Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Editor's Prime Directive

While watching that Christian movie two weeks ago (I mentioned it in this blog about sound), one of the big problems early on was with the editing.  So let's examine what the purpose of editing is and how this art is best achieved.

First, the purpose of editing is to movie the story along.  In anything distracts from telling the story, it needs to go.  In fact, the edits should enhance the story telling.  If fancy editing draws attention to itself, pulling the viewer out of the story, then the editor has failed, though it might look cool.  This is the prime directive of editing and any rules established must first go through this filter-- does it move the story along.

So what are some distracting editing?  Well, you have the ADD/ADHD editor.  This is the amateur, or professional in the commercial world, who gets nervous after lingering on a shot longer than two or three seconds.  Cut to this, cut to that.  You need to take a Dramamine to get through it.  To this person I say, it's okay to stay.

Closely related, and a problem in the aforementioned Christian film, is the nazi editor.  This is the person who strictly adheres to a rule, forsaking perhaps the prime directive, but by golly, this one rule was never broken!  The rule in the Christian movie is this: If a person has a line, we must see them on camera deliver the line.  What results is a bit unnatural.  You're with some friends, having a chat.  Do you automatically turn your gaze at the moment someone starts talking?  No.  You might linger on the person who just finished saying something.  You might glance over at a different friend for the reaction of what was just said.  You might look out the window.

Then there's the martini-shaker-editor.  This is the person who throws all the setups into the shaker and spills out on screen whatever happens to come out next.  Begin with a close up?  Why not.  Pop to a wide shot in the middle of a small intimate monologue?  Sure.  The *general* rule (don't be a nazi) is to establish then move in closer as the scene progresses.  Where's the "beat" of the scene?  This is where the character's emotional value changes.  Come in closer here, maybe.  Some might say they're looking for the artistic way to cut a scene.  But I say you need to know structure to be able to do anti-structure.  As I told my UTA students this past semester, I don't mind you breaking the rules if it's a choice and not an accident.  This requires at least a knowledge of the rules.

If you want to be an editor, study the great films. Watch them over and over.  Listen to the commentaries of the filmmakers.  You need to develop a sense of what feels right in storytelling, then you can trust yourself more in the edit room.

More about this at the Evening Edit Workshop on Thursday June 3 in Fort Worth.  Only $39 and dinner will be provided.  6:30 pm.  Register at

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