Making the Cut – The Saving Power of a Great Edit

editing film

When watching a movie, it’s easy to see all the many ingredients that go into making the story come to life.   Engaging dialogue from a tightly written screenplay, standout performances from the committed actors, and a vision from the director that helps to make the scene feel as authentic as possible.  But, there’s another ingredient thrown into the mix that doesn’t quite capture the intention of the viewer yet it’s the one thing that affects everything else in the finished product by the end.  That crucial ingredient is film edit.  Without the job of a proper edit, a story has no form or character.  It’s just images without reason.  Editing is what brings out the context of the images that we see and shows us how one thing can relate to another.  And, in the grand scheme of things, editing is probably the hardest job of all for a filmmaker.  While a lot of work goes into the writing and the filming of a story, it’s not until the post-production editing process that the filmmakers are able to find the story that they want to tell.  There, they are able to find the emotion through the contrasting of images or tension through the compression of time, and through that, they are able to get creative with the tools that are available to them.  But, strangely enough, the work of the editor is often unheralded, mainly due to the fact that in order for the editor to do their job well, their work must be made invisible to the viewer.  Unless otherwise made to be seen on purpose, essential film editing must work in service to the story and not overwhelm it, thereby causing many of us in the audience to take the work of an editor for granted.  But, in so many cases throughout film history, it’s been the excellent editing of a movie that causes it to stand out.

Now a lot of people probably think that it’s not that hard at all to edit together a movie.  All you need to do is to plan out your cuts ahead of time and follow the blueprint right?  It’s far more complicated than that.  For an editor to do their job, they must first analyze countless hours of footage, depending on the length of the feature.  Even with a scene mapped out in pre-production, the actual filming must take into account all the necessary coverage from multiple angles, as well as the multiple takes that will inevitably happen, since no one is ever satisfied with just one take.  And it’s from that pool of material that the editor must find the story, taking the best takes out of the mix from the best angles and piecing them together to make it feel like one whole piece.  Not only that, but they must be observant with every bit of footage, looking for continuity mistakes that may undermine the flow of the scene.  Lastly, they must also time their edits perfectly, making each cut feel natural and never abrupt; something that may even matter by only a frame or two.  And this is just the essentials for a practical editing job.  There’s a whole bunch of other tricks of the trade that an editor can use to take things in a more creative direction.  Overall, it’s time consuming and often tedious, but when you find the story forming in front of you, it can also be  rewarding and sometimes even surprising process.  I’ve been through it myself before, and it’s often the process where you see the clarity of what you’re creating come through.  Hell, when I was splicing together film stock as a projectionist a while ago, I could easily see the value of how a couple missing frames might affect the overall viewing experience.  It’s a highly precise art, yet one that must also always support everything else.

From the moment that cinema began, filmmakers have been tinkering around with editing.  The turn of the century often relied on single shot moments to showcase the medium, like a train arriving at a station or a vaudeville performer doing their act, but over time, some visionaries discovered how they could use the moving picture camera to tell a story.  Georges Melies created magnificent stories through fixed camera tableau like his 1902 classic A Trip to the Moon, that didn’t feature much in the way of editing shot to shot but did show that the process could be used in the service of other things like visual effects.  Simple editing remained the norm until American filmmaker D.W. Griffith pioneered the concept of cross-cutting images in service of the story.  With his epic scale production of The Birth of a Nation (1915), Griffith created a new film-making language, having different juxtaposed shots edited next to each other to underline a theme or connect multiple story-lines into one.  Every film since then has followed Griffith’s technique and it has become the standard of modern film editing.  Griffith not only broke ground with his first epic feature, but he would continue to push the medium further with his follow-up, Intolerance (1916), which took the bold step of cutting between four different unrelated story-lines, connected solely by their common themes, showing how far the process can go and still work.  What Griffith discovered was that an edit could convey meaning and it’s something that was explored even further by filmmakers in Soviet Russia.  For the propaganda films of the early Soviet Union, an editing process called montage was developed, which used a mix of images related to theme and edited them in a way to provoke a feeling out of the viewer.  The most famous example of this was the Odessa Steps scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, where the recreation of a massacre is given extra poignancy by the inclusion of a falling baby stroller amidst all the chaos.  Even in the days before dialogue, and perhaps more so, filmmakers saw the value of how editing could make their stories come to life.

Though extraordinary surprises could come out of an edit, Hollywood more or less standardized the language of editing around the time sound was introduced to the medium.  Filmmakers could use fancy editing techniques, such as in some of the lavish musical numbers found in Busby Berkeley productions, but the limitations of sound recording led to fewer innovations in the process.  Classic style cutting was the norm for many years, and was often effectively used.  Sometimes, filmmakers would get creative with their edits and used them to set up a punchline and pay it off (watch any Three Stooges short to see what I mean) or use their edits sparingly to immerse the audience into the moment (often seen in many tense one-shot mood setters from Alfred Hitchcock).  Montages were also effectively utilized in early Hollywood, mostly as a way to quickly show a passage of time rather than convey an emotion like the Soviets would do.  But, despite the lack of innovation in the art-form of editing, it didn’t mean that the classic style wasn’t used in meaningful ways during this time.  Just look at the final pivotal scene at the end of Casablanca (1943).  For that brief moment between the lines where Captain Rennault (Claude Rains) says to the Germans “Major Strasser has been shot” and “Round up the usual suspects,” we get two quick close-ups of Rennault and Rick (Humphrey Bogart) looking to one another, and then after the pivotal line, a quick pan across to show Rick smiling back.  It’s a simple but elegant moment that’s made entirely possible through editing, and in those two close ups we are told so much without any words spoken.  This is an example where just a basic editing style can effectively tell a story, and it showed that the standardized style did illustrate that artful editing can be found in the simplest of uses.

But, innovation did become more prevalent once editing tools became more advanced and reliable.  The French New Wave brought in new concepts like smash cutting, freeze frames, and slow-motion into the language of editing, and that in turn influenced the film editing styles in Hollywood.  It became an era where the filmmakers felt more comfortable showing the editing process on screen rather than hiding it.  Abrupt cuts between scenes were popularized in the films of Jean-Luc Goddard and Francois Truffaut, and it was adopted by some of the more counter-cultural filmmakers across the pond, because they felt that it gave their movies a grittier, more modern sensibility.  Even prestigious films picked up on the style.  You can credit that famous cut in Lawrence of Arabia (where Peter O’Toole blows out the match and it cuts to a sunrise) to the influence of the French New Wave.  While these processes were always available to filmmakers before, none had been spotlighted as much, and by taking full advantage of these different tools, the same filmmakers helped to increase the awareness of the value of editing in movies.  In many ways, it gave the audience a keen awareness of different styles that a movie can have, and it helped to differentiate how the movies of their era were different than those of the past.  Form then on, innovation in the editing process would underline the advancements of the industry as a whole.  We would see the character of a film or a cinematic movement come out of it’s editing process, whether it be the renegade style of editing from the maverick 70’s or the stripped back style of the indie movement of the late 80’s and early 90’s.  In many ways, a film was more or less dependent on how well it’s editor was in tune with their era, otherwise they would come across as two old-fashioned or too far ahead of their time.

For many years up to today, the director is often reliant more than ever on the work of their editor.  In the past, the editor would usually sit alone in their editing rooms and compile the films themselves and only get feedback later once their initial work is complete.  Now, the editor and the director work in tandem to hammer out an edit of the film, made much easier now that there is a digital intermediate to work with rather than having to re-splice the same film over and over again.  And it’s through this collaboration that a vision can come out of the project.  An editor may sometimes understand the value of a cut better than the director (who might be too protective of every shot they filmed) and their suggestions often help to reign in the story.  There have been many examples over the years of movies that were saved in the editing room after disastrous productions.  Star Wars is probably the most famous example.  Those who worked on George Lucas grand vision often were lost with regards to what they were doing and where the story was actually leading to, and some said that Lucas himself wasn’t entirely sure of what he was getting into.  But, thanks to an expert editing team (which included Marcia Lucas, George’s then wife), they somehow found the essence of the story and condensed it into the solid adventure that we know today.  Sadly, George Lucas has shown less restraint over the years, and we now know what a lack of controlled editing looks like in the Star Wars universe thanks to the prequels and Special Editions.  Apocalypse Now (1979) is another example of a movie saved by an imaginative edit, which paints a beautiful portrait out of what was a notoriously disastrous shoot.  No film is ever lost unless there is a smart, precise edit done to it.  I think that’s why so many directors often reuse the same editors on each film; they need someone they can trust.  Every Spielberg production has seen the dutiful hands of Michael Kahn on it, as has almost every Scorsese pic with Thelma Schoonmaker, and so on.  Sometimes, if you’re the Coen Brothers or Steven Soderbergh, the edit becomes an entirely singular operation too.  Overall, the final character of the film is determined mostly by how well the editor and the director collaborate together.

But, not every collaboration leads to golden results.  Sometimes, a movie is often hindered by a sometimes overzealous editing job.  This has become especially problematic in the era of MTV music videos and quick paced commercials on television that we’ve now been accustomed to.  Many up and coming filmmakers make the wrong assumption that the more editing they use in their movies the better, because it gives their work a grittier, more frantic style.  Unfortunately, quick editing does more to disorient the viewer than it does to engage them into the film.  While it works for some films, like a war picture or a documentary style drama, it can often feel out of place in most anything else.  Editing is meant to establish setting just as much as it is used to convey momentum and emotion to a scene.  If the edits are too wild and can’t focus on it’s subjects, then the audience feels disconnected from the moment.  I’ve complained about the style of Michael Bay a lot already, but his use of editing is a perfect example of this disorienting quick edit style that serves no purpose.  But, even more restrained editing can become obnoxious if misused in a movie.  Sometime filmmakers like to use montages and flashy editing as a way to create poetry in imagery, and it can often backfire and look pretentious as a result.  Even respected filmmakers like Gus Van Sant and Terrence Malick have developed just as many detractors as fans for sometimes getting too fancy with their lyrical editing.  Just look at the pointless long shots of nature in Van Sant’s Last Days (2005) or the showy, meandering editing of Malick’s To the Wonder (2013), and you’ll know what I mean.  Essentially, for an edit to work, there needs to be a purpose behind it, and not just to indulge the filmmaker’s desires.

The editing of a movie is more than anything where the story comes to life.  All the hard work on the production design, the cinematography, the acting, and the dialogue matters little unless it all colludes together as a whole in the editing room.  In the end, the editor’s job is often thankless, but ever so crucial, because they’re mostly responsible for creating the finished product that all of get to see and the success of their job relies on their work not being noticed by the viewer.  Thankfully, with films that celebrate the art of a good edit, we can at least see an editor’s hard work on display occasionally.  In the classic style, it’s always neat to see an edit put the perfect punchline on a well placed gag (Hitchcock’s famous train going into a tunnel innuendo from North by Northwest is a great example).  And in the maverick 60’s and 70’s, it was interesting to see the limits of the art-form explored.  But for me, what I love best about editing is the way that it shows how much even just a few frames of film matter.  There are some moments in movies (like Han Solo’s great surprise arrival at the Death Star late in Star Wars or the final haunting shot of Psycho with Norman’s face superimposed with a skull) that could have been spoiled if they went on just a second longer than they did.  Sometimes it comes down to the one single frame that makes the difference, which is staggering when you consider that 24 frames makes up only a second of film.  My hope is that every filmmaker approaches the editing process with a certain amount of understanding and respect that it deserves.  Play around with what you’re able to do, and you’ll find a completely different story than you might have expected going in.  Many pieces go into the making of a film, but the edit is what puts all those pieces into place and turns that puzzle into the whole picture in the end.