"I've been in this game nearly 22 years, and I still love it," says Lizzy Graham, an editor who hails from London and cuts commercials through Whitehouse Post, New York. "I was bitten by the bug at a young age. And even now when I get booked on stuff, I'm excited to work on that project, or excited to work with that creative team."
Over the years, Graham has developed a reputation for helping brands craft powerful narratives. One of the highlights on her current reel is "Asma." The Adidas commercial finds British-Sudanese basketball player, poet and activist Asma Elbadawi clad in a flowy frock, triumphantly dribbling a glowing ball through the city at night. As the clip unfolds, Asma explains how she convinced the International Basketball Federation to lift the ban on players wearing religious head coverings.
"At Home," an Ad Council PSA, is an emotional tearjerker that follows a teenager named Jason as he adapts to living with his adopted family. When does the teen truly feel at home? When he sees himself in a new family photo added to the wall.
In addition to spots, Graham's credits include an evocative music video for Sam Smith's catchy electro-pop tune "Diamonds." Directed by Luke Monaghan, with choreography by Holly Blakey, the clip finds Smith dancing alone and processing feelings after a breakup. At last count, "Diamonds" is up to nearly 137 million views on YouTube.
"The Phone Call," which won an Oscar in 2015, ranks among Graham's short film credits. Directed by Matt Kirkby, the effort follows a crisis hotline counselor (played by Sally Hawkins) navigating an intense conversation with a suicidal man (Jim Broadbent). You can watch it via Acorn TV.
Below, Graham charts her career path, discusses the importance of reading the room as an editor, and explains the value of mentorship.
MUSE: How did you become an editor?
Lizzy Graham: I grew up in northwest London, kind of on the outskirts of London. I went through school. I did my A-levels. I got as far as I could, and I just wasn't enjoying the school side of things. And in your final year at senior school, you have to try and find some work experience, or intern somewhere for two weeks, to bolster your university applications. I managed to get two weeks of work at an edit company in London called The Firm. And that was by way of a friend of a friend's girlfriend's cousin. His name is Marc Langley, and he was an editor there.
I suddenly had this opportunity to learn a lot about an industry I had no knowledge of. And in those two weeks, he showed me almost every aspect of editing and commercials. He took me to a color session, an audio session, finishing. It was fascinating, and I kind of made the decision that if I could get my foot in the door there, if I could get a job as a runner, maybe I didn't need to go to university. So, I hassled him quite a lot, and luckily, the runner that was there was leaving to go traveling for a year. So, I seized the opportunity, and they hired me, and I didn't go to university.
I was 17, 18, and I just kind of learned and soaked up as much as I could. I was at The Firm for five years, and I moved up to assistant there. Then I moved to Peepshow Post, which was run by Andrea MacArthur, and they had some great editors, and I learned an awful lot from each and every one of them. They all edited very differently and had their own particular styles. Then I moved to Marshall Street Editors, and I was there four years before I moved to Whitehouse in New York.
Why were you interested in working in New York City?
Marc Langley is to blame for a lot of this. He works out of Toronto [at Rooster Post Production] now. But in those first couple of years before he left The Firm, he was floating the idea of America and New York, and he kept saying, "At some point, you’ve got to try and get over to America. It's where the bigger campaigns are. You'll be able to expand your career." And it kind of planted a seed.
Let’s talk about some of the commercials you've edited, starting with that beautiful Adidas spot starring Asma Elbadawi.
That was a job I shared with another editor at Whitehouse—Heidi Black. She's based in L.A., and the job initially came in for her. She did half [of the spots], and I did half. I really like collaborating with other editors. I always have a fun time and learn more from other people.
It was two months we worked on that, and there were a lot of different layers you had to get. You had to make sure that the athlete looked good. You also had to make sure that the message was right. You had to get the sports aspect of it to hit, and then you also had to find that emotion.
The "Billie" spot you cut for Billie shaving products made history for featuring women's body hair and has such an engaging, playful tone.
This one was pretty much direct-to-brand. Ashley [Armitage, the director] is really good. She really gets the best out of people on set. Ashley was in my suite. I think we worked on it for like a week, just getting the pacing right, trying out different music. That one was a fun one. I always like having the director [on hand].
Why do you like having someone in the room with you?
I feel like I can tell a lot from someone's body language. Half of my job is technically editing, but half of it is reading the room. You can tell when something's not right in an edit just by how people react to certain things, slight facial expressions—you're like, okay, I've got to tweak that. It wasn't quite hitting right. So I always feel like, collaboratively, I love having people in my suite. You get such a better end product.
Your ability to tell an emotional story really comes through in "At Home" for the Ad Council as well as "Bus Stop" for Etsy.
"At Home" was with director Charlie Mysak. He really got a lot out of that kid [who plays Jason, the teenager who is adjusting to life with his adoptive family]. That one was just getting the timing right at the end. That pause before he hugs [his mom], and the timing where he sees the picture. The timing had to be right.
It was the same with "Bus Stop." That's a big story to tell in 30 seconds. That was [a campaign] I actually shared with [editor] Matt Wood from Whitehouse Chicago. He edited two spots. I edited two. All four of them were really cute Christmas scripts. It did make me miss home, though.
How do you describe what you bring to the table as an editor?
I would say that I tend to land the more narrative/storytelling, emotional scripts. But on the other hand, I do enjoy editing sports-based stuff because that's something I really enjoy in my personal life.
What is your favorite sport?
I'm a big Premier League football fan. I’m a Liverpool fan through and through. There's barely a game that I don't watch. But when I moved here, I needed to learn all the American sports. I was at the Mets game last night because, you know, July 4th, America, right? I want to get involved with these games. I just love how over-the-top sports are here, all the songs and the national anthem. I just love how much pride you guys have. It's awesome. It's easy to get swept away with it.
It sounds to me like you would love to cut even more sports-themed work.
Yeah. This is why I liked the "Asma" spot. Because you have the storytelling side of it, but it's sports. That’s the perfect crossover.
You talked about being mentored by Marc Langley. Have you had the opportunity to pass along your knowledge to up-and-coming editors?
I do make the effort with our assistants. We have some fantastic talent at Whitehouse coming up. I want to try and get them cutting stuff and help them build their reels. I think it's important to nurture your assistants and your runners and get them involved and get them inspired, because there’s nothing better than seeing someone that you’ve helped train do well.