Sunday, October 27, 2013

A greater understanding of editing

A recent article I read on The Onion's AV Club (thanks Scott) underscored something that had occurred to me independently about a week before I read the article:

Editing is one of the key elements of filmmaking, and I don't really know how to tell good from bad.

Okay, I can tell bad when I see it. Everyone can. Bad editing can make a movie seem more shoddy than any other bad element of that movie, even the acting, if it is done poorly enough.

So the thing I really don't know how to tell is good from great. And that's what I'd like to improve.

Toward that end, I'm going to go back and watch a number of winners of the best editing Academy Award with a specific eye toward appreciating what makes their editing so great. I don't know how I'm going to write about this project on the blog, though I would like to check in periodically to discuss my findings. I don't think I can commit to anything so regular as a monthly series -- though it's certainly possible that I will watch more than one of these Oscar winners per month.

The interesting though perhaps unsurprising thing is, many of the winners of the best editing Oscar were also the best picture winners that year. Such as Argo, which is why I'm using it as the art for this post. This tells me that even the members of the Academy don't have a perfect grasp on what distinguishes a good editing job from a great one. Of course, the five nominees themselves are determined by other editors. But from there, one would guess that most Academy members throw their votes toward the movie they're voting for the most in other categories -- which in most cases is the movie that takes the top prize.

So I think it will be interesting to focus on movies that didn't win best picture, but did win the editing Oscar. That's a good way of limiting my choices. In fact, I noticed in perusing the winners that two straight David Fincher movies won best editing -- The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo -- without either winning best picture. It was the same editing team for both, as you might expect -- Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall. The fact that you've never heard of these guys tells you how little editing is appreciated outside of the small circles of people who really know about it.

Since The Social Network was the movie I thought of randomly when considering films with great editing, even without consciously remembering it had won the award, that means I do have some instinctive sense of what makes editing great. I'd like to polish that sense into something more confident, though.

I don't know which movie I'll watch first, as some of this relies on opportunity. However, I intend to get started soon.

Consider yourself notified. 


Travis McClain said...

For your homework, you need to see The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing. It was included as a bonus feature on the 2-disc DVD and Blu-ray Disc editions of Bullitt.

I gained a greater appreciation for film editing writing research papers in college, of all things. You know how it is. You start off with a whole stack of peer-reviewed journal articles written by people recognized as experts, and then you synthesize all of their works to support your own. Film editors have every frame of footage shot for the movie and they sift through each take and each angle to find the visuals that best service the narrative.

For this reason, I would also suggest that you get hold of a good documentary DVD. Not just for the doc itself, but to see footage that was shot but not used. I would highly recommend Criterion's releases of Gimme Shelter and Harlan County U.S.A. as examples of where to get a sense of the role of editing.

Without knowing, though, what footage was available to an editor, it's impossible to really judge the choices that one makes. There's a certain bit of imagination that comes into play. You have to sort of guess how differently the film might be if this scene jumps to that scene more quickly, etc.

It's also worth noting that while a written scene is considered everything that happens in real time in one place or following at least one character, a scene for the purpose of editors is every single bit of cut footage that's used.

That is, if we watch one character tell a "knock, knock" joke to another, the telling of the joke is a written scene. But every time we see a change in camera angle, we're seeing a different "scene".

Sit down with a movie you've seen quite a bit some time and just try to be cognizant of those cuts. How many times in a single conversation do we shift from one character to another, or get a different angle? That's the work of an editor.

One last thing: I read a book on the making of Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith. In it, it was made clear that George Lucas shot the movie as he would have shot a documentary: Knowing which scenes he wanted, but piecing them together in the editing room. It sounds ridiculous, I know, to "piece together" a movie from footage that started from a written screenplay, but that was his approach.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks Travis -- I didn't mean to indicate that I don't know what editing is. Your explanation suggests that I might not understand the concept, but I do. Just have to defend my film intelligence there!

Thanks for the thorough response. These are some good things to look for.

Vancetastic said...

Also, that's funny that you're mentioning Harlan County U.S.A. to me, because the last time it came up between us was when I was recommend it to you as a Kentucky movie you hadn't seen. Glad you enjoyed it!