Titles and Definitions (Film Editing)

There are as many levels in the practice of this craft as there are practicing craftsmen. They range from the "mechanical" to the truly creative, and when modified by the skill and ingenuity which any particular cutter may possess, as well as the input of directors and producers, they present us with the possibility of a nearly infinite number of styles and techniques and an almost equal number of results.

The use of the word cutter in the previous sentence was intentional. In the 1920s and early 1930s, a cutter who called himself a film editor would have been considered a snob. Then came the Wagner Labor Relations Act and unionization. In an attempt to raise the status of the craft, which was considered by the less knowledgeable executives of Hollywood to be five or six rungs from the top of the filmmaker’s ladder, it was decided that film editor had a more imposing sound than film cutter, and henceforth that became the official terminology.*

However, most film editors, at least in each other’s company, still use the down-to-earth term cuttei to define themselves and their profession.

It is probably safe to say that no two cutters will cut a film, or even a moderately lengthy sequence, in exactly the same way. So let us consider some of the varieties of workers in the field. First, let us look at one of that number who populate the fat part of the bell-shaped curve, the mechanic. Working as an apprentice, he (or she) * learns a few simple rules, follows the script and/or the director’s instructions, and delivers a film to which the cutting has added not one whit of anything ingenious or original. On the contrary, his lackluster efforts may diminish the film’s potential impact considerably. It is the mechanic’s good fortune that so few directors, producers, and studio executives have the expertise with which to judge his contribution, although I have rarely encountered a member of any of these categories who did not consider himself to be one of the world’s great film editors.

At the top of the scale is the creative editor, the person with an understanding of dramatic structure, a keen sense of timing, a compulsion to seek out the scene’s hidden values—values which even the writer and the director may not have clearly grasped (believe me, it does happen!)—and a mastery of the technical skills needed to bring all these talents to bear on the film he edits. Unfortunately, there are very few creative cutters in the field, at least among those who edit other people’s work. The reasons are clear, and a little sad.

On the average film, a cutter’s status is usually beneath that of the director, the writer, the top actors, the producer, the photographer, the composer, and sometimes the set designer. And his salary is proportionate to his status. This state of affairs often induces a potentially brilliant cutter to seek a career offering greater rewards, even though his talents may not lie along other lines. Add to this the extremely long apprenticeship which assistant cutters are forced to serve, no matter how great their talents, and it is clear why so many quick, bright, and ambitious young men and women often opt for alternative careers. I have known several promising young men who have abandoned the cutting rooms because they were unwilling to spend 7 or 8 years at menial labor before getting permission to put scissors to film.

At the top of the scale lies another trap. Really fine, creative cutters quickly earn a "miracle man" reputation. Promotion, difficult to resist because of the increases in salary and status, inevitably follows, usually to the rank of director or, less frequently, producer. But these crafts demand their own special talents, and success is by no means assured. Indeed, the result is often tragic. A backward step is difficult to take, for obvious reasons, and many cutters, in classic adherence to the "Peter principle," persist in hanging on as second- or third-rate directors or producers rather than return to a highly respected cutter’s bench. Only a handful of exceptional men and women have been content to spend their working lives exercising their rare talents in the relative obscurity of the cutter’s cubicle.

To appreciate the role of editing in the filmmaking process, one must have some understanding of how a film is made. Working backward from the completed work, we find that the film is divided into a number of sequences, each sequence corresponding, let us say, to a topic in a topic or a scene in a play. Broadly speaking, a sequence has its own beginning, middle, and end, although these are not as clearly marked as they are in the film as a whole.

Each sequence, in turn, is divided into scenes, the number of such scenes varying from one to many. Example, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the chase through the marketplace in the Arab town is one sequence, from the start of the chase to its conclusion with the hero’s final escape. The scenes are those parts of the sequence which take place in any one location, whether they are as simple as one setup shot taking the actors through a narrow alley or as complex as the hero’s confrontation with the assassin in black, a scene of considerable length that required a large number of setups.

The scenes consist of a number of cuts, or separate, individual pieces of film. Just as the sequence may consist of one or more scenes, so a scene may consist of one cut from a single setup or, more often, several cuts derived from two or more setups. There is no one-to-one correspondence between setups and cuts, since each setup may furnish a number of cuts, as usually occurs in the intercutting of matching close-ups in dialogue scenes.

The truth, then, is that in spite of the time, talent, and effort spent in writing, preparing, and shooting a film, it has no shape or substance until the hundreds, even thousands, of bits and pieces which go to make it are assembled. And it is here that the editor puts his stamp on the film. Every artist, if he is an artist, puts his own imprint on anything he does. Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Washington is not the same as Charles Peale’s. Cortes, Picasso, and Kandinsky would each have painted the same Paris street in his own individual, widely different style. Three directors would make quite different films from the same script. All this is quite commonly accepted. But what is not so commonly known is that, given a free hand, three different cutters will create three different versions out of the same material, and the results of their labors will depend not only on the quality of the filmed scenes, but to a considerable degree, on the talents and skills of the editors themselves.

Needless to say, these skills come in different sizes, as do their effects on film. The glib phrase "saved in the cutting room" is heard not too infrequently in film circles. It sounds clever, but it hardly conforms to the facts. At the least, it is an exaggeration. The editor may improve a film by eliminating excessive and/or redundant dialogue, by selective editing of inadequate acting, by creative manipulation of the film’s pace and the timing of reactions, by mitigating the weaknesses of badly directed scenes, and on rare occasions, by more unusual editorial maneuvers. Any or all of this activity presupposes a clever editor working on a more or less incompetently directed film. However, as often as not, a more or less incompetent editor is working on a cleverly directed film and not doing it justice. In any case, the’ editor works only with the material handed him by the director. Even if the editor creates a "miracle," the fact remains that that material carries all the ingredients of that miracle except, of course, for the creative ability brought to the cutting process by the editor. Finally, it must be borne in mind that although the editing "magic" is created in the cutting room, its creator is quite often not the cutter.

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