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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