When putting together a jigsaw puzzle, each piece is part of a pre-determined whole. There’s an image on the box, and that’s what you get. When you’ve run out of pieces and the picture matches, you know you’re done.
With editing, it’s not that simple.
The carefully-chosen shots, camera moves, and performances all end up in the same place, the proverbial puzzle box, ready to be put together by the editor. Until the film is edited, the story that was shot (likely out of order) hasn’t been told yet! The editor is as much a storyteller as the screenwriter, and controls many aspects of the film. These include:
Pace: Editing determines the pace of a scene. Quick cuts and cuts that don’t match heighten a feeling of intensity. Crazy action sequences and car chases are notorious for lots of fast cuts – they have a lot of ground to cover! But something as simple as a family argument at dinner can become an intense war when the editing takes us around the table.
Acting and reacting: They say “acting is reacting” and editing is, surprisingly, no different. We know it’s important to see a character while they’re talking, but it’s almost more important to see how the other characters react! A shrewd editor can create a poignant moment by mixing and matching reactions from different takes, sometimes even from different lines.
In his book “In The Blink of an Eye,” Academy Award winning editor Walter Murch talks about “the slate piece,” that bit of film shot before they slate and call “action.” Even though that twenty-second piece of footage was never meant to be in the movie, perhaps the actor had the right look on his face. Murch reiterates that anything captured on film is fair game for editing.
Continuity: We’ve all seen flubs, continuity errors, things in the background disappearing, etc. We think we’re smart for noticing. Believe it or not, these sorts of errors are at the very bottom of the list of importance for an editor. When choosing between an incredible performance by an actor or making sure the lamp in the background didn’t move, the editor will choose the performance every time.
The Cutting Room Floor: Not every shot makes it into the film. Maybe the tracking shot that took half a day that the director loved just doesn’t work. Maybe the close-up that the actor wanted disrupts the feel of the scene. It’s the editor’s responsibility to be divorced from on-set situations, and use the puzzle pieces they’ve been given to tell a story in the best way possible.
And… that’s a wrap!
Editing is abstract and virtually limitless. Choosing the pace, performances, and shots is a huge responsibility of storytelling. Movies can be made or broken in the editing room. The next time you watch a film, try paying attention to the cuts – you’ll likely find yourself quickly forgetting about them and getting drawn back into the story. Great editing affects us on a subconscious level and disappears into the film.
This is the final blog for Hulu Summer Film School. We hope you’ve looked at movies a different way and learned something you didn’t know before!