A Filmmaker’s Take On the Best Book on Film Editing
Once I had a useless job interview. The company’s bread-and-butter was graphics and animation, and I explained that while I did some of that stuff, I was really a video editor. Puzzled, they asked what that meant, and I ended up explaining the job—I take raw footage and cut it into pieces and put it all together so it flows the way it should. Suddenly I felt, in explaining my trade, like I didn’t really do much at all.
When you watch me work, it just looks like I drag clips around on a screen and watch the same stuff over and over again.
When you watch an author write, it just looks like he stares at the wall for a bit and then types a few things.
My point: what I do with my hands is far simpler than what I do with my mind.
As a young man looking to get into editing, I was told that the most important book ever written on the topic was Walter Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye.
I have since edited an award-winning feature film, a reality TV series, a smattering of music videos, maybe twenty shorts and more miscellaneous crap than I care to recall, and I can tell you that the most important book ever written on the topic is Walter Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye.
Other fine books exist, of course, but Murch’s gets to the heart of the art form and examines the simple truths: what film editing is (or video editing, these days…), why we can watch one image replace another on a screen without it seeming strange, what makes a cut between two pictures work. Murch knows whereof he speaks, with an Oscar on his shelf for editing The English Patient, not to mention a history of collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Sam Mendes, Joe Johnston, Kathryn Bigelow and Philip Kaufman
Editing is a strange beast, unique to the art of motion pictures. It’s not just about cutting things out. It’s an art of juxtaposition, of rhythm and of contrast. Murch explains: “Do we know, for instance, that the gun is loaded before Madame X gets into her car, or is that something we only learn after she is in the car? Either choice creates a different sense of the scene. And so you proceed, piling one difference on top of another.” It’s taking two existing things and making a third thing, cut after cut after cut.
Above all, for me—and for Murch—it’s an art of intuition. It’s an art of listening to the footage and letting it speak to you, letting it teach you how to assemble it. Murch describes the trance an editor gets into, looking for something without quite knowing what it is (a moment, a transition), weaving little fragments that were photographed piecemeal into one continuous whole. “[T]he cut,” he asserts early on, “should look almost self-evidently simple and effortless, if it is even noticed at all.” Ideally, he muses, a magic emulsification takes over: “[A]s the scene is reworked and refined, it reaches a point, hopefully, where the shots themselves seem to create each other.”
Editing is often referred to as ‘the invisible art’, and often it’s written off or misunderstood as a process of pure technicalities or simply a clearinghouse where scenes that don’t work are discarded. Yet its power is awesome in the old-fashioned sense of the word, and has never been more important than today, in our video-saturated culture. We would do well to understand and appreciate this craft of contexts, where the whole is always more than the sum of its parts.
I guess it’s not easy to explain what I do. I am thinking back to that job interview. I should have told them to read In the Blink of an Eye.