Who Cuts the Film ? (Film Editing)

Who, exactly, does edit the film. Usually, 110 single person, exactly. Although there have been a few notable exceptions, a good director always has the leading influence on the editing of his film, the value of that influence being proportional to his instinct for and knowledge of editing. An experienced producer can also have marked editorial input at this stage of the production. And a cutter of established reputation and proven ability can have the greatest influence of all, if only because he sets the editorial "tone" by making the first complete assembly.

In 1953, Karel Reisz, in his excellent topic, The Technique of Film Editing, wrote, ‘ ‘In Hollywood . . . writers normally prepare their scripts in much greater detail and leave the director with the comparatively minor role of following the written instructions." If Hollywood writers, then or now, prepare their scripts in much greater detail, it is to aid the production staff in scheduling the film, not for shooting or editorial purposes. Quite to the contrary, no Hollywood director worth his salt would tailor his setups or his editing concepts to the script’s measure. In more than 50 years as a cutter and director I have not known a single nonhyphenated writer with more than an amateur’s knowledge of cutting, and few Hollywood writers make any claim to editorial expertise. Most write master scenes and make no effort to indicate other than routine scene subdivisions. So the script writer, unless he also happens to be the director or producer of the film, can be eliminated as a contributor to its editing. And most writer-direc-tors depend more on their cutters for editorial advice than they do on the "instructions" in their scripts, even if the scripts happen to be their own.

Editorial responsibility, then, narrows down to the director, the producer, and the film editor (with an occasional stray suggestion from a studio executive). Which one of these carries the main burden on any particular picture depends mostly on the director involved. It works something like this:

Most directors have had no ‘ ‘hands on” cutting experience. Members of this group exhibit a broad spectrum of behavior. A few may take little or no interest in the cutting. The wise ones will "glom onto" a good editor, when and if they find one; then they will adopt a supervisorial stance, making known their dramatic desires while leaving the execution of those desires in the editor’s hands. Only a few will attempt precise cutting instructions.

For the conscientious cutter, these last are often a source of great trouble. Not knowing the patois of the cutting room, * they are usually unable to verbalize their concepts with accuracy. Their "specific" cutting instructions almost always amount to editorial double-talk, which the cutter must then translate into workable and effective ideas. So the question becomes: Should the cutter make the cuts exactly as the director spelled them out, or should he cut the film his way to arrive at the results which he thinks the director wanted, basing his judgment on his interpretation of the director’s expressed instructions?

The wise cutter will, of course, follow the second procedure, making the cuts in question his way to arrive at the desired result. And, if he is a very good cutter, that result will be, in the director’s words, "exactly what I was looking for."

The less secure or more restricted cutter will try to follow the director’s precise instructions and usually will find himself with a mess on his hands. Let me cite an experience of my own as an example.

On one of my first editorial assignments, I presented a first cut which was perhaps 20 minutes longer than optimum length. The running time was by no means unusually excessive and called for a routine trimming to bring it down to size. Over a period of 2 or 3 days the producer and the director reviewed the film, running and rerunning a sequence at a time. Instead of eliminating whole scenes, or even sequences, as is customary (and generally desirable), they called for the elimination of a phrase here, a modifying clause there, even, occasionally, a single word, necessitating what is called a "hemstitching job." So many cuts of this kind were demanded that a smooth, understandable cut was impossible, but the supervising editor advised me to make the cuts exactly as asked for, even though he too, considered them incompetent.

The cuts were made, the director and producer viewed the recut version in silence, then marched down to the executive offices to demand my removal from the film and dismissal from the studio. My career hung by a thread. Fortunately, the supervising editor, Roy Stone (may his courage be ever remembered), gave his version of the episode. I was permitted to recut the film properly, and all turned out well.

I was 22 years old, and I had learned one of the most important lessons of my life: In any creative effort, one must do one’s own thing, even if that thing is being done in response to another’s order. To do otherwise is to seriously risk a result which will please neither the requestor nor the executor.

On the great majority of films, then, all the actual ‘ ‘hands on" cutting is done by the film editor, with the director and/or the producer supplying most, if not all, of the creative ideas involving changes in continuity, in the editing or elimination of scenes or sequences, and in the manipulation of acting emphasis and audience attention. The part the cutter plays in these proceedings depends on the director’s faith in the cutter’s talent and on his willingness to allow the cutter to participate in the creative process.

But, whatever the degree of that participation, the cutter still has almost complete control over the tempo and pacing of the film, and here he can do great damage or perform small miracles. Since tempo and pace are largely the result of technical manipulation of cuts, a technique outside the average director’s sphere of expertise, lack of finesse in these areas, though frequently quite apparent, often remains uncorrected, and even an expert critic will rarely know where to place the blame.

Naturally, those few directors with a great deal of practical cutting experience are fully aware of this important aspect of editing, and unless they are fortunate enough to have editors who match or surpass them in editing intuition and technical i ability, they will insist on cutting their own films. Some will allow the editor to make the "rough cut," to their instructions, while a few will undertake even that burdensome task. But all will make the final cut with their own hands, fine-tuning the film to their own satisfaction. This operation is as important to a film as it is to a racing-car engine or a symphony orchestra, and only the person actually handling the film can properly make these desirable and necessary adjustments.

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