Immersing oneself in the ever-changing world of film editing is no small feat, a sentiment to which Szu-Wei Chen, an experienced and masterful storyteller, can readily attest. From his childhood fascination with Taiwanese television to his current work in the New York film scene, Chen’s narrative is a testament to the evolution and dynamism of the global film industry. Chen’s career has spanned across the globe, from Taipei to New York City, shaping his unique vision and refining his editing prowess.
Szu-Wei Chen’s extensive experience, ranging from high-budget Chinese TV series to immersive VR projects, has equipped him with a profound understanding of the film industry’s various facets. Chen’s pursuit of excellence in editing has led him to weave compelling narratives and redefine the realms of post-production and visual effects by merging traditional film techniques with innovative technologies. Embracing his multicultural experiences and inherent fascination with new software tools, Chen has become a guiding force in the evolving world of filmmaking.
Can you describe your journey into the world of editing and post-production? What were some pivotal moments that drew you to this field?
Szu-Wei Chen: I was very into TV when I was a child and would watch many Taiwanese shows. There were many popular shows at that time, all with captivating and inspiring stories. I always hoped I could get into the TV and Film industry. Luckily, my first job after college was working at a TV production company. I edited trailers for TV shows and worked on post-production supervision, including tasks like color correction and sound. Learning how to edit trailers helped me understand how to effectively tell a story and build its logical progression. My perfectionist personality and high standards made me spend many hours carefully scrutinizing and perfecting my work.
Additionally, I needed to incorporate visual effects (VFX) into my editing work to make them more eye-catching. I started delving into After Effects and discovered my strong interest in learning new software tools for filmmaking. As a result, I later created a film centered around a futuristic world, incorporating the VFX skills I learned. I added flying panels inspired by one of my favorite films, ‘Minority Report.’ These skills helped boost my creativity and expanded the range of genres I could explore in filmmaking, including sci-fi films. It was this learning process that solidified my interest in post-production.
How have your cultural roots and international experiences influenced your approach to editing?
Szu-Wei Chen: When I was in college in Taiwan, I fell in love with watching many Taiwanese and Chinese films, such as those by Edward Yang, and the early films of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. Observing the characters through the long shot and the relatively slow pacing of these films left a powerful and profound impact on me. Later on, my perspective on editing evolved when I worked on a high-budget TV series in China. In such a competitive market, using directing and editing to create visually captivating content is crucial. On set, the director used six cameras to capture shots, offering numerous choices while editing, which I found to be the most challenging part of the editing process. I am fortunate to have been part of a high-budget production and to experience its scale. This work led me to develop new thoughts about film language in editing, revealing similarities with Western film techniques.
While I was studying at Columbia University’s MFA film program, blocking and shot progression were a big focus in both the directing and editing courses. I incorporated this film language into a lot of my work, but at the same time, I still like the idea of using long shots, which are typical in many great Taiwanese and Chinese films. I rarely cut to a new shot unless it’s necessary. By doing this, the audience can focus on the performances and body movements of the actors/actresses, fully engaging themselves in the emotions portrayed by them. I even used a single take to capture the entire story in my short film ‘Last Day.’ Through my diverse working experiences, I have become more flexible in my editing style while also acquiring a great sense of judgment in determining what approach can make the film even more emotionally compelling.
Could you explain how editing and VFX affect your broader filmmaking approach?
Szu-Wei Chen: Having spent many years working in the film industry, both on set and in post-production, I have realized that the most effective way to approach filmmaking is by understanding every stage of the process, including post-production. While being well-prepared in pre-production and getting the most out of on-set filming are crucial, having the VFX concept in mind and considering what can be achieved in post-production allows me, as someone who wears multiple hats as a producer, director, and editor, to have more choices and bring out creativity in how to interpret the script on paper into visually captivating scenes.
This approach has enabled me to overcome challenges or budget-related issues and make effective decisions and choices on set, knowing how the shots will come together, with the support of VFX, to transform my visions into tangible films successfully. This proficiency also allows me the flexibility to be more selective in presenting the desired images, as I’m aware of how essential it is to immerse the audience in the film’s world by creating a visual spectacle. In my latest film, I utilized my VFX skills to create a fantastical atmosphere in New York’s Chinatown during the Lunar New Year.
How do you balance your work’s creative and technical aspects as an editor?
Szu-Wei Chen: What interests me the most in editing is the ability to create different narrative choices, just like writing. By rearranging sequences and shots in assembly, the emotions that the audience gets from the film can be totally different. I especially enjoy shots that, when put together, leave a lasting impact on the audience. While there are many rules and methods to use in editing, such as continuity and shot progression, as my career progresses and I watch numerous films from around the world, I firmly believe that every director has their unique style. Editing serves as a tool to polish, support, and enhance their vision and artistic expression.
While editing, I aim not to recreate the story but to make the emotional journey of the film work seamlessly. For me, the emotional impact of a cut takes precedence over everything else. Therefore, at the end of the day, if the film can effectively deliver the message that the director wants to convey, I won’t suggest making too many changes, cutting off parts, or recreating the story solely to please the audience. This belief also boosts my confidence in my own work, ensuring that I stay true to my purpose of making the film while keeping the editing clear and consistent.
Could you explain your philosophy on editing?
Szu-Wei Chen: Sometimes, during filming, you may not have full control over the production. You might run out of time and have to be creative, or you have to do multiple takes to capture the best performance from an actor or actress. You won’t always get all the precise shots you planned for and must improvise on set based on the situation. Therefore, editing can be a creative tool in such cases. In the editing room, I like to go through every take to ensure I find the most effective shots and the best performance for the audience. You can always discover the best moments in your footage and infuse them with new energy and meaning. I also like to follow the director’s style and provide the film with a personal touch.
Currently, I am immersed in the editing world of New York documentaries, where you have more power to bring out the truth behind the story. I’m eager to apply these skills and find a way to merge my skills in fiction and non-fiction editing while staying true to the essence of the narrative.
What are some of your inspirations in the industry? How have they influenced your style and approach to editing and post-production?
Szu-Wei Chen: I am genuinely interested in the narrative, style, and pace of editing in independent films. At the same time, I find great enjoyment and excitement in watching Hollywood films. As a producer, director, and editor, I’m always seeking something entertaining yet deeply moving for the audience. Over the years of my filmmaking experience, I’ve trained myself how to ensure good pacing in editing.
In my last film, ‘A New Apartment,’ I intended to entertain the audience with its genre while provoking thoughts about its underlying meaning. I experimented with off-screen sound during the editing process, a technique also used in my film ‘Last Day.’ Sometimes, you don’t know if anyone will notice the effort you put into editing. However, when ‘A New Apartment’ screened at BAFICI, all the critics’ reviews I read were focused on how the film used sound to tell the story. I also use editing to keep the style consistent with different tones throughout the film.
In ‘Jay,’ I collaborated with Singaporean cinematographer Shyan Tan and Taiwanese gaffer Chris Chen. We invested a lot of time in lighting to allow the actors and camera the freedom to move around the space. The long shots’ filming style gave us more control over the pace during editing and enabled us to capture intimate and breathtaking moments between the characters. Singaporean colorist Eugene Seah also made the colors feel stylistic but authentic to the true tone.
You’ve worked in different media, including traditional film, social content, and virtual reality. How do these experiences change your thoughts on editing?
Szu-Wei Chen: Besides editing and working on traditional film, I had the opportunity to collaborate with Taiwanese artist Wang Ling-Li on a VR project. Stepping into Wang’s virtual reality world, I was excited to capture her creations through the VR headset. It’s a fascinating way to tell a story in this immersive format and guide the audience’s attention within the VR space. I aim to apply the cinematic and editing language I know and adapt it to the VR realm. I believe that different media can create their own unique experiences for the audience, and I’m open to exploring other forms of media that can provide people with distinct encounters beyond traditional film.
In addition, working in the US commercial industry as a content creator and editor, I acknowledge the immense power of social media. Learning the languages utilized by a young generation that grew up with social media allowed me to look at art from different angles. For example, when I worked on video content for social media, I had to get used to framing and editing in the 9:16 aspect ratio. I even used a cellphone to edit because it’s more compatible with that format. Additionally, I gain fresh ideas and acquire new media tools that can assist me in my personal projects. The rapidly evolving media landscape keeps me eager to explore innovative ways to tell stories that connect with the audience.
Lastly, what motivates you to continue working in this industry? How do you see the role of an editor evolving in the future of filmmaking, especially with the rise of new media?
Szu-Wei Chen: As a working artist and filmmaker passionate about new technology that can enhance filmmaking and content creation, I continuously challenge myself to expand creativity and explore diverse narrative options through different mediums. By integrating these technologies into film, we can break away from traditional filmmaking frameworks and create innovative visuals. For example, Adobe Firefly allows content creators to create much more fascinating images within their production and budget constraints. In addition, editing has become easier to learn with the help of new software today. However, accessibility alone is not enough. The key lies in how an editor can skillfully utilize these tools to create better storytelling.
With easier access to filmmaking tools and social media, approaching filmmaking and content creation with deep respect is essential. As an editor, we have the power to shape narratives, convey our perspectives, and evoke feelings through our work. I’m always trying to be thoughtful and conscious about my message. Being aware of our work’s impact on the audience is what I consider the most critical role of an editor. The experience of working in the documentary industry also shows me how different a narrative can be by using various editing approaches.