TV & Film

Ben Niu Breaks Down His Award-Winning Film Editing Work

It’s time to talk about film editing, a rather niche discipline within the wider world of filmmaking, and a discipline that is absolutely crucial to the effectiveness and artistry of any release. 

Behind every great movie is a highly skilled editor who has a deep understanding of the director’s vision. 

For the average person, it can be difficult to grasp just how vital and influential editing really is. Just take a look at this example video where the same scene is cut two different ways. When the edit changes, so does the tone, the pacing, and even the meaning of the imagery. 

Ben Niu has been editing for years, and he’s worked on numerous award-winning films, and this includes awards specifically for film editing. 

In 2022 alone, Niu worked on multiple films selected for notable festivals around the world. 

The 25th Filial Exemplar is a short film that was selected for Tribeca Film Festival, featured in Variety and Hollywood Report, qualified for Best Live Action Short Film at the 95th Academy Awards, and is available for streaming through Amazon Prime Video.

The short film My Life Stopped at 15 was selected for the BronzeLens Film Festival, won Best Film at the Official Latino Film and Arts Festival, and won Best Editing at the Hollywood Gold Awards, among many other festival selections, awards, and nominations.

And the short A Picture of Friendship During the Dark Ages won Best Editing at the Golden Short Film Festival, the Budapest Film Festival, the Paris Film Awards, and Indie House Festival. 

Artvoice had the exciting opportunity to speak with Niu about three of these movies, as well as his upcoming projects for this year. 

We’d like to ask about some of your recent projects. But first, how many projects would you say you work on in any given year?

During the course of 2022, I had the opportunity to edit a total of eight projects, including one mini-series and seven short films. These projects were diverse in nature and presented unique challenges that allowed me to hone my skills as an editor. While each project was different, I approached each one with the same level of dedication and attention to detail, striving to deliver the best possible outcome for each one. From start to finish, I poured my heart and soul into these projects, and I am proud of the final results.

The 25th Filial Exemplar has been very successful so far. At what stage of production or post-production did you join the team?

I joined the project during pre-production after being recommended to director Leon Cheo by a producer I had worked with before. Leon was specifically looking for an editor who is fluent in both Chinese and English, as the script is written in English but the story is about a Chinese family and all the characters speak Mandarin. It was important to him that the editor have a Chinese cultural background. When we first met, Leon was still finalizing the shooting draft of the script. He asked for my opinion from an editor’s point of view, so I analyzed each character’s motivations and arcs and shared my thoughts and concerns with him. He agreed with some of my advice, which laid a good foundation for our collaboration.

What were some of the key creative decisions for this short made during the editing process?

There was a scene at the beginning where Leung gives his mom Meizhu medicine. The intention was to show that Meizhu depends on her son and that Leung is taking good care of her. However, right after this scene, there is another scene where Leung dresses up like his late sister and Meizhu acts like she is talking to her late daughter. Later on, we find out that Meizhu is actually forcing her son to play this sick role-play game with her. If the audience saw Meizhu taking medicine before this scene, they might think she has Alzheimer’s, which would create confusion and weaken the moment when the audience realizes that Meizhu has actually been forcing her son to play this sick game with her. Therefore, we deleted the scene of Leung giving his mom medicine.

There is another scene where Leung lies on his bed, staring at the ceiling fan with an emotionless face. As the rotation of the fan gets faster and faster, the music becomes more frantic and intense. This moment immerses the audience in Leung’s inner world, allowing them to feel what he is feeling. Furthermore, this scene serves as a great transition to the next scene where Leung decides not to wear his late sister’s dress in front of his mother. It makes the audience feel that Leung can no longer tolerate his mother’s manipulation and is forming the idea of fighting against her. Interestingly, this scene was not planned in the script. Instead, we found the rotating fan shot from the B-roll footage, thanks to our DP Jay. The result is that we created the most captivating moment of the entire film, and everyone who has watched the film loves this scene.

Next up: My Life Stopped at 15. This has already won an award for Best Editing. How did that feel?

I feel extremely fortunate and grateful to have been part of an exceptional team. Shoutout to Nikki Mejia, Seth Macmillan, and Ahmad Alerwi. The synergy between our team members, coupled with our unwavering dedication and commitment to our shared goals, made for a truly remarkable experience. Working together, we were able to achieve great things and overcome challenges that would have been insurmountable for any one of us alone. I will always cherish the memories and the lessons learned from my time with this amazing group of individuals.

Our film has been recognized with numerous awards and nominations. In 2021, it won Best Film at the Official Latino Film and Arts Festival, and in 2022, it won Best Editing at the international Hollywood Gold Awards. It was also nominated for many awards, including Best Editor at the Seattle Film Festival. Additionally, the film was a Semi-Finalist for Best Narrative Short at Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival, one of the Best International Film Festivals and top 10 Short Film Festivals in the United States. It was also an official selection at the EnergaCAMERIMAGE film festival, the greatest and most recognized festival dedicated to the art of cinematography and cinematographers.

Any unique challenges with this project? 

The film centers around the topic of human trafficking and is told from the perspective of a PTSD patient named Sofia. Our goal is to create a subjective experience that immerses the audience in Sofia’s world, allowing them to feel what it’s like to live with PTSD. However, we are aware that this is a sensitive topic and we want to avoid traumatizing our audience, particularly those who may have had similar experiences. As a result, there were extensive conversations during post-production about what to show and what not to show to the audience.

And lastly, A Picture of Friendship During the Dark Ages. This has won numerous Best Editing awards. Has the release been exciting?

Absolutely! I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the incredible work of the exceptionally talented director, Paul Cadenhead. His unique vision and tireless dedication to his craft have been nothing short of inspiring to me and to countless others who have had the pleasure of working with him. The film has already won many Best Editing Awards. It won Best Editing at the Golden Short Film Festival in 2022, which rewards only the best and most outstanding short films from around the globe. It also won Best Editing at several international festivals, including the Budapest Film Festival, the Paris Film Awards, and the Indie House Festival.

Aside from the quality of the work itself, what about the editing of this short do you think has garnered such positive attention?

This film was a super challenging project for me. When the director reached out to me and asked if I was interested in editing it, he explained that the film was a pure experiment for him. I learned that he didn’t have a script when they were shooting the film; all he had was a logline of the story and a simple description of each scene. Additionally, the way they approached principal photography was pretty wild: he asked the actors to improvise after giving them their character’s background and the scenario they were in while the camera kept rolling. When I received the huge amount of footage without a script, I knew it would be a tough project to cut. However, this challenge also excited me, especially when the director gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted. I knew I had the chance to create something special. I think the director’s really bold approach and mutual trust between us made this a unique film.

Ben Niu with My Life Stopped at 15 Team

Can you tell us about any of your upcoming projects for 2023?

I am very enthusiastic about an upcoming project called “Class Clown.” It is a coming-of-age tale that takes place during the week when the popular singer Kurt Cobain took his own life. The story centers around the idea of not growing up and is about discovering your own voice and being true to yourself, rather than trying to conform to what others expect of you. The tone of the script is one-of-a-kind, with a unique blend of humor, drama, and poignancy that is both thought-provoking and entertaining. The characters are well-developed and relatable, with each one having their own distinct personality and backstory. Additionally, the setting of the story is also quite captivating, as it immerses the viewer in the grunge scene of the 1990s, with all its fashion, music, and cultural references. The soundtrack is also a highlight, featuring a mix of classic hits and lesser-known gems from the era. I can’t wait to see the finished product.

About the author

Mike Thompson

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