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The Editor is yet another unsung hero in the filmmaking process. For a century of film history, Editors have taken raw footage and worked to transform it into a cohesive whole. Basically making one thing from many. But, how do they do it? In this episode of Crash Course Film Production, Lily Gladstone walks us through the editor's process and talks about some of the guidelines different editors use to make movies great!


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  Intro (0:00

A movie, as you know, is basically a sequence of shots. The shots themselves may be beautiful or strange, kinetic or still, bright or dark. And, viewed individually, they might carry some meaning. But the real power of narrative cinema comes when you put those shots together. 

Suddenly, they have context. The react to one another surprising us or putting us at ease. Cut together, these shots can create whole new levels of meaning and evoke emotions in ways only cinema can. 

And the person whose job it is to make those cuts, to discover that emotional and narrative alchemy, is that editor. 

[Opening music]

 The Editor's Skills (0:46)

Like cinematographers, production designers, costumers, and makeup artists, editors must be part technician, part craftsperson, and part creative artist. They are responsible for understanding the technology of post-production, from editing software to integrating sound design, music, and special effects. 

But they also need to have a deep understanding of film grammar, a gut instinct for character, and a powerful sense of timing. They are the final guardians of the story and the emotional landscape of the film. A narrative film is a very fragile thing, and one misplaced cut can drastically change its meaning and impact. 

But as crucial as it is, the editor's job is also to hide their work. Usually their goal is to make the cuts appear so seamless that the audience doesn't even notice them at all. Like so many great artists, the best editors make their work look effortless. But trust me, it's not! 

Among their duties, editors must be able to sort through hours and hours of raw footage to find the story. They must train their visual memories to remember tiny differences between takes and shots, and imagine how they might be cut together. They help the director separate the movie they wanted to make, from the movie they actually shot. 

They are fresh eyes, unencumbered by the challenges of getting a shot or the heartbreak of the performance that didn't turn out. Editors must also have the taste to recognize when the story isn't working, and the skills and experience to offer some solutions. 

Another way to think of this is that editors are the first audience for a film. An audience with the power to change it and make it even better.

 The Editor's Tools (2:02)

So how do they do it? In the beginning, editors worked with razor blades and tape to physically slice the film into shots and then join those shots together. It was painstaking work. One cut could take several minutes, as opposed to the seconds it takes today using editing software. 

It was also more difficult to experiment with various cuts. There was no easy, quick way to go back and undo a particular edit. Just more razor blades, tape, and time. An editing machine called a Moviola became standard equipment for editors in the 1920s, and not a moment too soon!  In addition to streamlining the process, the Moviola allowed editors to watch the film as they were making their cuts.

Then in the 1970s, flatbed editing systems like the Steenback and the KEM arrived. Now editors could move the film backward and forward to examine their edits, and listen to the recorded soundtrack as they went. Flatbeds would remain the industry standard until the 1990s, when digital editing systems like the AVID emerged.

We refer to physical film editing as linear editing, because the process involves editing your way through the scene or the film in sequence, shot by shot, and choosing cut points as you go. It's also called destructive editing, since the editor is literally cutting the film, irreparably altering it with each transition between shots. 

When you edit digitally using computer software, that process is called non-linear editing. Here, you can scroll to any point in the scene, or in the film, with the touch of a button, joining and re-joining shots in any order, as many times as you want. It's also called non-destructive editing. 

The main non-linear editing systems include the Avid, Apple's Final Cut Pro, and Adobe Premiere. Each system has its benefits and drawbacks, and each editor must figure out what works best for each project in terms of budget, work flow, and ease of use. 

  The Editing Process (3:35)

Now, when the footage comes in from the set, the editor's first step is to create an assembly cut. This is a very rough version of the movie that cuts each scene together in its most basic form. They're often very long and sometimes contain multiple takes of a given shot. The goal of the assembly cut is for the director and editor to see if they've captured the story. 

Are there any major plot points missing? Can the desired tone be achieved with the footage that they have? Are there any technical problems in the footage? Do the characters make sense? Where are the plot holes?

Watching an assembly cut for the first time is often both a joyful and painful experience. There's your film, all put together, coming alive for the first time before your eyes. But it's also usually a Frankenstein's monster of dead-ends, missed shots, and performances that haven't been properly paced yet. 

But don't panic! Because there's more work to do. The next step in the process is to make a rough cut, or several of them. This is the time for experimentation, for re-thinking the structure of the film. What if this scene goes here? Do we even need this subplot, or this moment, or this shot? How can we build the tension, liven a flat scene, or make a joke funnier? 

The editor uses rough cuts to focus on the bigger parts of the movie that aren't working. It's also where the filmmakers can begin to get a sense of what the ultimate run time of the movie will be.

Once those issues have been solved, the editor moves on to the fine cut. At this point, the issues are smaller, but no less significant. It's time to fine tune performances, maximize emotional impact, trim some shots, and extend others.

This is where you ask: When do we cut from one character or another? Is it better to extend this shot by one frame? Two frames? Five? Oof, how can hide our crappy, animatronic shark? Two frames can make the difference between Jawand Sharknado

Then we come to the final cut. At this point, we are achieving a "locked cut," meaning no more changes to the duration or order of any shot in the film. Color correction is happening. Visual and sound effects are coming in. Music is being composed, recorded, and selected. ADR, or Automated Dialogue Replacement, is being recorded and added to the film. 

And it's all being mixed so that every image and sound in the film exists in proper balance, fulfilling the vision of the director, who's now working through the editor and the post-production team. Each step in this process is specific and important, but not necessarily distinct. Every film is different, so often these stages blend into one another. 

The editor might have a brilliant re-structing idea in the fine cutting stage, and open the film back up to re-arrange some scenes. Or the director might have a sudden desire to extend a pivotal emotional beat just as the film is locking picture. However it happens, once all these steps are complete, so is the movie. 

And at every step in this process, the editor makes an indelible mark on the project...even if it's not always obvious. One of the most powerful effects of the editor's work is the ability to shift a film's perspective. Who the film cuts to, at what moment, and how long it remains on a character can influence the audience's identification with a character and their experience. 

  The Editor's Choices (6:17)

Editor's spend a lot of time asking questions like, "Whose scene is this?" and "Why?" Usually followed by, "Does it have to be that way?" and "What if we tried it from another point of view?" Very often, the director is in the room for these conversations, and if they can be open to it, an editor's ideas can sometimes change the way they think of the film, opening up new and exciting possibilities. 

The more films you make, the more you realize that you can't separate shooting and editing. They're bound together. The shots inform the editing and allow for the experimentation that is to come. Cinematographers spend a lot of their own prep time thinking and talking about how their shots might cut together. It's all designed to tell the story and evoke the desired emotions. 

And so much of it comes down to when to cut. And how the rhythm of those cuts contribute to the emotional and narrative experience of the story. The best editors collaborate very closely with directors and bring out the best in their work. 

The great Thelma Schoonmaker has been editing Martin Scorsese films since the earliest days of his career, from the split-second cuts of Raging Bull to the contemplative stillness of Silence. Steven Spielberg has worked almost exclusively with Michael Kahn ever since Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Quentin Tarantino has long praised the late Sally Menke for corralling his impulses and bringing order to his films, from Reservoir Dogs to Inglorious Bastards. Walter Murch is one of the editing greats. He's cut everything from Apocalypse Now and The Godfather to The English Patient

He was among the first old-guard editors to switch to a non-linear editing system, and he wrote the book on film editing, called In the Blink of an Eye. In it, he lays out his six priorities for cutting away from one shot to another.

The first is emotion. How does the shot affect the audience emotionally? What do you want them to feel? And does a cut add to that emotion, or take away from it? 

The second is story. Does the cut more the story forward? Each cut needs to advance the story, not bog it down. 

[Crashing noises from film]
Murch's third priority is rhythm. Just like music, he believes editing must have a beat, a rhythm, a sense of phrasing. Is a cut interesting here, or dull? What does it do to the pacing of a scene? Shake it up? Or flatten it? 

Gary King: A) I did not. And B) How did you know about that?
Sam Chamberlain: A) It's a small town. B) I'm not stupid. And C) They told me.
King: Right, well. I did. Once. But I was wasted. Which was creepy, because it was like there was four of them. I'm not proud of it. I am a bit.
Chamberlain: Is this what you wanted to tell me?
King: No. 

Fourth is something he calls eye trace. How does the cut affect where the audience focuses in the frame? The editor should be aware of where they want the audience to be looking, and then use that use that to surprise or confirm their instincts, depending on what the scene is trying to accomplish. 

The last two priorities charge the editor with being aware of both the two dimensional place of the screen as well as three dimensional space. These are fancy ways of saying the cut has the power to maintain or disorient the audience as to the physical space within the scene. All told, the editor should be conscious of how the cut affects the audience's understanding of the world of the film. 

[Cantonese dialogue]

Editors are as vital to the filmmaking process as they are low profile. By the time the film is screening in a theater, no one knows the footage, the emotional beats, the pacing, and the performances better than the editor. Without them, we'd just have a pile of random footage. With them, we have magic. 

  Review and Credits (10:12)

Today, we talked about the job of the editor, as both a technician and an artist. We learned about the history of film editing, from hand-cutting film to using digital editing software. And we explored the impact of the choices an editor makes in collaboration with the director, and how those cuts can bring a film to life. Next time, we'll explore marketing, the surprisingly creative work done after the film is edited, as distributors try to pitch the film to its intended audience. 

Crash Course Film Production is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel, check out a playlist of their latest shows, like PBS Infinite Series, PBS Space Time, and It's Okay to Be Smart. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Dr. Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of these nice people. And our amazing graphics team is Thought Cafe.

[Theme music]