Hundreds of movies are released every year, making it difficult for the average movie watcher to navigate what’s worth seeing. For this reason, “Top Movies of the Year” lists are extremely useful. Most, however, are just walls of text.
That’s why the video movie countdown from film writer and editor David Ehrlich is such a welcome sight. Following last year’s installment, the labor of love has become a much anticipated annual tradition. It’s not hard to see why: Ehrlich stitches together music and images from the past year’s movies with impressive editorial skill.
We sat down with Ehrlich (who writes for Time Out New York, The Dissolve, Little White Lies, and others), to discuss how he crafted the latest edition of his annual can’t-miss countdown. Along the way, we gathered these valuable editing tips and insights on how to accomplish a similar feat yourself.
Have a goal for what you want to accomplish
“I want the videos to be entertaining, and the hope is that they don’t just reflect an arbitrary ranking of movies, but function as pieces unto themselves. The process is very mechanical, and I’m not under any delusion that it makes for great art, but if the videos can shine a light on any of the films’ undercurrents, or how the movies of a particular year might speak to one another, that’s neat.”
Use (and be thankful for) HD
“Most of the footage is ripped from YouTube. In fact, these videos wouldn’t really have been possible prior to 2011, as it was only then (and it was still spotty that year) that distributors began to reliably release HD trailers and clips from their movies.”
Don’t plan your shots and edits ahead (too much)
“Because I’m largely forced to work with the footage available to me, I don’t often catalogue shots in my mind while watching a movie. I don’t want to set myself up for disappointment. I work with the ingredients provided. But I’ve known since January that this year’s video, regardless of the film in the #1 spot, would end with that clip from The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
Use editing tools you’re comfortable with
“I use Final Cut Pro 7, because it’s the only one I know. I’m sure I could pick up FCX or some other program, but this stuff scares me. I’m still super nervous that I’m encoding things wrong. I love the feeling of being comfortable with editing software.”
Sometimes the hardest parts are the most fun
“I start with images. I isolate the images I want to use, but I keep the entire clips handy, because you never know. The hardest part is always stitching together the audio meshwork, determining the flow of the thing, etc. It has to move well, but also reflect the order of my favorites. It’s really tricky, but it also results in a lot of fun little alchemy that I never could have planned.”
Use the music that works best (not just the music you like)
“Songs with clear beats are the easiest to work with, for sure. The music doesn’t always reflect my opinion of the film from which it’s taken. I love The Double, but I didn’t especially care for The Skeleton Twins (or, um, Mannequin), but the Starship song worked — and the scene from which I borrowed it is very memorable — so I went ahead. The Morricone song appears as a blip towards the end of The Book of Life, which no one remembers, but it appeared in a film from 2014, so I felt it was fair game.
How to perfectly merge music with images
“Trial and error. Over and over. Until death.”
Let Michael Keaton snap his fingers to the music: Or, let music and images connect
“I want to make it feel as though the music I’m using is directly touching the clips it’s being played over. I try not to overuse this device, but the little moments [see the 2:12 mark in the video above] intended to make it seem like the footage is responding to the music and vice versa — that the two are melded together.”
Don’t be afraid to let music misrepresent
The way I used “Come and Get Your Love” was meant to blatantly misrepresent Under the Skin and The Babadook — a little tongue-in-cheek appreciation of the dark tones of those films. On the other hand, Selma was a last-minute addition, and I was worried that people might not make the connection between the hopeful lyrics of the silly ’80s pop song I play over those powerful images of hard-fought civil progress, but I hope it worked.”
When grouping visual motifs, let music stitch them together
“The music comes first. Once I committed to the theme from The Double [see the 1:39 mark], I knew I had those parts of the song that felt very circular and not particularly cut-friendly. Starting with that shot from Edge of Tomorrow, where Tom Cruise is spinning around in the sky, I felt that was the closest visual match to Andrew Hewitt’s strings.”
It’s good to cue cuts to motion, but…
“It’s not rocket science: motion is inherently exciting. Also, things stitch together better than when they’re static. But the worst feeling I have is watching these videos back and feeling like the cuts are too quick. I fear that first-time viewers might lose a lot of things due to the speed of the cuts. I’ll take any excuse to slow things down, which is why I’m partial to the Godzilla bit and things that follow.“
For more from Ehrlich, check out his 2013 video below: