In an interview with NPR, the acclaimed editor Walter Murch (Godfather Trilogy, Apocalypse Now) described his job as “a cross between a short-order cook and a brain surgeon.”
The work of an editor is highly complex. As the last shepherds of the film, they reorder, splice, trim, and shape the raw footage to breathe mood, tension, and structure into the film. Under the guardianship of a great editor, no frame goes unexamined and no contribution—whether it be in acting or cinematography—goes under-appreciated. In this final week of Hulu Summer Film School, we’re celebrating these unsung heroes by exploring how they carry the film through its final legs of production.
A fluid travelogue of cinema, Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil explores the mutable nature of memory, time, and its effect on our perception of history. Using elliptical editing techniques to marry documentary and found-footage, Marker’s film sends us from the bustling cityscape of Tokyo to the wilds of Guinea-Bissau in Africa to the extraterrestrial landscape of Iceland, and back again to Japan where we bear witness to a religious ceremony honoring cats. Through all of this dazzlement, Sans Soleil is devoid of synchronous sound and uses an unseen narrator (reading aloud the journal of a fictional traveling cameraman who captured the images we’re seeing) as the binding force for the material. The editorial synthesis of sight and sound becomes simultaneously lasting and ephemeral, not unlike someone trying to recall — and re-experience — a distant memory.
Later in the film, Marker reveals his affection for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, referring to it as a quest to discover an “impossible memory, insane memory.” Memory and time contort into an endless spiral as Marker showcases still images from Vertigo intercut with footage of his own sojourn to San Francisco to recreate scenes from Hitchcock’s film. The editing is crisp and precise, snapping from a still of Vertigo to its corresponding live action shot in Sans Soleil while the narrator draws a comparative deconstruction of Hitchcock’s film, musing about the impossibility “to live with memory without falsifying it.” Memory becomes a kind of personal armor, protecting us from the harsh iniquities of objective truth and allowing us – both filmmaker and viewer alike – to remake history as desired by the needs of the present.
Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature film Breathless revolutionized the way films were edited. It made the jump cut a viable way to compress narrative time. The plot is heavily informed by popular film culture from before 1960: a young thug goes on the run from the police with his American girlfriend. But the energy of the film has little to do with the plot and everything to do with the loose way in which the film was shot and the endless invention of the film’s editing.
Consider Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) as he takes off in a stolen car in this clip from early in the film. The jump cuts do not preserve continuity of time or space, but there’s an emotional logic to Michel’s tear through France. The film forces the audience to see Michel the way he sees himself (as cool, but playful, full of vibrancy and passion), and Godard’s style is like crazed stream-of-consciousness filmmaking – he captures life the way it is, or at least the way we would like it to be in our mind’s eye.
– Christopher Rowe
Much more than any other genre, the documentary’s structure is shaped in the editing room. On a typical documentary production, hundreds of hours of footage will be shot and then brought to the editor who will cut the content down to a 90-minute feature.
A testament to documentary editing can be seen in Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, in which Baichwal follows photographer Edward Burtynsky as he captures various landscapes around the world that have been shaped by industrial production. One of the film’s many visually-stunning shots is a long take of Chinese manufacturing workers lining up to take orders from their managers. The wide angle highlights the sheer magnitude of identically-dressed workers and also serves to emphasize the lack of individualism in the space. This shot is followed by a match cut to Burtynsky’s photograph of the event and then another match cut to Burtynsky’s photo in a gallery space with visitors passing by it. Through this sequence, Baichwal depicts editing’s ability to transcend not only time but also space. As a result, viewers gain a better understanding of the power of Burtynsky’s images to communicate social and economic situations to the rest of the world.
– Kelly Lin
In “Primer,” two scientists accidentally discover time travel and it slowly affects their lives, over and over again. It’s fast-paced, yet slow and brooding, and completely immersive.
In this clip, Abe and Aaron discover that time travel may be happening right in front of their noses. As they are both trying to make sense of what’s happening, the editing is jumpy, frenetic, and a little disjointed, matching the activity of their brains. But as they reach a conclusion they both agree on, the editing slows down, allowing us to spend a bit more time on each shot. This subconsciously gives our minds a little space again – a way to say “we’ve settled here,” just like the characters have in the story.
1) The Top 10 Most Effective Editing Moments of All Time – Some of the best editing in film is the editing that draws us so deeply into the story that we aren’t even cognizant that the post-production process is taking place. This video from CineFix takes some of the most highly regarded films of our time and explores how different editorial techniques help them achieve greatness. After watching this clip, check out some of CineFix’s other short form content, all designed to both instruct and entertain filmmakers and movie buffs alike.
2) Vashi Visuals – Run by editor Vashi Nedomansky, this blog gives an in-depth look into the editorial workflow and the reasonings behind editorial choices made both by him and other editors in the business.
3) Movie Editing Techniques from LA Video Filmmaker – This blog post explores the most commonly used editorial cuts in cinema, with gifs to back them up.