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Cutter's Way

These past few weeks, I've been attending an editing workshop sponsored by the Academy Foundation. On top of a punishing schedule of auditions and filming, I am beginning to feel like Night of the Living Dead, but it has been worth it. I appeared to be the only non-editor in the crowd (I live by the rubric "learn everybody's job"), but I managed to follow the thread of discussion regardless.

As with all Academy Foundation events, this one was well-organized and attracted amazing guests. All of the visiting editors were outstanding and award-winning professionals who punctuated their insights and comments with footage from an eclectic array of their work. Reviewing groundbreaking scenes with their editors has been both an eyeopener and a trip down memory lane. What you see on screen looks so easy, but involves months of hard and long labor, inspiration and innovation. From the frothiest romances or outrageous comedies (Runaway Bride, Old School) to iconic sagas (Dances With Wolves, Apocalypse Now), the editing process involves constant innovation and fresh ideas while maintaining the clarity and emotion of the story being told.

What one quickly learns is that editors must also be supreme diplomats, defending the director's vision from excessive studio encroachment, while also ensuring that the footage coming in can be put together in an intelligible and compelling manner. When something isn't working or the coverage isn't there, it is the editor who must be the bearer of bad tidings. And the editor must adapt to the director's style. For instance, Anne Coates who cut David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia also cut Stephen Soderberg's Out of Sight. Richard Chew worked on such wide ranging films as Star Wars, My Favorite Year and I Am Sam. However, some directors develop longstanding relationships with a particular editor, as have Gary Marshall, John Singleton and Clint Eastwood.

Getting an insider's view of the process was quite eye opening, particularly seeing rough cuts with temporary effects and discussing the selection process that goes into putting the final scene together. A lot of thought and cooperation goes into sound and any visual design that are layered onto to the edited footage, even down to the subtlest effects. Narrowing down the array of possibilities also includes the usual market and studio pressures, time constraints and test audiences. We got to see footage deemed too mature to make the final cut of Scooby Doo. And we learned that Clint prefers to use the original dialogue track wherever possible, since he feels looping can never equal the performance quality nor mimic the flaws that make the original track seem more like real life.

The art of editing has undergone a revolution due not simply to technological advances but also to increasing audience sophistication and expectation. Then again, some oldies but goodies manage to pack the same punch: the New Orleans footage in Easy Rider looks as if it could have been edited yesterday and remains as disturbing as when I first saw it, over 30 years ago. Digitial editing simply makes such experimentation easier. As Donn Cambern summarized, there are only two rules: don't bore and don't confuse.

(cross-posted to classic_film)

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