The Alchemy of Film Editing, Explored in a New Video Essay That Breaks Down Hannah and Her Sisters, The Empire Strikes Back & Other Films

Writ­ing, cast­ing, shoot­ing — all impor­tant parts of the film­mak­ing process, but the real mak­ing of a movie hap­pens, so they say, in the edit­ing room. Though often film edi­tors them­selves, “they” have a point: even movie­go­ers unfa­mil­iar with the mechan­ics of edit­ing can sense that, when some­thing feels right onscreen, and even more so when some­thing feels wrong, it has to do less with the pieces them­selves than how those pieces have been put togeth­er.

“There’s an inbuilt rela­tion­ship between the sto­ry itself, how to tell the sto­ry, and the rhythm with which you tell it,” says famed edi­tor Wal­ter Murch, known for his work with Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la on the God­fa­ther tril­o­gy and Apoc­a­lypse Now, “and edit­ing is sev­en­ty per­cent about rhythm.” Twen­ty years ago, in his book In the Blink of an Eye, Murch shed light on how an edi­tor works. Now, cin­e­ma video essay­ist Tony Zhou has con­tin­ued that mis­sion with a new episode of his series Every Frame a Paint­ing, “How Does an Edi­tor Think and Feel?”

Zhou’s cho­sen medi­um places him well to address the ques­tion, since each video essay must require at least as much time spent edit­ing as think­ing about film in the first place. Still, asked by a friend how he knows where to cut, he can come up with only this unsat­is­fy­ing answer: “Like a lot of edi­tors, I cut based on instinct.” As to what exact­ly con­sti­tutes that edi­tor’s instinct, Zhou spends the bulk of this ten-minute essay search­ing for answers him­self, exam­in­ing the cuts in pic­tures like Han­nah and Her Sis­tersIn the Mood for LoveThe Empire Strikes BackTam­popoOnly Angels Have WingsPier­rot le Fou, and All That Jazz.

He also turns to the words of edi­tors with decades of expe­ri­ence in the game, includ­ing fre­quent Steven Spiel­berg col­lab­o­ra­tor Michael Kahn, fre­quent Mar­tin Scors­ese col­lab­o­ra­tor Thel­ma Schoon­mak­er, and even Murch him­self. But ulti­mate­ly, no mat­ter how much wis­dom about tim­ing, emo­tions, ten­sion, and rhythm you col­lect, you’ve got to sit down in the edit­ing suite and go it alone. “If you watch any­thing over and over again,” Zhou says, “you even­tu­al­ly feel the moment when the shot wants you to cut.” If this seems like an over­whelm­ing task, espe­cial­ly giv­en hun­dreds of thou­sands of hours of footage an edi­tor will work through in a career, do keep Kah­n’s sim­ple words in mind: “I see all that film up there — it does­n’t mat­ter. I’m doing one piece at a time. One scene at a time. One cut at a time.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Every Frame a Paint­ing Explains the Film­mak­ing Tech­niques of Mar­tin Scors­ese, Jack­ie Chan, and Even Michael Bay

Alfred Hitchcock’s 7‑Minute Mas­ter Class on Film Edit­ing

The Dark Knight: Anato­my of a Flawed Action Scene

The Wiz­ard of Oz Bro­ken Apart and Put Back Togeth­er in Alpha­bet­i­cal Order

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Paul Hartel says:

    I’ve been edit­ing for almost twen­ty years now. It’s an inter­est­ing piece, but does­n’t real­ly reveal as much as it might. It’s always fun and worth­while to watch these videos, and this is nice­ly done…(the Star Wars exam­ple and Ant Man jux­ta­po­si­tion are very good).

    Now, my expe­ri­ence is unique, and I bring a unique set of skills into the edit bay. I’ve been (and still am) a pro­fes­sion­al actor, and I’ve spent over forty years doing what edi­tors look at. I write and direct, too.

    So, here’s the oppor­tu­ni­ty missed in this video essay to tell you some­thing real­ly inter­est­ing, some­thing that sets edit­ing apart from the skills and tal­ents that oth­er arts and crafts need and devel­op to do well.

    Revis­it the video, and watch the part that includes the clips from Han­nah and Her Sis­ters. Michael Caine is talk­ing over these clips, to a class of act­ing stu­dents, (On Act­ing in Film…) and it’s actu­al­ly a lit­tle dis­tract­ing, pulling your atten­tion from ful­ly con­cen­trat­ing on the images and what Tony is say­ing about the impor­tance of eyes in film per­for­mance. In the clip, we see Michael Caine in dif­fer­ent moments at a par­ty, not talk­ing, only look­ing. At the crit­i­cal moment for this part of the essay, Caine’s in a door­way, and the cam­era push­es towards him (as Tony’s Voice Over push­es towards his point) and the edi­tor (Susan Morse) cuts to Bar­bara Her­shey. But not before what? Not before Morse allows an extra to wipe the frame (right to left). Now, this is the moment that Tony fails to address, and you should ask your­self, If the “eyes” are the crit­i­cal part of per­for­mance (debat­able) the push on Caine has already been long enough to cut to Her­shey before the wipe. Why did Morse chose to allow the extra to wipe the frame? Why did Woody Allen agree with the choice? What does the wipe add that was nec­es­sary? Were they forced to include the wipe because they felt that rhythm demand­ed the push be held that long? The shot is staged, as all shots are. The push was planned. The extra told to cross. Was the tim­ing an acci­dent? What does the wipe add?

    As to the state­ment about “eyes,” eyes are cer­tain­ly much more impor­tant in film act­ing than in stage act­ing, because you are enabled to see them in great detail. But in most of the clips, includ­ing the Caine clips, espe­cial­ly the bed­room one, emo­tion is con­veyed by all sort of oth­er sub­tle details includ­ing facial expres­sions and head move­ment that are just as pow­er­ful (and maybe more so) in com­mu­ni­cat­ing. And (and this isn’t point­ed out) by the cut itself.

    The argu­ment about eyes is also under­cut a lit­tle by the choice of exam­ple from In the Mood for Love, when two edits of the lead male, Tony Chiu, are jux­ta­posed. The sec­ond — the film edit — allows Chiu to drop his head at the end, and the impli­ca­tion is that both the longer clip and length­i­er action com­mu­ni­cates more emo­tion. But the actor is using his whole body, (or his whole upper body if you want to quib­ble) and not only his eyes to com­mu­ni­cate. Eyes in film, can, and do, of course, com­mu­ni­cate every­thing that is nec­es­sary when that is the intent. But they aren’t nec­es­sary to com­mu­ni­cate the emo­tion of a scene.

    That’s Paul’s two cents.

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