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The Craft of Film Editing – by David O Mahony

Resources_Post_124 - mementoAssessing the influence editing has on a film is no easy task; the arrangement of images within a scene goes some way to defining the tone, mood, pace and length of the overall piece. Key decisions such as how long a shot is held prior to cutting, the choice of scene and shot sequencing and the relationships engineered between images can all effect subtle yet crucial deviations in audience reaction. Editing, in a very real sense, can be as manipulative as a lugubrious composer’s emotional underscoring of dramatic events in the narrative.

Out-of-movie experience

As consumers of film, we have learned to take editing for granted and rarely pause to gauge its impact on our viewing experience. We are accustomed to its effects, to the progressive alignment of shots and images that make up a scene, and it is fair to say that only clumsily-edited material draws attention to itself – there’s nothing like a jarring cut, or an awkward scene transition to break the fluidity of the experience and take you out of the movie-moment.


Audiences assume – quite reasonably – that the temporal relationship between scenes is a chronological one; timelines can, to a degree, be fudged within a set-piece, but the forward thrust of the narrative is just that – forward moving. This presupposition allows filmmakers to lure their viewers into a false sense of security and to bedazzle them with last-reel revelations.

Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Rendition'

Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Rendition’

A recent occurrence of such temporal trickery was seen in the otherwise unmemorable Rendition, Gavin Hood’s thriller which aligned itself with the recent glut of well-intentioned dramas that explore the US-led invasion of Iraq through a liberal gauze.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a rookie FBI agent involved in the interrogation of a detainee – the victim of an ‘extraordinary rendition’ – who is suspected of involvement in a brutal car bomb (with which the film begins). Inter-cut with this story is the parallel narrative of a young man preparing for a suicide mission, which we infer is the next instalment in what is shaping up to be a terror campaign.

His concurrent story is, however, revealed in the last act as being a flash-back to the staging of the original explosion; the director has correctly guessed that our faith is in the narrative’s forward momentum, and our presumption that each consecutive scene represents the next chronological increment is precisely what enables him to so boldly dupe us.

This showy slice of quicksilver editing fails to work on an artistic level as it is too much of a stunt; it carries about it the whiff of posturing that precludes emotional engagement with the story. If the best editing aspires to anonymity, is the well-edited film one which eschews attention?

Scorsese and Schoonmaker

It isn’t as simple as that, of course, and the answer is one of context; certain stories demand self-conscious, even ostentatious cutting, the obvious example being the collaborative work of Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker. Working together as director and editor for the best part of their respective careers, they have produced some of the most invigorating and inventive editing in film history.

A classic example is the 29-minute sequence near the end of Goodfellas which details the frenetic last hours of freedom for mobster Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta); coked-up and paranoid, Hill’s downward spiral is captured in a near montage of colliding images, replete with crashing zooms and whip-pans that is a perfect instance of cinematic form following function.

Unconventional editing can move us, as Alejandro González Iñárritu proved in 21 Grams, where the fractured narrative replicates and comments upon the numb grief of the bereaved characters. It can also tease and confuse us, as films such as Christopher Nolan’s Memento have shown.


Béla Tarr's 'Sátántangó'

Béla Tarr’s ‘Sátántangó’

No discussion of editing, however, can be complete without a brief mention of the great Hungarian minimalist Béla Tarr, who has effectively forsworn editing altogether in favour of astonishingly long takes, frequently of dreary characters walking through dreary, raid-sodden landscapes; indeed, Tarr is of the opinion that the prescribed edit that follows a reel change represents a form of artistic censorship. It forces him to edit against his will.

A Spartan approach to the editing process is fundamental to Tarr’s work. This is especially evident in his monumental Sátántangó (Satan’s Tango) which contains, during its seven and a quarter hours length, roughly the same number of cuts as a 90-minute feature. Tarr’s aesthetic informs the entire production; but what of the relationship between director and journeyman editor, is the director a compiler of raw footage and the editor the craftsman who weaves data into a story?

Blueprint to concrete

Although not quite as austere as Tarr, the work of Irish director Lenny Abrahamson has achieved its own quality of Bressonian minimalism, due in no small part to his lean cutting. But who calls the shots in his edit suite? Is the relationship conflicted or collaborative? ‘I think the director and the editor face an absolute fact,’ he responds. ‘Whatever ambitions you both had for the project, whatever the director’s vision was, all you have is the rushes. There’s nothing else. I think one of the things a really good editor does is to help the director leave behind his imagined blueprint of the film and to focus on the concrete material in front of him.’

So, is the editor the voice of reason? ‘The director can get hung up on what he was trying to achieve on a given scene, or try to hang onto a shot that took blood, sweat and tears to achieve but which doesn’t really add anything. It takes a good – and strong – editor to shift the director’s attention back to the reality of the rushes, what they contain and what they ultimately bring to the cut.’