘radio edit’ is the most important stage of the process, you are still at a point in the construction where you can treat the material as building blocks, freely able to move sections around and experiment with ideas. When you are structurally happy, then is the time to start moving towards a fine-cut and looking at the more aesthetically pleasing side of things.

Having to unpick something at this stage though can be a lot more difficult than before, every slight revision tends to have an impact somewhere on the timeline – you just hope that you’ve got it right.

How closely do you have to work with the producer of a show and how much influence do you have in the finished look?

Every show has a different approach in terms of a producer’s involvement with the edit. Usually it comes down to trust and how comfortable they are with the process. On The Grand Tour for instance, we have Andy Wilman, without whom the show would be something very different. With him you will build the structure of a film, and for that he is essential.

Once he is happy with the construct it is then down to you to bring it all to life. With other shows I am often left to my own devises much earlier in the process, offering up sections as and when I want feedback on them. I enjoy working that way but it is important to keep relaying ideas to the producer, there is nothing worse than spending weeks and weeks on something only to find that they had a totally different vision to you. But ultimately, I do have a healthy input on how a show turns out regardless of approach. I think all editors have their own style and you can often tell who has cut a film by its final look and feel.

Can you explain how your work overlaps with other post-production teams, such as audio.

None of the post teams work without the other and so that overlap is essential. A dynamic dub and grade, is what takes your cut to the next level, the same is true with the right music. As much as I work hard to fully sound-lay my edits and do temp colour work, it is only when you see and hear it at its full potential, that your vision is truly realised. And it isn’t just a case of handing the cut over and saying “here you go, my work is done”.

When you’re putting a film together you will always have very specific ideas about the finished look and character of certain sequences, and so collaboration and communication is very important. But that works both ways, the offline needs to provide those elements that can be developed. With The Grand Tour for example, if you watch the show, you’ll notice that rather than using smooth transitions we tend to cut the pictures and audio hard. It is important for us to have that bold impact and deliberate change of gear between chapters, I think it really adds to the character of the show.

What have been your greatest challenges and achievements to date? How did the pandemic affect your work?

The pandemic was both cruel and kind for me. I was lucky enough to work throughout it, but not on the project that I was intending to do. I was meant to start work on my first feature last year but with much of it scheduled to shoot abroad, like so many other productions, that unfortunately ended up getting delayed. Fortunately I was already involved with another show, Clarkson’s Farm, which I was able to continue on into the year and actually that was no bad thing. Not only was it a nice change of pace, but it was also very well received and became something that I’m very proud of.

In terms of my greatest challenges and achievements, I think you’d have to say that everything you work on should fall into both of those categories. You’re only as good as your last project and so everything you do has an impact on your future. There have of course, been stand out moments. Watching your first ever edit being broadcast is an amazing feeling, knowing that millions of people that you’ve never met before are watching it is quite cool. I have been lucky enough to travel the world with my job on various sports OBs throughout the early part of my career. The fear and relief you get as you watch an edit go out on live TV at the last minute is certainly unique – praying that you have rendered everything as it is being played straight from your timeline, into an EVS and instantly broadcast around the world, whilst someone shouts through talkback “don’t press stop, this is live”.

However, I would say that the challenge which most stands out for me was my first Top Gear edit. I think I was 27 at the time and I was well aware what a big deal it was. The show was the pinnacle of its genre and the audience figures were immense. I was doing the mini Australia special and I had accepted the job because I knew the opportunity wouldn’t come again. The problem was that I had no idea what I was doing, I had only ever edited on FCP at the time and they were cutting on Avid. I think Andy thought there was something wrong with me because I had to keep making excuses to go to the toilet every 5 minutes so I could quickly Google how to do what he’d asked. I have no idea how I got away with that.

Congratulations on all your accolades to date – The Grand Tour and Top Gear have remained extremely successful. Can you share your secrets in achieving such success?

I think that much of the success of The Grand Tour isn’t really much of a secret, it’s the chemistry between the presenters. That is ultimately what makes it so much more than just a car show. But like any other successful show it also understands its audience. That might sound like an obvious thing to say but it really is so important. You have to be brave and smart enough to evolve with the times but at the same time remember and retain the core elements that made something popular in the first place.

From an editing point of view, the biggest thing that I have learnt over the years is when to pull the trigger. Just because you can ramp something up to ‘ten’ doesn’t mean that it should always be there – the calm is what makes the storm so impressive. When I was younger, I always wanted to show off all of the tricks and skills that I had at every opportunity, and it took me a long time to learn that just because you can, it doesn’t mean that you should. I think you see that a lot with sports VTs these days, it’s like someone has put every effect and filter available to them on every shot and it just hurts your head after a while. A good edit is about timing and mood. Sometimes one shot is better than five. The prettiest shot isn’t always the best, story and geography is often much more important than composition. Does that make sense?

The Grand Tour is very visceral and shares elements of popular movies such as Fast and The Furious – how has your technique changed over the years in terms of engaging with the audience?

I’m not sure how to answer this? I think The Grand Tour is often closer to Last of the Summer Wine than Fast and The Furious. I mean there is an obvious connection to films like that, but actually I would say our influences are often less obvious. For instance, in the Scotland Special that is soon to be released, it was films like Get Carter and Bullitt that were often spoken about.

Obviously, a lot of thought has gone into the way things are shot, the music that we use etc. But as much as anything what is important to us is being true to the location and concept of a film, and that comes from the coming together of all of the parts that I have already spoken about.

So what is it that makes a good editor?

In my mind there are quite a few misconceptions about what makes a good editor. For example, people often confuse having good technical knowledge with being a good editor, but actually that makes you a good technician. I think that good rhythm and decision making is much more necessary. More importantly though, I don’t think you should categorise people into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ editors.

Really it is that there are editors who excel at certain disciplines and genres. That often comes from someone’s natural instincts and approach, the way to best tackle a short form or quick turnaround project might be very different to a more considered long form factual or feature production. In my mind it doesn’t mean that one is better than the other, just different. Also, it doesn’t mean that because someone is good at one thing that they can’t do another. I’m sure like with all parts of the industry, there is this bizarre and unjustified pigeonholing of editors from production companies. The number of times I hear someone, including myself, moaning that they got passed on a job because they hadn’t got enough direct experience of a specific genre is frightening. I’m not suggesting that you should give the editor of Homes Under The Hammer the post-lead on the next Bond film, but if he or she wants to go and do another entertainment show, they shouldn’t be limited to real estate programming only.

What makes a good editor is a considered understanding of the genre, the show or film and the audience. Being able to best put together a project with all of that in mind and bring to life a vision in a way that most couldn’t is what puts you at the top of a call list.

Are there any upcoming projects you can share with us?

I have a couple of documentaries coming up that are going to be pretty hard hitting, that is something that I am excited about because I do enjoy taking on the more serious subjects. I have also just finished a music video for a new band that is due to drop soon and then there is the film I talked about earlier. I’m not sure what I am allowed and not allowed to give away at the moment so I’m afraid to save me getting in trouble I will keep it zipped. I can tell you though that there is more Grand Tour coming.

What advice would you give to people wanting to join your industry?

Honestly, the best advice I can give is to work as hard as you can and expect bumps in the road. Also, don’t try to run before you can walk. I know being a production runner isn’t the most glamorous thing and everybody these days wants to be an executive producer straight out of university, but if you really want to succeed then the best thing you can do is keep learning and then take the steps up the ladder when you’re ready. When I was a runner, I used to sit in the back of the edit and just watch them work. When the client had left, I would ask my boss how he did certain things, and then when everyone had gone home, I would stay behind and try to recreate what I’d watched him do.

Taking advice and asking questions is also never a bad thing, as long as you have someone to ask who really wants to help, then use that person as much as possible. And that doesn’t change as you go through your career.

Finally, would you share titles of some your favourite movies, TV shows and music?

I have quite an eclectic taste in both music and film. There isn’t much I don’t like, except Sci-Fi, I never really got that. I do really enjoy a good mob film and series, I will never get tired of the obvious classics like The Godfather, Scarface and The Sopranos. But my ultimate guilty pleasure is Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, I think I have seen that film more than any other.

I also watch a lot of documentaries. There is a boxing film called Assault In The Ring which really made me fall in love with factual programming. Also, the BBC series SAS: Rogue Warriors, I thought was brilliant. There isn’t really much I don’t watch and enjoy, but I do have a love for docs that combine style and substance, things like The Legend of Cocaine Island and The Defiant Ones are both good examples of that.

Musically I guess my taste tends to lean towards guitar music, I was raised with a soundtrack of old punk bands from the 70s and that naturally lead me to enjoy the Brit Pop / Indie revolution in my childhood and teenage years. I also enjoy Hip-Hop, D&B, Metal and a bit of Jazz. Just like with films, you gravitate towards a different style depending on your mood.

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