Looking to improve your film editing skills? Below, we’ve listed our favorite film editing tips and advice from the greatest film editors of all time. Covering rhythm, pace, first assembly, when to cut and so much more.
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Thelma Schoonmaker Quotes
Editing is a lot about patience and discipline and just banging away at something, turning off the machine and going home at night because you’re frustrated and depressed, and then coming back in the morning to try again.
Cutting improvisation is really hard, because things don’t match, and you end up with some bad cuts sometimes. But we’d rather have the bad cuts and the great improv.
An actor’s performance can be improved or shaped – or ruined – by what takes you use, how long you are on the actor’s face, what line you put on the other actor’s face, and when do you use close-ups or wide shots or two shots.
I won the Oscar for ‘Raging Bull’ for those fight sequences. If you look at those fight sequences, those were so incredibly storyboarded and shot in an incredible way – that is the conception a good director has to bring.
Even in ‘The Red Shoes,’ a film that nobody ever has complaints about, there are enormous continuity bumps, and it doesn’t matter. You know why? Because you’re being carried along by the power of the film.
One of our big tools is screening. We screen usually 12 times, which is much more than most filmmakers do, and we recut in between each one, because we really need to feel how the audience is reacting to the movie.
Throwing things out is one of the most difficult and important things you ever have to do.
From MTV on, the speed of editing has increased, and that is now entering into narrative editing. People are not relying on good shots to tell the story, and I don’t think you can sustain that kind of cutting for the full length of a film.
Comedy cutting is a real skill. I learned a lot when we were doing The King Of Comedy, from the timing instructions that Jerry Lewis was giving to other actors. The slight beat, maybe two or three seconds, before you answer a question, or the beat you put in the middle of a line, is all where comedy lies. Some of the greatest comedians, like Gracie Allen, who I adored, have the greatest senses of timing.You have to learn how to make comedy work….
I learned from Michael Powell to never talk down to our audiences—to never “dumb down” a movie. He said that audiences are actually way ahead of us and as filmmakers, we must try to be ahead of them—to surprise them and make them feel our movies, not tell them what to think.
Rhythm, pace, and drama are something that an editor has to know how to pull out of a movie. And you have to have a good sense of acting which is why Scorsese has been such a great teacher for me because he’s a brilliant director of actors, he has a very high standard for what he will accept from an actor’s performance and I have learned that from him, it’s very important.
As an editor, put the most focus on the screening process, and then debriefing people afterwards to find out how the film is affecting them. Then re-cutting and screening again and again until you get it right.
Walter Murch Quotes
Film editing is now something almost everyone can do at a simple level and enjoy it, but to take it to a higher level requires the same dedication and persistence that any art form does.
I believe that one of the secret engines that allows cinema to work and have the marvellous power over us that it does, is the fact that for thousands of years we have spent eight hours every night in a ‘cinematic’ dream-state, and so are familiar with this version of reality.
Film is a dramatic construction in which… the characters can be seen to think at even the subtlest level… This power is enhanced by two techniques that lie at the foundation of cinema itself: the close-up, which renders such subtlety visible; and the cut, the sudden switch from one image to another, which mimics the acrobatic nature of thought itself.”
Every film is a puzzle really, from an editorial point of view.
My job as an editor is to gently prod the attention of the audience to look at various parts of the frame. And that – I do that by manipulating how and where I cut and what succession of images I work with.
Film is really the one art form that can effectively use silence. Music and theater can play with silence, but they can’t sustain silence without losing energy, whereas film can go into a silent mode and stay there for minutes at a time.
By manipulating what you hear and how you hear it – and what other things you don’t hear – you can not only help tell the story, you can help the audience get into the mind of the character.
Looking at a first assembly is kind of like looking at an overgrown garden. You can’t just wade in with a weed whacker; you don’t yet know where the stems of the flowers are.
When I’m actually assembling a scene, I assemble it as a silent movie. Even if it’s a dialog scene, I lip read what people are saying.
That’s the main point of my Rule of Six in the book “In the Blink of an Eye”. Emotion, Story and Rhythm are the top three – with Emotion at the very top – and issues of continuity are at the bottom – with three-dimensional continuity at the very bottom.
In some abstract world, every cut would tick each of those six boxes. But we don’t live in that abstract world, nor would we want to. And since we live in the real world, to make every cut work you’re going to usually have to let go of something. And my recommendation is to let go from the bottom of the list up.
Let go of three-dimensional continuity first and then work your way up. After that, if the only way to make a cut “work” is to abandon two-dimensional continuity – the 180? rule – then, by all means, do that.
But when you get to the top three – rhythm, story, and emotion – by all means try to hold on to them.
If you have to sacrifice one of those top three then sacrifice rhythm first. But only if doing so preserves a powerful emotional impact and story sense.
If you have to let go of story for a moment and just go with pure emotion, do that.
But it’s risky – you can’t stay in that zone too long – you have to get grounded in story as soon as possible. It’s kind of like those training flights which allow astronauts to float within the belly of the plane, so they’re weightless for forty-five seconds or so, but they can’t stay there long. Gravity has to exert its force again.
Story has – or should have – a kind of compelling gravitational force to it.
Walter Murch somewhat scientific approach to judging the qualities of a cut is described in his book.
- it is true to the emotion of the moment
- it advances the story
- it occurs at a moment that is rhythmically interesting and “right”
- it acknowledges what you might call “eye-trace”—the concern with the location and movement of the audience’s focus of interest within the frame
- it respects “planarity”—the grammar of three dimensions transposed by photography to two (the questions of stage-line, etc.)
- and it respects the three-dimensional continuity of the actual space (where people are in the room and in relation to one another).”
Walter likes to weighs the importance of the criteria with the following percentage values:
- Emotion (51%)
- Story (23%)
- Rhythm (10%)
- Eye-trace (7%)
- Two-dimensional plane of screen (5%)
- Three-dimensional space of action (4%)
The values I put after each item are slightly tongue-in-cheek, but not completely: Notice that the top two on the list (emotion and story) are worth far more than the bottom four (rhythm, eye-trace, planarity, spatial continuity) and when you come right down to it, under most circumstances, the top of the list—emotion—is worth more than all five of the things underneath.
Michael Kahn Quotes
Don’t edit from knowledge, edit from feeling.
It’s not about knowledge; it’s all about feeling or intuition. Good editors or musicians or directors—what makes them special is that they feel things… Your feeling is what you’re getting paid for. It’s your ability to cinematically touch things.
If you never make changes to a cut you will never get to the best cut.
Approach every gig like it’s the first time you have ever edited anything. Don’t bring baggage from previous shows.
We put film together, tell the story, give it clarity. That’s what we do.
Thought process is what you bring to film. If you see a film that doesn’t work, ask yourself what you would have done differently.
[Kahn uses the theory of 3’s for reaction shots] “Scenes play best with 3 reaction shots, no more, no less.”
To learn about editing, see as many movies as you can, good and bad.
Always duplicate/overlap 2-3 frames on match cuts [cutting on action] because of eye sensory lag.
Keep fresh by walking away from your edit. You’ll come back the next day and see a different scene.
Dede Allen Editing Quotes
Good actors give much more life to characters, rather than actors who are really just good “indicators,” who indicate emotion, who indicate anger or fear or joy. That’s the difference between good actors and limited actors. Good actors create whole characters.
How characters behave, I believe, is interpreted differently by everyone who is there to interpret them. I think the editor makes a difference on every picture. And I’ve never worked on a picture that was shot in the camera. I get the hard ones. [Laughs.] But the question is, always: Are you going to do the characters justice? Are you going to do the story justice? Are you going to make it the best it can be in terms of what it’s trying to say? That’s the challenge of every film.
Editors are detail people. You shouldn’t be an editor if you don’t like details, countless details, and you have to be very flexible. You have to use your knowledge very flexibly.
I memorize everything. I work until I memorize every frame of it. Then I feel totally free. I never feel terrified of the scene again because it will always be there in my head. I’m getting older but my memory still works very well. I work on the memorization right from the start. For instance, I don’t ever mind seeing dailies several times. I don’t care how often I see them. I’ll run them as often as anyone wants to, within a sensible time frame of course, and I never get bored looking at them. I’m always seeing or finding something else in them.
An editor has to remember every frame. It’s like a chess game. You have to be able to think ahead and think back. You have to know where the scene is going to go and how that character is going to evolve. About the most dangerous thing I can do is work in a hurry and cut the scene glibly, before I really know the material.
I never sit and rough it out. I know that a lot of people do that with a scene. I think the timing and the tempo of my cuts are different than the way someone else might do it just for that reason. I don’t do an Eisenstein kind of board, with all the cuts laid out, which is what I call “talking a good cut,” you know, intellectualizing. I feel my way through the characters. You just viscerally, emotionally feel the way the characters feel. You basically become so involved in a scene that you become moved or stimulated or amused. Actors say they have to become the part. Well, the editor has to become part of the part. You live in the world that the story is.
That’s one reason I ask directors a lot of questions. I want to know what they have in mind. Sometimes I get a little rambunctious in trying to find out. Sometimes I get pretty forward in getting them to think about something they may not have thought through and it’s not always something that they want to do. That can make things a little uncomfortable, though most directors I’ve worked with don’t feel threatened. They’re usually very confident about themselves and in what they’re doing and welcome suggestions. But I spend a lot of time with directors trying to get a total feeling about how they feel about the characters and the story.
My first cuts usually play very smoothly but sometimes rather dully because they’re too long. One thing I’ve learned is not to leave anything out at that point. Even if a scene doesn’t work, a director always wants to see what it was. You may be a step or many steps ahead of the director before he sees the first cut, but that’s because you’ve been living with it in the editing room for much longer. But it doesn’t make any difference. You have to go through that period where there’s too much footage. A first cut can be a nightmare of overabundance, with all of it playing and very tight within itself. It won’t be loose, without attention to story and performance and character. It’ll have all that and run smoothly. It’ll be a very carefully constructed first cut. But it’ll just be too long and cumbersome and sort of unwieldy.
Then I’m not afraid to cut into it, to make it move faster. Coeditors sometimes get very upset with the way I work. I’m not afraid of rough edges, for example. If I’m in charge of a picture and I step in and change a scene because it’s to the point where it has to begin to move and I’m cutting “deeper,” they might say, “Oh, you’re going to ruin the cut.” But I’ll say, “No, it energizes it.” But you have to know what you’re looking for in a scene. You don’t just chop. I’m a great believer that you have to know the rules to break the rules.
The thing that’s overwhelming usually, particularly these days, is everything having to go faster, faster; you have to get it out faster. The studios these days are run by people who don’t know the process like they used to. They think you just put on more bodies and it all comes out. When I was working in what I call “the good old days,” you made a film in a kind of orderly process without what I call a “gang bang,” which is what happens when they put ten editors on a film and which is evidently happening more and more. It’s more of a factory process, but the reality of the industry is that pictures are so expensive and interest rates are so high that there’s a real urgency to get it out faster.
I feel very fortunate to have worked at a time and in a way and with the kind of people I did that very few have the opportunity to experience today. I’m sure Marty Scorsese still works that way with Thelma [Schoonmacher] but it’s much harder when you get on these huge-budget pictures where so much rides on it.
As I was saying, there are also all these previews where the audience decides what to cut. They take the picture, which isn’t even finished, with temp music and temp optical shots and other temp stuff, to a mall audience and let them decide what should be cut. I find it a very difficult thing to deal with.
Sound is as important to me as picture. I think the whole question of rhythm in a scene is often related to sound. It’s probably an advantage that editors with experience in sound effects have. You hear and see. I often cut silent when I’m in a rush. That was more by happenstance the first couple of times. I was in a terrible rush to get a scene done and the only way I could do it was to just drop the sound and not work with the synchronizer and just do it silent and then put the track on it later. I found that my timing was such that I could do that and almost not have to change a frame of it and I think that was due to my background in sound. In other words, after I had memorized the dailies I could still hear the sounds in my head. It never goes away.
I also like to add sound to the images. It’s exciting and it invigorates the scene. Without it, one of your dimensions is missing. It looks like it’s just sitting there. You have no sense for what it is. It’s very hard for anyone, even a good director, to envision the sound if it’s not there. You have to have something and what it is enriches the scene incredibly. Though silence is also sound. In other words, you use silence in the same way, as an effect or for punctuation. Silence will do something emotionally that’s very interesting to a scene.
In Little Big Man, at the death of Sunshine, Jack Crabb’s wife during the massacre of the Washita in the snow, it suddenly goes silent there and that’s the way I always had it. The scene got so intense that I just cut it without sound. I showed it to Arthur and we never tried it another way. When Sunshine dies it goes totally silent, totally dead.
I tend to cut slightly off the rhythm of the music. I don’t know why. I don’t do it consciously. It seems to be the way it works. But it’s amazing the way images and sound kind of find each other.
A lot of the movies being made then would never have passed the marketing screenings they have now. You get an audience from a mall, these kids, fifteen to twenty or eighteen to twenty-five, and they’re given a questionnaire. It’s very interesting how they load the questions. And then the film is adjusted according to what the responses are to the questionnaires. They tell you at Paramount: “We don’t have final cut. The audience has final cut.” It’s all part of marketing, making movies with census takers. That’s the way movies are now. If you had to put Dog Day Afternoon or Bonnie and Clyde or any of the other films, I consider the most interesting I’ve worked on, they never would have made it in one of these screenings with a test audience. The kids from the mall wouldn’t know what they were about. They never would have opened well. It’s very frightening.
I used to tell people who started out, “Go to the theater. Work in the theater. Start learning what makes a scene play. Start learning about performance.” I think that’s of key importance. Often when I was working with people who were just starting out, I would find that they had wonderful instincts, but they had no knowledge of what makes a scene work. I’d suggest to them, “Go to the theater. Find out what scenes are about.” I think theater training for an editor is very important.
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