Invisible vs. high-profile editing
I started in the cutting room at an exciting time for editing. The high-octane style popularised by music videos shown on MTV and made possible by editing on computer rather than on celluloid, was starting to filter through to feature films. In some cases it led to the sort of manic mess that owed less to an excess of excitement than to an excess of caffeine; in other cases it had opened up the possibility of new forms of expression. I remember seeing Trainspotting, Leaving Las Vegas and the title sequence of Se7en and thinking that this element of filmmaking was about to see its place in the sun. Sure enough, the following years saw Romeo + Juliet; Out of Sight; Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and The Matrix – films where editors really made their presence known. And yet, traditionally, editing was known as the invisible art, the unseen hand that guides us through the story.
So, just how visible should editing be?
Over time I’ve gone back and forth on this question. My initial enthusiasm at the new world of possibilities mellowed. I worked for some years assisting senior feature film editors and grew to appreciate the value of invisible editing. I also grew to appreciate that much of the invisible work of the editor is actually diplomacy – talking directors down from crazy ideas, persuading producers that using a certain piece of music might seem crass, knowing which battles are important to win and which aren’t worth the candle. I also learnt to find joy in spotting throwaway moments in the actor’s performance that could be honed into something beautiful and telling. This is something for which you only get credit from the director. No one else can see how hard you sometimes have to work, scouring the takes to make an actor not only appear in any given moment to be doing their best work, but also building a coherent character arc through the story from a chaotic performance. Anyone who hasn’t been through the process with you will assume that the actor was just on top form.
But the invisibility of this sort of editing brings value in itself. By stepping aside and hiding her or his art, the editor helps the audience to forget that they’re watching a movie, and this can allow the viewer to enter the film, to get lost in it. A jarring cut here or an inappropriate bit of flash trickery there and the spell can be broken. Like a parent working on getting a child to sleep (my other profession right now) it’s important not to do anything that breaks the mood, that pulls your audience away from surrender. I remember director Peter Hewitt saying “that cut’s winking at me”; the phrase stuck in my head: it underlines the importance of removing or smoothing anything that might distract. So the idea of introducing elements not in the original rushes that might distract a viewer feels crazy.
And yet visible – what I’ll term ‘high profile’ editing – can also bring a lot to the table. Whether cutting up and rearranging moments of time kaleidoscope-style, as Anne V. Coates did in Out of Sight, or stretching, compressing, stopping and reversing time, as is often done in the films of Christopher Nolan, Guy Ritchie and the Wachowskis, the editor can often act like the voice of a narrator. We step away from giving an empathetic account of the emotional experience of the character, and instead offer the audience a more objective impression of the broader story.
As with narration, high profile editing can also do a lot to set the tone of the tale. Whether it be The Artist finishing scenes with the iris wipes of silent cinema, the playful split-screens of Gus Van Sant’s Milk, or the edgy cuts of the Se7en title sequence, the style of editing can tell us in what spirit we’re supposed to take the sequence and even the movie itself. Is the filmmaker being tongue-in-cheek? What genre or genres does this movie inhabit? Have we had so much intense emotion that the audience are in danger of forgetting that this is meant to be a slick heist movie? Time for a split-screen montage. There are times when you don’t actually want your audience to get too lost in the story.
It’s worth mentioning that not all of these techniques necessarily come from the editor: they might be indicated by the writer in the script, the cinematographer might suggest a slow-motion shot or sequence, and of course the director will be propose many of these techniques. Most ideas in filmmaking are the result of a collaboration.
But high profile editing is not just about tricksy transitions: it can often be about the sheer volume of cuts. It sometimes feels that the award for Best Editing should be renamed Most Editing. From Jill Bilcock’s Oscar-nominated snowstorm of cuts in Moulin Rouge! to the moment in Taken 3 where Liam Neeson jumping over a fence is divided by no fewer than 15 cuts: for good or ill, making a lot of cuts will certainly get the editing noticed. Sometimes this serves the story well, adding energy and a sense of heightened awareness; often, however, the energy it adds is unsustainable and wears down the audience. For me, the better trick is to keep the pace variable so that the fast sequences feel all the faster by contrast in the slower scenes. If you start with the volume at 11, you’ve got nowhere to go.
I said at the start that I’ve been moving back and forth between these two positions – where am I sitting now? From being drawn into editing by high profile editing and then gradually learning the value of invisible editing to the point of being a purist, I sense myself moving back towards a middle ground. As always with editing, it depends on what sort of film you’re making, and the nature of the material you’ve been given. In the final analysis it’s important to find a style that’s appropriate to the story. If you’re given a piano concerto, you don’t try to play a trumpet solo.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2017
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge