Persons Of Interest

Very Interesting People: Chris Roberts, Editor


A few months back I wrote a post about a short film that I worked on, written and directed by Chris Roberts, called The Enemy Within. Chris’s day job is working as a film editor on different films and TV programs, including work for David Attenborough documentaries. Seems to me like he’s always working on something interesting, so I thought he qualified as a Very Interesting Person… 

What does an editor do?

They consider all the footage that’s been shot (for a 1-hour programme this would be typically up to 50 hours, sometimes over 100 hours for some obs-docs) and, with the director, decides which elements to use – storylines or subjects and more narrowly which shots and what sync (anything people say) to use. Normally we first piece the bare-bones together and then begin adding practical and beautiful/atmospheric shots, cut down the sync with the edits disguised as best as possible, and then add sound effects and music to create the atmosphere, emotion and flow of the programme

How did you get started?

First unpaid editing at home on things like my holiday videos. My first paid editing job was after lots of self-teaching, then a friend got me a job in a company making corporate videos. Through a combination of slog, ambition, confidence, contacts I’d made along the way, and frankly luck, I weaselled my way into bigger jobs!

What’s your background?

Science – I did a degree in physics! Largely this is and was always intended to be “irrelevant” – a respected degree to have which I enjoyed, but has little to with my job.

What drew you to editing? 

I was writing scripts for jollies when I was 11 years old and was convinced I wanted to work in TV. I didn’t intend to become an editor but found I enjoyed it and it wonderfully combined my love of technical (learning and using software) with creative (storytelling from the palette of what has been shot). I always thought I’d get bored of it and that I’d get lonely! Thankfully it hasn’t been as I’ve worked with some friendly and fantastic peeps.

What is your most well known work? 

I’m not sure! I worked on a David Attenborough series recently which probably features the most well known person but I’m actually not sure what programmes that I’ve cut that have been the most watched! Anything to do with weather seems to rate very well so maybe Channel 4’s The Storm that Stole Christmas. It’s not easy to say what I’m most proud of either as I’m very critical of my own work, but I guess I really enjoyed cutting and am pleased Henry and Anne for Channel 5. It had some lovely moments of drama because of it’s great cast and being beautifully shot, but I also had a chance for some lovely creatively in the edit.

What do you love about your work? What do you hate?

I love the creativity, the people and ending up with a hopefully beautiful product! The main frustrations come from when you meet a problem that you fail to solve or is more of a fudge than you’d like – or sometimes you have to push a programme in a direction that you don’t personally like – but you get used to having to be professional and letting go of personal attachments where necessary.

Take me through your thought process and how you make editing decisions?

Structurally it’s deceptively simple: Is it interesting (or essential), if no then lose it. Then decide on the right order for clarity but also surprise, suspense and counterpointing. In terms of painting it, I tend to flick through the images and see what patterns or mini-story or emotion might exist (or that I can create by moving into a different context). These micro-moments are really enjoyable creatively.

Any funny editing stories? 

I remember the time an edit assistant came in and was chatting about someone stupid enough to pull the plug on the edit suite while plugging something in. As she did so, the computer went suspiciously quiet just as she plugged something in. Lost about an hour’s work. Not sure how funny that should have been, but I did laugh – you kinda have to!

Is freelancing really hard?

I’ve been very lucky and had pretty solid run of work so in that case, for me, no. But doesn’t mean there isn’t time I’ve got concerned about not knowing what’s next – I’d say it’s not for the faint hearted. The beauty of it though is the variety and the buzz and the short gaps between jobs is a great chance to get things done. I’d say the only real downside for me is not being able to plan holidays in advance, unlike a staff job would normally let you. But that’s no big drama.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to break into the industry or get into editing?

Always tricky. But remember that most people don’t like to take risks especially without incentive, so give them a reason to employ you. Get as much experience as you can, make as many contacts as you can, be friendly but confident in what you can achieve and keep trying different ways in. Work experience is a great way in, make yourself useful, work for free or low wage for a short  period of time to get the chance to prove yourself. And I’d say make sure you’re enjoyable to work with – because people like to work with people who are easy to get on with!

What’s up next? 
I’m not sure I’m allowed to say! Not for reasons quite as exciting as they sound, but we’re generally banned from any social media on programmes in the edit. However I can answer in generic terms that its a history programme with lots of nice shots! (laughs) Does that narrow it down?
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