Film Editing is the rhythmic manipulation of sounds and images in time, and it is this aspect of the filmmaking process that differentiates cinema from its component arts.

Performance, design, directing, music, lighting, photography, sound-- each of these can exist outside of the motion picture artform--but it is the synthesis of these disparate elements through editing that makes film unique.

As the Russian filmmaker and theorist V. I. Pudovkin wrote in his classic text, Film Technique and Film Acting, "Editing gives film its meaning and its effect."

By way of example he utilized a simple shot of a woman. He juxtaposed--edited-- this shot against others: a man with a gun, a man with a smile, a baby, and then noted his audience's reaction to his assemblies. When they watched the woman "see" the gun, she seemed frightened. When she "saw" the man smiling she seemed playful and seductive. When she "saw" the baby, she seemed maternal. It should be obvious that the woman "saw" nothing. Nothing about the shot of the woman had changed; it was neutral. But human nature, in its inexorable need to make connections, basically to node, filled in the blanks.

Which brings us to an interesting point, perhaps the thing that makes cinema so important in the history of art, and that is the participation of the audience in the matter of determining a film's "meaning and effect." The great poet of World Cinema, Andrey Tarkovsky, has this to say in his testament on filmmaking, beautifully entitled Sculpting in Time:

"What is different about cinema editing is that it brings together time, imprinted in the segments of film. Editing entails assembling smaller and larger pieces, each of which carries a different time. And their assembly creates a new awareness of the existence of that time, emerging as a result of the intervals, of what is cut out, carved off in the process; but the distinctive character of the assemby is already present in the segments. Editing does not engender, or recreate, a new quality; it brings out a quality already inherent in the frames that it joins. Editing is anticipated during shooting; it is presupposed in the character of what is filmed, programmed by it from the outset. Editing has to do with stretches of time, and the degree of intensity with which these exist, as recorded by the camera; not with abstract symbols, picturesque physical realia, carefully arranged compositions judiciously dotted about the scene; not with two similar concepts, which in conjunction produce--we are told-- a third meaning; but with the diversity of life perceived."

"In so far as sense of time is germane to the director's innate perception of life, and editing is dictated by the rhythmic pressures in the segments of film, his handwriting is to be seen in his editing. It expresses his attitude to the conception of the film, and is the ultimate embodiment of his philosopy of life. I think that the film-maker who edits his films easily and in different ways is bound to be superficial. You will always recognise the editing of Bergman, Bresson, Kurosawa, or Antonioni; none of them could ever be confused with anyone else, because each one's perception of time, as expressed in the rhythm of his films, is always the same."

It is often said by professional film editors that the best editing is invisible, though recent action films such as The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Traffic beg the question; the editing styles of these films seem nothing short of miraculous, and are, in and of themselves, interesting.

On a purely technical note, film editors have traditionally used the moviola, a noisy 19th century contraption to be sure, to effect their art. In the 1970's and 80's it was supplanted, for the most part, by the KEM, a machine better suited to viewing huge amounts of film and also able to manipulate more than one sound track at a time.

Digital tools have generally supplanted all of the old film-based machines now. After a motion picture has been photographed in a traditional fashion, on film, the film negative is digitized and edited on computers utilizing beautifully-coded software.

Avid. Lightworks. Final Cut Pro.

These are the 21st century tools that will thrill future audiences with such juxtaposition of images as:

the cut from the match being extinguished
to the white hot desert apparition in
David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia

the cut from the prehistoric apeman's murderous tool
across the ages to the waltzing spaceship in
Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey

and, perhaps most beautifully of all:

the penultimate six-and-a-half minute shot
that comprises the hero's repayment
of a debt to God
in Andrey Tarkovsky's Godhead Masterpiece,
The Sacrifice

As a professional filmmaker, I prefer the moviola and the KEM for editing. They are, after all, the tools on which I first explored and then honed my art. The picture is gorgeous, compared to video, and the act of running the living movie through one's hands cannot be well-described.


Post production schedules and budgets in Hollywood today do not allow filmmakers the luxury of editing the "old-fashioned" way. Ironically, it takes the same amount of time to put a film in first cut (or editor's cut) as it always did, whether you're editing on film or an Avid--roughly the shooting-period of the film plus about two weeks for fine-tuning. One cannot edit film before it is shot you see, and an editor usually starts working the day the film starts shooting. But once the film is in first cut, economics start to take over.

The director is contractually guaranteed the same amount of time s/he took to shoot the film to work with the editor, which is fine. No foul. It's the director's medium. But then the producers and the studios and the marketing department and the preview process come to the fore. And the changes begin. It's changes that take time. Never was the term house of cards more applicable than to a motion picture during the editing process.

Many potentially first-rate films suffer these days from being rushed to the screen. A good film is like a living thing during its creation. Sometimes it needs room to grow, to expand and contract and see what feels right. Most important, the filmmaker needs the chance to be wrong. The best producers understand this and schedule accordingly. But the clock is always ticking...enormous sums of money accrue interest. Financially, sometimes it's just better to get the thing out the door. This is why it's not called Show Art.

Then there's the matter of Special Effects Films: it's much easier, cheaper, and better to edit a film like The Matrix or Titanic or Gladiator electronically. The computer allows the editor and director, again, to try things and make changes. Doing the same thing on film would be ruinous.

There are some filmmakers who still edit on moviolas and KEMs. The Coen Brothers cut their brilliant O Brother, Where Art Thou? on traditional machines. THEN they put the whole thing into a computer and FINISHED it electronically. What you see on the screen in your theatre is 100 per cent right out of a computer.

Steven Spielberg's editor, Michael Kahn, still uses a moviola, at least for the first cut. But starting, I believe, with Saving Private Ryan, the Avid began to become a useful additional tool in his cutting room too.

And why not? The digital non-linear editing machine is a marvelous gift to any filmmaker. Computer editing is like word processing. Would you rather node on a G4 Macintosh or a blackboard, cause that's pretty much the choice.

And remember the old filmmaker's axiom:

Films are never finished, they're abandoned.

On Hollywood and filmmaking:

Below the Line

sex drugs and divorce

a little life, interrupted
  1. Hecho en Mejico
  2. Entrances
  3. Sam's Song
  4. Hemingway and Fortuna
  5. Hummingbird on the Left
  6. The Long and Drunken Afternoon
  7. Safe in the Lap of the Gods
  8. Quetzal Birds in Love
  9. Angela in Paradise
  10. And the machine ran backwards

a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon

I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind

Below the Line
completion bond
Film Editing
Film Editor
Final Cut Pro
forced development
HD Video
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Sven Nykvist
Wilford Brimley

21 Grams
Andrei Rublyov
Apocalypse Now Redux
Hearts and Minds
Ivan's Childhood
The Jazz Singer
The Sacrifice
We Were Soldiers
Wild Strawberries

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