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 Sisters, In the Mood for Love, The Empire Strikes Back, Tampopo, Only Angels Have Wings, Pierrot 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.”
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.