Why Editing Isn’t The Same As Cutting

18 03 2008

I know that I’m being overly sensitive, but it rubs me the wrong way when I hear an editor described as a “cutter”, or the first/editor’s cut of a film described as a “rough cut.” We do so much more than that.

A great example of just what it is that we do can be found on Paul Vitois’ blog, in which he documents the creation of a show called The Odyssey, and adventure-fantasy series from way back in 1991 that he created for the Canadian Broadcasting System. Vitois, who describes himself as “a creative writer who has also worked as a bureaucrat and copywriter,” talks about how he and his co-producers had carefully hired a group of award-winning documentary editors. The first cut was:

composed of excellent editors who had come from documentary-making. And the first cut of the episode was proficient, correct, followed the script, used the excellent footage shot by the director Jorge Montesi–but the story came across as flat and slow-moving. I recall watching an early rough cut of the episode, my excitement at finally getting to see the result of our efforts on a TV screen, and my growing feeling of unease and letdown.

Their script didn’t seem like their script, even though it followed the instructions in the script quite well.

Now, we all know that a film is “never as good as the dailies or as bad as the first cut” (I believe that Francis Coppola said that and, if he didn’t, he should have) but this was something else indeed. In fact, after they hired a dramatic editor, they watched the film again.

I was intrigued to see how Jana had handled the material. She cut frequently, most often to show characters’ reactions to what was happening or being said in the scene. It created a fast-moving feeling in which the characters were involved with the story. Next time you watch a drama, pay attention for awhile to how it is edited: notice when the camera cuts to characters’ reactions. The characters may simply be watching what’s going on, but their involvement in the scene brings the audience’s involvement.

He says that he saw “a whole new show” and it’s no wonder. Our job is not simply putting pieces of film together, it’s putting both a story and a set of characters together.

I remember, years ago, I was asked to recut a film that had been originally edited by a very competent commercials editor whose largest asset was that he came with a free Avid. The producer and director were unhappy with the version of the film that they had personally supervised with this editor, and the lead actor (who was a director himself) recommended that they ask me to take a look at it.

I looked and immediately saw that it was very competently cut — nothing popped in the editing, there were no mismatches. But there was no character, and it WAS a character piece.

When I went into the dailies I was able to figure out what was wrong. Usually, if I ran the film ten or so frames later, I’d find a reaction from an actor or actress that spoke volumes. I’d often find that if I cut out slightly later or earlier than in the cut I was given, you could feel what the character was feeling Sure, a lot of my cuts didn’t match action, but there are lots of ways to disguise those mismatches, if necessary. What the first editor had done was work from the script to give the story an overall shape, but his individual edits didn’t bring out the humanity and emotion in that story.

I had told the producer and director to leave me along for a bit, until I completed re-editing the first twenty minutes or so of the film. If they liked what they saw, we’d go on from there. If not, everything was cool. They could keep looking for help, and I’d move on — with a bit more money in my bank account.

Of course, when they saw my initial recut (though they weren’t convinced that everything worked) they were blown away by the difference. It wasn’t the cutting that had changed, I felt, but the editing.

Remember that, the next time you want to farm your film out to the lowest bidder.

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3 responses

19 03 2008
Paul

Hi Norman. Thanks for stopping by at my blog–I’m glad you found it useful. Know well that I very much appreciate what a good film editor brings to a show. Editors, I think, share certain qualities with writers: we’re both relative loners, often cooped up for long periods in dark rooms (with all the attendant psychological effects), and with lots of responsibility for the quality of the end product.

19 03 2008
Norman

Yes, in fact I think that editors and writers are the most closely aligned crafts in filmmaking. Were concerned with very much the same things — plot, character arcs, pacing, etc.

22 03 2008
Studio Daily Blog » Editing does not equal cutting

[...] this thoughtful article on his blog ‘Hollyn-wood’, editor Norman Hollyn discusses the finer points of editing, [...]

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