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How To Edit
Lucy Harris
How to Edit

Once you’ve reached the turning point in your rough cut, and you know what the film’s direction is, the process shifts. Rather than returning to the initial rushes, work becomes more focussed on editing within the rough cut itself. The focus is to establish the rhythm of the film, paying progressive attention to the fine details.

At this stage, it is easy to get caught up in small sections of the film and lose a sense of the whole framework. Walter Murch gives an needlework analogy, as if the film is a huge tapestry, and making tiny stitches in one place it will distort the whole thing.

The guidelines below give an order of working, and some questions to be considered

Start at the beginning
It can be misleading to keep viewing a loose ‘start’ to the film. Establish the rhythm of the beginning of the film, paying particular attention to the first few shots. This will set you on the right track for the rest of the film.
Look at the transitions from section to section. As films are often constructed in blocks initially, sections may have been viewed and worked on separately. Look at how separate sections are starting to work together. This can help make a cohesive rhythm throughout the film.
Be strict about excess shots. Early cuts (when you’re still trying to choose from different takes) will often use more shots than are needed. This is the stage to simplify and be firm about getting rid of any weak shots. Generally they will do more damage staying in the film than if they are removed.
Finding space
Early cuts are often very dense versions of the film, as all the initial ideas and possibilities are there. Throughout the editing process, there occurs a gradual ‘stripping away’ as the focus of the film becomes clearer. Key moments become apparent (a particular shot, sound, line of dialogue.) Part of finding a rhythm is for these moments to be emphasised by being in the best place within the film.
Early dense cuts may also lack space/points of stillness, because the focus has been on discovering the concept of the film. Now is the time to really work cohesively with all aspects of the image and sound, considering how the durations of shots are affecting the pace and rhythm across and within the whole film.

How long a shot is held can be a very intuitive process, and this is when you need to start responding to the film, rather than imposing yourself on it.

“I have to be very relaxed, very close to myself, so that I can feel each shot. I’d be sitting next to my editor, watching a shot, and when I feel that the shot had gone on for just the right length, so that something came through, but not too much, I’d say “there!” Chantal Ackerman
(A Critical Cinema 4 Interviews with Independent Filmmakers)

The way that the film is cut determines it’s pace, rhythm and how the film is read.

The ‘musical beat’ of a film – created visually and sonically. For example in Margaret Tait’s film ‘Hugh Macdiarmid: A Portrait’ is edited to reflect the rhythm of Macdiarmid’s poetry. This is through the lyrical visual rhythm of the edits.
The ‘timing’ of a film. Pace can refer to the internal movement within a single shot, the duration of the shot within the film, and how a group of shots are edited together.
The relationship between key ‘moments’ or ‘actions’ across the whole film. This could be in a completely abstract sense. For example, the ‘arc’ in structuralist film may refer to a build up of tension created by increasingly rapid cutting.

Of course all of these terms are inter-related. Both rhythm and pace can apply across the structure of the whole film, across a single cut, or even to the internal rhythm and pace within a single shot or sound. Creating the ‘arc’ of the film is achieved by paying attention to the rhythm and the pace.

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