Bright Lights Film Journal

Cutters’ Way: The Mysterious Art of Film Editing

Erich von Stroheim at the editing table

“The basic rules of film editing, first established in the silent era, still govern the industry today: maintain your eye lines, preserve continuity, respect planarity (the rules governing the transposition of three dimensions onto a two-dimensional plane), find a good rhythm, and, most important, always advance the story.”

Take a look at this list of movies and see if you can identify what they have in common:

The Godfather (1972)
The Conversation (1974)
Apocalypse Now (1979)

The answer is fairly obvious, right? Francis Ford Coppola, the writer and director. An astute observer might also point out that they all feature Robert Duvall at some point or another. Okay, but what if I add three more to the original three?

The English Patient (1996)
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Cold Mountain (2003)

Big-budget films by directors of Italian descent, you might think, or stories of crime and war. A good guess, but no. Need a hint? How about I toss on another handful: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Ghost (1990), K-19 the Widowmaker (2002), Jarhead (2005), and the 1998 rerelease of Touch of Evil (1958). Any clearer? The answer is the films’ editor, Walter Murch. If the name is only vaguely familiar to you, don’t be ashamed. Few people bother to follow the careers of film editors, so arcane and unexciting does their artistry seem. But within his obscure profession, Murch’s name is as august as that of De Niro and Pacino, Spielberg and Scorsese. “He was the essential collaborator on what are probably the best films I worked on,” Francis Ford Coppola says. “Walter is a study unto himself: a philosopher and theoretician of film.”1 It speaks to Coppola’s self-confidence that he speaks so well of Murch, for most directors shy away from offering too much credit to their editors, especially since the job overlaps so critically (and mysteriously) with their own. After all, Murch played a vital part in shaping four of Coppola’s most celebrated films — The Godfather, The Godfather, Part ll (1975), The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now — but was noticeably absent from the director’s more ponderous projects in the eighties: One From the Heart (1982), The Cotton Club (1984), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), and Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988). Some people might not see that as a coincidence.

Of the scores of technicians who labor on any given movie production, from the lowliest intern to the executive producer, the editor is probably the most underappreciated. While films are frequently praised for their direction, acting, writing, cinematography, score, and production design, you’ll hardly ever hear a reviewer say, “My, what sublime editing!” It is taken as a matter of course, even by many film scholars, that the editor is just another menial laborer, like a carpenter or a construction worker, simply hammering together a blueprint dreamed up by the film’s great architect, the director. Only grips and gaffers are less well known to the general public. But then grips and gaffers aren’t half so vital to the overall outcome of the picture. There is an old saw in Hollywood that a film is written three times: first, when the screenwriter puts it to paper; second, when the film is shot; and, finally, when it is edited. Since the cutting room is the last stop on this circuitous journey, the editor, in effect, has the last word on the completed film. She can save the picture or ruin it, alter it completely or leave it fairly well alone; in any case, her fingerprints will be all over it. After all, a film need not have a director — just look at a movie as brilliant as Atomic Café (1982) to see how neatly the job can be eliminated — but unless it unfolds in a single shot, like Andy Warhol’s anomalous Empire (1964), it will always require an editor.

And yet, as far as most people are concerned, the editor might as well be invisible. Tally up a list of all the film editors you can think of, as many names as you can remember off the top of your head. Now directors. See my point? In part, this is simply the nature of the art: good editing is seamless, allowing the viewer to slip into the world of the film unawares, as if into a dream. We stop and take note of the editing only when it is clumsy or jarring. “If you’re noticing the editing and not following the story and the characters, I don’t care how fancy it may be,” the great editor Dede Allen once said. “I think you’ve kind of failed.”2 And then there is the nature of the editors themselves. They tend to be retiring creatures, fond of cool, dark places, preferring quiet anonymity to the glare of the spotlight. When the Oscar for film editing was first given in the 1930s, the committee of editors in charge of selecting that year’s recipient chose the winner, not in some ostentatious ceremony but over a casual luncheon, for fear that, if they took it too seriously, the award might someday go to someone’s head. “We didn’t give it as much thought as they do today,” recalls Bill Hornbeck. “I remember one fellow was in the hospital, and we thought it would be kind of nice to give him an award. He won the Academy Award that year.”3 Can you imagine a pack of film producers being so courteous to their own? Ralph Rosenblum, in his book on film editing, described the typical editor thus:

He is often an introverted and cautious individual who may think of himself as a talented technocrat, a guardian of the tough, mechanical facts of cinematic technique; or as a behind-the-scenes power, like a president’s brain truster, unsung but indispensable; or as a creative genius in his own right, a star whose light is blocked by the medieval movie protocol that gives directors and actors almost exclusive credit for a film’s success.4

And so editors, like spies and ghostwriters, revel in feats known only to themselves: how it was Elmo Williams who set High Noon (1952) in Aristotelian time, synchronizing the plot to the clock on the wall;5 how Frank Keller cleverly rescued the famous chase scene in Bullitt (1963) after a tripwire blew the lead car too early; how Merrill White salvaged The Brave One (1956) from total disaster;6 and how it was Daniel Mandell who thought to flip the numbers on Gary Cooper’s jersey in The Pride of the Yankees (1942), to make him bat left-handed.7 And like magicians they have the pride that comes with working in a craft of illusions, alone knowing the hours of work that went into making a trick appear faultless. When movies were still cut on film, editors plowed through literally miles of footage to extract a two-hour finished product. The average feature-length film generates anywhere from twenty to forty hours of raw footage.8 In the case of Apocalypse Now, Walter Murch was handed over 230 hours of material; that’s over 1,250,000 feet of film, or roughly the distance between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.9 Since editing often involves finding precisely the right frame to cut on — there are twenty-four in every second — you can imagine the level of intricacy involved. But in the editing room, astronomical numbers are simply part of the game. One of the most terrifying facets of editing, as in chess, is the mind-numbing infinity of possibilities before you at any given moment. Hours, even days, can be wasted simply because you decide to switch out a single shot in a two-minute-long scene. It turns out, in fact, that this madness can be quantified, in a rather curious-looking mathematical formula:

C = (e x n!) — 1

To decipher this quaint little equation, you must know that C is the minimum number of ways a particular scene can be edited; e is the transcendental constant 2.71828 . . . (one of those irrational, endless numbers like pi); n is the number of shots the director has taken; and the exclamation point stands for factorial, which means you multiply all the numbers up to and including the number in question. (The factorial of 7, for instance, is 1x2x3x4x5x6x7, or 5,040.) This means that a scene of a mere twenty-five shots, which is not very many, hardly unusual for a feature film, can be edited in approximately 39,999,999,999,999,999,999,999,999 different ways. If those numbers were miles, that would be about twenty-five laps around the observable universe. Since some action scenes have as many as 250 shots, that means the number of possibilities available to the editor would be a number so vast it could blacken an entire page with zeros. In less abstract terms, that’s more options than there are subatomic particles in the universe.10

The first filmmakers faced no such problems. In the dawn of cinema, movies reached the screen uncut. A simple shot of a train entering a station or a group of laborers pouring out of a factory was thrilling enough to pack theaters. It didn’t take long, though, for the novelty to wear off, and audiences soon began expecting more. Enter Edwin S. Porter, one of the pioneers who helped transform film from a mere recording medium into a dramatic art form. Before Porter, filmmakers had already begun dabbling in fiction — Georges Méliès, for example, displayed a fantastic imagination, fashioning tales about mummies, ghosts, and witches — but the stories they told tended to be stuck in two dimensions, like filmed plays. Entire scenes would be shot in one take, without close-ups. (Among other difficulties, this meant that if a single thing went wrong in a lengthy scene, the entire scene would have to be reshot.) Porter’s great insight was something that probably seems pretty obvious to most people today: the notion that you could build a scene with more than one shot. In The Life of an American Fireman (1903), he cuts from a hand pulling a fire alarm to the firemen in the station springing into action. The curiosity for viewers today is that Porter chose to portray the dramatic crescendo twice, first from the point of view of a woman as she is rescued from a burning building and then, starting from scratch, from the point of view of the firemen coming to save her. Apparently, Porter failed to realize that, having already showed the woman’s rescue from one point of view, a second viewing was simply redundant. Yet he had a cunning talent for juxtaposition. When, in his 1905 film The Kleptomaniac, he cut from a destitute shoplifter receiving a harsh prison sentence to a rich one getting a mere slap on the wrist, he wasn’t just thrusting the narrative forward, he was telling the audience how to feel about it: one of the first times editing was used to manipulate emotions, though certainly not the last.

Porter’s experiments, however fumbling they appear in hindsight, point us to a curious quandary at the heart of filmmaking: what is it that makes cutting work? How is it that we accept such a violent transition — whether it be from a wide shot to a close-up, from Paris to the Sahara desert, or from the seventeenth century to the present — as a cut? “Nothing in our day-to-day experience seems to prepare us for such a thing,” Walter Murch observes. “From the moment we get up in the morning until we close our eyes at night, the visual reality we perceive is a continuous stream of linked images: In fact, for millions of years — tens, hundreds of millions of years — life on Earth has experienced the world in this way. Then suddenly, at the beginning of the twentieth century, human beings were confronted with something else — edited film.”11 What prepared them for this? Not painting, not theater, not even literature, cinematic as some of Dickens’s scenes now appear. Murch speculates that it was dreams. “We accept the cut because it resembles the way images are juxtaposed in our dreams,” he writes. “In the darkness of the theater, we say to ourselves, in effect, ‘This looks like reality, but it cannot be reality because it is so visually discontinuous; therefore, it must be a dream.'”12 Director John Huston saw it differently. Cinema, he said, was not just a reflection of our dream lives but the very essence of conscious thought, with its fitful jumble of visuals and sound: “To me the perfect film is as though it were unwinding behind your eyes, and your eyes were projecting it themselves, so that you were seeing what you wished to see. It’s like thought. It’s the closest to thought process of any art.”13 Watch the final moments of his film The Dead (1987) and you’ll have some idea of what he’s talking about. As Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) gazes out the frosty filigree of his Dublin window, somberly musing on the emptiness of his life, the film, with no more than a few simple cuts, slips aboard his stream of consciousness as it glides from thought to thought: from past memories to future projections to the lonely churchyard on the hill where his wife’s lover lies buried.

The first person to truly discover this cinematic language was D. W. Griffith, who was to early cinema what Jane Austen was to the English novel. He saw what Porter failed to see in The Life of an American Fireman: that you could crosscut between different points of view in a scene to create suspense. Perhaps his most signal technique, for which he is still remembered today, is the accelerated pace of cutting that he used during moments of heightened tension, as in The Lonely Villa (1909), The Lonedale Operator (1911), and The Birth of a Nation (1915), rapidly cutting between heroes and villains during chases and rescues. In this manner, he showed that, with some clever editing, he could subjugate time to his demands, either drawing it out for suspense or speeding it up for sudden denouement. Likewise, he dispensed with the custom, so reminiscent of the stage, of beginning a scene when a character enters a room, cutting instead at the moment of the important action, thereby accelerating the pace of the story. To show characters in thought, he used close-ups and cutaways (from a man’s face, for example, to a shot of his sweetheart miles away) rather than the cartoonish dream balloons employed by previous filmmakers. Not only did this last technique prove that simple cuts could simulate consciousness, it established a dividing line between screen acting and stage acting that still exists to this day. In a tight close-up, a good actor need only think a thought to express it, rather than histrionically projecting to the back rows of the theater.

Early film cutting was a sometimes excruciating process. Editors viewed their movies in negative, making it difficult to tell one take from the next. Lacking any numbers on the film to guide them, they were forced to pore over millions of frames by hand, using minute alterations in the image to find their bearings. “Sometimes there’d be a tiny pinpoint on the negative and then you knew you were right,” Margaret Booth recalls. “But it was very tedious work. Close-ups of Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm would go on for miles, and they’d be very similar.”14 Most prohibitive, though, was the equipment, or rather the shocking lack of equipment. The essential tools of the trade consisted of a rewind bench, a magnifying glass, and an ordinary pair of scissors. The only way you could see the film in motion was to screen it, so editors took to pulling the film through their fingers to simulate movement. The work must have been exceedingly tiresome, yet it evokes a wonderful image, like some kind of strange tailor’s shop, with reams of footage dangling from the walls and the editors, strands of film clenched in their teeth, unspooling bolts of celluloid before their eyes. If they wanted three seconds of footage, they held the film to the tip of their nose and pulled it out to the length of their arm. If they wanted to view it in progress, they hauled it into the projection room and screened it, then carried it back to the editing table to get chopped up some more.15

All this changed with the invention of the Moviola in 1919. A chunky, frog-green machine with foot pedals to run the film and a four-inch spy hole to view it, the Moviola was the brainchild of Iwan Serrurier, a Dutch-born electrical engineer who designed the contraption on a whim, as a diversion from his job at the Southern Pacific Railroad Company in Pasadena. Originally, Serrurier tried to sell his gadget as a home-entertainment device (the name itself, Moviola, was chosen for its happy harmony with Victrola, the popular phonograph), but, at $600, it was too expensive for most families in 1920 to afford. Then in 1924, Serrurier ran across an editor at Douglas Fairbanks Studios who suggested he adapt it as an editing table for the movie industry. Serrurier “roughed together” a model that very weekend, turning it on its side and attaching a viewing lens and a hand crank he’d lifted from a clock.16 With that, the first editing machine was born. It arrived just in time, too. With the coming of sound, there was no way an editor, no matter how sharp-eyed, could sync sound to silent lips. To accomplish this aural feat, the Moviola was simply fitted with an additional sprocket for the soundtrack to run on, making possible the explosion of talkies that burst from Hollywood, beginning in 1927. After that, the device changed little. It was hefty, ugly, noisy (more than one editor compared the clanking it made to a sewing machine) and, because of its tilted viewer, required the user to sit hunched over all day at a forty-five-degree angle. Yet it remained the mainstay of the film industry for the next seventy years, an unequivocal, if curious, testament to its durability, almost as if the Model T had persisted as the car-of-choice until the new millennium.

Here’s the original plotline of a popular movie from the 1970s. See if you can guess what it is:

A well-to-do nebbishy Manhattanite kvetches about his neuroses in a series of loosely related vignettes. We are given a science fiction episode, titled The Invasion of the Element, a tour of the garden of Eden and the nine circles of Hell; fantasies involving Nazis and zombies; a scene where our hero plays basketball with Nietzsche, Kafka, and Kierkegaard; and flashbacks to some of his past romances.

Sound familiar? The film, for those who haven’t guessed it, is Annie Hall (1977), or to be more precise, the jumbled mess that constituted Annie Hall before Ralph Rosenblum began assembling it. Needless to say, the first cut of the film, which ran nearly an hour longer than the completed picture, didn’t inspire much confidence, even in Woody Allen, who at one point reportedly threw several reels into the Central Park reservoir.17 It is Allen’s great fortune, as well as that of cinemagoers everywhere, that Rosenblum was able to look at the tangle of film before him and see the polished jewel buried within. “The cliché about sculpture,” editor Tom Priestly says, “that the sculptor finds the statue which is waiting in the stone, applies equally to editing; the editor finds the film which is waiting hidden in the material.”18

Born in Brooklyn in 1925, Rosenblum grew up only a few short miles from where Allen would be raised a decade later. A shy, unprepossessing boy, Rosenblum suffered from a debilitating stammer as a child that left him with few friends and often confined him to his own room. “It is unnerving to look back and realize how important small, enclosed, secluded spaces have been to me since from the time I was a child,” he wrote, years later. Perhaps for this reason, he was instinctively drawn, after high school, into a job for the Office of War Information (OWI), the department in charge of churning out documentary films during World War ll. Beginning as a lowly messenger boy, Rosenblum finagled his way into the cutting room where he eventually apprenticed under filmmaker Robert Flaherty, assisting in cutting together his last picture, Louisiana Story (1948). After the war, with the demobilization of the OWI, Rosenblum found his first assignments as a full-fledged editor in the newly budding television industry. He quickly became known as one of the most efficient and dependable editors in the business, forming his own company to edit such programs as The Guy Lombardo Show, The Patty Duke Show, and commercials for Texaco, Buick, and Phillip Morris. Rosenblum, however, yearned to get into feature filmmaking, and so in the early ’60s, he gave up his lucrative television business and began working on narrative films, at first grabbing anything he could get his hands on — movies like Pretty Boy Floyd (1960) and Mad Dog Coll (1961) — but working his way up to more appetizing fare: Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962), The Pawnbroker (1965), and Goodbye, Columbus (1969).

His background in documentary filmmaking served him well. “To a documentarist,” he explains, “a script was a plan that helped get you going in the morning — certainly nothing that was ever intended to cramp your creative impulses as you went along. My apprenticeship with documentary filmmakers enabled me to face a picture . . . know that I had to piece it together from scratch in the cutting room, and not crumble in panic.”19 By the end of the decade, Rosenblum had a reputation for taking on difficult assignments, finding films that were on the brink of death, resuscitating them, and turning in, if not always masterpieces, pictures that were at least fluent and profitable. This was how he first met Woody Allen. Allen had just finished shooting his first film, the zany comedy Take the Money and Run (1969). There was one problem: no one thought it was funny, including Allen, who was in the process of watching his yet-to-be-established career already going down the drain. “I remember showing that film . . . to the people who backed the picture, and they were just stunned,” Allen recalls. “They were very nice about it, they were being very polite, but they couldn’t hide their disappointment. I knew they were talking about not releasing it.”20 However, after looking through the rushes (all two hundred boxes of them), Rosenblum discovered that there were bundles of hilarious footage just sitting in the can; all they needed was a steady hand to carve them into some discernible shape. He immediately set to work reassembling the film. In addition to inserting and trimming material, he rearranged the order of scenes, added new narration, replaced the leaden score with New Orleans jazz — now a trademark of nearly all Allen’s films — and had him reshoot the ending, from the dour conclusion Allen had originally chosen to a scene of light humor. When the film opened, it broke box-office records at the Playhouse, making Allen’s career and cementing a partnership with Rosenblum that would continue for the next ten years.

The editor’s task on Annie Hall was no less demanding. It was clear to him after looking at the footage that the movie’s strongest scenes were the ones between Allen and Diane Keaton (not the mishmash of metaphysical vignettes), so he began cutting the film to emphasize that portion of the story, in the process pruning away what had previously been the most ambitious part of the film: a story, like Finnegan’s Wake, told from inside a man’s head. “It was originally a picture about me, exclusively,” Allen explains, “not about a relationship. It was about me, my life, my thoughts, my ideas, my background.”21 Invariably, as the focus shifted from Allen to Keaton, gaps began to emerge in the continuity, necessitating the filming of new material. Rather than damaging the film, though, this ended up producing some of the funniest scenes in the movie. To explain an incongruous change of location to California, for instance, Allen wrote and filmed the notorious cocaine scene, in which his character, Alvy Singer, while attempting to sample a pinch of his friend’s cocaine, inadvertently sneezes and blows away the entire stash. As with Take the Money and Run, Rosenblum insisted that Allen reshoot the ending. Originally, the film had concluded with Allen and Keaton running into each other on the street, several years after having broken up: “the awkwardness” of the moment, as Rosenblum explains, “serving as the tear-jearker.”22 Rosenblum, however, had another idea. Since the movie began with Allen telling a joke to sum up his life, why not end the same way? That very day, as they drove to the studio, Allen began scribbling down ideas in the cab. A day later, the voice over was in the movie. Over it, Rosenblum then laid a montage, like a tender reverie, reprising some of Allen and Keaton’s happy times together, and the movie we know today was completed. “Suddenly there was an ending there — not only that, but an ending that was cinematic, that was moving,” Marshall Brickman, Allen’s co-writer on Annie Hall, recalls. “The whole film could have gone into the toilet if there hadn’t been that last beat on it. I think every writer of comedy wants to send them out with something like that, to keep them laughing, extremely hysterical, for an hour and twenty-eight minutes, and then for the last 10 minutes turn it around and let them walk away with something they can chew on.”23

This, it should be noted, is not the typical relationship between an editor and his director. Few directors today, at least ones who hold the prerogative of final cut as Allen did, have the nerve to make such extensive changes at the behest of a subordinate. (In Rosenblum’s case, it helped that he and Allen were so close, both personally and temperamentally, and that Allen, the ultimate perfectionist, has such a ruthless eye for his own material.) It has not always been thus. The era of the all-important director began, effectively, in the 1960s and ’70s with the rise of the auteur theory and the fall of the studio system, when movie producers, desperate for any kind of success, ceded control to brash young novices like William Friedkin, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg. But back in the 1930s and ’40s, directors were just one more cog in a well-oiled machine that began, at the ground level, with the grips and carpenters, and ended with the studio head. Frequently after filming wrapped, directors weren’t even allowed see the footage they’d shot until the movie made it to theaters; it was left entirely to the producers and editors to shape it and polish it as they pleased. Within this hierarchy, many editors wielded prodigious power. There was Daniel Mandell, for instance, editor of Ball of Fire (1941), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and The Apartment (1960), who, because of his friendship with Sam Goldwyn, was able to issue commands to directors like the prince regent of the studio:

If I thought I needed something else, I’d go out on the set and tell the director to shoot it. There was one director, Henry Hathaway — I did a thing with him calledThe Real Glory — and every time I’d go on the set and ask him to shoot something, I’d get a big argument. But the next day I’d see it in the rushes.24

The most powerful cutters were the senior editors, the player-managers of the studio system, supervising a stable of other editors but also jumping in to lend a hand when necessary. Since the studios were, at that time, putting out upwards of two hundred pictures a year, this meant that the senior editor, in many cases, interacted with the studio head more frequently than any director or producer.25 At MGM that person was Margaret Booth. Though little known today, for forty years — from 1939 until her retirement in 1982 — Booth was a terror to directors throughout the industry, pouncing on weakly edited scenes like a ravenous jungle cat. As Sidney Lumet explained to a group of young filmmakers in 1968: “When I complete a film for Metro, I have to get blood on the floor to protect it from a lady by the name of Margaret Booth, who I’m sure none of you have ever heard of. She was Irving Thalberg’s cutter, and to this day she checks every movie made for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and can stop you at any point, call off your mix, and re-edit herself. She owns your negative.”26

Booth was born in the twilight of the nineteenth century and lived to see the dawn of the twenty-first. In a career that lasted nearly seventy years, she weathered the coming of sound, color, television, HUAC, digital technology, and the fall of the studio system. She was born in 1898 and got her first film job in 1915, as a “patcher,” splicing together negative for D. W. Griffith. She edited her first picture in 1924 and quickly became a favorite of Irving Thalberg, the boy wonder of MGM. When Thalberg died in 1936 at the tender age of thirty-seven, Booth found a new protector in Louis B. Mayer, who, with his inherent suspicion of screenwriters and directors, considered her one of the few people on the lot he could trust. For Booth, tempo was everything. “Rhythm counts so much,” she once said, “the pauses count so much.”27 Her abiding principle, though, was narrative: never make a cut unless you have to. “She hated editing for editing’s sake,” her protégé Ralph Winters explains, “but if you had to make a bad edit to advance the story, that was fine with her.”28 Her eye, however, was extremely exacting. In his book on filmmaking, Sidney Lumet recalls the time in 1964 that she flew to England to screen three MGM movies that were then in production, including his latest film, The Hill (1965), which he and his editor Thelma Connell had just finished cutting. Nearly seventy years old and no doubt jetlagged from her flight, Booth screened all three movies back-to-back, beginning at eight o’clock in the morning. At 1 p.m. sharp, she met with Lumet and Connell and informed them that they needed to excise two minutes from the picture. When Lumet objected, Booth began naming shots that could be shortened, right off the top of her head. “Her film memory was phenomenal,” Lumet remembered. “She named seven or eight moments, always perfect on where the shot occurred, what took place in the shot, how its beginning or end might be trimmed — and she’d seen the picture only once.”29 The story ends somewhat sourly, with Lumet recounting a rather unflattering personal anecdote about Booth. Yet this only serves to make the message clearer: thirty years down the road and his ego was still chafing.

For the most part, though, editing under the studio system was an unglamorous business, looked on within the industry more as a tradecraft than an art form. Strict rules governed the procedure for editing a movie, which in turn governed the way movies were filmed. A scene would invariably begin with a master shot. If it involved a conversation — say, between a man and a woman — a medium shot would follow; then a close-up over his shoulder, a close-up over her shoulder, and so on. When he got up to leave, we would get a medium shot, followed by a master. Cut: wash, rinse, repeat. This meant that editing, not to mention filming, could be quite monotonous, rather like painting by numbers. To ensure that any possible line of dialogue could be severed in post if necessary, directors were required to cover scenes thoroughly from every possible angle, with meticulous attention to continuity. If Bogart raised a cigarette to his lips with his right hand in the close-up, then he had to do so for all the other angles, and try to exhale his smoke in the exact same way every time. If he gave a better performance on a particular take but the continuity was slightly off, the performance was sacrificed in deference to the continuity, rather than trying to find a clever way around the problem. In addition to being dull for editors, this process was extremely taxing on actors, who worked harder to match action than attempt an inspired improvisational performance, mostly because they didn’t want to risk an endless series of retakes.30

The unintended advantage of this was that, since editing was considered a mere mechanical vocation, many women were allowed to join the ranks. In addition to Margaret Booth, there was Barbara McLean, editor of Twelve O’Clock High (1949), All About Eve (1950), and The Robe (1953); and Anne Bauchens, who was Cecil B. DeMille’s editor, cutting nearly all his movies from 1915 until his death in 1959. Indeed, of the editors whose names have become known to the general public, nearly all are women: Thelma Schoonmaker, Anne Coates, Verna Fields, and Dede Allen. Allen, in particular, became something of a cause célèbre after she edited Bonnie and Clyde (1967), though she’d been building a reputation as one of the most daring editors in America for years. After crossing a union picket line in the 1950s, she was virtually banished from Hollywood, setting herself up in New York instead, where she cut such films as Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), The Hustler (1961), and America, America (1963). Though her technique may now appear somewhat formal, she did as much to change the quiddity of ’60s cinema as Fellini and Truffaut. Eschewing the traditional Hollywood precepts of cutting, she often began scenes in close-up, popularized the use of sound bridges (where the sound from the upcoming scene elbows its way over its predecessor), jump cuts, and rapid-fire editing. However, unlike Godard, say, who deployed these same techniques with about as much subtlety as a jackhammer in brain surgery, Allen’s greatest gift was always her self-restraint. Story and character were her lodestars, never cutting simply for cutting’s sake. When she opened Bonnie and Clyde with a tight close-up of a bare-assed Faye Dunaway in bed, it wasn’t simply to titillate or defy convention but to draw attention to the metal bars separating us from the character. In the beginning of the film, Bonnie is a caged woman, both professionally and sexually, stuck in a dreary existence she despises. Thus, it’s all the more believable that when a handsome stranger shows up a few minutes later to steal her car, she takes off with him for a heedless life of crime, with hardly a second thought. If Allen’s method doesn’t strike you as particularly revolutionary today, that’s because it has been so widely emulated by later filmmakers. In 1967, Jack Warner considered firing Allen because he thought her technique would be too confusing for audiences to understand. (“You mean that you’re going to fade out and cut in?” he balked after seeing a rough cut of Bonnie and Clyde.)31 A couple of years later, though, everyone was following her lead. One cannot state that without her example there would be no The Wild Bunch (1969), The French Connection (1971), or Mean Streets (1973), but they would certainly be very different pictures.

Yet Allen’s career is an instructive example, for it shows us just how little tolerance narrative cinema has for iconoclasm. Her later credits include Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Reds (1981), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Wonder Boys (2000): all exquisitely crafted pieces of work but not exactly what you’d call avant-garde experiments in film form. Because of its popular appeal and need to tell coherent stories, cinema has never really been subject to the theoretical flights of fancy that have overwhelmed many of the other arts. Questions of abstraction and the boundaries of the medium get shoved to the side pretty quickly when you’re trying to make a return on a multimillion-dollar investment. The basic rules of film editing, first established in the silent era, still govern the industry today: maintain your eye lines, preserve continuity, respect planarity (the rules governing the transposition of three dimensions onto a two-dimensional plane), find a good rhythm, and, most important, always advance the story.

The only time cinema ever diverged from these precepts on a broad scale was during the 1920s, in Soviet Russia. Though he might not have looked the part, V. I. Lenin was actually a huge movie fan. He thought that cinema — this futuristic new medium for the masses, forged from the limbs of its forebears, drama and photography — was the perfect new art form to capture the phoenix-like rise of his coming industrial society. Lacking film stock and equipment because of the war, Soviet filmmakers honed their craft recutting American pictures, building a cult around editing. Many were young and unseasoned in film technique, unafraid of throwing old rules out the window. Vsevolod Pudovkin was an engineering student before the revolution, as was Sergei Eisenstein. Lev Kuleshov, the godfather of Soviet montage, was barely eighteen years old when the Bolsheviks seized power, yet he founded a film school that influenced dozens of later filmmakers and discovered the editing principle that still bears his name: the Kuleshov effect. Strictly speaking, editors had already been employing the Kuleshov effect for years without ever putting a name to it, although, then again, many people had been having painful encounters with gravity before Newton explained the phenomenon. The effect, as any first-year film student knows, is this: that depending on how they’re juxtaposed, unchanging shots can take on different meanings. Cut from a man’s expressionless face to a child crying and the audience will think he’s been harming the child. Cut from the same face to a quietly sleeping child and the audience will think he’s looking at it fondly. In one of his crueler moments, Alfred Hitchcock suggested that James Stewart’s reaction shots in Rear Window (1954) were prime examples of the Kuleshov effect in action.32 In other words, it wasn’t Stewart doing the acting; it was all in the editing.

The most famous Soviet filmmaker, of course, is Eisenstein, who, like many of his peers, expounded his editing theories on the page as well as the screen. To describe the way a film was pieced together he coined the term “montage,”33 and argued that, in cutting a film, the editor created meaning not through an immaculate blending of shots but through conflict: graphic conflict, conflict between planes, conflict between volumes, spatial conflict, conflict in lighting, conflict in tempo.34 Take a look at any one of his films and you’ll understand what he means, almost like seeing a cubist painting adapted to the screen. Ironically, Eisenstein’s most lasting theoretical insight has also been the most abused, his notion of “shock attraction.”35 By this he meant the juxtaposing of images to create an idea that is larger, more encompassing, more emotional than any one of the shots alone. An example: in his 1925 film Strike, a scene of workers being attacked is cut together with a shot showing the slaughter of a bull, thereby evoking the idea that the workers are being treated like cattle. Eisenstein would undoubtedly be distraught to see how Hollywood has appropriated his noble-minded technique: the rapidly peeling pages of a calendar to imply the passage of time, the overlapping newspaper headlines to show the devastation of gangland violence, and the montage of the happy couple walking and laughing together to let us know they’re falling in love.

Eisenstein, like many of his peers, edited his own films. In the silent era, this was not at all uncommon; D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton also sat at the cutting table themselves. As the industry became more compartmentalized, though, the professions split. For cinephiles, one result of this is that unless you have the time and privilege to pore over hours of uncut film, you’ll never know for certain whether what you’re looking at is a brilliant piece of direction or a brilliant piece of editing. In some cases, we can have a pretty good idea. Hitchcock planned his films so scrupulously that the finished prints rarely diverge from the storyboards (“The film is already made in my head before we start shooting,” he liked to say),36 and some directors, like Louis Malle, were so consistently good with a whole string of editors that more than mere luck of the draw must be at play. At other times, though, it’s hard to say. How would Eric Rohmer’s oeuvre hold up without the help of Cecile Decugis or Arthur Penn’s without Dede Allen? Less ambiguously, there are the editors who jumped ship to become directors — Robert Wise, Hal Ashby, Alain Resnais, and the Coen Brothers, to name a few — many of them never losing their fondness for the cutting room. David Lean cut his first film at the age of twenty-two, and though his pictures as a director may be sweeping, forever thirsting for the spectacular image, you can always feel him behind his editor’s shoulders, his keen-edged talons never far from the celluloid. As soon as the premiere of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was over, he was back in the cutting room, tightening and polishing and issuing new directives to Anne Coates for even the most minuscule changes:

After Ali says to Lawrence, “This is the sun’s anvil” I would go, as is, to the long shot of the ants going out into the anvil and dissolve to the second night sequence with the long shadows and the boy falling off his camel. This would cut out the 3-shot sequence of Lawrence looking at his watch, Ali catching him yawning, and Lawrence settling down in his saddle.37

In 1984, Lean acted as director and editor on A Passage to India. If you read the opening credits, you’ll observe that he gave equal billing to both positions.

It is only natural that editors should yearn to sit at the tiller, for theirs is essentially a servile position, always at the mercy of others — the actors, the cinematographer, the producers, and, of course, the director — which means they depend on luck for success as much as skill. No matter how amazing the editor, no matter how industrious and clever, she can never entirely make up for something that was poorly directed in the first place. A good director is an essential ingredient in all great films, dispiriting as that may be to the hundreds of other technicians who work just as hard without a fraction of the recognition. Raging Bull (1980) needed Martin Scorsese just as much as it needed Thelma Schoonmaker, and though only Henri Colpi could have edited Last Year at Marienbad (1961) so surreally, only Alain Resnais would have dared film it in the first place. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Just consider the career of Michael Kahn, who has cut all but one of Steven Spielberg’s movies since Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). He is the most Oscar-nominated editor in film history, with the most wins as well (three), tied with Thelma Schoonmaker, David Mandell, and Ralph Dawson. Yet his few pictures away from Spielberg’s stewardship are hardly so impressive: Arachnophobia (1990), Casper (1995), Reindeer Games (2000), Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003). As Sidney Lumet once pointed out, “I have seen great suspense created by maintaining a long, slow-tracking shot that ends with the leading lady in close-up and a hand suddenly coming in to cover her mouth. If the director hadn’t made the long, slow tracking shot, it couldn’t have been created.”38 Obviously, Lumet is a fan of John Carpenter. When Jamie Lee Curtis slumps against the wall in Halloween (1978), the terror comes, not from some shock cut to Michael leaping into frame, but from his masked face slowly gliding out of the darkness beside her, like a half-remembered dream. Horror like that can’t be manufactured in the cutting room.

In recent years, the editing landscape has undergone a sea change. Someday, years from now, film historians may look back, like paleontologists of old, and see the 1990s as the beginning of a mass extinction, the death of a great and noble creature: analog film. For seventy years, the editing world was ruled by giant beasts of machines. In addition to the Moviola, there was the Steenbeck, the KEM, the LEM, the Prevost, and the Moritone — great celluloid looms at which the editors sat as they stitched their films together. As far back as the late ’60s, however, moviemakers began to toy with the idea of editing on computers, which, though cumbersome at the time, were growing increasingly practicable. While many people have certainly heard of Avid, Final Cut Pro, and Sony Vegas, they may not be aware of their disco-era forebears: CMX, Montage, EditDroid. Curiously (or perhaps predictably), resistance to these machines came mostly from within the film industry. Many editors and directors, grown comfortable with the tools they’d learned on, were intimidated by the complex new equipment and not anxious to switch horses midstream. There were a few exceptions. George Lucas, not surprisingly, was one of them, using the vast ocean of capital from his Star Wars franchise to equip LucasFilm with the latest digital gadgets, as was Francis Ford Coppola, who began tooling around with computer editing back in the ’70s. Bernardo Bertolucci, James Cameron, Oliver Stone, and Carroll Ballard were all early converts, as well.39 The big push, however, came from television, where material had to be churned out quickly and editors were less concerned with creating timeless masterpieces than simply meeting deadlines. Recognizing a golden opportunity when they saw one, Avid began selling their hardware to TV news stations around the world, ensuring that a whole new generation of editors grew up on their equipment.

The early roadblock for digital editing systems was hard-drive space: they needed a lot of it, enough to store an entire film on. Since the computers of the ’80s were incapable of such feats, Darth Vader-like machines were created — part analog, part electronic — storing their data on videotape and laserdisc but manipulating it on computers. (This was the theory behind the EditDroid and the Montage systems.) Additionally, the image quality was often poor, resulting in a pixelated, George Seuratish look; processing speed was slow; and the machines were expensive and unnecessarily cumbersome, requiring, for instance, dozens of identical copies of VHS tapes for dailies. By the ’90s, though, many of these early defects had faded away, and more and more filmmakers were coming to fancy the new technology. Wind (1991), Kafka (1991), The Doors (1991), and Medicine Man (1992) were all edited by computer. The tipping point came in 1995. That was the last year that the number of films edited mechanically equaled the number edited digitally.40 Since then, the electronic tide has engulfed the landscape. For a time, a few holdouts stubbornly clung on. Steven Spielberg, surprisingly enough, for all the wondrous effects he has brought to the screen in films like Jurassic Park (1993), was one of them. Of digital editing he has complained: “It doesn’t smell like film. It smells like an electronic lab.”41 In the ’90s, seeing that the end was nigh, he began buying up old Moviolas and their spare parts to guard against a future shortage.42 By the second decade of the new millennium, though, even he had succumbed to the inexorable pressure of modernity. His recent films Tintin (2011), War Horse (2011), and Lincoln (2012) were all cut on an Avid, though he insists he’s anxious to return to analog as soon as possible.43 Such devotion to the past is comforting in a way, revealing that genius need not depend solely on flashy new technology, though it is certainly unusual these days. As Walter Murch wrote over a decade ago: “The persistence of the Moviola into the last decade of the twentieth century is about as surprising as seeing an old manual Underwood typewriter loaded onto the Space Shuttle.”44

The benefits of digital editing are manifold. For one, it gives the editor the ability to save drafts, allowing for more freedom to experiment, as well as the option of holding onto multiple versions of a scene. In the past, there was no easy way to go back, outside of the laborious and expensive process of duplicating a sequence to film or videotape, should some particular construction ultimately prove unworkable. Now all one need do is save a new draft, giving the editor the liberty to pursue just about any flight of fancy without worry that she’s committing herself to an irreversible course of action. Additionally, one need not fret about a work print getting scratched or torn, which was always the case back when you had to run the film through a physical machine at high speed. Likewise, whereas analog systems were restricted to playing only two or three audio tracks at once, computers can run literally dozens (dialogue, footsteps, wind, traffic noise, gun shots, etc.) all at the same time, approximating the final sound mix of the film much more closely than before. Fades, dissolves, color correction, and other visual effects can now be seen instantly, as well (well, almost instantly, depending on rendering time). And then, of course, digital editing is so much faster and cheaper than the alternative. It is this last facet that is most frequently touted by producers, always eager to get their product to market quickly, but it has also been a boon to young, independent filmmakers everywhere. A couple of decades ago, even the most financially starved films were budgeted in the tens of thousands of dollars. (Richard Linklater’s Slacker [1991] and Edward Burns’s The Brothers McMullen [1995] each cost about $25,000, respectively, to make.)45 More recently, Alex Holdridge’s In Search of a Midnight Kiss (2007) was shot for less than $2,000, and that film went on to receive international distribution and win the 2009 Independent Spirit Award.46 “If you like the idea of making an improvised movie,” says indie filmmaker Edward Burns, “go digital. It’s a great advance.”47

The disadvantages are less conspicuous. For just about any editor today, the thought of returning to an analog cutting room is about as appealing as undergoing premodern surgery. Yet something was lost when smooth, silken celluloid was replaced by all those ones and zeroes. Walter Murch, who was the first person to win an Academy Award for digital editing, has always maintained a fondness for physical film. “The hidden advantage of sprocketed film was the weight and volume of it encouraged the editor to take things seriously and to plan ahead before jumping in,” he writes. “Theseus needed his thread to get out of the Minotaur’s maze. With no plan, no map, no thread, film editing becomes just a thrashing about, a slamming together of images and sounds for momentary effect.”48 As Murch sees it, the fatal flaw of digital editing is also its greatest asset: instant random access. When you can leap across time and space with no more than a mouse click, the temptation to do so wantonly becomes irresistible, like a myopic giant bounding blithely over lush countryside, potentially striding over priceless gems hidden in the underbrush. This is Spielberg’s objection to the process, as well. “Granted,” he says, “I can make four cuts electronically to every one cut I can make on the Moviola or KEM, or Mike Kahn can make, but it gives me time, while they’re pulling the trims, for me to walk around, to catch my breath, to think about what I’m doing. And I need those little moments of seven, eight minutes while they’re pulling down the trims and showing them in the Moviola to think about what I’m doing.”49

So where does this leave the film editors? What will the profession look like in ten, twenty, thirty years? It is very possible that with an ever-ascending technological curve, the job will again become an assembly-line craft, too complex for any single individual to handle on her own. The software prerequisites for the profession are already overwhelming: Avid, Final Cut Pro, After Effects, Photoshop, Illustrator, Camtasia, Shake, Magic Bullet, Soundtrack Pro, Pro Tools, Compressor. The list goes on. At Pixar, where advanced degrees are held in factors of Mr. Potato Head’s parts, the artists are herded into their own separate subdivisions — set dressing, modeling, art department, layout — while scores of animators fuse the many pieces together, adding lighting, motion, and effects. For Cars 2 (2011), which contains a scene on the open ocean, one man worked for four months creating nothing but the spray of sea foam.50You might say, “Well, that’s animation, not editing.” True, but the line between the two is becoming blurry. The film Juno spans nine months of a teenage girl’s life but, because of its limited budget, was shot entirely in six weeks, during the winter of 2007. To imbue the early scenes with the authenticity of autumn, Jason Reitman and his editor Dana Glauberman went back and digitally tweaked the colors of the trees, morphing them into the deep ochres of fall.51 Yet, as Michael Kahn points out, no matter how flashy the new technology, “It’s just another [pair of] scissors.”52 Listen to the testimony of almost any editor who has made the digital leap in the last couple of decades, and you’ll hear the same sentiment. “If the dialogue is great dialogue,” says Dede Allen, “and you have good actors doing it . . . it’s still the same kind of method.”53 In that sense, the job of the film editor hasn’t changed at all, no more than the job of the novelist changed with the advent of the word processor. For all the advances over the past hundred years — sound, color, computer technology — her mission today is, at its core, little different from that of Margaret Booth when she first sat down at the rewind bench a century ago. Advance the story. Find a good rhythm. Maintain continuity. Move us. Make a cut. Surprise us.


Abbott, Denice. “Industry Mourns Entrepreneur Mark Serrurier.”

Alwalt, Steven. “Steven Spielberg on Digital Editing.” October 27, 2011.

Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen. Film Theory and Criticism. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Dawson, Nick. “Lip Locked.” Filmmaker.

Dove, Linda. “Rhythm and Attitude: Michael Kahn Speaks at A.C.E. Seminar.” The Motion Picture Editors Guild Newsletter. Vol. 15, No. 5. November/December 1994.

The Hustler. Dir. Robert Rossen. Bonus Features. 20th Century-Fox, 1961. DVD. IMDBPro.

Juno. Dir. Jason Reitman. Bonus Features. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2007. DVD.

Lane, Anthony. “Master and Commander: Remembering David Lean.” The New Yorker. March 31, 2008.

Lane, Anthony. “The Fun Factory: Life at Pixar.” The New Yorker. May 16, 2011.

Lewis, Kevin. “The Moviola Mavens and the Moguls.” Editors Guild magazine.

Looking for Kitty. Dir. Edward Burns. Bonus Features. THiNK Film, 2006. DVD.

Long, Robert Emmet. ed. John Huston: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

Lumet, Sidney. Making Movies. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Monaco, Paul. The Sixties. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2001.

Murch, Walter. In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 2001.

Rosenblum, Ralph and Robert Karen. When the Shooting Stops . . . the Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story. New York: Viking Press, 1979.

Spielberg, Steven. Interview with James Lipton. Inside the Actors Studio. Season 5, Episode 9. February 4, 1999.

Truffaut, Francois. Hitchcock Truffaut. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.

Williams, Elmo. A Hollywood Memoir. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2006.

  1. Murch, p. ix. []
  2. The Hustler. []
  3. Rosenblum, p. 70. []
  4. Ibid, p. 2 []
  5. Williams, p. 84. []
  6. Rosenblum, p. 3. []
  7. Ibid., p. 67. []
  8. Ibid., p. 5. []
  9. Murch, pp. 1-2. []
  10. Ibid., pp. 79-80. []
  11. Ibid., pp. 5-6. []
  12. Ibid., p. 58. []
  13. Long, p. 44. []
  14. Rosenblum, p. 64. []
  15. Murch, p. 75. []
  16. Abbott. []
  17. Baxter, p. 251. []
  18. Rosenblum, p. 273. []
  19. Ibid., p. 92. []
  20. Ibid., p. 247. []
  21. Ibid., p. 283. []
  22. Ibid., p. 286. []
  23. Ibid., pp. 288-89. []
  24. Rosenblum, p. 66 []
  25. Lumet, p. 151. []
  26. Rosenblum, p. 65. []
  27. Lewis. []
  28. Ibid. []
  29. Lumet, p. 153 []
  30. Ibid., pp. 149-150 []
  31. Monaco, pp. 90-91. []
  32. Truffaut, p. 216. []
  33. Rosenblum, p. 48. []
  34. Braudy and Cohen, p. 29. []
  35. Rosenblum, p. 48. []
  36. Murch, p. 142. []
  37. Lane, “Master and Commander.” []
  38. Lumet, p. 155. []
  39. Murch, p. 87. []
  40. Murch, p. xi. []
  41. Spielberg. []
  42. Murch, p. 79. []
  43. Awalt, Steven. []
  44. Murch, p. 91. []
  45. IMDBPro. []
  46. Dawson. []
  47. Looking for Kitty. []
  48. Murch, p. 125. []
  49. Spielberg. []
  50. Lane, “The Fun Factory.” []
  51. Juno. []
  52. Murch, p. ix. []
  53. The Hustler. []