The film editor is privileged to perform the final rewrite of the screenplay that has been almost magically transformed through dint of sheer effort on the part of hundreds of workers into a motion picture. His tools—scissors, Moviola, Avid, Final Cut Pro— have changed since the invention of the medium over a hundred years ago, but his palette has not:

The film editor plays with time for a living.

Using whatever tool that allows him to juxtapose picture and sound separately, he can slow time down. Fragment it in a thousand ways. Speed it up so that it is no longer relative.The film editor at his console is a master of time.

I have had occasion, in my long apprenticeship in this most plastic of all the arts, to hear people say:

"Oh, you take out all the bad parts, right?"

Which is about as far as most people get when they consider the process that is, in fact, THE art that makes film different from all the other arts. Yes, the mistakes, the accidents, the unattactive aspects of anatomy always fall victim to the editor's blade. But the job goes way beyond that. As the great Russian filmmaker and theorist V.I. Pudovkin put it:

"Editing gives film its meaning and its effect."

Think about it: The first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan took weeks to shoot. Hundreds—if not thousands—of camera angles were discussed, planned, scheduled, and realized, at a cost of millions of dollars. But the fact of the finished film—as it is presented in the theatre in all of its wide-screen multi-track glory—was arrived at only after thousands of hours in the editing room. The filmmakers considered the infinite permutations of the editor's palette on a daily basis, trying this, discounting that, slowing the film down, changing this part of the story in relation to that part of the story. Finding their way through a maze of twisty tiny passages.

Film editing, I've always thought, is almost something that can't be taught. When I started, as an apprentice editor on a musical adaptation of the great novel about Apartheid, Cry, the Beloved Country called Lost in the Stars, way back when the Twentieth Century-Fox backlot encompassed all of what is now Century City, I had already messed around with movie film for, what, maybe ten years, as a kid. As a student. As a documentarian.

I sat and watched the editor and his assistant for months, before the director and the producer arrived from the location, of course, because films are edited, in bits and pieces, long before they're finished shooting. In my egotistical way (this is why the job is called apprentice) I figured, Hey, I can do that! That's easy!

Well. There comes a time in every apprentice's life, if he seriously wants to follow in his mentor's footsteps, where he finally gets the chance. I sat there with my little scene on my little movie, quite a few years later, actually, because in those days it took EIGHT YEARS of apprenticeship and assistant editing before you could actually cut a film, I sat there with maybe ten thousand feet of dailies—ten reels of film and track, unedited, straight from the laboratory after being shot the day before—and I was clueless.

Because you can edit film in an infinite number of ways. But the simple fact is that there is ONE way that's best.

And that is what the editor does. Like an explorer on an uncharted continent, he finds the way. He interprets those words on paper that got everybody so excited in the first place, finally, after the movie has been planned, budgeted, cast, re-written, re-budgeted, re-cast, photographed, rained-on, re-photographed, temp-dubbed, test-screened, finalized, looped, tracked, scored, mixed, and spit out of the printer back at the lab.

He watches. He listens. To the film. To the people who are also making the film. To the people for whom the film is being made.

But ultimately, when all is said and done, it all comes down to little pictures and pieces of sound that represent ideas, human experience, dramatic conflict, on a little screen, in a little room. In the dark.

Where magic happens.

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
Ivan's Childhood
The Jazz Singer
The Sacrifice
We Were Soldiers
Wild Strawberries

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