An Evening With Tariq Anwar

It was a rainy Thursday night in late October when I attended a screening and talk by the highly esteemed motion picture editor Tariq Anwar ACE at the Florence Gould Hall Theater in Manhattan.  With a long list of credits to his name, Mr. Anwar’s filmography includes well-known films such as The Madness of King George and American Beauty — which won the Oscar for best picture in 1999.

In addition to those films, tonight’s discussion would feature Tariq’s work on The Kings Speech,which took home the Oscar for Best Picture of 2010. He also received an Oscar nomination for best editing on the popular motion picture.

The well attended event of editors, students and others was presented by two parties.  The first was Manhattan Edit Workshop which, aside from offering workshops, co-produce on the yearly EditFest New York with ACE, a two day event and celebration of all things editing. The second presenter was the collaborative editing technology company EditShare.

Before the discussion with Tariq Anwar began, James Richings, Managing Director of EditShare, took the opportunity to say a few salient words about Lightworks, the program that Mr. Anwar employed to edit tonight’s film.  The Boston-based company brought the open source NLE to market over the past year.

Lightworks Anyone?

When it comes to editing software, several popular brands immediately come to mind such as Avid’s Media Composer, Adobe’s Premiere Pro and Apple’s Final Cut.  There is another program you may be less familiar with, however.  It’s called Lightworks and has been around for years, having been used on many projects including notable feature films.  In fact, Anwar prefers using it to just about any other editor out there.  He will, of course, use Avid should he take over a film that was started by someone else using that NLE; but on projects he begins, Lightworks is his tool of choice.

One thing that Anwar likes about it is that it employs a tactile control surface.  He appreciates the exactness the control surface offers, especially for sound, noting that for him it’s a “more definitive way of cutting”.

 The Lightworks interface.

The Lightworks interface.

Lightworks was actually one of the first NLEs on the market, launching in 1989.  Although the product changed hands a number of times over the two decades since its introduction, it’s continued as a favorite for many editors.  One reason: it features a fast, straightforward interface originally modeled after the simplicity of the Steenbeck flatbed film editor.

EditShare acquired Lightworks about two years ago while it languished under a company which had “no vision for the product”, according to Richings.  Under EditShare’s stewardship, however, the company made an interesting decision, deciding to make the code base open source.  The result?  Some 2000 developers have already signed onto the project.  Here is a surprising benefit for many editors: it’s entirely free. That’s right. Free. (For more information about the product, click here.)

For those wondering whether “free” is a viable business model, Richings said that EditShare will sell add-ons such as the Lightworks control surface as well as plug-ins to the program. The company is also selling support contracts, which, for a professional editor, is a must.

Next, Josh Apter, president of Manhattan Edit Workshop, sat down for his talk with Tariq Anwar.  During the course of the evening, we watched three sequences from Anwar’s films. After each segment, Apter asked a few questions and then opened it up to the audience who had some probing queries of their own.

Beginnings

Tariq Anwar drifted into the film business as a driver while he was a young man in England. Amusingly, he thought he had arrived when he spotted well known celebrities at various film shoots.  Little did he know that one day he would go on to edit films that would win Academy awards.

Eventually Tariq worked his way up to a 3rd Assistant Director, a job he characterized as somewhat akin to being the director’s bulldog, having the less enviable position of yelling at the staff when things went wrong.  One day he walked into the cutting room and in his words found it “the most civilized place”.  Reflecting on how times had changed, he noted that in those days English film editors wore suits and white gloves whereas today anything goes — at least as far as apparel is concerned.

Anwar soon gained crucial experience working on documentaries and TV shows at the BBC.  It was there that he practiced his craft, learning to tell stories with film.  He explained that his work on documentaries at the BBC taught him a “sense of drama”.

After his years at the BBC, Anwar began work as a freelance editor. He eventually became the editor of the Oscar-nominated feature The Madness of King George (1994), posted entirely on film as digital NLEs were still in their early, not-ready-for-prime-time era.

Editing Madness

  The Madness of King George

The Madness of King George

According to Anwar, “wonderful performances by actors make editing look good”.  This was readily apparent from the first clip we watched from The Madness of King George where the King of England, in the process of losing his mind, causes a hilarious and uproarious ruckus during a courtly affair.  Of course, the fact that it was a period piece with its costumes, wigs and 18th Century fashions enhances the impact of the film.

Reflecting on the film business itself, Anwar likened the entire process of making a film somewhat like a King’s court due to its hierarchical nature.  From his considerable experience working with directors, he commented that he has often found them to be more indecisive than one might expect.

Soon after The Madness of King George, the world of professional editing was finally starting to become revolutionized by digital technology.  At first Anwar, like others in his profession, resisted the new tools. But soon he embraced it, quickly learning to appreciate the flexibility it would offer. “I love technology, especially Lightworks,” said Anwar.

Sound Doctrine

Sound is very important to Tariq, and the advent of a non-linear approach opened up new methods to work with it.  Traditionally the editor’s ability to work with sound was limited when cutting with film.  The locked visual edit was sent to a specialized sound editor to finish the mixing, as it was too much for the editor to do it himself.  But today’s NLEs allow an editor to work with audio from the beginning, adding multiple tracks of audio, experimenting with different music selections and mixing it all together if he or she chooses.  According to Anwar “you can end up with a full soundtrack” by the time the editing is finished.

In fact, Mr. Anwar’s selections for temp music often make it to the final cut.  This was the case with the musical passages heard in The Kings Speech, many of which were chosen by Anwar.

Editing Beauty

  American Beauty

American Beauty

When director Sam Mendes asked Tariq Anwar to cut American Beauty (1999), he happened to be finishing an edit on another film.  However, Anwar quickly jumped on the project, which featured stars Annette Benning and Kevin Spacey.  While Mendes was a noted stage director in Britain, the film was his debut feature. Anwar gives a lot of credit to him for how he handled the editing of the picture.  “Sam is the kind of director that likes to sit next to you and get involved with the process,” Anwar stated.

While Anwar has a high regard for Mendes, having a director at your shoulder doesn’t always work out for the best.  When asked about working with directors in general, he commented “It’s better when the director isn’t there”.  Mr. Anwar also mentioned that he regularly uses the Internet to show busy directors his progress on the film.

In a related question, when someone asked him what he thought about directors who try to co-edit the film on their own laptops, Anwar was less than enthusiastic, citing a “question of authorship”.  He also mentioned that theater directors tend not to overdrive the process and are “not as meddlesome”.

The sequence from American Beauty screened was where the main characters—played by Spacey and Benning—attend a basketball game to see their daughter perform her cheerleading routine. Initially reluctant to attend the game, Spacey’s attitude changes when he becomes transfixed by the beauty of one of the cheerleaders, a friend of his daughter’s.  Eventually, everything fades away but the two of them.  The viewer, in turn, becomes as lost as Spacey in his juvenile erotic fantasy.

During his comments on film, Anwar stated that the most important thing in editing was “pacing”. He also said that, in some ways, “the role of an editor is to redirect the film”.

Working with Directors

According to Anwar, the editor must be honest and courageous with the director. It seems, however, that not all directors take criticism well.  He recalled a feature where he expressed his frank opinion of the material being handed to him by a novice director. After telling her he didn’t think her approach was working, Anwar was summarily relieved of his duties. Even though he brought great experience to the project, he “wasn’t being nurturing enough”.

Everyone had a good laugh, though, when we heard that the film went through five other editors after him.  While it is common throughout the industry for editors to be hired and fired during the high pressure atmosphere of a feature project, Anwar has only had to walk out that door three times during his long career.  “You can’t worry about getting fired for making comments,” Tariq noted.

Anwar said that as a director, Robert DeNiro was “brave and not afraid to take risks”.  For the production of DeNiro’s The Good Shepherd, a trailer with a Lightworks setup was positioned near the set during shooting.  He commented that most directors usually don’t like an actor entering the editing room. But for DeNiro, it was the reverse. The famed actor turned director wanted to show his actors cuts of their scene, pulling them into the trailer to play it out.

The Kings Speech

For the final sequence shown that evening, we returned to The Kings Speech. King George VI, father of the current Queen of England, was struggling through various strenuous exercises to overcome his stammering speech impediment.  In the feature, this sequence is intercut with a scene of him giving a speech in an English factory.

  The Kings Speech

The Kings Speech

At first, the exercise sequence was meant to appear on its own. The director, Tom Hooper, felt that the scene was not working however, but he wasn’t sure what to do with it.  At Anwar’s suggestion, it was cut with the footage of the Factory which they were actually thinking of getting rid of. The resulting sequence cut from the combined scenes was spectacular.

Music is a crucial part of the editing process to Anwar. “The beginning of editing a film is boring” he said, “It gets more fun later when music is added.  That’s when it comes alive,” he said.  He certainly must have a feeling for how music works in a film: As noted before, many of the musical passages in The Kings Speech were chosen by Anwar.

Reflecting on what he thinks makes the role of the editor enjoyable, he observed that “hundreds of people are providing stuff for you to play with”.

— Dan Ochiva contributed to this article.