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Jill DiBiase: It’s All in the Editing

September 14, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Jordan Poast

One of the biggest fallacies in filmmaking is that there are only a select number of individuals that are worthy of being considered “authors” of a picture.  In most cases, the director and even the writer are deemed viable candidates, despite the fact that the entire creative process is a collaborative one.  Editor Jill DiBiase is quick to point out what most moviegoers overlook, that “without the editor, there would be no film!” Working in the marginalized division of post-production, DiBiase knows all too well the amount of effort that goes into her oft-underappreciated job, especially for her current project.  The 25-year old editor has been given the unenviable task of cutting a staggering 28 hours of raw footage down to a 90-minute film without the luxury of a completed script. And as if this wasn’t daunting enough, Close Quarters marks DiBiase’s first feature.

Originally hailing from Pittsburgh, Jill acquired the knack for editing at 15, gaining her first hands-on experience in high-school.  Having been taught the basics of film production in a media class, DiBiase became especially interested in the intricate and nuanced process of assembling a film, which she felt was akin to putting together pieces of a puzzle.  As a class requirement, Jill had to conceive, direct, and star in her own short films, a process she found inconsistent with her personal style.  To this day still uncomfortable with being the center of attention (even avoiding being photographed), DiBiase gravitated to a life behind the camera, finding solace in locking herself in her private workspace.  Getting her start cutting between VHS tapes, Jill realized that editing was her calling.  “When I first got my hands on an editing system, I fell in love.  I’m given hours of footage and it’s up to me to create the story.  I can change it and make it go my own way.  I never felt creative in the other stages of filmmaking, but with editing I feel like I am.”

After enrolling at Columbia College in 2004, Jill learned the intricacies of editing including methods of locating the best shot, cutting around insufficient footage, and maximizing audience engagement. Upon graduating in 2008, DiBiase landed an internship and then a job as an associate editor for the post-house Optimus, a company that specializes in post-production for television commercials. Soon after, Jill was introduced to director Jack Newell, who she would later have a rewarding partnership with.

Originally hired as a replacement editor for Jack’s Stages of Emily, DiBiase became a favorite collaborator of Newell’s and went on to cut his critically acclaimed short, Typing.  Jill’s life ambition was rapidly becoming realized as in a few short months she had gone from a 24-year old commercial editor to having her first major project exhibited at Cannes Film Festival.

Hot on the heels of their successful short, Newell came to DiBiase with a golden opportunity: edit his first feature. Jill’s jubilation was soon tempered as Jack divulged more details into her laborious task.  The film, called Close Quarters, would be a collection of vignettes featuring a veritable who’s who of the Chicago improv scene.  The film had only a bare bones script, though, as the filmmakers decided to loosen the restraints on the performers by letting them dictate the flow of their scenes.  While fascinated by the concept, Jill knew that it would be her responsibility to, like a sculptor, scrape away bits from the film, layer after layer, until a cohesive storyline presented itself.  Without a script, though, that would be like building a house without a blueprint. “It was overwhelming and intimidating.  I found myself with a lot of doubts.  I didn’t even know if I wanted to do this, if I was experienced enough, or even if I had time with my other job.”

DiBiase’s reluctance proved astute, as her first order of business was to watch the entire volume of footage, which came out to a staggering 28-hours.  The first month of Jill’s work was limited to simply watching the footage from start to finish. “When you are given these blank sequences, the hardest part is finding where to start.”  Working closely with director Newell, DiBiase began to cut the fat, shaving off slow or downright unfunny moments which, due to her job schedule, she was limited to working on in 3-5 hour increments.  A self-proclaimed procrastinator, Jill had to overcome both feelings of inadequacy and lethargy throughout the entire process to remain faithful to her disciplined craft.

Over time, however, DiBiase’s self-doubt turned to self-determination, as she began to feel a sense of authority over the footage and the film.  As a collaborator, Jill was able to volley ideas with Newell and break her assignments into manageable bits.  Once the wheels where greased, Jill found the process to be more liberating than terrifying.  “I realized, especially since we are dealing with an “improv movie,” that there is no set story, it can be anything we want it to be. Every time Jack and I sat down, we were rewriting the film.  Every time I cut it, it changed.  I found it exciting to rearrange the pieces and shape it to what I thought was important.”  DiBiase quickly realized that the editor held power over the footage rather than the other way around.  And, while being initially haunted by a lack of structure, Jill discovered a freedom in the unscripted, which afforded her more room for creativity.

Having been tasked with distilling a 28-hour glut of improv footage into a 90-minute feature, Jill DiBiase has learned the rigors of editing in a trial by fire. With over half of Close Quarters in the can, Jill’s ambition of editing a feature film is soon coming to fruition. Relying on a deep passion for post-production, the youthful editor has proven how valuable her oft-forgotten role is on the filmmaking process. Though gaining more attention, for right now Jill DiBiase is living a life of invisibility…just as she prefers.

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