The Making of a Motion Picture Editor

 

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For Lisa and Eliz

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Introduction

Although I had written textbooks on Digital Nonlinear Editing and Digital Filmmaking, it’s not as if I woke up one day and decided to do a book on motion picture editors. Rather, after decades of meeting some of the most accomplished editors in the world, I began thinking of all the experience, guidance, and advice that they could impart to a reader. I had, in the past, spent time preserving oral testimonies (from Armenian Genocide survivors) and historical music recordings. And the process of transferring analog audio and video tapes to digital, cleaning, normalizing, editing, and even writing liner notes, was enjoyable because the result was the preservation of historical experiences. And that was my only thought—preserving the experiences of these gifted artists.

Here were craftspeople who have edited some of the most famous, beloved films in the world. What happens when they pass away? What could they impart to aspiring editors? What had they learned—both positive and negative? And who would I interview? I had to adhere to some criteria and after some time it seemed somewhat logical to try and interview every Academy Award Best Editing recipient, either active or retired. Sure, there are BAFTA, César, Golden Bear, but that Oscar statuette—let’s face it—is recognizable all over the world.

Thus began “the list”. There were practical problems. How to make contact? What if enough didn’t agree? And there were names that kept coming up—editors who had never received an Oscar. And those editors didn’t receive just one nomination. Gerry Hambling? 6 nominations, amazing editor, never won. Richard Marks? 4 nominations, terrific editor, never won. And there were more. And it would be foolish not to include people, who, in any other year, would surely have won.

I thought that the book would go relatively quickly. Silly me. It ended up taking six years. Paris, Los Angeles, New York, Santa Fe, U.K., Italy, Australia—country after country. Interviews in person, by email, via phone, via video conferencing. Editors who were in the middle of really big films. Some were retired while others were jumping from film to film. Françoise Bonnot, Anne V. Coates, Jim Clark, Jerry Greenberg, Gerry Hambling, Tom Rolf, Thomas Stanford, Neil Travis—what a blessing that I was able to interview them before their passing. Regrets, too. I was two weeks away from interviewing Quentin Tarantino’s great editor, Sally Menke, before her passing as a result of a hiking accident. The loss of all these great editors to the editing community is significant. Interviews that were started in one country and finished in another. Revisions. Establishing the right timelines of credits amidst a lot of conflicting dates and information.

Remarkably, the interviews have minimal content revisions. When changes did come, editors (because, of course, they are editors) mostly wanted to make sure that the narrative flow was clear. There was always an issue of length!

Editors who had no intention of entering the motion picture industry and then winning an Academy Award. Editors who were terribly discouraged—careers that were going nowhere. The editor who was so dispirited that he was going to leave the profession. The next call? It led to the Oscar. People who were going to be scientists, mathematicians, photographers, architects…

And as I listened to these fantastic stories, I started to compile a list of themes that kept coming up:

Perseverance: staying with it despite the difficulties that arise.

Awareness: being ready and aware to see the opportunity when it presented itself.

Forthrightness: Asking for the job when you know you can do it.

I think that the editors who agreed to be interviewed did so for two reasons. The first I think was straightforward. I had been at the forefront of digital nonlinear editing system creation and many editors knew me because of that. But I think the second, and the much more important reason, was that I knew their work—who they apprenticed under, the directors, and I knew the films quite well. And I think they knew, given those things, that they and the profession would be fairly represented. There were several editors who I did not know. A conversation would go something like this: “You don’t know me, but you did this and that and you apprenticed with so and so…”, and pretty much from there we were talking like colleagues.

I was amazed at how many editors had no idea how many awards, in aggregate, the films they edited had garnered. Many did not realize how much money the films had made.

What you are about to read are the recollections, learnings, and guidance from some of the world’s finest motion picture editors. If you don’t know their names, you’ll know the films. And I hope that you will seek out those films you haven’t seen now that you know what went into making them from an editor’s viewpoint. Watch those films if you haven’t seen them—they’re well worth your time.

And in the Stranger Than Fiction section?

You don’t speak a word of French and yet your very first feature is Fahrenheit 451 for François Truffaut.

You find yourself editing West Side Story for the director who edited Citizen Kane.

You edited a few feature documentaries, but your first non-documentary feature is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation working alongside Walter Murch.

You’re editing a pivotal scene in The Silence of the Lambs and you need something—a very specific shot—to make it work. And you look and look and it’s driving you nuts. And then you look up and that little piece of film you need is hanging—all by itself—from a hook in the trim bin.

Just by chance, you get a job to redo the lined script in Godfather II and then find yourself editing Apocalypse Now.

You wind up working for one of the most famous directors in motion picture history based on a five-minute conversation where he asks you, “Are you a good editor?” And, so far, you win three Academy Awards for editing.

You leave Apocalypse Now to go and edit Kramer vs. Kramer and you’re nominated for both films during the same year.

You write a letter to the producer telling him that you just got married and you can’t do the film. But you never send that letter. And then you win an Academy Award for Lawrence of Arabia.

The director looks at you, looks at the scene you just edited and says, “Do you have any idea what we went through there? How could you do this?’ And then he leaves. So, you work all night and eventually win an Academy Award.

And the life of an editor? Most of the time it’s a 6-12-month commitment on each film. Sometimes it’s 6-7 days a week. It can be hectic, or it can be much more relaxed.

You don’t think about a nomination and you get nominated. You know there’s absolutely no chance you’ll win, and you do. You thank your family. You forget to thank them. You go right back to work the next day. You wait for a year until the next job comes.

My profound thanks to the editors who agreed to be interviewed and who demonstrated great patience throughout the process. These editors gave their precious time, welcomed me into their homes, their editing rooms, interrupted family and vacation time, and made themselves available across long distances and many time zones. There are some editors who I could not interview—scheduling conflicts and, sometimes, a view that an editor felt that what they do is best left to the imagination. I had to respect those wishes. Perhaps in time…

My thanks to Steve Cohen and Michael Tronick—they were the first people I told about the book and they were terrifically enthusiastic. Alan Heim graciously believed in the project and led me to Jenni McCormick at the American Cinema Editors who was so helpful in tracking down the many needed photographs.

So, read on about these remarkable individuals and revisit their films. They have imparted valuable information about the profession, the films, and the considerations of pursuing a career in editing. An editor’s responsibility is not, as many have thought, “to cut out the bad parts”, but to form and shape the material according to the director’s vision in support of the story. Editing is based on decisions—hundreds, thousands—and everything you see and hear has a decision behind it.

At the time of this writing, the editors who are interviewed in this book have been involved in films that have won a staggering 360 Academy Awards and received an additional 785 nominations!

Finally, imagine you have two million feet of film (or the digital equivalent!) and you must create a two-hour finished product. You’re starting with over 370 hours of material. Layer in the realities of a release date that barrels down at you like a freight train coming down the track. Add in a $30 million marketing budget. And a myriad of other issues and multiple constituents whose input must be processed. Editing is a wonderful craft, and it is my hope that you will enjoy hearing about it directly from those who are masters.

Thomas A. Ohanian

 

July 2018

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A Brief History of Motion Picture Editing

Traditionally, for theatrical motion pictures, footage was captured on film. For television, footage was captured on either film or videotape. Eventually, of course, technological developments and improvements changed these workflows. Content for theatrical films can be acquired on film, videotape, or digital. Camera sensor technologies have and will continue to improve to the point that there will be no difference between film and digital acquisition. All of these changes are well documented in those countless resources. To keep this section somewhat brief, I have glossed over the specifics of the editorial process, but what is included herein is sufficient for a better understanding of the interviews.

Structurally, film “editing” was first done without actually physically cutting the film. The term, “editing in the camera” meant that in whatever order the final images were desired, they would have to be shot in exactly that order. In other words, you had to plan the shots that would be photographed in their final order. For example, actor “Ace” sees an apple, takes a bite, and his wife “Sue” reacts. First, Ace would be filmed. Then the shot of the apple. Then the shot of Ace taking the bite. Then the shot of Sue reacting. The film would then be developed (now you could see the film’s negative) and then printed to a positive (read: workprint) which resulted in a viewable image. That film was projected, and you would see the shots in the same order that they were filmed: 1. Ace, 2. Apple, 3. Ace bites the apple, 4. Sue reacts.

If any of the shots were too short or too long, so be it. They were shot that way and for that length. But if the shot of Sue was what we wanted to see first, how could that be accomplished? The answer is physically cutting the film. The four individual shots would be cut out of the printed film roll. Now, we would have four strips of film, each at the exact length they were when they were shot. At that point, we could rearrange the shots in any order that we desired.

Ah, but not so fast… What order should we choose for the shots? We have four of them. Those four shots yield 24 possible permutations:

1: 1 2 3 4; 2: 1 2 4 3; 3: 1 3 2 4; 4: 1 4 2 3; 5: 1 3 4 2; 6: 1 4 3 2; 7: 2 1 3 4; 8: 2 1 4 3; 9: 3 1 2 4; 10: 4 1 2 3; 11: 3 1 4 2; 12: 4 1 3 2; 13: 2 3 1 4; 14: 2 4 1 3; 15: 3 2 1 4; 16: 4 2 1 3; 17: 3 4 1 2; 18: 4 3 1 2; 19: 2 3 4 1; 20: 2 4 3 1; 21: 3 2 4 1; 22: 4 2 3 1; 23: 3 4 2 1; 24: 4 3 2 1

And that is just four shots. What about eight shots? Now there are 40,320 possible combinations. And what happens when the director has decided to do three takes of each shot? While we still have eight shots, we now have three choices for each of those shots.

Splicing film involved joining the film strips together using a liquid referred to as film cement or film glue. A small section of emulsion of both shots to be spliced together would be slightly scraped in order to make the “cement” adhere to the film workprint. Film cement was eventually supplanted by tape splicing where adhesive tape was used to join both film ends. A film splicer—known as a guillotine splicer—was used to cut the film. A piece of film would be laid into this metal guillotine splicer and a razor blade affixed to the vertical arm would be pressed down, cutting the strand of film into two pieces. At that point, two different film strands could then be spliced together, affixed with tape.

Obviously, cutting the film then led to not only the reordering of the different film shots, but also to be able to adjust the length of the shots.

The Magnasync Moviola from the 1960’s. Film viewer on the right and the two magnetic tracks (audio) on the left.

A two-picture head playback flatbed film editing system, particularly useful for A and B (two camera) scene coverage.

The film synchronizer is used to keep reels of film in synchronization with other reels. Picture and audio track(s) with common starts are thus kept in sync. Any change to the length of any track (shortening or lengthening) will result in the audio to picture synchronization being affected.

Videotape Editing

In 1956, Ampex, a U.S.-based company introduced a videotape recorder. Videotape editing was similar to film editing in that the videotape was actually cut. The recorded track could not be seen with the human eye. By applying a liquid to the videotape, the recorded tracks became visible. The videotape would then be cut in the same manner as film, but the joining of two pieces had to be done quite precisely. A solution was applied to the videotape, a microscope was used to see the tracks, and then they were aligned while being held in the splicing block, and then spliced together.

The Manual Splicing Jig from Ampex Corporation. Note the arrow indicating placement of the editing pulse.

Over time, the editing of videotape transitioned to electronically re-recording segments. Videotape was no longer cut and spliced. Instead, most often using the original source recordings, shot by shot was re-recorded onto a new videotape, creating the desired final sequence. While this became easier than physically cutting the videotape, the process was now linear—any change in the recorded sequence could not easily be undone—or reordered. Instead, the changes would have to be re-recorded due to the now linear process.

In other words, let’s say that you started to put together your program in this order:

Shot A then Shot B then Shot C

And then, you wanted to switch the order to:

Shot A then Shot C then Shot B

With electronic videotape recording, recall that videotape is no longer physically cut. As a result, the master tape (which has the re-recordings of the original tape), would be wound back to the end of Shot A (since that shot is not changing its position). At that point, Shot C would be recorded at the spot where the previously recorded Shot B had been and at the point where Shot C ends, Shot B would then be recorded. It is this “recording over” process that is necessary with linear, electronic videotape editing. It’s easy to see how time-consuming this can be when shots need to be re-ordered. And that brings us to some important terms that are specific to the editing of motion picture images:

Analog
Digital
Linear
Nonlinear
Random Access
Sequential Access

In the case of film, for example, we can classify the editing of film as being analog and nonlinear but not random access. Certainly, the film was not in digital form, so it’s analog. Editing the film could be done in a nonlinear fashion (it could be cut and re-ordered) but it was not random access. Because you need to move either forward or back through the film roll (and could not jump from place to place within the film roll), film is sequentially accessed.

Using these terms, we can classify videotape as being either analog or digital. It is linear (isn’t physically cut), and sequentially accessed (can’t jump around).

Electronic Nonlinear Editing Systems

To provide a solution which would attempt to combine the best of film editing (nonlinear) and videotape (ability to easily erase and record over), electronic nonlinear systems appeared. These were not digital, and they typically consisted of multiple videotape machines. The videotape cassettes in each machine contained the same material. Thus, by using Machine 1 to play back Shot A and Machine 2 to play back Shot B and Machine 3 to play back Shot C, the nonlinear aspect of film was achieved. We would see Shot A, then Shot B, and finally Shot C. If we wanted to change the order to Shots A, C, and B, Machine 1 would play back Shot A and Machine 2, instead of playing back Shot B would, instead, play back Shot C, and Machine 3 would play back Shot B.

The Ediflex Nonlinear Editing System. Note the bank of multiple videotape machines which provided a limited amount of random access to content.

The Laserdisc-based Systems

These systems introduced multiple laserdisc players instead of videotape players. Because the read head could jump around the analog video that was recorded onto the discs, fewer machines were necessary than the videotape-based alternative. Another significant benefit was that if an editor was creating a sequence which necessitated a greater number of cuts, there was a much better chance of the laserdisc machines being able to move quickly to the required shots. The laserdisc-based systems can be classified as electronic, analog, nonlinear and random access.

The CMX 6000 Nonlinear Editing System. Here, the bank of multiple videotape machines has been replaced with laserdisc machines which provided random access.

The Digital Nonlinear Systems

By the late 1980’s, the combination of computer technology, video compression, hard disk and optical disc storage systems led to the development of digital nonlinear editing systems. Video compression was used to reduce the size of each frame due to the fact that computer storage was quite expensive—$15 per megabyte. The images were compressed at 250:1 and the resulting resolution was quite pixelated.

The CL-550 JPEG compression chip from C-Cube Microsystems, 1990. This chip provided the hardware JPEG compression that was used by the first set of digital nonlinear editing systems.

Because they are digital, the methodology of creating a sequence out of the various shots is akin to how a word processing application functions. You can cut, copy, and paste words to modify a sentence, and a digital editing system enables shots to be easily rearranged and trimmed. These systems can be classified as electronic, digital, nonlinear and random access. Within a 7-10-year period after their introduction, these digital systems became the standard for editing motion picture content.

The Avid/1 Media Composer, circa 1990. The videotape machines to the right were used to play back footage which was then converted from analog to digital form and stored as digital files onto the computer hard drives to the left of the machines. The editing software ran on the Macintosh computer under the central monitor which displayed content in the form of thumbnail images. 

As you read through these interviews, you will come across the various systems and different forms of workflows which these editors had to employ on their films. Knowing how manually intensive film editing is, or how time consuming it is to change your mind in editing film or videotape makes it all the clearer as to the amazing work that these editors accomplished. Imagine a couple of million feet of film, winding through it, cutting out the takes, splicing and trimming them and doing all of it manually. Two hundred, three hundred hours of film—10, 20, 50 takes of a shot—and now the unique aspect that is the craft of editing becomes clearer.

And through it all, the editor is busy cataloging and making mental or physical notes—the slight moment that an actor made an eye movement that may be of use later on or a shot that was stolen from another take to make a scene work.

There are many fine books and online resources that track the history of how motion picture images are edited. Rather than duplicate those efforts, this brief section provides the necessary background information to better understand the references over the course of the interviews.

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Dede Allen, ACE

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Kirk Baxter, ACE

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Françoise Bonnot

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David Brenner

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Conrad Buff, ACE

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Richard Chew, ACE

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Anne V. Coates, ACE

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Steven Cohen, ACE

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Scott Conrad, ACE

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Joel Cox, ACE

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Gabriella Cristiani

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Chris Dickens, ACE

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Lisa Fruchtman, ACE

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Mark Goldblatt, ACE

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William Goldenberg, ACE

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Jerry Greenberg, ACE

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Richard Halsey, ACE

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Gerry Hambling, ACE

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Dan Hanley, ACE & Mike Hill, ACE

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Richard A. Harris

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Alan Heim, ACE

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Paul Hirsch, ACE

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Chris Innis, ACE

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Michael Kahn, ACE

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Lynzee Klingman, ACE

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Sylvie Landra

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Carol Littleton, ACE

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Marcia Lucas

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Richard Marks, ACE

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Craig McKay, ACE

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Stephen Mirrione, ACE

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Walter Murch, ACE

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Bill Pankow, ACE

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Tom Rolf, ACE

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Stephen Rotter

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Christopher Rouse, ACE

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Pietro Scalia, ACE

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Arthur Schmidt, ACE

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Jamie Selkirk

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Tim Squyres, ACE

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Zach Staenberg, ACE

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Thomas Stanford

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Neil Travis, ACE

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Michael Tronick, ACE

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Angus Wall, ACE

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Martin Walsh, ACE

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Hughes Winborne, ACE

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~

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