First published in Little White Lies.
Described as the invisible art, editing remains a mysterious craft, difficult to judge without seeing the hours of film that have been rejected.
In these darkened rooms, the editor has the power to slow or speed the pace of a film, to add drama or tension to a scene or to rearrange sequences entirely. In the edit suite decisions are made 24 times a second, where the addition or subtraction of a single frame can entirely change the meaning of a scene and where through the edit, a cinema audience can share the subjectivity of a bomb technician, soar high above the shanty towns of Joburg or be guided into the imagination which allows Claireece “Precious” Jones to escape her abusive Harlem home. In this one-off masterclass, we ask the movie industry’s most respected figures a question. What makes a good editor?
“A sense of how to tell a story and an innate sense of rhythm,” explains Walter Murch, who remains most famous for his work on Apocalypse Now and The English Patient. “Editing is visual music, and all of the sensitivity to rhythm and pace exist in the flow of images. The process itself is similar to the way jazz musicians perform, in that there’s a general melodic framework that you’re trying to get across in how the scene has been written and shot, but exactly what sort of shot you’ll use and where you’ll cut, those things are improvisatory at the moment of doing them.”
“Then, I guess, you have to be patient,” he adds. “You’ll work for 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week, seeing the same stuff over and over again. Frequently something isn’t working, and you have to keep trying to figure out new ways of making it work. That’s fine the first or second time, but you have to be prepared to do that 16 or 17 times just for one scene. Multiply that by the number of scenes you have, and add in the interaction between scenes and the restructuring of scenes, you have to have a high level of patience.”
Julian Clarke, days away from locking the cut of The Whistleblower, agrees. “Editors find tricks to shake themselves into a new perspective, even after you’ve been working on the same thing for many months. I find showing it to someone who hasn’t seen it for a while or an outside witness can shake you up, help you watch it in a different way and avoid settling into the malaise of accepting something as being good simply because you’ve become accustomed to it.”
“Another big part of the role is serving as a figure of impartiality,” says Julian. “Understandably, the director has a clear notion of what their film should become, particularly when they’ve written their own screenplay. They then suffer through the production and the warzone of set, where they may have had to fight with a line producer in order to secure a certain shots, and they can become emotionally tied to that footage. In my experience, editors don’t have the same kind of baggage, and can be objective about what is and isn’t working, and its arrangement. I come at it less from a perspective of executing the script, and much more about what is serving each scene and the film as a whole. There’s a lot of big personalities in movies, and I’ve found that it’s good for the editor to somewhat egoless; a force for calm in creating the movie.”
Joe Klotz, whose work on Precious was critical in balancing the tone of the film, agrees. “It depends on the director but, in my experience, an editor is a lot of times the friendly ear on a production. You have to really be measured, but the editor is often the person who can help them hold a film together.”
Walter explains the early process he uses in the early stages of constructing the film. “My particular method involves a lot of preparatory work. I screen the dailies at least twice, making a record of my first impression and then taking more detailed and considered notes in the second screening. I kind of let it roll around in my head, trying to get some glimpse of how I might put a scene together. Once I start to edit, that process becomes much more instinctual. A peculiarity of the way I work is that my first assembly is done without any reference to the sound. I’m asking the scene to be visually clear; whether you can understand through body language, and the intensity of the performance, something of what is being told. Once I’ve put that together, and maybe refined it once or twice, I’ll turn on the sound and see what I’ve got.“
“A good editor will often sift through all the footage trying to find the best moments, finding things that even the director, actors and the writer weren’t necessarily aware that existed,” adds Chris Innis, who picked through the huge shooting ratio for The Hurt Locker. “I’m the only person on the entire crew who has watched all 200 hours or so of it. Kathryn Bigelow had said that there was no off switch on the cameras, so editorial was the only “off” switch. I have always believed that it is better to give editors more time to absorb the material and to refine it before a director gives his or her notes anyway, and this film proved that theory to be true, where Bob Murawski and I were given time to do a good job before Kathryn stepped into the cutting room and we worked on her notes.”
“I wish everybody worked like Lee Daniels worked,” explains Joe as to the director’s involvement in the editing of Precious. “He set up a creative environment and would allow me to cut a scene any way I thought would work to be right for the film. The material called for a range of styles but literally anything went, and I was doing things I’d never done before like long dissolves the use of stills and abstract cutaways. He’d be sitting at the edge of the couch and, after a while, it was my goal to try to make him fall off that couch in shock and disbelief – the result was a really fertile edit room, and collaboration was a big of that.”
Walter explains how he manages the masses of material that arrives in the edit suite. “When I’m beginning to work, I manufacture an index card structure for the film. Essentially I work with coloured cards and different coloured inks, so for a sad scene I use subdued colours where emotional scene have more vibrant colours. The card is bigger if the scene is longer, and I use a diamond shape if I consider it to be pivotal. When you look at all these cards together up on the wall, the flow of colour tells you something about the emotional geography of the finished film, and I can get a pretty good sense how something is going to work when we drop or transpose scenes, and what’s going to be a good transition emotionally. It also has helps logistically, in that I put tabs on each card to indicate that a scene has been shot, and whether or not I have cut it yet, which enables me to locate myself in terms of the schedule without really having to think about it.”
As someone who has championed the use of new technologies, including the pioneering use of digital editing through employing Final Cut to edit Cold Mountain, this is perhaps a little surprising. “I tried to do it digitally but I didn’t like the results,” he admits. “Using techniques that you’d use in kindergarten, with glue and scissors kind of makes it more friendly. So much of what we do is digital and on the screen, it helps the general atmosphere to have a number of things that are made by hand and for me, the system has to have this handcrafted quality to it.”
“The wonderful thing about this particular line of work,” he adds, “is that it’s like a little R&D department where you’re trying to examine various aspects of human perception; figuring out works and what doesn’t, and what you can and can’t get away with. It’s similar to what magicians do, in that they work on this complicated dance between human perception, focus of attention and timing in order to produce the illusion. The editor is basically doing the same thing.”
Walter recalls an observation he first made while editing The Conversation. “I discovered that some of the cut points I had made intuitively coincided with points where Gene Hackman happened to blink. At first I thought it was odd, but I’d happened to read an interview with John Huston where he talked at some length about this idea of a film edit as a blink. I realised that where we choose to blink has something to do with what we are thinking and, though I absolutely don’t believe that you should cut every time an actor blinks, there is a similarity between where people blink in real life and where a film will cut from one shot to another. Each shot is a thought or a sequence of thoughts and what becomes significant is those moments is when the editor chooses to bring that thought to an end through a cut. To get more sophisticated, someone who doesn’t blink a lot but who seems to blink in the wrong places strikes us as not really participating in a conversation, perhaps because they are thinking about something else. By extension the blinks of an actor like Gene Hackman, who is so deeply in his part, are falling in the right place for that character, as he is thinking the same thoughts as his character.”
“It’s funny that you can find those bits that can really help you when you have an entirely new idea and are trying to change the meaning of what’s going on in the scene,” adds Julian. “The actor may not be doing anything in those moments before action has been called, where they’re just waiting with a neutral look on their face, but you may be able to read something into it. It doesn’t happen too often, but there’s been more than one instance where I’ve ended up using something like that.”
“I am a believer that rebirth is an inherent part of the fabrication of a film and, in order to be reborn, something has to die,” says Walter. “What I mean by that is that the ideas, emotions, images and sounds collected in dimensionless world of the script have to then be interred and reborn though the three-dimensional, and temporal, world of shooting. These ideas and emotions then re-emerge through the two-dimensional world of the edit suite, where the time of the manipulatable image can flow forwards or backwards at the editor’s discretion. Each of these discreet stages operates like a different language, with their own strengths and weaknesses and the editor is tasked to reinterpret the work of the previous language in terms of what you can achieve in the present. The problem that any translator comes up with is that, in order to really translate one language to another, you have to betray the original language in order to both be true to the ideas underneath the language, and to the particular language that you are dealing with at that moment.”
As someone who has also served as writer and director before he began editing, Julian agrees. “There’s a real connection between the writing process and the editing process, in that you are in control in so many respects. There are limitations of course, imposed on your writing by the budget you have and on editing through the material that has been shot, but both roles still offer an incredible blank canvas, of how you can affect the story as a single person without needing a huge amount of resources. Being on set is the complete opposite, where you need this kind of military apparatus in order to accomplish anything: time is limited, money is limited, locations are limited and with these finite parameters, you work on what you can get. Writing and editing are points where you can take a step back and be contemplative, where there isn’t that time in production where there is this immediacy of making decisions and moving on.”
“Each film is a new life,” suggests Walter. “The wonderful thing about filmmaking is that every project is different in terms of the personalities, conditions and technology involved, and all of the inherent excitement and uncertainty that comes with that. Inevitably there is some discovery that you are going to make about the system, the process or yourself, and those variables there are so great there’s very little danger of repetition.
WALTER MURCH’S STUDY OF EDITING, IN THE BLINK OF THE EYE, MICHAEL ONDAATJE’S THE CONVERSATIONS: WALTER MURCH AND THE ART OF EDITING FILM AND CHARLES KOPPELMAN’S BEHIND THE SEEN ARE ALL AVAILABLE NOW.