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The Art of Editing
8/20/2008

It’s the magic of the method
That gives meaning to the message


Several years ago, while awarding the 2002 Oscar for film editing in front of a worldwide TV audience, an actress read the most amazing definition of our art and craft off the teleprompter.

“Once a Russian tsar praised a sculptor for having presented him with a marvelous statue of the emperor. ‘It was no great achievement,’ the sculptor said. ‘All I did was chip away all the stone that was not your Excellency, and what remained was the statue.’ This,” said the actress (who will remain unnamed), “is the essence of editing.”

Ever since this column started more than 23 years ago, its major goal has been to promote the art of editing. Much of the time this gets overshadowed by keeping us current with the eruption of technology that empowers our craft, but during these hazy, crazy days of summer it may be worthwhile to reflect on the aesthetic principles behind the power of editing with the firm assertion that editing is far more than just cutting out the bad stuff. As much as music composition, classical painting or the eternal spirit of dance, editing is an art form in and of itself.

MAGIC OF THE METHOD

Editing can be defined as the juxtaposition of two disparate ideas to create a third, unique concept. This can be expressed as B + C = A to emphasize the mechanics. But it is useful to begin by asking why editing has any validity as a form of human communication at all. The answer can be found by simply observing the way people see the world. Watch their eyes and you will notice lots of blinks, lots of eyeball swish/pans and lots of jumping from close up to wide angle views. But the brain doesn’t perceive image/blink/image/swish/image. Thanks to a phenomenon called “the suppression of vision”—which is the flip side of the oft-mentioned “persistence of vision”—visual inputs that fall below a threshold of comprehension are discarded and our cognizance reconstructs a coherent impression of the reality around us that is devoid of distractions.

That’s the core enabling phenomenon of picture editing, which many think rose to a pinnacle during the silent era and has been playing catch up ever since. But then came sound and it wasn’t long before editors discovered a basic truth: Ears don’t blink. Unlike our visual acuity, audio perception is continuous. Is it any wonder then that most editors consider the soundtrack to be the dominant asset that drives their communication?

MEANING TO THE MESSAGE

To mold this intentional reconstruction of the pandemonium of reality surrounding us, editors have three great tools: context, contrast and rhythm. The first, context, acknowledges the fact that nothing has meaning in isolation. Cut from a young girl to a scene of battlefield horror and then cut from the same face to a sleeping baby and the impression in the audience’s mind will be radically different even though the shot of the girl is the same. We impose meaning onto the juxtaposition through the context we bring to the experience.

A subheading under context is continuity, which for beginning editors gets relegated to matching action between shots. However, any student of cinema recognizes how irrelevant that has become as movie audiences have grown ever more sophisticated. Our silent flicker forebears could duck away from the dogma of continuity by inserting intertitles. Today, we understand that anything splashed onto the screen is intentional and therefore part of someone’s continuity. It’s up to us to decide which continuity it is part of and whether that communicates to us with a “meaning to the message” we can accept.

For example, do you really understand the interpretation of the Star Child that ends Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Chances are you think you do. Chances are even better, however, that your understanding of this image’s continuity with the rest of the film is different from the message it communicates to the person watching it next to you. Kubrick was undoubtedly aware of this since the Star Child is a far cry from his original ending for this milestone achievement. But if you are a genius, you can dip your oar into a river of discontinuity and come up with a classic.

Contrast is a bit trickier since if there were no change, or contrast, between shots there would be no editing to begin with. Can you cut from a shot of pure black to another shot of pure black? Where’s the edit? Further, with all the tools at the command of today’s digital editors the difference between shots only starts with the camera lens and can be extended through the addition of effects, resizing, colorization and other techno-wizardry to an almost unlimited degree.

UNIVERSAL RHYTHM

Rhythm is the temporal component. Some postulate that humans have a universal sense of basic rhythm derived from the beating of our hearts. There is no doubt that the pace with which those disparate ideas are thrown on the screen crosses all cultural or ethnic boundaries. Just as a Japanese dance can thrill occidental audiences, if most people did not respond on a similar level to the accelerating crescendo of excitement editors add to any climactic action scene, our art form would never have become universal.

You don’t cut to a close up of two lovers smooching the same way you cut to a tight shot of a gun being fired. But notice that no matter in what country that cut has been made, if it worked for one audience the chances are it will work for all audiences. Is that the commonality of our shared heartbeats or a learned reaction from having been exposed to similar media? One way or the other, rhythm is a tool editors everywhere have learned to use to their advantage.

None of this is to assert that the art of editing is the sole purview of the console captain running an NLE, of course. Filmmaking has always been a collaborative effort between many levels of creators.

That’s why that formula B + C = A can be raised to the higher level of B2 + C2 = A2, which recognizes that the life experiences (B2) the audience brings to a screening plus the creative presentation (C2) crafted by the person or team responsible for the editing results in the ultimate overall impression that is the result of the whole exercise (A2).

Editors have one great secret. We recognize that the world around us is chaos. We, uniquely, have the ability to reshape it into a semblance of audio/visual meaning if only in the illusion we present on the screen. How we bring that meaning out of chaos is the essence of the art of editing.   Print Page