Making a Film in the Edit Bay
MAKING A FILM IN THE EDIT BAY
By Doug Morris
“Good editing makes the film look well-directed.
Great editing makes the film look like it wasn’t directed at all.”
— Victor Fleming
Phillip Seymour Hoffman maintains that a film is made in the editing room and he goes on to compare the shooting of a film with shopping for the ingredients to make a cake — stressing that you can’t leave the store without first having everything you’ll need to make it.
Hoffman also advances the notion that the kitchen is an apt metaphor for the edit bay and what happens in there determines if the cake, or the film, turns out any good — or not.
The success or failure of a film will be determined largely by how well the visual and the audio elements are stitched together. And considering that most films’ track records aren’t very high, it’s a small wonder that people continue to invest in making movies at all. So be conscientious, and make each and every cut of each and every film you touch the very best you can make it.
A MATTER OF SCALE
Shooting a film often requires a large and expensive production crew with several specific chains of command and intense logistical organization. The legions of personnel required can seem like a small army with camera and lighting departments, audio technicians, actors, extras, props, picture cars, animal trainers and wardrobe stylists, all marching to the beat of a director’s drum.
Editing a film, on the other hand, requires just an editor, and/or a director, sitting in a darkened room somewhere making selections from hours and hours of film and audio footage.
“We can do whatever we want. We can goof off all day if we want to.”
— Tim Squyres, A.C.E. editor of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi
As you may already know, editing a film is about as far from goofing off as any task can be. Becoming a successful film editor requires lots of time, discipline, technical skills, attention to detail, and perhaps most importantly, a keen understanding of which levers to pull to manipulate what the audience is thinking and feeling at any given moment along the movie’s timeline.
Such skills require, first and foremost, the editor to possess a thorough knowledge and sensitivity to the film elements he or she has been provided by the producers.
A SIDE NOTE
In 2015 Editors Guild Magazine conducted a survey among its subscribers asking editors to rate the 75 best-edited films of all time and it’s interesting that five of the top 10 films were edited by women; Lisa Fruchtman cut Apocalypse Now; Thelma Schoonmaker cut Raging Bull; Dede Allen cut Bonnie And Clyde; Anne V. Coates cut Lawrence of Arabia; and Verna Fields cut Jaws. These pioneering women have edited, as of 2015, half of the greatest films of all time. Learn more.
WHAT IT TAKES TO BECOME A TOP EDITOR
“It’s a skill you can only become good at with lots and lots of practice.”
— Stephen Mirrione, A.C.E.
Storytelling is like a muscle that gets stronger with frequent exercise. The more you do it the better you can get at it. Providing you follow a few basic guidelines.
LEARN THE LINGO
Remember, knowledge is power and one of the most important aspects of working as an editor is clear communication. In the 120 year-old filmmaking industry there have been generations of professional editors who’ve developed a specific vocabulary to put us all on the same page terminology-wise when discussing the editorial process.
For example, do you know the difference between a J-cut and an L-cut? If not, you owe it to yourself to first become educated in the language of your industry.
Check out A Beginner’s Guide to Film Editing Vocabulary and commit these terms to memory. Such knowledge will serve you well over time.
CHECK YOUR EGO
Obviously you can’t go into your edit session trying to second-guess what the director or producers might want. You need to trust your instincts and understand why the producers put you on the payroll in the first place: You’ve got the skills to get the job done, or so they believed when they hired you.
Once you make your first cut of a film you’ll have a pretty good idea of how much your interpretation of the script and the footage has affected the story. However, when the director comes in for the first time, watches your rough-cut, and then starts making changes — It becomes another film.
Be careful this doesn’t escalate into a contest of wills — the editor will lose out to the director every time. Perhaps this is why some directors prefer to cut their own films. For Stanley Kubrick, editing his own movies meant one less impedance to his filmmaking process.
So mind your manners, be diplomatic, and most importantly, stay positive. It can be helpful for you to begin to see yourself as the secondary person in the relationship.
“Find solutions and offer up different ways to look at it.
Make your edit bay a place the director wants to be.
Get the intent of the director early:
If they reference other films for tone or style
be sure you watch those films.”
— Vashi Nedeomasky, A.C.E.
Your ability to nurture a positive relationship with a director throughout the weeks, months or even the years it takes to get a movie made will largely determine whether or not you have a future in film editing.
Consider what the award-winning editor of Apollo and A Beautiful Mind had to say about working with directors in film:
“When collaborating, remember it’s not about you.
It’s about the final product.”
— Dan Hanley, A.C.E.
WATCH EVERY FRAME & READ THE SCRIPT
Again, knowledge is power and your first look at the footage should be simply to get an overall impression for the material you’ll be working with. No need to make notes yet, save that for your second screening.
Admittedly, this additional screening can take many more hours but the added familiarity you’ll gain from multiple viewings will give you a decided advantage over the editor who simply cuts using only the circled takes.
“Watch every single thing from the beginning to the end, because you never know. Even after the director calls for a cut, you want to watch everything. Some of the most beautiful expressions you’re going to get from the actors are after the cut.”
— David Andrew Stoler, Filmmaker
By digging deeper into the footage you can often discover more clever options that may serve your film better. And of course, show respect for the screenwriter: Read the script in its entirety remembering that your final cut will become the final screenplay for the film.
DON’T GET IN A RUSH
Only when you’ve got a cut that works for everyone should you focus on finalizing your audio, color, and special effects, Make sure you don’t get too far ahead of yourself or you may be duplicating effort — doing work you’ll need to do over again later when the cut is final.
A PLACE FOR EVERYTHING & EVERYTHING IT ITS PLACE
Organizing your footage seems like a no-brainer, right? Regardless of the editing software you use, Final Cut, Adobe Premiere, AVID, make sure to set up your media files in a way that is organized so you can quickly and efficiently find the shot you need when you need it.
“If you don’t set up your project and your media in an organized way, it will kill you in the long run. Be sure to label video files, audio files, and even still images clearly and keep them on the same drive for easy access.”
— Maurissa Horwitz, Assistant Editor
You might be surprised how many editors fumble around trying to find a scene or an audio element while the director sits waiting patiently. But it’s not a good idea to test anybody’s patience for too long. It’s far better, and smarter, to get and stay on top of your media files. Time is money as they say, and money talks!
DEVELOP A STORY STRUCTURE
A good editor is always looking for ways to move or shift our perceptions. There is a basic filmmaking principal that suggests we expect to see a steady escalation of energy and movement throughout a film.
But allowing the tension of a scene to build, perhaps rising to a point of discomfort in the audience, can eventually become tedious and unnerving if not quelled. Such intense elevations of tension can and should be punctuated by a bit of wit or humor, anything, which allows the audience an emotional release — that is, a relief from the rising tension.
Repeated cycles of building up followed by corresponding downbeats are how editors direct the rhythm of their films. As you watch a film, look for the ways the editor used these ups and downs to pace their film and make their technique part of your editorial tool kit.
SETTING A PROPER PACE
Pacing can make or break a film so don’t be surprised if you find, following your first rough cut, that the pacing is off. Some editors make several versions of a cut to find a pace that works.
Sometimes a slow scene drags for an audience: In another cut it may build tension, so there’s no one-way to pace your films. Probably the best way to learn if your film is paced properly is by screening your cuts to an ad-hoc focus group of friends and family. This is especially true when cutting comedy, which we will discuss shortly.
Getting feedback, positive or negative, and seeing where the laughs are (if there are any) or where the viewer becomes verklempt from watching a poignant or emotional scene, can give you confidence that you’re cut is on the right track.
Conversely, an audience’s feedback may also send you back to the edit bay to make another cut. Again, don’t be disappointed if you have to make further attempts to cut your picture. Regardless of the audience, most people respond similarly to edits that move the story forward and make sense to them.
LEARN TO MANIPULATE THE AUDIENCE
We don’t go to see a film just to watch continuity. However, continuity editing is the basic building block of engaging an audience and getting them to follow wherever it is you want them to go.
A skilled editor makes cuts that direct our eyes to whichever person, object or movement on screen that appears to hold the most meaning at the moment – as well as relating to the moments just prior to and following the shot.
In eye tracking experiments, researchers created thermal maps of where peoples’ eyes moved as they watched a film and discovered:
“What feels right in terms of continuity editing is
a smooth attentional shift across the cuts.”
— Prof. Tim J. Smith, Cognitive Psychologist
Smoothness in the transitions is the desired outcome most of the time as it keeps the audiences’ attention focused where the editor wants it. However, circumstances may call for a deliberate mismatch in an eyeline, for instance, to create an unsettled feeling in the audience.
This uneasiness in the viewer’s body, however subtle, is called kinesthetic empathy and creates a form of subtext when used successfully.
SUBTEXT, YOU SAY?
The words written on the pages of the screenplay, and coming out of an actor’s mouth, provide the clearest and most obvious meaning for the audience to interpret.
Yet there can be an implicit meaning to those words as well.
Consider the effects of the wedding day scene in Don Corleone’s office in The Godfather where he explains to his consigliere Tom Hagen, “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
On the surface the line means one thing, perhaps benign, perhaps not. But taken on another, less naive level, these same words imply a deadly outcome for the man who dares to refuse a Don Corleone “offer.”
“An offer he can’t refuse” is a prime example of subtext, a deeper, and in this context, more disturbing meaning beyond the actual words Marlon Brando spoke on camera.
There are other ways to provide subtext as well. One of which can be achieved by the use of music, but not just any music. The inclusion of music must add a psychological dimension to the scene and imply something beyond what we’re watching.
Take for example, the final scene of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket: Following an execution-style killing of the female Vietcong sniper who had kept the squad pinned down all day killing off several of their comrades, the weary squad forms up again afterward and marches out through the fires and destruction of the Imperial City of Hue.
A darker meaning is added to this, the final scene of the film, when our soldiers march along and break out in song. But these Marines can’t sing just any song – this tune has to say something.
“Who’s the leader of the club
That’s made for you and me
Hey! there, Hi! there, Ho! there
You’re as welcome as can be
Forever let us hold our banner
High! High! High! High!
Come along and sing the song
And join the jamboree!
Mickey Mouse club
Mickey Mouse club
We’ll have fun
We’ll meet new faces
We’ll do things and
We’ll go places
All around the world
Who’s the leader of the club
That’s made for you and me
Hey! there, Hi! there, Ho! there
You’re as welcome as can be
Since the timeframe of Kubrick’s 1987 film takes place during the Vietnam War, most of the young Americans fighting there would have grown up back in their hometowns watching the Mickey Mouse Club on TV.
We instantly feel the juxtaposition of a band of young, battle-scarred warriors, marching through the grimmest of scenes singing a harmless children’s song that they might have sung along with as kids at home: This leaves the audience with a disturbing sense of the tragic loss of the boys’ innocence.
We understand the Marines’ feelings of sadness, regret and their collective loss much more profoundly than if they had simply marched away singing Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah Zip-A-Dee-A: Another Disney tune but one that lives in an entirely different context and would not work here.
Watch the final scene from Full Metal Jacket to see how powerfully subtext can work in film.
EDITING COMEDY FOR LAUGHS
Watching a serious drama such as Full Metal Jacket or The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Tom Ford, you can expect to linger for extended periods of time on individual scenes — even indulging in a character’s expressions and emotions using long pauses — but if you’re editing a comedy, lingering simply won’t work.
Most editors agree, editing comedy takes a very different set of skills. Many feel it’s the hardest of the film genres to cut so don’t try to use the same timing and pacing techniques as you would in a dramatic feature. Comedic edits need to, by necessity, be tight and specific in order for the joke or punchline to land properly.
This is one reason many producers use a three-camera approach to comedies to get the maximum coverage possible before going into the edit bay.
THE CHALLENGE OF EDITING IMPROV-HEAVY COMEDY
But comedy in movies has been changing for some time now. Back when the writer wrote all of the jokes in a screenplay, it was the actor’s job to interpret them and to land a punchline as effectively as possible. The director might adjust a line or the timing on-set but many of the scripts approved by the studios seemed to have been set in stone.
In those days, an editor’s main job was to find the best take of the line as written and simply cut it into the film where it belonged.
Today however, comedy directors are taking a much different approach: Filmmakers such as Ben Stiller, Paul Feig, Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith have been casting comedic actors who are more gifted at ad-libbing their lines rather than just delivering them.
In a 2015 New York Times Magazine article about comedy film editors, Jonah Weiner relates some insights and challenges facing comedy editor Brent White.
“When Apatow and McKay began directing movies,
they used a technique that others have adopted:
They shoot a scene once or twice as written,
then subject it to a number of improvised variations
in which the actors deliver lines of alternate dialogue (“alts”)
that either they devise or the director supplies.
With this way of working, scripts become radically provisional,
and bursts of improv become much more than roadside attractions.”
— Jonah Weiner, Writer
Such directors may have been inspired by the success of Barry Levinson’s 1988 Serio-Comedy, Good Morning, Vietnam starring Robin Williams.
Williams improvisations diverted from writer Mitch Markowitz’s script so often that the pair should probably share writers’ credits for the film. And as you can imagine, a talented and prolific ad-libber such as Robin Williams, delivering a wealth of great comedic material, could easily overwhelm most editors with content.
Obviously this plethora of unscripted material adds exponentially to the challenges of editing comedy. If you think about films like Bridesmaids or Tropic Thunder, cast with a number of talented comedic actors, each offering up their own ad-libs lines, you can begin to see how difficult and challenging the task of editing improvised comedy can become.
Here are a couple of links to give you more insights into cutting comedy.
BUT WHAT ABOUT DARK COMEDIES?
“A good dark comedy is not afraid to NOT be funny.
You have to know when to hold back — when to go for something emotional, or something dramatic, or something scary, rather than just a joke.
There’s definitely hilarious shit that we left on the cutting room floor just because it tipped the scale too far toward silly comedy.“
— Matt Spicer, director of Ingrid Goes West
Common sense dictates that a comedy is usually edited to reflect the rhythm of the spoken dialogue. Thrillers, on the other hand, are often edited to a music track, scored to create apprehension and suspense, often without the benefit of any dialogue at all.
What is impressive is how the Coen Brothers manage to engage their audiences by using both approaches to editing in the same film, often in the same scene.
As we discussed earlier in our section about a film’s structure, by allowing the tension of certain scenes to build, with feelings of suspense rising in the audience, editors frequently provide the audience with an emotional release, often in the form of mirth or humor.
In one suspenseful scene in their 1996 film Fargo, a Minnesota state trooper pulls over Steve Buscemi (Carl Showalter) and Peter Stormare (Gaear Grimsrud,) who recently kidnapped Kristin Rudrüd (Jean Lundegaard) and have her tied up in the back seat. The winter night scene crackles with tension in dramatic cuts between Gaear and Carl as they nervously await the trooper’s long walk from his squad car.
There is something amusing in Buscemi’s grinning performance where he clumsily offers the officer a bribe by holding out his wallet with a $50 bill clearly extended for the taking as he says, “I want to be in full compliance here. Maybe we can take care of this right here in Brainerd.”
Of course, the worst happens and the momentary amusement of Buscemi’s performance vanishes as the scene quickly switches to tragedy when Gaear pulls a Glock from the glove compartment and dispatches the officer.
In their first feature film, Blood Simple from 1984, the Coen Brothers produced a dark comedy about betrayal, infidelity and murder. During a scene after hours in the darkened office of a seedy Texas bar, a former employee, John Getz (Ray) finds his former boss and bar owner Dan Hedaya (Marty) bleeding out on the dirty wooden floor from a gunshot wound Ray believes was committed by Marty’s unfaithful wife and Ray’s illicit lover, Frances McDormand (Abby.)
Amidst the horror of the murder scene, Ray attempts to wipe up Marty’s blood using his Members Only jacket. What Ray doesn’t know but quickly learns is the jacket is made from polyester, not cotton, so it simply smears the blood around making clean up with it impossible.
Details such as use of a polyester jacket to mop up blood gives the audience a momentary chuckle and a bit of release from watching a grisly murder scene unfold.
Also darkly funny in Blood Simple is Abby’s go-to line throughout the film. Whenever she’s confronted by anyone about either her infidelity with Ray or her husband Marty’s murder she repeatedly denies it by repeating the same dubious line, “I haven’t done anything funny.” Perhaps what’s really funny can be found in the eyes and ears of the beholder.
WHERE DO YOU GO FROM HERE?
We should close with a dose of reality. The award winning editors we’ve discussed in this piece have been working professionally for a very long time, which means they’ve got a lot of practical, hands on editing experience under their belts. Remember the quote from the top of this piece?
“It’s a skill you can only become good at with lots and lots of practice.”
– Stephen Mirrione, A.C.E.
That sounds like good advice but how does one begin?
We’ve surveyed a number of younger editors to learn how they got their starts and they range from people who began editing videos for fun in junior high school, to editing YouTube videos for social media influencers, to those who were finally inspired by a mid-life career change. There is neither a good nor a bad time to make the decision to become an editor. You just need to commit to the craft.
“I didn’t start doing it professionally until about four or five years ago. When both Andy and I started working for a YouTuber called Scott Wynn and we were doing a lot of his blogs and his videos and a lot of his editing. And then from there we’ve just built our own business out of that. So it’s been great. It’s been a wild ride.”
– Aaron Tharp, editor
If you do commit, starting ASAP will give you that much more experience under your belt when those real editing opportunities arise.
WHAT DO I NEED TO START?
Attending film school is nice but we know that it’s not necessary to become a great filmmaker. Quentin Tarantino worked as a clerk in a video rental store in Manhattan Beach, CA watching and analyzing as many foreign films, classic movies and syndicated TV shows as he could to educate himself in the industry he planned to join.
Watching films, especially those that were either nominated for, or were winners of, the Academy Award for Editing and Best Sound Editing is the ideal place to begin. Here’s the list of Best Editor nominees and winners dating back to 1934. The best time to start is now — you’ll be able to watch a lot more of those great films throughout the process.
While you’re at it, if you can get your hands on the script, read it first then watch the movie to learn why certain editorial choices were made. Why is this scene missing from the film? Why did the editor cut there? What motivated that cut? Why was this scene moved earlier on the timeline?
The list of movies you can study and the questions you could ask yourself seem almost limitless. You can also rent Blu-rays and DVDs to watch the Special Features section of each disc. Filmmakers often share important and useful information about how they go about making their films and what you’ll learn from them can become a component of your education as well.
When you’ve watched enough well edited films you’ll begin to see editorial patterns and styles. And once you make the effort to adopt the techniques and approaches award-winning editors use and making them part of your editorial tool kit, the sooner you’ll be on your way to jump starting your own editing career. Good luck!
“I feel like I’m one of the few that, as soon as I knew that you can get a job
in the movies, that it was a possibility, I knew I wanted to be an editor— since middle school, high school and right into college.
I remember my freshman year in film school when they told me,
‘You need to try some photography and directing and acting.’
I was like: Nope, not necessary.
I’m just going to skip it and go right to editing.
Everybody looked at me, and it was like, you should try.
But no, I just kind of forced my editing jobs on everybody,
on all the students and literally anybody that would talk to me.
You need something edited? That was pretty much how I started.”
– Kyra Uniejewski