An Art of the Cut Essay – no interview but lots of quotes

Based on the excellent video essay by Sven Pape and Karen Pearlman

Riffing on the video “5 Things Film Editors Literally Do – According To Science.”

I was really inspired by this video and there is so much good stuff in it that I felt could be expanded on outside of their short video. Clearly, Sven and Karen could have included their own longer study, but I wanted to provide greater support for their ideas using my own experience and resources. It is not to diminish or challenge their assertions. I am simply using their excellent resource as a muse for an extended discussion of the ideas proposed in their video essay. My attempts to do so are purely because their video inspired me. 

I got a little sloppy with my quotes, in trying to just get this done, so not all ACE editors are identified as such (my apologies if you are ACE and I didn’t say so), or credit you as an Oscar winner or nominee or even that you have edited a movie. Some people I identified by name only. Maybe I’ll clean this up later. In the meantime, use imdb!

To start, if you haven’t watched the video, please do so.

Their first assertion is that editing is often described as purely intuitive. Sometimes people that I want to interview tell me that they really don’t have anything to say because it’s just intuitive. But the interviews of Art of the Cut show that there is reasoning and thinking and a learned process that can be followed to achieve results that are definitely intuitive at a certain level, but when discussed granularly, can be better understood. And since it can be understood, it can be de-mystified and learned and practiced as a craft. I love Dr. Karen Pearlman’s thought: “…What ACTIONS of mind an editor goes through in getting through a massive amount of material to something coherent…”

They break the process of editing into five steps. I think they’re pretty good steps. 

WATCHING

The first step is watching. An editor needs to “watch and feel.” They point out that that’s no different than what an untrained audience member does. The difference is that the editor also has to notice specifically how something in the dailies makes them feel, and in addition to just noticing, they have to imagine how these feelings will go together. This is slightly part of the “intuition” aspect of editing, but you can see that it’s starting to become a series of “actions of the mind.”

I’d like to expand on the idea of “how it will go together.” When many of the editors I talk to watch dailies, they describe taking notes, usually.  This is their “noticing of a feeling” and it starts the process of developing an idea of how it can be used to enhance and tell the STORY. Sure, there’s “plot” that is part of telling a story – exposition – but so much of telling a story cinematically is about taking an emotional journey, told visually and aurally. Noticing these moments that make you feel something is a HUGE and under-rated part of the process. For me, and many I’ve interviewed, a big part of this is when something feels “true.” This is about empathizing and sensing a moment that feels honest. Obviously, there are also feelings to be noticed: sadness, grief, joy, love, desire. These are not things that are spelled out in the script, but things that need to be intuited by the editor. So your emotional radar has to be up, and you have to be simultaneously engrossed and open to the emotion, but also detached enough to notice the effect and make note of it and how it might properly be used in the story.

Several people have discussed with me the mistake of choosing the most emotional moments in the dailies to go into the scene. That is not always the correct choice. Characters need to go through an emotional arc. So, to properly tell the story, the emotion can’t peak too early. Many actors deliver a variety of “temperatures” of performance. Choosing which performance to properly deliver the story is not simply choosing the “best acted” or “most emotional.” It’s about understanding the story well enough that the correct temperature is used at the right point in the story.

If you are watching a reaction shot, how can you notice the TRUTH behind that flicker of an eyelid or the slight darkening of mood to tell the story. If someone tells a lie on camera in a documentary, can we call it out by sitting with them in their discomfort after the lie? These are things that add to the subtext of the edit. They become more than the simple execution of the story in the script.

Job ter Berg, editing “Elle” with director Paul Verhoeven

They also point out that a typical viewer can feel something and notice how they feel, but that kind of paralyzes them or distracts them from the rest of the process. An editor can feel and notice and move on objectively to the next feeling. What they kind of gloss over here in the video is that a good editor needs to be able to have a piece of the dailies make him or her feel something, but then also have enough detachment from that feeling to allow another moment in the dailies to allow them to feel something else entirely and to begin to form a picture of how each of those different feelings can either be combined in some way, or to realize that one feeling takes the story and the scene in ONE direction and another feeling takes the story in a DIFFERENT direction. Then the editor needs to use his or her knowledge of the story to make the correct choice. Additionally, an editor has to be able to disconnect from the context of a portion of the dailies to be able to see the potential use of a moment for a purpose OTHER than its context. For example, a reaction shot from one part of the scene can be used for an entirely different purpose at a different moment in the same scene or even – maybe – in a different scene. Or maybe the person slating the scene gets too close to the actor and annoys them and as 2nd AC is moving out of frame, you get a reaction that’s not even “acting” but can be used perfectly for a moment of your edit. Or an actor is deeply emotional through an entire scene, but while they’re waiting for action to be called, they’re thinking about what they have to act and you can see the wheels turning in their head. That can be used too. Can you – as an editor – divorce yourself from the context of a visual or sound and understand how it can be used out of that context to serve the story? Getting to that point makes “watching” into an art form.

Many Art of the Cut editors have talked about “watching.”

“There is an actual skill to watching dailies.” –Kelley Dixon, ACE, Breaking Bad and Walking Dead

You go through so many iterations of a scene and you may fall out of love with that moment, but remember how it made me feel the first time you saw it because the audience is going to see it as you saw that first time.

There are some great pieces of advice that have been shared in Art of the Cut about this topic of watching. Some are contradictory. This is one of the reasons I wanted to do these interviews. What do people agree on and what do they NOT agree on? Which side do I choose?

Some editors – Anne V. Coates, among them – say that they like to allow the dailies to wash over them, seeing them as an audience would. Others say that you CAN’T watch dailies as a passive exercise because of the immense time pressures of cutting a feature film. It needs to be an active watching that includes note-taking and selection as part of the watching.

“It’s not that important for me to write down what’s bad. It’s really only important to write down moments of performance that pop.” – Jeffrey Ford, ACE, “Avengers: Infinity War”
“I don’t write notes because it distracts me from watching the rest of the footage.” – Anne V. Coates, ACE, Oscar winner, “Laurence of Arabia.”
“Never watch the rushes as an entirely passive exercise, because it’s just a waste of time.”- Jake Roberts, ACE, “Brooklyn” and “Hell and High Water”

Watching also requires self-discipline and an understanding of what needs to be done – not just of how something feels. I love this quote by Spencer Averick: “Sometimes when you’re watching dailies in the context of just dailies, it doesn’t translate into the scene itself.” This speaks to Pearlman’s assertion that watching as an editor means starting to form ideas of how it will go together in the end. Sure, I cried when I saw some great reaction shot, but does that mean it should go in the sequence? No.

Ben Mercer reviewing dailies in FCPX

I recently talked to the editors of “Handmaid’s Tale” about a rape scene in the first episode. We discussed how completely devoid of passion it was. This was not a scene about sex or passion. If there was any sense of arousal in watching the dailies, an editor would note that and instead of saying, “I felt something there. That should go into the cut.” They would need to say, “I can’t possibly cut that in because it fights against the story and emotion of the scene.”

We’ll get back to Spencer’s quote later in this essay because it speaks to context. Sometimes – for example, when you’re watching dailies, divorced of context – the meaning of a moment in dailies is lost on you until you have the context of a roughly edited scene or even the context of the whole movie – or greater than that, the context of an entire SEASON of a TV show. For example a little “tell” in someone’s eyes as they say something may mean nothing to you while you watch dailies, or it even may seem untruthful and incorrect, but if you’re the showrunner and you know the overall arc of a character and a storyline over the next five episodes, that same “wrong” moment, may be a brilliant moment of hidden storytelling that fans will eat up or will engage them to wonder why a “wrong” moment was included, giving them a clue that engages them for not just that moment, but for multiple episodes to come.

Pearlman provides a quote on the topic of watching and Pape also discusses his own methods. Of the 150 or so interviews I’ve done, there are probably 100 quotes I could provide here on how to watch and the process of watching.

Mechanically speaking there are differences of opinions about how to watch. Oscar winner, Conrad Buff, says, “I like to watch dailies in order because you can see how things develop. You can read between the lines. You can glean information. You can see how things transpire. And sometimes you occasionally get notes, in a sort of third-hand way, watching how a scene develops and see what a director may or may not be going for.” I have great faith in the intelligence of my readers, but for those who may not get the importance of what he’s trying to say here, it is possible for an editor to learn what the director wants out of the scene by seeing the PROGRESSION of the performances through takes. If there’s a very emotional early take but the takes after that get more and more dry an emotionless, it could be because the director is asking the actors to tone down their performances. So even though the editor may be more moved by the earlier performances, if you sense what the director wants, you can save yourself a lot of effort by using the drier takes instead. Obviously, if you think you can better tell the story with the emotional takes, go for it, but you’ve been warned.

On the flip side of this are numerous editors who tell me that they watch the dailies in reverse shooting order. They say that this is for basically the same reason that Buff considers, but that since they watch in reverse order, they know the context of the final performance when watching the earlier performances.

Another great quote about watching dailies is from David Wu, who says, “Watching dailies is like going to a treasure island. It’s an Easter egg hunt. A lot of people find it to be a burden or a job. I think it’s fun.” My wife sometimes listens to me watching dailies. She says, “How can you listen to the same thing over and over again. It’s maddening!” But to me, each performance of “the same thing” is so different emotionally, and I’m mining little bits of gold from even the worst performance or take. This is one of the reasons that many people say that they ignore the director’s “circled” takes. Your job is to build something to make it greater than the sum of its parts. Also, the director’s feelings of what is “the perfect take” are often much different on set than in the relative calm of an edit suite or screening theater. Steven Spielberg often reassesses his opinion of a take between set and screening room, according to his long-time editor, Michael Kahn.

To that point, this quote:

“Instead of trying to judge one shot that’s three minutes long I’ll just be judging tiny beats.” – Kirk Baxter, Oscar winner, “The Social Network”

Pape also says he makes careful note of his first impression or feeling when watching dailies. This feeling can often change or become dulled through repeated viewings. It’s hard to maintain objectivity – especially about feelings.

Echoing this sentiment is my friend, Job ter Berg, ACE/NCE

“It’s important to record your first impressions somehow.”

Many editors I’ve interviewed in Art of the Cut have made this same statement. One of the reasons to write down these feelings, even if it’s just a word on a piece of paper, is so that 9 or 10 months down the road, you can remind yourself of the way an audience might feel when they watch something for the first time. Brent White, and many other editors who have cut a lot of comedy say that this is often critical for cutting comedy, because after you’ve seen a joke or a reaction shot or a pratfall for the 1000th time, it’s hard to remember that it was funny the first 10 times you saw it or heard it. However these things also change with context, so that reaction shot that didn’t make you feel anything at all, CAN make you feel something if it’s edited in at that right moment. Or that delivery that seems slightly false in dailies CAN feel completely believable if the editor changes the timing and pairs it with the perfect reaction shot or response.

“You’re looking for whatever connective tissue might help you join two pieces of film together.” – Tom Cross, ACE, Oscar winner, “Whiplash”
“It’s about finding a moment to respond to, deciding “This moment is the anchor of this scene.” – Stephen Mirrione, ACE, Oscar winner, “The Revenant”
“Sometimes we’re not looking for ‘correct.’ We’re looking for aberrations in behavior that give nuance.” – Jeffrey Ford, ACE, “Avengers: Infinity War.”

SORTING

The next step that Pearlman and Pape discuss as part of the editor’s process is sorting – or maybe logging. They describe this as naming the footage and putting it into bins. This is often not even really the editor’s job, but the assistant editor’s.

Pearlman gives a quote from Alan Berliner, a documentary editor. He says, “What you call something is crucial to the process of determining what you might end up doing with it.” Great quote. Also MASSIVELY dangerous. Considering the importance of naming something and how that could affect your purpose for it could easily paralyze someone (paralysis by analysis). I completely agree with the statement, but it also means that the editor needs to be able to later FIGHT against this early naming convention as they learn context throughout the process. I really don’t like this quote at this point of the video. I understand that naming is part of sorting, but there are many other aspects of sorting that are also crucial.

At this point, Pearlman goes off on a fascinating, but pretty fricking academic and theoretical tangent idea from a book – that I purchased and read – called Supersizing the Mind, by Andy Clark. I LOVED this discussion, but man, did I have to fight my eyes glazing over – though at the same time, I was having a kind of “mind exploding” revelation. In a nutshell – what we consider to be thinking does NOT happen in your brain alone, but extends through the body to include the MATERIAL you’re working on – in this case, the footage and the editing of that footage. So therefore, the way you organize your material – your bins – is not just an EXTENSION of what you are thinking but is ACTUALLY the THINKING ITSELF. This is where we get into the intellectualizing a bit: Sorting footage is an Epistemic Action. Thankfully, Pape (though he probably knows the answer to his own question) asks Pearlman what that means. Pearlman answers that epistemic refers to knowledge and that sorting something is an epistemic action which actually helps you create your knowledge of that material. Academically, you have “altered the world so as to aid and augment cognitive processes such as recognition and search.” Wow… so I feel like I’m back in college, but in a good way.

This is a discussion that has continued at length through 150 interviews and I’m sure it will continue on for more to come. I have done several talks on the wisdom I’ve gleaned from these interviews, and my slightly less academic take on the subject that Pearlman has quantified is “Preparation and approach are the same thing.” What does that mean? One of the central questions that I have asked in nearly every single interview is “What is your approach to a scene?” When you are facing a bin full of material and a blank timeline, what do you do? When I wrote the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors” I started to see a pattern that was not evident to me by just reading one interview after another. The main pattern that I saw was that when editors discussed their “approach” to editing a scene, they always linked it with how they PREPARED or SORTED the material. Although each editor had different methods of sorting, they all tied the two processes together intimately and inextricably. To quote from Art of the Cut:

“The goal is to organize the material and understand it. A lot of times that’s about figuring out what can be ignored.” – Tom Cross, Oscar winner and multiple Oscar nominee

Organization is simply critical to editing. Tom gave me a lovely compliment recently when I interviewed him for his editing of the movie “Hostiles.” He said my book had changed the way he organized (and therefore the way he edited). He had seen multiple methodologies proposed in the book by a lot of great editors and seen one that he felt would better help him understand the material he was working on. I had the same experience when I was writing the book. When I saw a pattern and could compare the ways different editors worked, I felt I needed to change my approach. For some people, this means creating selects or performance reels or KEM rolls. I interviewed veteran editor and Oscar winner Joel Cox who despises that idea, though. He prefers to edit straight from the bins – from whole takes, taken individually. I’ve discussed countless ways that editors create and organize their bins. I’ve talked to numerous assistant editors who describe in great detail the way they need to lay out a bin for their editor and the precision that some editors demand in the task. Why? Not because they’re cruel task-masters, but because the act of sorting is so crucial to the act of editing. Many editors don’t have their assistants create the selects reels – even though it’s grueling, boring work – for the very reason Pearlman points out: Sorting is an “epistemic action” that allows you to KNOW your footage. What could be more important than that. Given enough time, you can see how an editor shouldn’t even HAVE an assistant editor… OK, that’s going a bit far in the assertion, but knowing the footage is critical, so if organizing it and naming it is so important, then the editor should do it himself or herself.

Fundamentally, a majority of the editors I’ve spoken with prefer to organize dramatic films visually in bins of scenes with each camera set-up on its own line with all of the takes in a row. With the editors that prefer selects or performance reels, each has a methodology that not only allows them to better THINK about the material, but also helps them to better collaborate with the director. (Collaboration is one of the big things that Pape and Pearlman’s video does not expand upon. I’m sure that this is simply a matter of needing to focus and deliver something 11 minutes long, not because they don’t think it’s important to an editor.)

Some more quotes from Art of the Cut on the idea of sorting and organizing:

“The biggest trick is to compartmentalize.” – Andy Grieve, documentary editor, “The Armstrong Lie” and “Going Clear”
“It’s really about getting the material down to smaller bits so that I can manage it and study it and compare it.” – Jeffrey Ford, editor, “Avengers: Infinity War”
“It’s easier for me to focus on the footage if it is a ‘compare and contrast’ situation.” – Tom McArdle, Oscar nominee, “Spotlight”

The number of quotes I could come up with on this topic could literally fill a book:

“Be meticulous and organized with project structure.” – Eddie Hamilton, “Kingsman” and several “Mission Impossible” movies
“Organize it the way you would start to cut it.” – Dan Zimmerman, “Mazerunner”
“A lot of editing is simply a process of organizing and narrowing down your options.” – Tom McArdle, “Spotlight”
“I’m leaving myself a bread-crumb trail with my selects roll.” – Dan Hanley, Oscar winner “Apollo 13”

REMEMBERING

This continues Pearlman’s use of the paper “The Extended Mind” from the publication “Analysis” which is cited in the book I mentioned earlier “Supersizing the Mind.” It’s a dense book. I recommend it, but I could only take it in small doses at a time.

You are using the material – your bins, your notes, the EPISTEMIC ACTIONS you have taken, to create and trigger memories that you then use to build an idea of the scene. This is what Pearlman describes as “non-biological resources” to be an active part of their thinking about the scene.

I have discussed this concept with many editors. Most editors I know have an incredible memory. Maybe they can’t remember where they left their keys. Maybe they don’t know their children’s phone numbers. But they do remember the exact moment that an eye twitches in scene 47, take 13. They also remember the exact thing that could trigger that eye twitch in a line of dialogue from the over-the-shoulder shot in an improvised take, 6, set-up 47-Tango.

Often, I’ve interviewed editors who are onto their next project, and we have discussed the very real process that editors need to go through to flush the last project from their mind so that they can process all of the new memories that begin to inhabit their brains for the current project. But even then, you can see in their face the wheels turn as the memory of some minute moment from a previous project comes back to them.

Editing is very often like that kid’s card game “Memory” where you flip pairs of cards face down in a grid on the table or the floor, and then you take turns turning over a pair of cards at a time. If you flip a pair over, you get to keep them. If you flip over mis-matched cards, then you try to remember where both of those cards are so that the next turn you if you find one that matches, you can pair them. This is literally the juxtaposition that many editors are required to do to make great edits. Can you keep 400 hours of footage – composed of potentially 14 MILLION moments – in your head so that one of those 14 million moments can be paired with another to equal something greater than either of those moments means by themselves.

As has already been discussed, the ONLY way that this is possible is to organize and cull and sort. You need to get 14 million moments down to some practical number that can be held in your head.

The idea that Pearlman posits is that your mind extends outside of the grey matter housed within your cranium. It extends out into your body and PAST your body into the material itself. So that your footage becomes part of your brain. As mentioned before in the discussion of “epistemic actions” the things you DO with that footage then become an actual part of your thinking.

The first thing that this calls up in my mind is a great scene from the movie “Finding Forrester,” in which Sean Connery plays a famous novelist who takes a young writer under his wing to teach him how to write. Connery says, “Just start typing.” The young writer is paralyzed. Connery asks him why he’s not writing. The young writer says, “I’m trying to think of something to write.” Connery says, “I didn’t tell you to come up with an idea. I told you to start typing.” This – in essence – is this idea of epistemic action: the PROCESS of simply typing becomes part of the formation and execution of an idea.

The scene really starts at about :50 seconds if you want to jump ahead.

Connery says, “the thinking comes later” but in Pearlman’s theory – or the one she is gleaning from the paper and the book she cites – is that the ACT IS THE THINKING. This is awesome! I had actually heard this concept discussed by many of the editors I’ve interviewed even though neither they nor I, had considered it when they were talking – at least it wasn’t verbalized in that exact way.

For many editors, they need to DO something quickly and immediately. For most this comes after a thorough vetting of the dailies, but for some – and I’m among them – the process of cutting a scene together CAN start before you complete a thorough examination of ALL of the dailies. Many editors would say that that is irresponsible. It is our role as editors to know ALL the dailies inside and out and look and probe EVERY SECOND of what is shot. I would agree with that. I just don’t agree that I have to do it BEFORE I start my first pass at a scene. Editing is a process and it evolves. It is also contextual and it mutates based on what happens in the process after it has started. Why kill yourself to build a scene with the perfect opening shot when you may discover that the scene that goes before it HAS to end with a shot that ruins the perfect opening shot for the scene you’re cutting now? There are a LOT of things you can not know when starting to edit a scene, so start to develop some context for the scene by CUTTING it, before you get to wrapped up in perfection. Perfection can come later. In the words of Connery’s character in “Finding Forrester” “Just start typing.” Let the material become your thinking. That can’t happen if all of the thinking is inside of your skull. In Pearlman’s theory, your brain and your thinking and your memory all become BIGGER and MORE POWERFUL, but expanding it to include the material itself. This is where I need one of those GIFs where someone’s mind explodes.

Boom Mind Blown GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Boom Mind Blown GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Some quotes on this topic from Art of the Cut:

“I end up using different approaches – whatever helps me process the footage for that particular scene.” – Job ter Burg
“You’ve got to cut the whole scene, look at it then go back and work on the cuts.” – Anne V. Coates
“I want to get a scene cut together so I have something I can react to and hone.” – Dylan Highsmith
“Just do a fast pass: bolting it together. That way you’ve at least got the structure. – Lee Smith, ACE, Oscar winner, “Dunkirk”
“Just worry about what it was right in front of you and be very focused about that.” – William Goldenberg
“Editing is all just paper you can cut up and move around. Anything to get the story heading to its magnetic north.” – Joe Walker
“Get the basic blocks of a scene in place, then play with the structure and rhythm by watching it over and over again.” – Mark Day
“The faster you get to a working film and then refine it – rather than have a “not working film” and trying to refine that – the better.” – Lee Smith

Not everyone agrees with me on this:

“Watch dailies, then digest them for a while before beginning to cut.” – Kelley Dixon

I’m of two minds, because I do what Kelley describes, sometimes – I like to “sleep on” my dailies. But what is sometimes more useful – if you can do it and not become too attached – is to cut quickly and then sleep on THAT. That way you can start to see the way the scene is developing and the structure and purpose of the scene and then go back and watch the dailies with a fresh eye. Now, with the context of a roughly assembled scene, your dailies will “talk to you” in a new way. You will see reaction shots and hear performances of lines in a completely new and fresh way that you could not possibly have understood by simply watching the dailies without trying to assemble them. Some editors can do this in their head. But Pearlman is saying that taking epistemic action – whether that’s just organizing or assembling – causes your brain and even your memory to expand beyond the biological process of memory within your grey-matter brain. Pearlman – by citing the book and paper – claims that the edit is not an EXPRESSION of your mind, it is ACTUALLY your mind. To quote her, “The film is your mind.” Again, check out those “mind-blown” GIFs

https://gph.is/1ee8IEW

So you may disagree, but when you think about it, it is completely obvious that it is true, because you cannot possibly just THINK an entire movie and have it appear, whole-cloth on the screen. The footage and the rough cuts and the bins become your brain and your memory and your thoughts. Apart from the dailies, you can’t really think about the film in any sensical fashion that will result in action. And to take this idea beyond Pearlman and Pape, the thought also needs to be shared and collaborated on, so your memory and thinking expands to collaborators as well.

This idea is further expanded into mind-blowing status by claiming that the film begins to think for itself. This seems impossible, unless you’ve worked on a bunch of films yourself, and then it almost becomes self-obvious! I’ve had many discussions with editors through the years in Art of the Cut, where they talk about the film talking to them or about the film making itself or about how, at a certain point, the film “knows what it wants to become.” Essentially, many people have talked to me about the film as a sentient being. Pearlman uses the quote from Walter Murch: “Films are much smarter than the people who make them.” Cognitive psychologists and cognitive philosophers have a large body of thought and research and theory that says this is actually true. “The film is thinking.” Pearlman: “An editor who doesn’t let the film do some of the thinking, isn’t a very good editor.”

SELECTING

Each thing that you select – each take, each moment, impacts future decisions. Again, this can cause total paralysis. Pearlman points out that you can take one great moment in the dailies and put them in a scene and then another great moment in the dailies, but they don’t create something great. Those two great separate things can actually create something horrible or dysfunctional.

This is born out somewhat in a quote I love from Martin Scorsese: “No film is ever as good as the dailies or as bad as the first cut.”

Even when an editor watches dailies, and perhaps creates a selects reel, they come up with maybe 12 minutes of really good material – GREAT stuff – for a scene that needs to last maybe 30 seconds or a minute. A director remembers 12 great minutes of material. And so often, when they come in to watch a first cut, they say, “Is that the best take?” This is a moment when every editor in the world slouches in their chair. Why? Two reasons: the “best take” might not help to tell the “best story” and if there are two or three best takes – which is easily possible, since many interviews with editors explain that some actors are great in the early takes and some editors warm up and are great in the later takes – so maybe you have two BEST takes. One best take is of the actor and the other best take is of the actress. But if you try to cut them together, it won’t work. So then the editor makes a decision to use the best take that helps build the character or tell the story or that is more central, and the other take then needs to SERVE the best take.

“Sacrifice a good edit for better storytelling. – Dylan Highsmith

Selections are also incredibly contextual.

“With nearly every scene you make changes as a result of watching the whole thing together.” – Steven Sprung

COMPOSING

Pearlman and Pape wisely do not use the term “editing” for this final process, even though most people would consider it the final element of the process. But if you’ve been following along with Pearlman and Pape’s reasoning and with my essay, you must realize that this is ALL considered editing. So the final part of the process is termed “composing” because you are putting the pieces together. In fact, in my essay, you can’t detach one process from the other, so the quotes and ideas of the “composing” process have already been dealt with fairly extensively.

As Pearlman also describes in the video, as part of the composing process, you might also have to watch or sort or remember or select AGAIN while you’re composing, because “the material might ask for something different.” This is about context and the revelation of story.

The revelation of story might seem strange. You have a script. The script should be the revelation of the story. But if you have been reading Art of the Cut for long enough, or read the book (or edited your own movie), you know that the story is revealed through the process of editing.

One of my favorite examples of this is in Pietro Scalia’s telling of the editing of “The Martian.” The opening storm scene on Mars – sorry if that’s a spoiler – was actually always written as a flashback scene that was designed to occur much later in the movie. And indeed, that’s where the sequence resided for many months during the edit, but eventually the film “needed it” to go at the beginning of the movie. Scalia points out that they fought the film on the placement of the sequence because it’s just so COMMON to do the movie in chronological order and it’s so much more “artsy” to have it go where the scriptwriter had placed it, but putting it at the beginning connected the audience to the characters at the beginning of the film in a way that they were not connected when the sequence was a flashback. So the revelation of the story can happen quite late in the process.

Joe Walker, (photo credit, Michael Legato)

When it comes to “composing” as editing, it Joe Walker, ACE, an editor whom I have interviewed four times so far, is also a trained musical composer. Of editing, Joe’s thought on the topic is: “The best cinema in my view is that which takes into account a musical feel and structure and aligns it to performance and story.” And from another interview with Joe, “You have to have a superior knowledge of the story to fathom the continuity and to know the beats you need to hit.”

There are, of course, hundreds of quotes from the interviews about the “composing” of the film. Too many to count. Slightly off topic, but of interest in using the idea of film as “composition” (though I don’t think this is quite what Pearlman meant by “composition.”) Quotes with musical analogies to film:

“You must have peaks and valleys and dynamics within the action itself, so that it’s not “at ten” all the time.” – Dan Zimmerman
“What makes the movie interesting is the different tempos within it.” – Dan Hanley

In one of my interviews that I can’t track down, it was pointed out that – I believe – Orson Welles said something to the effect of “All things, when analyzed closely enough are musical in nature.”

PATIENCE

Almost incidentally, Pearlman brings up the fact that great editors have patience. This is one of the biggest things that I have personally learned from doing the Art of the Cut interviews. It has been underscored to me countless times and has been my main professional “take-away” from the great editors with whom I’ve had the privilege of speaking. This is probably one of the biggest “rookie mistakes” of editors. It certainly was mine.

Oftentimes I would try to force an idea – even when it ended up being the RIGHT idea – on a director TOO SOON. I didn’t trust the process. I can bring up something I feel is an important issue, and if the director doesn’t agree or buy into my thinking, I don’t have to force the issue if I have patience. The director needs time to process a concept that you – as the editor – may have been processing in your mind (and in the mind of the movie) for quite a while. The director also needs that time. Editing is an iterative process of refinement, and all of the refining shouldn’t – and CAN’T – take place at the same time.

NEXT STEPS

Of the two things that I think are critical in addition to these points that are addressed in this short video, the ones I think that are also missing from this list of things an editor does are COLLABORATE and ITERATE. Now, the cool thing is that I see that one of the other videos in this series of the Science of editing is “Editing is Re-writing.” So obviously, that idea is addressed in another short video essay, so maybe I’ll need to write another essay on that topic too. It’s certainly one of the biggest things that has been hammered home to me as I do these interviews. I call it “Editing is editing.” The first draft of a scene is almost never the final draft. The scene needs to go through iterations and you, as an editor, must be psychologically prepared for those iterations to happen and to be open to the discoveries that those iterations cause.

“Great works of art are a process of refinement.” – Jabez Ollsen, Star Wars: Rogue One
“You have to go through the steps. It’s an evolution of the cut.” – Steven Mirkovich, Passion of the Christ and Hardcore Henry

Also, though it is inherent in their idea of “composing” there is no active mention of “story.” This is one of those words editors like to throw around to the point that I’m kind of sick of it, but construction of the story and the winnowing and bending and creation of the story as part of the process certainly can’t be dismissed.

But those are ideas for another day.

My sincere thanks to Sven Pape and Dr. Karen Pearlman for acting as the muse for this essay.


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Steve Hullfish has been producing and editing award-winning television since the mid-1980s. He has written six books, and edited four theatrical feature films (including two Number One New Movies in the US). He has lectured…

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