The first time watching footage is sacred - you never repeat the first watch. And in my opinion, there is no greater position to hold in filmmaking than that of being the first audience of a film.
In the first watch, the emotional cut begins to sequence. I take note of all my emotions and reactions to moments I see unfolding on the screen. Then I translate and heighten those moments, emotions, and reactions to the audience. Simply put, it’s important to provide the second audience with a first watch experience but in a consolidated, pointed, and ideally more powerful way than that of raw takes or moments.
Love and respect your role as the first audience. The second audience will know if you do not.
The relationship between the director and editor is a sacred one. The editor must operate as a technical extension of the directors brain and be the final writer and producer of ideas - like that of a cup bearer. An editor must also be the voice of reason or the voice of insanity. However, at all times, the editor must be a co-creator / collaborator. And for a successful and effective film, an editor should never be a technician, exclusively. Simply put, the editor must be a filmmaker willingly and joyfully sacrificing to the vision of the filmmaker.
In my opinion, the role of the editor is to keep the conversation with the director at a conceptually high level for as long as possible. Discussions on character development, pacing, vision, spine, goals, feelings, and emotions are topics to live in. There will come a time for discussions about frames, outputs, and technical requirements. However, if a director walks into my suite and we start talking about lower thirds, on trimming this shot or that shot, I have missed the mark and now must work to get us back to that high conceptual level.
A film is never as good, and yet always better than a director expects before walking into the editing suite. The hard work in the that space will test the footage, story, and the directing. A good editor leans into that responsibility and privilege with grace and gentle guidance. Uncovering what is in the directors mind, and then translating it to screen. The editor in many ways is a translator of thought and emotion - the bridge between the director and the screen.
…a good director always has the leading influence on the editing of his film, the value of that influence being proportional to their instinct for and knowledge of editing. - Edward Dmytryk
It would appear that film editing is the art of filmmaking. - Baron Rothschild
Furthermore, an editor must identify, maintain, and advance the director’s voice in the edit. The director’s unique fingerprints can be observed in the rhythm of a film. It is their film dialect. The voice of the director must be made clear in the editing - not invented or discovered, but made clear. Polished. Revealed. So much so, that when the editor accomplishes this and the director depends on the sensitivity of that voice, the director will return to the editor for the rest of their career. It is in the sensitivity to the director’s film dialect and pushing the refinement of that dialect from one film to the next that causes a director to feel the desire, and sometimes the necessity, to maintain the same editor from picture to picture.
The danger is that the more proficient and experienced…you become, the greater the danger that you will become a ‘technician.’ -Kazan
My theory is that an editor must be a technician but a technician isn't necessarily an editor. It stands to reason that when defining an editor, we must use words like “technician” in conjunction with “artist.” Then we begin to get a glimpse of a true editor. Editing cannot survive without the technician role.
As we gain experience, knowledge, and technical prowess we begin to lose the wonder and awe of filmmaking. Just look at the greatest filmmakers of our time. They become giddy when they talk about what inspires them and the dreams they have for their films. The best filmmakers are the ones that perceive the danger of primarily becoming a technician and actively fight it.
This is the risk for any position in filmmaking that requires a high level of technical knowledge to complete the job. Editing is among these crafts that run the highest risk of merely becoming a technician.
How does one fight this seemingly inevitable outcome? Through passion. Through the realization that the technician’s existence is irrelevant in a real film. Through intentional surroundings (films, music, art, books, hobbies, relationships). Always looking for opportunities and activities to participate in that will enhance their editing, but not directly. Approaching editing as a lifestyle, not a duty, or job.
Everything in life is pertinent to the editor because everything in life is edited. We live and receive edited versions of reality - in conversation, in outings, in walking the block, in vacationing, in reading, in all the things we perceive and actively forget in our lives to retain the useful and meaningful bit and then toss out the irrelevant and drab moments. Our minds are always editing. It is in this way we can learn the craft of editing in everything.
Why do we only remember this moment?
Why have I forgotten that trip but remember this trip?
What is this author communicating to me through the edit?
In every way we are living in the edit and the sooner we understand this, we can adapt to the tricks and craft of the universe to our cuts. And by doing so, we resist the technician.
Much has been said about the nature of subtlety within filmmaking. So much so that I almost don't feel the need to add to it. Almost.
The qualities of an audience we cut to are the intangible ones. The qualities that make up the lens with which the audience views the film through. An audience who has no regard for their lens, no sense of their emotion and preconceived ideas concerning the subject, is no audience. They are critics. And we do not make films for critics. We make films for audiences .
So we cater the acts, scenes, and cuts to these intangibly held qualities. The way in which we cater is through subtlety. We let the life of the audience member inform the screen in a way that makes the cut meaningful to them. The obtuse viewer is one who's mind is made and they look for ways to accept or reject a film into their worldview. Not, letting the film inform their worldview. So when we create a film for the obtuse, with obvious cuts, with much information, with vast amounts of context, we create a devise to prop up the ignorant. To fuel the fool.
However, when we use subtlety, suggestion, visual reference that inspire thought and internal dialogue, we are then creating meaningful, confrontational films. It is here a word must be said on clarity. There must maintain clarity throughout the film. Creating subtlety and suggestive cuts is not ignoring the necessity of clarity. The editor is often the last in a long line tasked (especially within doc work) to hold exposition and subtly in balance while maintaining clarity. It's like stretching a rubber band between your hands. Stretching that rubber band as far as you can without it snapping. Keeping that tension (clarity) between exposition and subtlety throughout the film tends to result in a more meaningful piece.
It is my personally held belief, tho backed purely from circumstantial evidence; that the best filmmakers are also the best film watchers. The ones most accepting and least negatively, or technically critical. To be a good filmmaker, one must be a good film watcher.
How a film is paced tends to be discussed on a seemingly singular and macro level. But there is much to dissect from the micro pace changes within a film. The pace between 3 shots, between a moment, between a scene act and film. As we pull out we see the dominate pace, but the successfully paces films take us on a journey of pace. If then put on a linear timeline, we can see the structure of the film in a sort of roller coast shape. All of these pace changes are of course deliberate. Weather through control or lack there of, films have pace. Its matching the pace to the story where craft can be discerned.
If we are to cut interesting and therefore meaningful films, we should consider pace throughout. Im not sure at the moment weather pace should be planned, as too many happy accidents happen throughout, but pace should be on the forefront of the editors mind. Pace should, along with emotion, be a driving factor in any cut. More than continuity. Continuity is a red herring in the search for pace and emotion. The mind fills in blanks and mis-steps constantly and is a trick we should employ when in search for pace and emotion. This then is truth concerning pace, it is paramount to all other factors, except its equal counter part, emotion.
Now a quick note about average shot lengths. They should be considered not on an entire film level, but on a scene level at their widest. Considered, through the lens of intrigue and a desire to see how a film is shaped. Not what it ends up being. A lot is out there which attempts to show ASL’s of this film vs. that film. This is worthless information. Show me the ASL of scene 1 vs. scene 4. Much more interesting.
There’s a certain dark period in the suit when one is pushing their way through scene. Stumbling in the dark, looking for any sort of safety line to pull your self from the depths of the unknown. Safety lines of your story, your voice and your characters.
This is the point a story can be easily break, be watered down, or even take wrong turn. For this reason, it is important for one to stop and ask “what am I even doing?” I recognize leaving room for happy accidents, and I recognize their place in a film and edit, but “what we are trying to accomplish” should always be at the forefront of the editors mind.
We are to cut with an end in mind. We should know, even if the end changes, where it is we are cutting to. So I suggest, on a chalkboard, write out a Scene Title as well as a a Goal. Where it is we would like to audience to be at the end of this act, scene and moment? Where it is we would like the characters to be at the end? Where is it we would like the story to be? Answering these questions will help us push the film to the next stage of evolution; our characters to their next stage; and the audience to theirs.
If we keep these elements in mind and on board while we cut a scene, scenes will be focused and meaningful. And ideally, lead us away from making wandering scenes. They serve as a light amongst the darkness of not knowing where it is we are heading. They become foot and hand holds.
I recently had a director ask me if I had the best shot in the sequence. Define best shot.
I can say with certainty that there are no best shots when cutting a film. I would even goes as far to say that there are no worst shots either. However, that's an entirely different topic.
The best shot is relative. I'm not speaking on a personal taste level but on an intention level. The question should be “is this the best shot for the purpose of…?” The director’s job is to define the purpose (or be willing to explore), and the editor’s job is to execute on that said purpose. The conversation should then turn to emotion, “how does this shot make me feel verses that shot?” As an editor, the best shots are those in support the director's vision.
I recently noticed this while rewatching the movie La La Land, specifically in the scene where Emma Stone’s character, Mia has just sung a song about dreamers. There is an intense, beautiful performance that literally encapsulates the entire film. The scene is a masterclass in directing. And…it’s back focused.
So was that the best shot? Yes. Absolutely.
I don’t use this term to encourage too much information. That is to say, consider your audience ignorant. However, I use it in a way that says, “when they are unsure, they are not confused.” Your audience shouldn’t feel lost for extended periods of time. If they do, anger sets in.
So we must build a report with the audience throughout a film that lets them know that we will pay things off in due time. This can be accomplished in may ways, at many stages throughout the filmmaking process, however, I’m an editor.
We must build characters and show their traits in the micro moment, to inform a greater (macro) narrative: the narrative of the film. We understand why this character is acting this way because we have seen them react similarly before. History has given us a sense of comfort. We have see this before, so we know that it can happen.
Now you may say, “of course, why would we not build our characters in this way?” An issue may not exclusively arise in the assembly phase, but in the refinement and trimming stage. We (editor, director, producer and whatnot) know these characters. We know what they would say and would not say. So we begin to cut out those seemingly superfluous cues. But they are not superfluous in the least. They are giving a first time audience the tools to dig into this character. Sometimes we cut too deep and therefore, need to backup a little.
In these moments, we try to protect the audience. We try to give them a history with the character, or the world on which they can build their own perspective and enter the narrative themselves.
Getting into and consequently out of a scene can be some of the trickiest parts of the first assembly (mentally and as far as workflow goes). Once transitions are established, the cut begins to take form. The assembly begins to feel effortless and we wonder how we got so caught up in the transition in the first place, once we are on the other side of the mountain.
I believe all scenes should be cut with intention: with a purpose and a vision. What is the function of this scene? This should be our driving question as we assemble. The answer to that question will inform where and how we make cuts. Decisions are being made regardless of the intention. The decision is the constant while intention is the variable (one of the elements separating a poor editor from a good editor). While you’re at the decision making process, it is better to be intentional than careless. I’m not saying that every decision is a conscious one. If so, this can create dry cuts often, lacking emotion. When we exclusively, consciously cut we miss what Eisentien calls the “fourth dimension of film.”
Regarding thoughts on subconscious decisions, Spielberg has said, “are there any other decisions worth making?” Some call it cutting from the gut. Regardless of terminology, subconscious cutting is a step to uncovering the fourth dimension of film. The process of juxtaposing images of Meaning A and Meaning B, but when consecutive they create meaning Z.
So what definition am I presenting as the idea of intentional cutting?
What is the objective of the scene you are cutting? What is its function in the act and story? How is this scene used in the tapestry of the film? These are important thoughts to consider prior to entering the edit room (a great prepro exercise for the editor/director). This exercise can often be done with the script. It's a practice that will make you familiar with the story and the intent of the scenes within said story. Read a scene, write four words or phrases that capture the objective of the scene, then cut to that objective.
All good editors will know that these established objectives are not immovable. Objectives can, will, and should change throughout the edit. What you first thought was the objective of scene five is not at all the objective when cutting scene thirteen. So what then is the point? To stay on point. To create a common terminology with the director. To have a feel for which scenes may need more objective or less objective. To understand the flow of the story and structure.
To see the film before the film exists.
Bad = do this
Good = feel this
That’s really all I have to say*.
*Project context must be taken into consideration. Film vs. Cooperate videos, ect.
A devil whispered in one’s ear: “Is this the best shot?”
There are no “good” shots or “bad” shots, just varying degrees of appropriate.
Dearest devil, a better question would be, “Is this shot appropriate for this moment?”