P:O.V. No.6 - The Art of Film Editing

Notes of an editing teacher

Sidsel Mundal

When a film arrives at post production, it has reached the magic moment. All the separate elements are joined together for the very first time, and the movie is about to be born. The editor is the conductor of the process, a kind of midwife one could say, a center of calmness and concentration on whom the director depends. It is a rewarding job, and a wonderful feeling to have the unedited film in one's hands and work it through.

The First Eye

The editor is the first person outside the crew who sees the daily rushes without the disturbing knowledge of how they came about and who may ignore a scene even if it cost blood. Also the editor is in the position of giving a qualified response to the director on behalf of the audience. Very often at this stage of the work the director is exhausted and may be "blind" to the material. The editor is the person who sees the possibilities unseen by others, and finds solutions to the "takes" that do not really work, and who must try to fulfill the visionary ambitions of the director whether the film is going to be brilliant or a mediocre movie.

Two Kinds of Students

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I make the distinction between future editors and others who need to understand what editing is about, because I think these two groups need different kinds of training. It's extremely useful for directors, sound engineers, production managers, and most other people involved in the production, to know what goes on in the editing process. The insight into editing puts the others' functions on a film crew into perspective. Future scholars and critics also come into this category of students.

It's important that the student who is learning editing be given enough time to gain practical experience and maturity. While students who need to understand what it's all about may attend a concentrated, theoretical study.

A Jack-of-All-Trades

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Both as a personal characteristic of a future editor and to signify a well-rounded training, versatility is the key word. In the same way as film is comprehensive in its nature, the editor needs to be familiar with and sensitive to a variety of professions. As a director I've had the opportunity to collaborate with several editors, and my definite experience is that the imaginative editor with poor technical skills is only half good, as is the technically brilliant editor who pays little or no attention to the inner meaning of the film itself. So valuable personal qualities in an editor include: a good sense of composition both musically and visually, analytic ability, basic technical competence, tidiness, and last but not least: an ability to listen and to communicate.

I've found that the ethical aspect of editing is important to discuss with students. Ethics involves communication and how to deal with one's influence. Many destructive conflicts can be turned round and treated in a meaningful and constructive way if one listens calmly and respects the importance of dialogue. To include this in teaching is not common, but nonetheless important as an ongoing process.

Head, Hands and Feet

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The process of learning to edit is very similar to that of learning to play the piano. Whereas a completely practical study is possible, a purely theoretical study is out of the question. I myself learned editing as an apprentice without the opportunity to study and analyze film theory. Yet the best thing - what I would like to have had - is a combination of hands-on exercises and theoretical studies.

In his excellent book In the Blink of an Eye, Walter Murch (editor of The English Patient among other films) writes of how he prefers standing up at the editing table or the computer. His personal preference is one I share because editing is very much a bodily effort. To find the right place to put the cut may sometimes depend more on a person's instinctive rhythm than on her intellect. In any case the editing students must be given a chance to frequently practice their skills (sitting down or standing up) just as a student of music does.

Construction Workers

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In the overall plan for teaching editing, I would emphasize the student's abilities to analyze and construct stories. The French word for editing, "montage", -mounting something, is the word that most accurately describes the process of constructing a storyline.

Editing takes place on two levels simultaneously: joining shots into meaningful sequences, such as continuity cuts, interviews, etc., and building the overall narrative structure. I believe that one can work very well from intuition on both levels, but a theoretical study of dramaturgy is essential. These studies may very well be combined with lectures on the genres which the editing students could attend together with other students.

In film schools students are assigned to produce many short films and documentaries. Of all the genres, the editor has the most influence over documentaries. Thus I see working on documentaries as a particularly valuable part of the training. The same documentary material may be assembled in several ways, and there is a lot to gain from scheduling ample time for editing, so that all students may learn about directing and dramaturgy in the editing room.

Which Pair of Scissors?

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It's quite hard to recommend specific technical equipment. Every training institution must consider its financial and practical situation, and look for viable solutions. In many cases schools end up with old-fashioned equipment. It could be flatbed editing tables or videotape machines. Some computer-based tools are already becoming outdated, too. A current discussion of the technical aspect is going on in CILECT (Centre International de Liaison des Ecoles de Cinéma et de Télévision. <www.cilect.org> ) and an outstanding report on new tools was delivered at the 1997 Congress in Ebeltoft, Denmark.

1-2-3-4 or 7-8-1-2-9

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My main concern would be to give the students an opportunity to work on a non-linear system if at all possible. An editing table or a computer-based system allows a freer treatment of material than a linear videotape system. But if only linear tools are available, one may also go ahead with the training. My experience is however that the linear tools represent an unfortunate hindrance in the process. If one must work on-line, very many decisions must be made in theory, and not by trying out cuts, and reshaping the sequences as one edits. It's essential to have the possibility to shorten or prolong a scene several times, and to switch one sequence with another without any major technical difficulties. Rhythmic details can seldom be solved satisfactorily in a manuscript. When the videotape machines were introduced in the eighties, the emphasis was moved from good editing to efficient editing. In a television news department, it was naturally a great advantage to work fast with simple material. But when the videotape machinery replaced the old editing tables in other departments, as well, we had a period of limitations which now is coming to an end with the non-linear computer based systems.

The first steps in editing courses must naturally focus on the equipment so that the students can master simple techniques and have a tool to work with. Along with classes of technical basics, both analog and digital, the students should also be able to recognize the principles of film technologies. The aim should be to learn how to approach any new equipment rather than become a specialist on one type of machine.

Incidentally, it is very important that editors learn sufficient sound techniques too, since processing sound is more integrated in the editor's work now than it was in the pre-video age.

Practice, Practice

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When the primary technical level is reached, the focus ought to turn away from the equipment and concentrate on a number of exercises. All exercises can be looked on as primarily a training of the cerebral abilities and secondarily an intellectual comprehension of the assignments. The exercises can be mixed in such a way that the students edit small pieces where several elements are included in one piece. The elements include:

  • movement and continuity between shots

  • direction (geography)

  • eyelines

  • speech and breath

  • interviews

  • dialogues

  • rhythms and beats

  • treatment of time

The difficulty for the teacher can often be to find proper material for exercises. My experience is that the material which functions well, is originally shot to be training films, or rushes where a selection has been made to fit the assignments. Unfortunately it seems that some institutions have not given the preparation of practice-material a high priority. It certainly costs money, but without the material the teacher must spend time finding suitable rushes, which is extremely time consuming and often gives a poor result. In the end the quality of the training suffers from this lack of investment. This may seem to be a minor issue, but I'm afraid many editing teachers sweat over the lack of training films.

No Rules

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I've often met students asking for the ultimate truth when they try to master editing. "How should I cut this or that?" "What's the best way to cut a fist-fight?" In responding to these questions, I have tried to make the students aware that there are no rules, only conventions which are constantly changing. I have taught rules of thumb, and the ability to study and analyze films, rather than giving instructions. I have encouraged the students to try their own solutions and to trust their own taste instead of looking for right or wrong. To be a clever copycat can be a valuable ability for a new student. Later on she may go on and try a more personal approach.


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To achieve a good understanding of the conventions of editing I have screened and analyzed early films to show the way they are edited and directed. I then choose films from different genres and periods, fictions, short films, documentaries, news, music-videos, etc., so that the student can gradually gain a theoretical understanding of the various conventions. It's a great advantage if the series of lectures can run parallel to the practical training, so that the two elements throw light on one another. I have also found it an advantage to have a mixed group of students in the theoretical classes, because students with a specific interest in other fields open new perspectives and attitudes.

In Depth

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When the students have reached a fairly high level of editing, the narrative dynamics in each film inevitably become the main issue. Versatility here finds its pay-off. The student with an intuitive and theoretical understanding of dramaturgy, rhetoric, psychology, music, etc., will find it much easier to construct storylines than someone who is a mere technical whiz-kid.


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A particular focus should be given to the relation between pictures and words. Excellent training material on this subject was produced by the BBC and by SVT (Swedish Television) in the seventies. It mostly applies to documentaries and television. Yet I've had interesting results from a workshop dealing with more poetic forms of narration. It's useful to help the students realize how we interpret words as well as moving images, and how we interpret the combination of the two. Students should also be made aware of how written language differs from spoken language, how the distance to the microphone can change the character of words, how for instance pauses, syntax and pronouns work in combination with moving images.

I should also bring in the importance of journalism. Many of the students will work in television, or edit documentaries. Consequently it is useful to bring the journalistic perspective into the classes in which analyses are done.

Another major topic in editing is music. I find that very few people in the industry have a sufficient theoretical and practical understanding of which functions music has in films. All editors ought to know as much as they can about this. Listening to all sorts of music, and understanding it, is indispensable.

Playful Earnestness

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Last but not least: having fun, allowing nonsense, and playing with the material rhythmically stimulates a creative atmosphere among students. The function of the teacher is to coach as well as to instruct. To respect the students' individuality and personal attitudes also enhances a good learning process.