Monday, 21 November 2011

Who Does What? #6: The Editor

Film editors are among the more unsung heroes of the film business. The job is not glamorous, the odds of traveling to exotic locations, doing red carpet strolls, and having hot young starlets willing to have sex with you are pretty slim when you're an editor. 

Early moviola editing machine.
Directors get attention as "auteurs" and for their "vision," cinematographers get kudos for making people and places look good, and even writers get the occasional pat on the back when they're particularly clever.

Editors though, work mostly unknown to the outside world, in cramped little offices doing some of the most important drudge work in the movie business.

That drudge work is to take all the footage shot by the director, and put it together in a way that the film makes sense.

You see, shooting a film, taking out the reel or videotape out of the camera and sending it directly to the theaters as some sort of finished product will probably get you laughed at.  To make a professional quality narrative film pretty much requires things be shot out of sequence for sheer practicality. All the scenes shot at one setting have to be done together if you can, then shoot all the scenes done at key locations, and even then you have multiple takes of every shot, etc... etc...

Once shooting is done you literally have a mess of what used to be film, but now digital data, that has to be sorted, put together, and then trimmed, adjusted, and just plain fiddled with to create a coherent and entertaining film.

Back in the wonderful pre-digital age, of which my film school education caught the tail end, you actually had to review the film on either a moviola or Steenbeck style editing machine.  Then you had to physically cut the film with a razor shop cutting device, and then tape or glue the film of the shots you want to keep together to create a first cut of the film.

The first cut is not a finished film.  It's just a beginning of the post-production process.  The work print is a base to begin working from.  It's then reviewed by the interested parties, the director, producer, studio executives, and the executive's aromatherapist, to see what changes will be made from that.

There will be changes, that's inevitable. The editing process is not considered finished until the person who is contractually blessed with the power of "final cut" decides that it's finished.

Eventually, sound effects, special effects, titles, and all the other elements are put together to create something called "the work-print."

But even then you are not finished.

In the pre-digital days the reels of work-prints are then taken to the film lab where the "negative cutters" take the original film negatives of all the elements of the film, and puts them together.  This edited version of the negative is then used as a master, creating prints to be released into theaters.

Nowadays things are much simpler for the editor.  They no longer have to wrestle with strips of fragile film and constantly jamming equipment.  Everything is now digitized, and computerized, and now all the picture & sound editing, and special effects, for a pro-grade feature film can be done on a single computer running off the shelf software.

However, while everyone can edit, and everyone who wants to direct films should have a hand in editing, not everyone should be a full time editor. The job still requires incredible patience, a nit picker's attention to minutiae, and strong sense of narrative structure.

The Steenbeck film editing table.
Now you might think that directors should do all the editing on their films, and while it may sound lovely in a perfect world, in our imperfect real world, you need an editor. You see sometimes when you're a director you may feel compelled to keep something that made you feel oh-so brilliant while shooting, that just doesn't gel with everything else while you're editing.  That's why an experienced, impartial, professional editor needs to convince the director to kill their own darlings for the good of the finished film.

And that's my glib and superficial explanation of what film editors do.

1 comment:

  1. With the digital age, the beauty of it is that it reduces the cost and makes EDITING MUCH EASIER. In the past, films that had to be edited had to have the stock printed, which was costly. With digital editing machines, those prints had to be put in video tape called by a process telecine. Now with digital film/video your raw footage can be just sent straight to editing