The Art and History of Editing

12 02 2008

On the blog Testdiffcount50097, there is an obituary for film editor Jim Lyons who died last April at the age of 47. The entry speaks very eloquently about the history of editing.

The loss of respect for the craft of editing is something that many old timers in the television and film business have mourned since the birth of digital non-linear editing. “There was a time…” I was told from my very first job as an assistant editor, “When you spent years as an apprentice, organizing the trim bin, syncing dailies, and then maybe –if you were fast, respectful and good– you’d get a chance to cut a scene.”

The point was not to “haze” the next generation of dues-paying wannabe editors, but to recognize that the editing stage of filmmaking was seen as a true artform in and of itself; that to become an editor meant you were taking part in a set of traditions and practices that were part of the pre-industrial age, like becoming a shoe-maker. There was a Guild that you belonged to; you had to learn an approach to the work from the generation before you. And that just working as an apprentice alongside a mentor was how you’d develop an appreciation for the things you can’t learn in film school: pacing, using long shots versus close ups, what to look for as you screen dailies, how to develop dramatic arcs, where to cut to achieve the maximum impact and emotional power,” and so on and so forth.

Editing has, in some people’s eyes, grown in stature in the industry, at the same time that it has been devalued in the public’s eye. To some, this is a result of two things — the easy availability of digital editing systems which give the feeling that anyone can do it (see my entry on “Edit At Home — Without Talent!!“), and secondly the misperception on the public’s part about what we do (see my entry on “We Cut Out The Dirty Parts“). My students at USC go into the industry in one of two ways, generally. They can enter as an assistant (or a Post Production PA) on a higher-budget project, or they can begin editing a super low budget one. In addition, many of them have come to us already having edited a number of their own films — normally with very little professional guidance, if any.

What this means is that there is very little sense of the history of editing, the shaping of story telling, and the art form that it can be. Instead, much of editing is about matching action, and making cool cuts. Lyons, who did much of his work with Todd Haynes, would surely have not forgotten those things.

There are also two quote from Lyons from an interview at the Manhattan Edit Workshop. I thought they bore repeating.

“If you think there’s one way to cut a scene and that’s the [only] way to do it, you’re screwed. You’ve got to have 10 ways to cut a scene that are all good in different ways.”


“Cinema is there to capture the things that you can’t articulate. That’s what’s beautiful about it. You can be a poet and use words brilliantly…but with cinema, you can capture those things in time.”

An excerpt from that interview is available on the MEW website. It’s difficult to find but click on the link for “VAULT”. Then once the endless intro movie finished, click on the film clip which is the second from the right on the top row of clips.



4 responses

13 02 2008

If you want to listen to the 80 minute podcast version of Jim’s talk, listen via iTunes at

The ’10 ways to cut s a scene’ quote comes at 31 minutes and 49 seconds.

A 92.MB that is well worth your time.

1 10 2008
Glorious Niwakora

Yes! I have seen your view about editing. But what is the history of It that can help us improve by knowing when and where the first editors started from.

13 10 2008

A good place to start looking at the history of editing is at the early Russian filmmakers like Eisenstein. Also, check out Karel Reisz’s book on film editing.

14 06 2011
Lou Kleinman

I’ve been espousing these very ideas for years. Great to read them on the internet, in print, anywhere.

Lou K

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