I just completed a semester teaching film editing at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and I loved it. I spent everyday with students of cinema whose enthusiasm was unbridled. I revisited movies that inspired me when I was their age: THE GRAND ILLUSION, LA STRADA, BREATHLESS, THE GRADUATE, BONNIE AND CLYDE, and THE GODFATHER, to name a few. And I shared anecdotes and assigned published interviews with amazing editors -- all in order to pass along my beloved craft!
There’s no better place to do that nowadays than a university or conservatory. It was different when motion pictures were edited on celluloid – run through clacking Moviolas or humming Kems and Steenbecks, spliced together with scotch tape. There was a real master/apprentice system in cutting rooms, with assistant editors learning their craft directly from editors and directors. But that arrangement has changed.
When I started in feature post-production in the late seventies, a key part of the assistant editor’s job was to find pieces of film for the director and editor. Working on MANHATTAN, as Woody Allen and Sandy Morse repeatedly viewed Dianne Keaton’s close-up and the subsequent shot of Michael Murphy, for example, I’d head to a box containing the tail of Keaton’s shot, then to one containing the head of Murphy’s. As scrutiny continued, I’d roll down to the actual frames that might be needed. If I did my job well, I’d have the correct piece in Sandy’s hand as soon as she asked for it. Of course, such efficiency would have been impossible if I hadn’t been in the room listening. So I began to learn the craft of editing -- why to trim a given shot or extend another, why to restructure a section of the movie, delete a whole scene, or be wide instead of close -- by eavesdropping.
But in the mid-nineties, digital systems eliminated finding pieces of film as an assistant editing task. Now the editor presses a computer key when she and the director need to extend or change a shot; as a rule, the assistant works on sound and visual effects or organizational assignments in a separate space. Thus classrooms, not cutting rooms, have become the best venues for teaching our craft. We try to involve assistants in the process by discussing our cutting choices at the end of each workday or when we turn scenes over to them for temporary sound effects editing. But these brief chats are no substitute for the fulltime immersion of yesteryear.
It was exciting, then, to share the invisible art at North Carolina’s prestigious film conservatory. I began by teaching the fundamentals of cutting I learned so long ago when, filled with misconceptions, I found myself retrieving pieces of celluloid for editors and directors. Back then I believed, as most lay people do, that the primary goal of editing was to fix mistakes. It isn’t. As I told my students, the more essential (and more exciting) task is to make sure great moments wind up in the finished film. Forget perfect match cuts. Forget anything but allowing yourself to be moved by the best material, then figuring out how to use it.
We read an interview with Thom Rolfe, co-editor (with Marcia Lucas) of TAXI DRIVER. In it, Rolfe talks about Robert DeNiro’s iconic “You talkin’ to me?” monologue. When the editor viewed dailies, DeNiro’s performance blew him away, but the scene’s lack of coverage – of other angles to cut to – seemed problematic. Yet Rolfe couldn’t not use the actor’s brilliant work. So use it he did! And, to this day, I’ve never heard anyone complain about the way this brilliant scene is put together.
The TAXI DRIVER monologue provided a perfect segue to classes I taught on the primacy of performance itself. Before I actually worked in the industry, I’d read theoretical writings on editing by filmmaking pioneers Eisenstein and Pudovkin, and I knew that movies with great chase sequences won Academy Awards. Thus I came to the craft thinking it was, first and foremost, about picking shots that would produce some sort of cool effect when juxtaposed. That’s why I was surprised, on my first feature film, to see Woody Allen and Sandy Morse invariably consider performance above all else when selecting takes.
In class, I explored such issues as emotional complexity and authenticity – keys to performance selection - using interviews with film editors Dede Allen, Anne Coates and Sidney Levin. I screened clips of awe-inspiring work by Marlon Brando and Vivienne Leigh, Al Pacino and John Cazale, and Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina. We even discussed photos and paintings of great, expressive faces. I taught what I had learned in cutting rooms: when constructing a movie’s first assembly, great acting trumps great camera movement, great composition… everything!
Once I’d gotten across the idea that excellent performance is the most important criterion when selecting takes for a first cut, I pulled the rug out from under my students by telling them that after the first assembly of a motion picture, its pace might become even more important than what the actors are doing. I assigned an interview with Dede Allen about Robert Rossen’s THE HUSTLER, in which the legendary editor talked about how painful it was to lift one of Paul Newman’s best moments from the film. The deletion was necessary because THE HUSTLER’s audience had already garnered the scene’s information from an earlier bit that couldn’t be removed; Dede and her director discovered the movie was more engaging when it ceased to be redundant; the audience would never miss a performance of which it was unaware.
And I talked about similar experiences of my own: as an assistant, I watched Sandy Morse and Woody Allen eliminate an entire character from STARDUST MEMORIES because the film as a whole had already said everything the additional character might. Years later, Josh Radnor and I also removed a character’s plotline – one that seemed important in the script but not in the rough cut - while working on his movie, LIBERAL ARTS.
There were so many delights in sharing the craft of editing: talking about uses of sound effects and music, about the difference between pace and rhythm, about intentionally breaking hard and fast rules… And more!
I got to work with extremely capable student editors on their senior films and advise others on independent projects. I brought Editor’s Guild and ACE president Alan Heim to campus, where he screened ALL THAT JAZZ for an ecstatic crowd, and watched students mature right before my eyes as he worked with them one-on-one. I had the privilege of teaching alongside brilliant and dedicated editing colleagues and pedagogues from all filmmaking crafts and areas of cinema studies.
Most surprising to me, though, was the realization that teaching makes me a better editor. Having to articulate what I know and how I know it enables me to focus more sharply. And at times, it helps me come up with creative solutions to cutting problems more quickly.
Other editors tell me they’ve had similar experiences. David Bondelevich, film professor at University of Colorado Denver and past president of Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) and Cinema Audio Society (CAS), shared this quote: “To teach is to learn twice.” (Joseph Joubert). David sees his need to state complicated ideas in simple terms as an exercise that has enhanced his craftsmanship.
Norman Hollyn, ACE, esteemed author, editor and professor of cinematic arts at University of Southern California, agrees, and adds that he learns from those he’s instructing. “Questions that our good students ask,” he says, “help me to question my built-in assumptions about editing, open me up to other forms, and (perhaps most importantly) teach me how to better question myself.”
Norm’s insight resonates deeply for me. It captures not just how dazzled I was when a student showed me her favorite K-pop videos – the first I’d ever seen - or when she and other students showed me truly original work. It also reminds me of what a living, breathing entity the student/teacher relationship is, and how, consequently, filmmaking itself continues to evolve and inspire!