When it comes to editing powerful stories for film and television, David Guthrie is among the best Canada has to offer. A passionate storyteller, Guthrie has the unique ability to take hours upon hours of footage and sew the necessary pieces together in order to create stories that flow seamlessly on screen.
Anyone who has had the opportunity to watch his work on the first three seasons of the TV series “Cold Water Captains,” which earned a Canadian Screen Award nomination for Best Factual Program of Series last year, already knows that Guthrie never misses a beat with his cuts. His background in music has endowed him with an astute sense of rhythm and pacing, which has been invaluable in his work as an editor. His ability to tap into the vibe and emotion of each project’s story and execute on screen is what continues to keep viewers engaged.
Over the years Guthrie has amassed an impressive repertoire of work as an editor with projects that include everything from Reality TV shows, award-winning films, documentaries and commercials. Some of his work to date includes being part of the editing team on Oscar nominee Barbara Willis Sweete’s films “Billy Bishop Goes to War” and “The Whirlwind of Your Passion: A Philanthropist’s Dream,” as well as the hit international documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” which earned the Best Documentary Film Awards from the Denver Film Critics Society and Detroit Film Critic Society in 2012.
The mark of a good editor in the world of film and television innately means that Guthrie’s work goes unnoticed on screen, but for him, editing isn’t about fame, it’s about bringing powerful stories to life.
To find out more about David Guthrie and how he got to where he is today, make sure to check out our interview below.
Where are you from?
DG: I was born and raised in Toronto.
How and when did you first get into working as an editor?
It was kind of serendipitous. After spending a bunch of years as a musician in a band I decided I wanted to get into the film business but didn’t know what to do, so I got a job at Rhombus Media as a receptionist and worked the front desk for a year. One day one of the editors was coming in to work late on a project and someone had disassembled the edit suite. There was no one else around so I offered to help him get it back together, his assistant editor was nowhere to be found so he offered me a job as an assistant editor and said he would train me up. I did that for a year assisting on a few films, then Jiro Dreams of Sushi and then Billy Bishop Goes to War. Eventually I moved up to editor on some EPK’s, more films and documentaries – and then eventually got my break cutting for television on the reality show “Cold Water Captains.”
What inspired you to pursue this profession?
DG: I kind of lucked into it. When I was in the band we needed a music video so I taught myself how to edit and took some home videos from one of our tours and cut them together. At the time it was just as a necessity, but I found that I enjoyed the process of editing.
What kind of training was involved in order to become an editor? How long have you been doing this?
DG: I’ve been doing it now for 6 years. All of my training has been through working with talented people I never went to school for this – it didn’t seem like I needed to. Every job I’ve worked on I learned more and more – I’ve been so fortunate to work with some of the best directors and editors in Canada and each one has taught me something different.
Can you describe some of the projects you’ve worked on and some of the challenges you’ve faced?
DG: I edited season 1 of the one-hour docu-drama TV series “Cold Water Captains,” which over the course of 10 episodes, followed the perils of 3 fishing boats in the north Atlantic off the coast of Newfoundland. This show is a monster when it comes to post production. We filmed for 12 weeks on 4 to 5 different boats with 2 cameras on each boat. The amount of footage can be overwhelming. That is the biggest challenge of the show by far– trying to cut compelling scenes out of hours of monotonous footage. We were creating the style of the show as well, so the first episode was definitely another challenge. I was cutting scenes for multiple episodes each week sometimes I was cutting a different episode. That was a challenge too, trying to keep track of where I was in each story and how each scene developed the overall story arc. In the end, we got nominated for a CSA for Best Reality Show. That was really rewarding given all of the challenges surrounding us.
I also edited season 2 of “Cold Water Captains,” which was a whole different beast. We were filming with some new boats that year and we had to figure out how each new captain’s archetype would fit into the show. As you start to watch hours and hours of raw footage you realize that there are many repeating scenes that happen out at sea, this thing breaks down, the fish get away etc. It’s a challenge to try and keep each scene and each episode feeling fresh. Halfway through the season one of our captains decided to stop fishing and work on his boat, which was a major blow. We had to scramble and reinvent the format of the show so that we could at least keep in a fishing show where he isn’t doing any fishing. We ended up cutting a land story about him repairing the boat, which was one of the best episodes we made.
On season 3 of “Cold Water Captains” I was promoted to the finishing team. This means that I was one of the lead editors on the show and responsible for bringing episodes to delivery to the network. It is a lot of fun getting to polish the scenes and really make them come alive. The show is starting to get really challenging as we are starting to see similar story lines occur – the challenge has been keeping things real and making each episode seem fresh and new.
“Room & Bored” is a TV movie comedy that I co-wrote, directed and starred in and also edited. I wrote it with a friend of mine, Nick Nelson, a local comedian in Toronto. The challenge of this edit was not having an assistant editor so I had to do all the audio syncing (the audio and video are recorded separately, so an assistant editor usually has to put them together before the editor begins cutting). Another challenge was cutting a show where I am also one of the main actors. I had to try and remove myself from the project and not to have bias in my own performances. In the end the film was an official selection at the New York Television Festival, and it led to us entering the pitch completion at the festival and winning a development deal with the Gannett Network. The whole experience was so rewarding and it turned out really well.
For “Treading Water – The Making Of,” the behind the scenes documentary about the independent movie, “Treading Water,” I sorted through hundreds of hours of on set footage and crafted a 30 minute featurette including verite style stuff from set and interviews with the key cast and crew. This was a good training ground for the reality docudrama world.
“Beck & Call” is my favorite project so far. I’m writing, directing (and acting) and of course editing this new comedy series. I’m making it with a couple of my talented writer/actor friends and we’re releasing season one later this year. I love the whole story telling process from writing right down to editing – so being a part of all of it has been very fulfilling.
What tools do you use to edit? Avid? Final Cut? Etc. And what are the primary differences?
DG: I primarily use Avid, but I have cut with Final Cut and Premiere. To me, the software doesn’t really make a difference. Most of the skill in editing comes from making creative decisions, what shot to use where, what music tracks to use, the pacing, rhythm etc. All of that is easily done on all three platforms. The differences between them are noticeable when you have a large project with lots of people using them. Like on a reality TV show for example. There are 20-30 people all cutting from a huge amount of footage and Avid is really the only one that can handle that.
What is it that you love about working as an editor?
DG: I love the challenge of crafting a story from seemingly unrelated footage. Finding a story thread. I love when you find the perfect shot that helps tell that story or the right piece of music that just works. You try a hundred different tracks of music and none of them are the right one and you just don’t know why and then you find the one that works and you just know, you can feel it and then you cut it in and the whole scene comes to life. I love that feeling, it’s a rush. Or when you really tap into the emotion of the scene and you are feeling the same feelings that the characters are feeling, you have to go to that place – cause then you know how to pace the scene correctly and how the audience will feel.
What separates you from the rest of the pool of editors in Hollywood? What is your specialty in the field?
DG: I have a knack when it comes to finding story threads in a massive amount of footage that seems unrelated. You can give me hundreds of hours of footage with no direction and I can sift through it and find the story thread. Having a writer’s approach to editing has always been my strong suit, as well as having a music background. I usually have solid soundtracks to my scenes and can pull strong emotions.
Can you tell me a little bit about your editing process? Once you get the footage, where do you start?
DG: First I watch everything, or as much as I can. A lot of editing is problem solving so you need to know what ammunition you have to work with. Sometimes I’ll be cutting one scene and hit a wall and then I will think– “that shot from the other days footage could work here.” I’m like a sponge, I try and absorb all of it so at least it’s in my subconscious while I’m working.
Next I start cutting with a vibe- what is the vibe of the scene? That will inform me as to what shots to pick, what music to select and how fast to cut. Then I try and make it make sense visually and logically, I don’t think you can affect the audience in any emotional way if they are confused. Once it makes sense, then comes the real fun part– making it beautiful, and seamless. And trying new things. But it is all is built on the vibe.
What is the collaboration process like in terms of working with the other departments on a project?
DG: I love collaborating. It’s really difficult sometimes to sit in a room by yourself and see if you are heading in the right direction. If you are working with someone you trust you can bounce ideas off of them, screen cuts and gauge reactions. Usually I work in tandem with a story editor, they will write the scenes and we will work together towards a cut we can show the producers. Since I also work as a story editor I find that it helps because I can speak their language and I can see it from their perspective.
Up to how long can it take to complete the editing on a project?
DG: Depends on the project, for a TV pilot might take 4-8 weeks. On reality TV it usually takes 3 months per episode. Documentaries can take a year.
I’ve heard people say an editor can be sitting at their computer for up to 14 hours a day working on something—is this accurate? If so how do you stay focused?
DG: I try not to work for too long at any one time. I take breaks and stretch my legs and look out windows. Sometimes you have to work long days if you have a looming deadline with tons of notes. But generally I think if you work when you are tired you’re just moving backwards and creating more work for yourself. So I try to stick to 8-10 hours a day max.
What has been your favorite project so far and why?
DG: I’m currently working on a comedy series, “Beck and Call,” about two talent agents struggling to make it in Brooklyn. Along with editing the show I am writing and directing it as well. It has been so much fun working with really talented people and just making stuff that we want to make and not having to conform to any network notes! And I love working in the comedy world.
Do you have a passion for working on a specific kind of film or project, if so what kind of project and why?
DG: I would love to edit an indie feature dark comedy – something like “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Sideways” or “Lost in Translation.” I love those kind of moody, self exploratory type of narratives where the acting and the writing really get a chance to shine. As I said, I love story telling and those films are some of the best.
What do you hope to achieve in your career as an editor?
DG: Academy Award or bust — just kidding, but not really. I just want to keep getting better and working with talented people and go with the flow.
What would you say was your first foot in the door to the industry? Any advice as to how to maximize your chances for landing that first gig? What is your advice to other aspiring artists?
DG: When I decided to get into film I was faced with a decision: go to film school or try to work my way up. I decided that I would just get any job in the industry and see if I could navigate my way up so that in four years (when I would have graduated school) I would be better off than if I went to film school. I asked everyone I knew who knew anybody hiring in the industry and finally I landed a job as a receptionist at Rhombus Media, a production company. I worked there for a year and a half when I got the opportunity to be an assistant editor – I did that for a couple of years and just moved my way up. I took the opportunities that came to me – it’s all been very organic.
My advice to aspiring artists would be to get real world experience – intern, intern, intern. And make your own stuff. Be good at your job, be yourself, and don’t be desperate – trust that the opportunities will come if you work hard. The rest just sort of falls into place.