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Editors: the alchemists that tie a film together

Close to the edit:
3 minute read
Close to the edit: Shutterstock

Editors orchestrate elements like lighting, sound, and dialogue to create coherence and empathy. While technology may assist in editing, the human touch, knowing when an edit feels 'right', remains irreplaceable. 

Editing is, at its most abstract, all about time and space. It's about when you make a
cut and what happens in the frame before and after the edit. Because of that, it's
pretty independent of variables like resolution, frame rate, and aspect ratio (with the
exception of Wes Anderson's 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel, where he freely moved between aspect ratios, giving the movie a slightly elevated sense of weirdness).

It's only when you try editing for the first time that you begin to understand the unique
and specific way that editors look at content. On the face of it, it's simply a matter of
deciding when to switch from one shot to another, but it's much deeper than that.
Editors talk about "rhythm" and "pace". These are musical terms, but they're also
relevant to storytelling.

Look a level deeper, and you're talking about emotion and feelings. You might have
thought that was the job of the director, along with lighting, sound, set design, and
dialogue. It is, but an editor somehow orchestrates and choreographs those and,
somehow, finds a sweet spot for an edit where they draw all of those together to
make a finely crafted and beautiful spider's web. In other words, it's about finding
coherence, resonance, and empathy among all the raw materials.

The importance of instinct

Quite how you do that is pretty hard to describe. I'm not sure I've ever achieved it, except that when I do perform an edit, I seem to know when it is or isn't right.

Sometimes, it's obvious: you look for continuity. Is that the same car in the
background in both shots? Has the weather changed (this can take split-second
timing!)? There are a million ways to trip up here.

Does it flow? Watch a well-edited film, and - ironically - you don't notice the edits.
Any work of fiction requires a suspension of belief. You know those people on the
screen are actors, but it doesn't matter because we're all in on the deception.

In a cinema, your experience is closely related to hypnosis. Your sense of reality
"jumps" from the place and time you're currently in, to the alternative reality on the
screen. You get involved. You get frightened. You fall in love, you get angry, and you
experience genuine happiness. That's the whole point. It is an alternative reality. But 
to get to that point, you also have to forget that filmmakers make films with multiple
cameras from several viewpoints, and while the film might be 120 minutes long, it
took hundreds of times longer than that to shoot the movie.

Before digital, during a film shoot, an editor would be presented with hundreds of
strips of physical film, each of which - hopefully - was uniquely identified. The editor
is the only person between that chaos and the finished, viewable film. Editors have
to reverse that chaos and craft a linear timeline that flows naturally and believably for
the viewers.

Editing is neither deterministic nor algorithmic. Ten editors will make ten different
edits. (And ten AIs will make ten different-looking films: we'll come back to AI in a
minute). Each film will look and feel slightly different.

Editors know when they've made something that's "just right". It happens on a small
scale, where making tiny adjustments in "trim" mode can dramatically - or subtly -
affect the feel of a scene. Or it can happen on a larger, cumulative scale, where you
sit through a film, utterly engrossed and on the edge of your seat, either through
sheer excitement and anticipation or because you feel so much part of what's
revealing itself on the screen in front of you.

Editing can amplify or quell almost any feeling. It can surprise and terrify you,
comfort and soothe you.

That indefinable something extra

Over the last thirty years, editing video has become thousands of times cheaper.
Storage and processing power—and now the cloud and even AI—have brought
abilities to individuals across the economic spectrum. This means that at the same
time as the quantity and variety of content is exploding, so is the talent pool.

AI is increasingly there to help (even potentially threaten) editors. It's likely that AI, trained on the work of thousands of human editors, will be able to produce credible work. But will it create great work? One reason to think it might not always be able to, is
that when a human editor gets something right, they just "know" it. It just feels right
to them. And something that just feels right to you, is never going to "just feel right" to an AI.

My advice is to use technology, let it help you, enhance your work, or make you
more productive.

But never lose contact with the part of you that says, "I just did that edit. And I love it!"

Tags: Post & VFX Editing Adobe Editing