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Low Hwee Ling

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Rushes. Assemble. Cut. Tweak. Chisel. Mark Clip. Freeze Frame. Fade to black.

Industry mumbo-jumbo? It could very well be a rather apt description of the interview with Hwee, video editor behind the many recent and not so recent local feature films.

HweeBetween the emotive hand gestures, emphatic facial expressions and lively assortment of voice tonalities, you could almost see the cogs in her brain working double time as she varied between careful contemplation and short buzz cut answers. Rhythm – yes, that’s what it had.

Talking to Hwee about her rise as an editor reveals a long and tedious journey. But this tenacious chilli padi never gave up, precisely why her name has appeared in the end credits of local movie favourites such as “Be With Me“, “430”, “Gone Shopping” and the recent box office hit “881“.

Feature films take an unspoken number of months and sometimes even years to create, and it is not unusual for an editor to work on only 1 feature film project a year. But within the short time span of the first half of 2007, Hwee has worked on Gone Shopping” and “881”, both of which can be considered the meatier of projects of a largely Singaporean team. Recounting both projects as being very “challenging”, the excitement does not seem to have died as Hwee recalls with glee, “Every project is different. What works for this project may not work for the next.”

It must have been a rather exhausting six months to be working on two features back-to-back? Admitting that it was rather intense, Hwee reflects for a moment, “The best present you could give an offline editor is time, though I respect the fact that there are schedules to adhere to.”

Besides feature films, Hwee also gets to sink her teeth into television series, telemovies and commercials. But true to her training in long-form [television programmes, movies, in brief anything longer than 2-mins], Hwee declares with passion, “I like the drama! I would rather have 3 months of long form than 3 days of TVC [television commercials]. But working on TVCs have trained me in terms of speed, because everything happens in an intense 1 day, I have to watch and pick the shots fast.”

Any tricks of the trade to share? Ask her nicely after a few sugary-pink cocktails, and she may just roll up her sleeve and …… juggle a beer bottle or two. Hang on a minute, shouldn’t she be talking about jump cuts, split screens and conty? Before you go jumping to any conclusions, just make sure you stand about…. well let’s just say far enough to avoid any flying glass shards. It’s been some time. 13 years to be exact.

Fresh out of junior college, Hwee’s first working experience was as a waitress, then bartender at the now defunct TGIFridays. But perhaps her juggling skills from her F&B days didn’t all go to waste, for she did do a fair bit of juggling at her industry entry as a production runner. She recalls with mirth, “I had left TGIFridays at that time, and an ex-colleague asked me if I’d like to help out on the set of the Jack Neo feature, “Liang po po”. I wasn’t doing anything then, so I said, why not?” Next thing she knew, she was driving the passenger van stick-shift and all, buying Styrofoam-packed meals and even appeared as an extra in a scene shot in MacDonald’s!

Far from an “extra” you could hire for $10 an hour, Hwee is now very much an editor with her own calling card. With a good attitude to boot and ever hungry for new projects, she gives us a hint of her work ethics, ” I like to spend time at work. I need to take time to chisel at what I’ve worked on before to make it better.”

True to her job, she sometimes watches a movie twice. First time to take it all in. And the second to watch the cuts. This must be one remote-control-hogging monster at home, for she records television programs and rewinds them to watch selected segments, frame by frame! “Whenever I see a movie I’ve edited on the big screen, there’s always something that I want to change. I’ll never be completely satisfied.” Occupational hazard perhaps. But watch and learn, people.

So which part of the editing process does she savour? Bursting into a peal of laughter, Hwee says “The beginning and the end!” But her tone becomes serious as she explains, “My role as an editor is not to re-do the story but to enhance it, to bring out the essence. In many sense I think the DOP [director-of-photography] is the first editor. He decides on the visual composition. But essentially filmmaking is about teamwork. Everyone is a storyteller.”

Irrefutably, the editor is crucial to the style of the project. Long shots with minimal cuts, sassy slashes with a sexy rhythm, they all lend their own interpretation to the final product. Any on-the-job tussles over what should be included? Ever the professional, the firm answer is clear, “There may be many people involved in the process, but the director is always my client.”

And what makes a good editor? Her eyes brighten as she eagerly gesticulates, “As an editor I watch for ‘moments’, it could even be parts of an out-take. Sometimes, I like to let the silence or the acting tell the story.” What about the every elusive “Rhythm”? Patiently she unravels the mystery, “Everyone has a different rhythm. When I was at the Berlin Film Festival last year, I took a class conducted by an editor, Angie Lam [of “Kungfu Hustle” and “Hero” fame]. She invited 6 people on stage, asked them to close their eyes and raise their hands after counting to 10. Everyone raised their hands at different times! It was interesting because it was such a simple exercise but it showed so much.” Abhorring the labels editors are often stuck with, Hwee discloses that she takes the rhythmic cue from the actors and then the music. Summarizing the intangible process in a few words, “You can really do magic in the editing room.”

Behind the talent is years of hard work as well. And it certainly helps to have a knack for smelling out the latest industry developments. “I’ve had to ask for projects before, it could be a original concept or breathtaking story, a challenging project always excites me!”

Halfway through the interview, she pauses for an introspective respite, “I’ll always thank Freddie [Yeo, General Manager of Infinite Frameworks] for the opportunity. He opened the door for me.” She recalls her cold call, or rather email, to Freddie, who called her up the very same afternoon, “It was after lunch, and I remembered thinking ‘Wow, that’s fast!’. The next day I met Freddie for the first time and I was hired!”

Formal education or industry experience? Carefully meandering around the question, Hwee recommends, “I believe everyone has a choice. School is not unnecessary but for me it didn’t happen that way and a lot of it was through experience. I have definitely been very fortunate to be involved in some very challenging projects and I have two tremendous mentors to thank.” Recounting her training days with Supra (Editor) and Lawrence (Head Editor, Infinite Frameworks and — Hwee’s own loving name tag — “The Godfather of editing”), she prides herself in learning it the right way, “Lawrence slowly eased me into it by giving me bits to do… Digitising, sound sync-ing then assembling. At that time I thought “Wah lau, make me do so much!’, but now I really appreciate it. It has made me more disciplined.” And never forgetting her modest beginnings, she adds “And my production assistant experience has certainly taught me to be humble.”

Not being one to keep still, Hwee has since moved on and up to explore different aspects of video post-production, and she hopes that editors scaling up the ranks will have the chance to experience the same training she’s been blessed with.

And perhaps the most important tip of all, “When you don’t see the cuts, that’s when the editor’s job is done.”

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