If something isn’t working in your edit, it usually comes down to a few things. Invention lies in recognizing the problems—truly seeing and analyzing them.
The best way to dig yourself out of the weeds is to screen the film as often as possible—first to yourself and your team, then to trusted friends. Invite smart people and listen to what they have to say. Sitting next to an audience, their souls available to you for two hours in the dark, is a way to sense, almost chemically, what works.
The editor’s greatest superpower is playing with time: speeding things up or slowing them down to examine a moment in microscopic detail. This simulates our experience of life—the altered sense of time when a car lurches without warning across the lanes ahead. “Pace” isn’t just rattling through a film without allowing anyone to feel anything; you have to add variety and landscape the moments you want to dwell on. A director I worked with used to say, “You’ve got to sell some to buy others.” Apply firm scrutiny of the sense of time throughout the story.
I have a trick for this: When the film’s in good shape and you’re nearly finished, write scene numbers on a slip of paper and pull each randomly from a hat. Then, look at that scene—only that scene. Maybe investigate the dailies one more time. Is it the best it can be? Toward the end of movies there tend to be scenes that don’t get as much of a workout as those up top. This prevents that carelessness. Economize. Use cuts as sparely as you can. Don’t tire everyone out telling them what to think all the time. Allow the audience to invest their attention in a character or a shot.
Summarize the whole story out loud. How long does it take to tell each part? That length is a guide to ideal proportions. Telling the story of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, we asked ourselves: How long did it take to explain how protagonist Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was abducted, compared to the complex psychology in the household of his masters, the Epps? The mechanics of the abduction were relatively simple, so that could be compressed. We crash-cut from Solomon raising his spiked glass in a toast, to waking in a dungeon, only afterwards filling in what happened in between, drugged memories slowly surfacing. Using flashbacks, we could start with a more impactful immersion into the slave experience. And many scenes worked more poignantly in the rear-view mirror.
Montage is such a common get-out-of-jail-free card for editors it inspired a song in Team America: World Police. Sometimes you have to compress scenes and free the narrative from the steady tread of time. Get a kickass piece of music to release you from real-time continuity—you cut differently when music is in the driving seat. In the middle of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival we merged several scenes of scientific exploration into a standalone montage. We took a risk with convention and added voiceover, which delivered information better than the individual dramatic scenes. We got to spend more time with scientist Ian (Jeremy Renner) and we got to crack a joke about Scottish pop singer Sheena Easton.
If the left-hand side of take two fits with the right-hand side of take three, and it avoids a slip-up or an overlong pause, make a split-screen. Remove a blink that ruins a pause. The number of digital fixes we do has risen exponentially over the past 10 years—it’s not very Dogme 95, I know. In 12 Years a Slave, we needed to emphasize that once fellow slave Eliza (Adepero Oduye) is taken away, Solomon is left utterly alone. We wanted to ramp up the frustration and anger that drives his fight with Tibeats (Paul Dano). We didn’t have anything specific for that moment, but we did have a two-shot from an earlier sequence outside the slave hut where Eliza is unable to stop crying while Solomon eats. We took the shot, removed Eliza from it and used the first part of the take where Chiwetel was waiting for action before scooping up food from his plate. It looked like he was rendered unable to eat his meager rations. You felt the negative space Eliza once inhabited. I used some “time-passing” shots, such as a bell ringing, to round it out into a more complete sequence.
Try cutting without sound to better discover the rhythm. You quickly appreciate what’s driving the pace. Large parts of Sicario were edited with the speakers off. I try to keep the cut music-free for as long as possible. It helps us prune and to give sound effects, or even silence, a chance.
If you use temp tracks, beware! As my composer friend Matthew Herbert says, “Music is in an abusive relationship with film.” Try not to get hooked or you are tying the composer’s hands behind their back before they’ve started.
I like to get involved in editing the teasers—I’ve done this on both Sicario and Blade Runner 2049. Seeing your material serve a different purpose, in more compact forms, inspires you to be bolder in the actual film.
Separate yourself from your editing software. Put cards on the wall, so when you shift things around, you don’t drain energy by fixating on junctions. For the documentary Life in a Day, as a way of shaping the 4,500 hours of footage (all filmed one day in July 2010) into a coherent structure, we shuffled clips around on the wall before beginning on the Avid. Think horizontally, not vertically. How many times do we sink hours into finessing a cut in a scene that’s in the wrong place, anyway?
Sometimes story points just don’t land. ADR is the common fix. Every assistant on my team gets to play at least two characters in the film we’re cutting. We slap temp sound in to get a sense of how a line might work or get the timing right. (Directors could help us more—they could shoot from behind more often and cast actors with capacious beards, or carrying items of furniture at head height.) Fellini was more relaxed about ADR than we are. He’d cast a waiter and ask them to walk through frame, counting from one to 30, then he’d write something for them weeks later in the cutting room. Mute the sound on his films and you’ll see characters mouthing “uno, due, tre, quattro, cinque…” In the Italian version of La Strada, actors even speak when their mouths are shut!
Juxtapose. Classical composers were seriously into counterpoint—the thrill of contemplating more than one thing at one time. Nicolas Roeg and his editor Graeme Clifford provide heroic examples in Don’t Look Now. Check out how, at the beginning of the film, they cross-cut the main characters’ love-making with getting dressed for a night out. It adds humanity—there’s an intimacy continuing when they are apart. In Arrival there’s a huge mash-up toward the end of the movie in which two separate scenes of an important phone call and a meeting with a Chinese general were fused to wring as much tension out of both as possible.
Occasionally, let the film take a break from logic. One of the moments I love in Arrival is a nightmare sequence, which started out as a normal scene where Amy Adams’ character, Louise, is visited in her quarters by colleague Ian and boss Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker). It was the beginning of a long piece of story tubing which we’d tried to discard, but it had an essential piece of information. As an experiment, we very crudely strung together only the pieces we needed, at one point creating a really jarring join between one line of Ian’s and another. Normally, returning stuff to a cut can feel like putting wet swimming trunks back on, but here it set our minds alight. In her close-up, Louise was looking off camera towards Webber, but in our selects we never cut to him (which would take us off down a path we wanted the story to avoid). As it happens, that day we’d seen our first test shot from Hybrid’s VFX team of an alien crawling forward, like an elephant shrouded in mist. This inspired us to hold on Louise’s look off-camera for as long as we could, then instead of going to a matching reverse revealing Webber, we cut to this huge alien crouching in the corner of her bedroom. We rounded off with Louise waking up and looking utterly thrown. The jarring cut from Ian to Ian was kept as it signals early that all is not as it seems. The nightmare was a great way to get inside Louise’s head.
Use the pattern of days, nights and weekends to help you retain objectivity. The first editor I assisted, Pam Bosworth—whose vintage can be summed up by the fact she whistled on the soundtrack of The Bridge on the River Kwai—gave me a good tip: “Leave your sequence unfinished at the end of the day.” Return to it with fresh eyes—you’ll see things more clearly. And you get to begin your day with finishing rather than starting something—not a bad way to avoid editor’s block.
My final tip: Buy yourself a set of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies, a set of playing cards printed with thought-provoking aphorisms. Two I like in particular: “Emphasize differences” and “What wouldn’t you do?” I learned when I was a composer that sitting in front of speakers listening to the same 16 bars go round and round is useless. You get a better idea of what to change when you hear the music from the corridor outside. MM
Joe Walker is the editor of 12 Years a Slave, Sicario, the upcoming Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, opening in theaters November 11, 2016, courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2017.