“The sad fact was, the shark would only look real in 36 frames, not 38 frames, and that two frame difference was the difference between something really scary, and something that looked like a Great … White … floating turd.”
~ Steven Spielberg, on the editing of “Jaws“
I studied film production and took some great editing classes in college, and have always loved the craft of editing. I believe editing is what brings all the elements of a movie together to tell the story, and that it is one of the absolute most important elements in creating a truly great film. From the time the first film reels were spliced together up until pretty recently (and for the most part still), editing has kind of been the “invisible art”. Most people don’t walk out of a movie they loved and say, “Wow, that editing was just amazing!” – most people don’t notice the edits at all – and that’s the essence of it – to join the pieces together – the scenes, the cuts, the dialogue, the expressions – to create one seamless ride of not just information, but emotion – to make sure the director’s vision materializes on the big screen, and to give the audience the experience of stepping out of their worlds for a while, and into the world created for them in the film. Because it is the “invisible art”, there hasn’t been much recognition for editors until very recently, so I was excited to watch this documentary on something I love so much but isn’t normally highlighted.
Here’s the trailer:
This documentary interviews many great editors, including one of the most respected, acclaimed, and admired, Walter Murch. One of the really cool things about the documentary is that during the interviews, there are also film clips for examples showing what the editors are talking about, and interviews with famous directors and their editors. I didn’t even realize that directors chose editors and stuck with them, but it makes perfect sense – it’s like any other very important and meaningful relationship – you need to find someone who understands you, who you can communicate with, who will be your peer, help keep you on track, and who wants the best for you (and your film, in this case). One of the quotes from a director (I believe it was Alexander Payne) was, “I think successful editors are really sly politicians,” in that they realize that directors may have one thing in mind, but it may not be the best, and a good editor needs to be able to “work with” the director to help them come around, without having the director think that they’re being guided or “managed” – some directors must always feel that they’re the ones making the decisions and coming to these conclusions – and it’s all for the good of the film.
The documentary also talked about the evolution from editing to simply put a story together, to editing in a deliberate manner to create a certain emotional effect, even if the footage was not even necessarily shot in that way – from editing seamlessly just to put the pieces together, to editing specifically to create a feeling. This was an important leap in the editing craft. Nowadays both methods are used.
An interesting fact: early filmmaking editors were mostly women because at the dawn of film editing, it was seen as like knitting or other crafting – like weaving a tapestry – “women’s” work … but when sound came in, men started becoming editors and taking over the scene because somehow sound was “technical” and the job seemed more like “men’s” work.
Another interesting idea that I didn’t think about before: editors actually construct the performance of the actors. All smart actors know it’s a wise idea to be on good terms with the editor. They make your performance the absolute best it can be. Many actors just want to see themselves on screen, but this may not make them come across as so great at their craft – a good editor can make each second (or 24th of a second, for that matter) of an actor’s performance shown be the most sparkling, wonderful moment possible. In theory, they also have the power to make the actor give their worst performance ever. They’ve got all the footage, after all.
A wonderful example of the power of editing in the documentary is the parallel between two films using the same and similar footage: “Triumph of the Will” which was a German propaganda movie with the overriding theme being the return of Germany as a great power, with Hitler as the great leader who would bring glory to the nation, vs. “Why We Fight” – made in direct response to “Triumph” by American film director Frank Capra, splicing in footage from the German propaganda film, but instead using it to show Americans at the time of WWII why they could not stand by and let this monstrously evil force take hold.
This documentary was both interesting and entertaining. With interviews from filmmakers such as Jodie Foster, Wes Craven, Martin Scorsese, Rob Cohen, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and James Cameron, and the editors who really are magicians, helping them to bring their stories to life, if you’re interested in filmmaking or simply the magic of the movies, you won’t be disappointed with this great, behind-the-scenes look.
The Cutting Edge – The Magic of Movie Editing