Take a look at the work of veteran commercial editor Jen Dean and you’ll notice something very quickly: Whether it’s with a spot for The New York Times, Lady Gaga, or Macy’s, Dean shows a special aptitude for using stock, archival, or collected footage.
Her talent especially shines in an ad she helped put together to commemorate the 75th anniversary of M&M’s last year. The project required not just editing a music video of a new spin on classic song “The Candy Man” performed by Aloe Blacc and Zedd, but alsointegrating it with ads spanning the entire history of the candy’s existence.
That’s a lot of footage to work with, so we spoke with Dean about how she narrowed it all down and edited the project, picking up some important lessons along the way for anyone working with archival footage.
Make Sure You Have All the Material You Need
Most people given 75 years’ worth of footage wouldn’t want to seek out more, but early on Dean needed to do just that. “What I’ve noticed when I work on archival pieces is that agencies haven’t really archived a lot of their stuff,” she explians. That, or the footage that is archived by the creative agency that produced an ad isn’t in good condition.
So, in order to have as comprehensive a catalogue to work with as possible for the M&M’s project, Dean and her team had to go hunting on YouTube to find missing or better quality clips, or even track down the creators behind old ads — all with the goal of having the best material to work with before beginning the selection process.
Commercial editor Jen Dean
Let Project Parameters Guide the Selection
When it comes to narrowing down what material to use, some logistical concerns helped make easy eliminations. Older ads, like those from the 1950s and 60s, that were in poor condition (even after the search) could be cast aside. Furthermore, any old footage featuring children eating M&M’s was instantly disqualified because of modern laws forbidding the selling of junk food directly to kids.
There was also the fact that the music-video footage of Aloe Blacc and Zedd was already shot, including the segments where Blacc is in a 1950s-style living room and recreating an old M&M’s ad. That set a mood and style for Dean to work with and guide her archive selections. In that way, it illustrates that complex archival projects do often have logistical or client parameters that will help guide process and make them a pinch less overwhelming.
Keep Music and Movement in Mind
Once all the footage of Zedd and Aloe Blacc had been cut together, Dean began the process of blending it with archival footage in a particular way. “It felt more like the way I would approach a music video,” she says, which played to how she approaches many of her projects. “Music is an important part of my working with archival and stock footage.”
So she let the music of Zedd and Blacc’s “Candyman” guide what she would select and use. “As I’m screening the footage, I’m looking for bits and moments that I think could work on any beat,” she says. “I find musical beats or moments in the old footage.”
Movement — whether of animated M&M’s or one of the musicians — was another guiding force for what clips she selected. “Any time a movement matches a beat, as a viewer you feel a little bit rewarded. There’s never a time when a nice beat hits with a movement that people think, ‘Oh, that’s not working,’” she says. “When the movement feels like it just flows, it’s just rhythm. You get sucked into it.”
Create a Seamless Experience Between Old and New Footage
Because the aesthetics of the music video and the various archival ads could be very diverse, blending everything organically together was also key to Dean. “I’m trying to make it feel fluid as I’m cutting between the old commercials and the new performance,” she says. Creating a consistent color palette was one way to do this, which was helped by the consistent primary colors of the candy itself in the ad.
But what was especially important as a bonding agent was mood. “The song is joyful. The lyrics are joyful, I wanted that to come across,” she explains. So she not only selected clips that evoked joy, but also juxtaposed footage to create that mood too. “It’s how you cut it together by combining old and new, or two pieces of old footage together,” she says. “It’s synthesis editing. The combined images create something they weren’t without one another,” she says. “When you combine it all, it creates the joy.”
Pursue Your Own Creative Vision
If it sounds like Dean had a lot of liberty to pursue her editorial vision, that was indeed the case. “They gave me a lot of free range to just figure it out,” she says. Dean believes it’s important for a commercial editor to have that and to share their own vision for a project with a client. “You have a chance as an editor to show them something that makes them say, ‘Wow. I had no idea it could look like that,’” she says. “The first cut of whatever you’re working on, you’ve got to do it for yourself and make it as interesting as you can.”
Of course, commercial editing is in service of clients, so adaptability is important too. If a client doesn’t like a shot or music track, an editor has to be willing to put ego aside and listen to input. Though Dean stresses that adaptability doesn’t mean instantly giving in if a client doesn’t like something. “You’ve also got to know how to defend your choices,” Dean says. “You’ve got to be able to explain why you think something works.”
Sammy Davis Jr. singing “The Candy Man,” the song updated for Jen Dean’s M&M’s ad
Be Patient and Think of the Audience
While some of these lessons should help aspiring commercial editors work with archival or stock footage, those expecting to instantly be an expert at knowing what images to select may be a bit disappointed to hear that Dean believes it’s ultimately a product of instinct and experience. “That just comes with practice from selection,” she says. “When I’m combing through hours and hours of archival footage, I’m used to mining for these little diamonds,” she says.
But Dean is guided by one major goal that arguably affects every part of the process: the effect on an audience. “My goal as an editor, no matter what kind of project I’m working on, is that I want it to feel like it was over before you expected it. You want to feel like, ‘Oh, my gosh. I had no idea that was that long. It felt so good.'” Keep that end result in mind from the beginning of your footage cataloguing process all the way to the final edit, and you’ll be off to a great start.
Top Image: Aloe Blacc performing “Candyman“