The Cutter Begins (Film Editing)

At a purely technical level, each editor develops his own approach to his work, although that approach will most likely be a variation of one of those few which time and trial have proven to be the most efficient. Here, I will concentrate on the method which works best for me and which, naturally, is the one I can support wholeheartedly. However, the beginning cutter can modify this procedure to suit his own needs and, what is more important, his special talents.

Quite possibly, the cutter’s first chores will be in the area of preproduction. This usually means a search for needed "stock" material. For instance, before starting production on The Caine Mutiny, I visited the Naval Archives in Washington, D.C., and reviewed many thousands of feet of film which had been shot by a host of photographers during naval preparation and action in the Pacific during World War II.

I had hoped to find usable footage of the great typhoon which scattered our huge invasion fleet in the latter days of World War n, but I had been naive. Cameramen can hardly be expected to stand on a heaving ship deck during the height of such a storm, and the speed of color film in the early 1940s was wholly inadequate for filming under the prevailing light conditions. Eventually, of course, the whole of the typhoon sequence had to be shot in production. However, a number of shots of battleships firing practice salvos and bombarding island installations in preparation for marine landings were selected for use in the film.

"Stock shots" are used in many films, especially those involving sports, such as football games, automobile or horse racing, and so forth. On occasion, selection of such material may be delayed until postproduction editing, but it is better done before the start of shooting so that film shot in production can more accurately match the stock selected.

The cutter’s work on the film itself starts on the day the first "rushes" are viewed. The takes of the previous day’s shooting are customarily assembled in the lab or by the assistant cutter, most often in the order in which they were shot. : At the company running, the editor (and usually his assistant) sits at the director’s side—for two reasons: First, the cutter lists the director’s take selections, where more than one take of a scene has been printed. Second, he makes notes of the particular takes, or portions of takes, which the director selects for use in the first cut. Some directors offer little advice at this stage, trusting the editor to make the best use of the filmed material; others give precise, detailed instructions for the use of the specific takes, angles, or portions thereof.

One day’s shooting on even a moderately liberal schedule will hardly supply enough material for actual cutting. It may take the director two, three, or more days to complete a scripted scene or sequence. As the film is released to the cutter, his assistant will usually reassemble the takes "in sequence," i.e., in script order, with the close shots and close-ups placed immediately after the master shots covering the same material. An exact assembly is rarely possible, since portions of a single take may be used as cuts at different places in the finished sequence. But the more closely the reassembly can approach the eventual rough-cut alignment, the easier it will be for the editor to organize his cutting routine.

Now, an item of great importance: When the assembly is ready, it should be viewed on the big screen. One viewing may be sufficient, but more often, especially if the demands of the sequence, technically or dramatically, are appraised as severe, the material should be reviewed time and again until the cutter is quite sure which portions of which takes he wants to use and where he anticipates making his cuts.

Many editors shape their editing concepts on the Moviola, a technique I consider decidedly inferior. One does not see the same things on a small Moviola screen, or even on the somewhat larger, though fuzzier, flatbed screen, that one sees in a theater. The audience sees its films only on the "big screen," and since every cut should be made with the audience in mind, the cutter must try to see each bit of film as the viewer in the theater will eventually see it. (Even a moderate-sized television screen offers far more scope than a Moviola; therefore, it too presents a somewhat different "picture" for the viewer’s inspection.)

The usual theatrical films, excluding art films, film veiite, and so forth, are meant to appeal to the largest possible audience, and sound theories of filmmaking, including cutting, are based on this fact. Staging, setups, and cutting should always be conceived to show the viewer what he should see at every point in the film. Sometimes it is what the viewer, whether or not he is aware of it, wants to see; sometimes it is what the viewer, whether or not he likes it at the moment, should see; and sometimes (quite often, really) it is what the director and/or cutter manipulate him into thinking he wants to see. But a cut, or even a short portion of a cut, which the viewer cares nothing about is a waste of time. All this may seem obvious, yet the verges of the road to success are strewn with the bodies of filmmakers who ignored this principle and brought in films which, wholly or in part, audiences found flat and unentertaining.

This is why the cutter should make his choices on the big screen. "Holding" a cut because of the beauty of a composition or the clever "bit" of a secondary character is of no value if the cut under consideration had delivered its full message. Lingering on a scene for some subjectively esoteric reason is one of the pitfalls of editing. The viewer, engrossed in the film, may not be seeing the cutter’s "vision" at all. In cutting as in directing, objectivity is of the utmost importance-self-indulgence leads only to disaster.

When the cutter feels he has his cutting concept well in mind, the next step is to the cutter’s bench. Here, too, routines differ. In preparation for the actual cutting, some editors like to have the assembled rushes broken down into individual takes. These are arranged on the bench in sequence order and then selected by the cutter as he proceeds to stitch the scenes together.

Others prefer to cut directly off the assembled reels, pulling , the takes down into a film bin as they select their cuts. Although some takes may have to be pulled out and set aside for later use, I find this method produces the least disorder. But, whichever technique is used, pieces of film will always be scattered helter-skelter—in the bin, on film hooks, and around the cutter’s neck. Here is where a good assistant is invaluable. Keeping "trims" (i.e., unused portions of takes) instantly locatable is a requisite for smooth operation and efficient use of time, because the ‘ ‘trim" of the first rough assembly may be the inspired cut in a later version.

Two distinct machines, or pieces of equipment, are used in the cutting procedure. The first, the Moviola, dates from the early days of film; it is preferred by most Hollywood editors. The second, called the flatbed, used by European editors, is of comparatively recent origin.

Having worked with both, my preference is decidedly for the Moviola. Frequent removal and replacement of film and sound tape are essential to the style of cutting discussed in this topic; it is more easily and quickly accomplished on the Hollywood machine. Except for the beginnings and ends of most sequences, a cut should rarely be made "straight across;" that is, the picture and tape should not be cut at their matching points. No matter how small, the overlapping of cuts requires careful manipulation if synchronization is to be maintained. Cutters who use the flatbed are more inclined to cut straight across, which leads to a "stop and start" technique and sloppiness. In addition, a film should be cut primarily for the picture, since that is what is seen on the screen, and this kind of film handling is more accurately accomplished on the Moviola.

However, in the final stages of editing, especially when a and b tracks are used for sound overlaps, as well as for sound and music editing, the flatbed is unbeatable. Every cutting facility should have one or more at hand.

Now, an important step: When the sequence is finally assembled, it should be laid aside. Cutters who are not quite sure of themselves choose to review their efforts immediately. They risk a very frustrating experience. Since all the cuts made are fresh in mind, the cutter is sure to anticipate each one rather than go with the flow of the sequence. Consequently, each cut is almost sure to "jump," and the cutter will be inclined to assume the jumps are caused by inadequate matching rather than by his anticipation. He will then attempt immediate corrections. The result can be pretty messy.

If the newly cut sequence is put aside for a number of days-even weeks—while another sequence or two is cut in the interim, the original cuts will have been forgotten and will pass on the screen without anticipation. All properly made cuts should now be unnoticeable. Only if the cuts jump at this stage will there be need for technical correction. As for the more demanding editorial correction, this is a whole different story which will be addressed in its proper turn. For immediate consideration, we will take up the problems of cutting technique.

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