Editing is such a mysterious process that it’s called the invisible art. But like the script, it’s the foundation of a film. Of the 61 films that have won Best Picture Oscars since 1952, 32 have won Best Editing too. Editing became a category at the awards in 1934 and since then only nine films have won Best Picture without a nomination for editing. In Variety magazine, Nebraska editor Kevin Tent says: It’s hard to articulate what editors do but when it’s bad, you’ll know it. When it’s good, you’ll never know.’
If you want to know more about editing, read In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective On Film Editing By Walter Murch. Murch is a legendary editor, sound designer, director and screenwriter. He has been nominated for the Oscar nine times and has won thrice – for best editing and best sound mixing for The English Patient and best sound mixing for Apocalypse Now. In the foreword to the book, Francis Ford Coppola describes him as ‘the essential collaborator on what are probably the best films I worked on: The Conversation and The Godfather: Part II.’
What makes a good cut? According to Murch, the ideal cut ‘is true to the emotion of the moment.’ It ‘advances the story’ and ‘it occurs at a moment that is rhythmically interesting and right’
This book is a revised transcription of a lecture on film editing that Murch gave in 1988. The book was published in 1995 and the afterword rewritten in 2001. Murch says that most of the thoughts are “cautionary notes to myself.” But what makes this book so valuable is the insight it offers into the process, not just for professional editors but also for film lovers.
What makes a good cut? According to Murch, the ideal cut ‘is true to the emotion of the moment.’ It ‘advances the story’ and ‘it occurs at a moment that is rhythmically interesting and right.’ Of course the cut should also acknowledge eye-trace and the continuity of the space but Murch says that these are lesser priorities. He believes that ‘if the emotion is right and the story is advanced in a unique, interesting way,’ audiences won’t be overly concerned with technicalities.
Skillful editing condenses time so the duration of the film doesn’t weigh on the viewer. Think of Thelma Schoonmaker’s Oscar-nominated work in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman – viewers (or at least many of them) weren’t burdened by the formidable three-hour-29-minute running time of the film. I also found fascinating Murch’s explanation that a cut functions like the blink of an eye. He writes: A shot presents us with an idea or a sequence of ideas and the cut is a ‘blink’ that separates and punctuates those ideas. At the moment you decide to cut, what you are saying is, in effect, ‘I’m going to bring this idea to an end and start something new.’ He adds: Where you are comfortable blinking – if you are really listening to what is being said – is where the cut will feel right.’
Reading In The Blink Of An Eye deepened my appreciation of the stitching together of a film. The best editing work might still remain invisible to most of us but the book encourages viewers to look for rhythms. Some of the chapters get technical – especially when Murch talks about the shift from analog to digital – but mostly his style is straightforward and accessible. This book makes a perfect companion piece to the classic Murch book – The Conversations: Walter Murch and The Art of Editing by Michael Ondaatje. Check them both out.