How did you get started in the film industry?
When a family member passed away when I was younger, I realised we didn’t really have many photos of the two of us together. That’s when I picked up a camera and began filming things as an amateur. I’d then do a little editing of my film and that’s how I developed a sense of everything... I didn’t study anything related to film before entering the industry. I used to work as a photographer for shows for a TV station. I wanted to get into drama, though, and a friend recommended I join Milkyway Image but as a film editor. I gave it a go and have been in this line of work for more than 10 years now.
What does the work of a film editor involve?
We take care of the media and editing parts when the directors are done shooting, though we’re always in touch with them about how they want the film to be edited and fine tuned. The final product is vetted by the director again, then we log the final cut after all the grading and mixing is complete and finally produce an A-copy. That’s the version that can be screened in cinemas. That completes the job.
What’s the very first thing you do when you step into the editing room and embark on a new film?
I first check the shots. If the shots fail to stabilise, or the framing or shot sequence isn’t right, I immediately warn the crew on set while they’re still working on the film. I would remind them to rectify these problems. These flaws can be corrected during post-production but it’s better if they can be avoided during production. Editors are the gatekeepers. Everything should start with editing.
What was it like working for a prestigious company like Milkyway Image as your first job in this industry?
I remember the very first day I reported for work, I didn’t go home for the next seven days. We had to rush a movie for a film festival. For me, someone who didn’t start out as a film editor, and whose very first editing job was for director Johnnie To, it was tremendously stressful. The material given to me was of exceptional quality and quantity. I was at a loss as to what shots to use and put together. Luckily, I had a partner, David Richardson, and he gave me wise advice and directions. It was only after about four years that I started to enjoy the work I was doing. There was a lot of fear to begin with. Fear of dealing with such high quality work.
That’s a long time to spend doing something you don’t ‘enjoy’. What kept you going?
I think maybe for people in my generation – and there were many of us back then who didn’t receive much education – it comes down to perseverance. It’s about hard work and perseverance. We had to get things done by hook or by crook. Later, after your years of training, you develop a sense of responsibility and you feel obliged to produce something of quality. That makes you.
Are there any scenes of films that you feel particularly proud of, where you feel your work made a particular difference?
I’m particularly satisfied with Don’t Go Breaking My Heart and Trivisa. On Trivisa, the whole process from initial brainstorming until it was up on the big screen was tough yet memorable. I was working with three young directors and, though young, they each had their own thoughts and ideas, which made it difficult. I had to digest their three different styles and then incorporate them into my editing, with my own style. It took us one and a half years to edit the movie. In such a commercial space like the Hong Kong film industry, taking one and a half years to edit a movie is a real luxury. Normally, we do the job in three months.
Any downsides to being a film editor?
The position isn’t a popular one. We stay in the editing room all the time, not seeing daylight. When you’re editing a film, you might see an actor for half a year and find yourself immensely familiar with them. But actually, it’s only you knowing him. He doesn’t know who you are, unlike those people on set with whom they interact with daily for months. I don’t think my kind of role is attractive at all.
As a relative veteran, what do you teach newcomers?
When I train someone, I don’t pass on many technical skills. Instead, I tend to share with them how to communicate best with directors. As an editor, we work predominantly with directors and it’s extremely important to have effective communication to convey your ideas. Especially when you take on a project with a young director whom you may not know. Understanding him and giving him the confidence that you’ll do a good job with whatever he shoots is important. It’s about interpersonal relationship management.
What do you think the public might not know about your role?
I think it’s hard for audiences to imagine that the minute-long scene they just watched might have taken more than a month to edit. The amount of effort put into a movie is tremendous. Editing alone can take up to 18 months; pre-production, brainstorming and everything else means it can take years to create something. The public might ask ‘do you really need all that time?’. I think it’s hard for people outside of the industry to understand. Even the smallest things like subtitling can affect the whole mood of a movie. Audiences take this stuff for granted, but such minor aspects are given tremendous consideration. It could take 10 years to produce a film, but to most audiences, it’s just 90 minutes of entertainment.
We’ve all heard of Jackie Chan, Wong Kar-wai and the like. But there’s more to the Hong Kong film industry than just the few big names in bright lights. More than 16,000 people work in our city’s motion picture and entertainment services and the small folk are just as essential for the creation of a great film as the star actor or big name director.
In this series we take a look at the less heralded individuals working in Hong Kong’s greatest creative industry. We start with Allen Leung, a film editor for Johnnie To’s internationally renowned Milkyway Image production company, who, together with David Richardson, won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Film Editing for his work on Trivisa in 2016. Additional reporting by Priscilla Lee