The Editor’s Job
What’s an editor’s job? It’s a basic but difficult question. The simple answer might be: It’s your job to tell a particular story the best way you possibly can. There are so many pieces when you come back from shooting; it’s the editor’s job to find the story. You have to really listen to the footage. That’s how I’ve come to think of it. Your job is to listen. The footage will tell you what is good without you having to impose anything on it. It’s like gold-mining in that way. You can almost think of it as a life philosophy: You focus on the good, don’t worry about the bad, and don’t worry about what you thought something should be. It’s your job to find out what it is.
Editing with Emotion
One of the first editors I really sat with was a man named Jim Lyons, a classic editor. He edited all of Todd Haynes’ early work, and he is kind of a legend in the editing world. I would sit with him for days and watch him edit and ask him lots of annoying questions like, “Why did you cut right there? Why are you doing that?” And he’d always say the same thing: “Because it felt good.” It was always about emotions with him. He wasn’t a very technical person. I always thought that to be an editor you had to be a super-techy geek, but he wasn’t at all. He was a true artist. A pure artist. He helped me realize that you could still be an artist as an editor. “Cut on emotion,” he told me. It took years for me to understand what that meant.
I try to teach my students that the emotional journey of a film is what matters. If a scene is working emotionally, people won’t notice anything else. The actor could change costumes and the audience wouldn’t notice because they’re so emotionally absorbed in the moment. The goal is to have the audience feel what the characters are feeling. So as an editor, you have to use more than your head. You have to use your whole body. Pay attention to how a scene makes your body feel. You have to do this work with your feelings on.
Editing as Poetry
I went to school for literature. I wrote poetry and didn’t like electronic things. But during my last year of college, I took an experimental film class and was blown away. I immediately understood the connection between poetry and experimental film. The way images placed next to each other can be evocative without necessarily telling a story. Now I’ve come to see poetry and editing as being very similar as well. In both, you’re trying to say the most with the least. You want to give the viewer just enough so they won’t get lost, but not so much that they can’t participate in the story by filling in the holes themselves. Both are very much about how you expand or contract time. You can make a moment last 10 minutes, or you can condense a lifetime into 10 minutes. Both are powerful, but you have to decide: are you expanding or contracting time?
I’m thankful I started in experimental film, just because I learned the power that images can have on their own. One image next to another image has a certain power — just like words in a poem. There’s an economy to both. If you’ve said something well once, you don’t need to keep saying it again. A lot of Hollywood films do that. They treat the viewer as if they’re a bit dumb. Did you get it? Did you get it? Did you get it? It gets old. Good editing, and good poetry, respects the audience. And the truth is the audience needs to know only so much. Much less than you’d think.
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