Independent Review – Making the Cut

Some films are made or broken in the editing room.  In fact, all take their final shape in the editing room, whether it comes through long tedious recuts, or it’s locked in on the second pass, editing is no doubt one of the most essential, and still one of the most overlooked, aspects of making a film.

Finding a good editor that is familiar with a program is essential to a young filmmaker.  Having someone that understands the program is the most basic requirement.  While some will argue over which program is best to have profiencient knowledge in, whether it be Final Cut, Avid, or Adobe Premiere, anyone with knowledge of the program will be able to accomplish roughly the same thing.

Right now there is much controversy over Apple’s redesign of Final Cut for their X release, with the drastic changes upsetting regular users, and the fact that the old files won’t work on the new system infuriating editors worldwide.  This has happened with programs before, and for some it was the end of the program’s good name, for others, users adapted and eventually learned that the changes are for the better.

Regardless of which application you choose to edit your digital video, it’s the technique and the ideas behind the film that will ultimately shape it, everything else is just a tool.  With so much emphasis on tools, too  many young filmmakers forget the first rule of editing:  to create the best edit of your footage that you possibly can. Getting distracted with effects and filters is not going to put a good structural base into your film, only a well sequenced edit will do that.

To get to that point, you (as the director) have to understand the sum of your parts before the parts are put together.  All of this of course begins with the script, but a lot can get lost in translation during shooting, scenes will always be different in one way or another than they were in the script, that’s just a fact of shooting.  Being able to find creative solutions that stay true to the original nature of the scene is the key to being a good creative editor.  As I said, anyone familiar with the programs can physically make the edits, but the true art of editing is to be able to shape the story, both creatively, and structurally.

When Quentin Tarantino’s editor Sally Menke tragically passed away, many wondered if Tarantino would be able to make another film as successfully as he has in the past.  While I’m sure Tarantino has his pick of the best editors in the business, it is a valid question, since so much of Tarantino’s visual style comes from the editing, the juxtaposition of camera movement, and the methodic pacing he is so famous for.  Who is to say those aspects come from Tarantino’s vision and not  Menke’s skill as an editor?  Only time will tell.

One of the most overlooked aspect of the editor/director relationship is the relationship itself.  If you and your editor don’t see scenes the same way, or the structure of the story, or the pacing of the film, it’s going to be tough to get what you want.   A good working relationship with clear lines of communication is essential for both the editor and director to get what they collectively want out of the edit.

Another thing that not enough filmmakers do when they start out is get feedback from an impartial audience, and use that  feedback to better relate their film to audiences.  I’m not saying change your ending because some people didn’t like it, but an audience that isn’t beholden to you is invaluable in realizing what may be confusing to general audiences, where you understand it completely because you shot it or wrote it.  It’s amazing what can get lost in translation through editing.

At the same time, it’s amazing how much small edits can change your film for the better, even if you don’t think the extra work will change it all that much.  Editing is a testing ground, and there’s no better way to tell if something works a different way than to try it.

On the Clerks 2 DVD special features, Kevin Smith filmed himself showing a cut of the film to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, who gave him the advice to trim nearly every shot in the movie, even by only a few frames.  As Rodriguez explains, it quickens the pace of the film, the movement of the scenes, and in reality, all you lose is a few seconds from your final cut, but that can be all the different between a slowly paced film and a snoozefest.

As mentioned, there are a lot of cool tricks and effects in modern digital editing programs, but this can also be the downfall of a young filmmaker, when too many effects and tricks are added that distract or disrupt the story being told.  Always remember, your main goal in editing is to tell the story in the most effective way possible.

As proof that editing can make or break a film, the lounge singer turned filmmaker Duke Mitchell shot the film Massacre Mafia Style and gained slight recognition for his grindhouse effort.  His second film, Gone With the Pope was shot, but not completed before Mitchell tragically died from a heart attack.  The film sat in a garage storage room at his son Jeffrey’s house for nearly 30 years, long considered a lost film amongst cult enthusiasts.

Finally, Grindhouse Releasing owner and Sam Raimi’s editor, Bob Murawski came along and heard the story, tracking Jeffrey down to take a look at the footage.  Upon inspection, Murawski was able to determine what the basic story was, even without a proper script, and managed to make a workable feature film from the footage.  He has since screened prints of the “long lost” film, garnering praise for bringing the public the lost work of a beloved filmmaker.

At the same time, editing is a thankless job full of long hours, lonely work, and in turn, they get the brunt of complaints about the structure of the film, even when the structural problems were in the script to begin with.  Finding a good editor, who knows the program they work with well, that can communicate effectively with you, and understands the theory behind creating a successful feature film and that’s all you need.  Sounds simple, right?

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