Michael Ondaatje, the author of the novel on which The English Patient (1996) was based, knowing what an interesting character Walter Murch was, decided to have with him a series of conversations about the art and craft of film editing, and eventually made a book about it. Murch is the much-admired, ground-breaking editor/sound creator behind The Godfather films (1972, 1974 & 1990), Apocalypse Now (1979), The Conversation (1974), The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)…
Murch wrote himself a book about editing, In the Blink of an Eye, but this post is not about that work, it’s about Michael Ondaatje’s book about Murch, named The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film.
Lots of interesting thoughts in this book. I will summarise here only some of the basic elements. If you want to know more about the editing and sound of many important films, please get and enjoy this book.
(…) the structure of a film is created out of finding those harmonies we were talking about earlier—visual harmonies, thematic harmonies—and finding them at deeper and deeper levels as you work on the film.
The whole jigsaw
The editor is the only one who has time to deal with the whole jigsaw. The director simply doesn’t. To actually look at all the film the director has shot, and review it and sort through it, to rebalance all of that and make very specific notes about tiny details that are sometimes extremely significant, this falls to the editor.
In the end, the editor of a film must try to take advantage of all the material that is given to him, and reveal it in a way that feels like a natural but exciting unfolding of the ideas of the film. It’s really a question of orchestration: organizing the images and sounds in a way that is interesting, and digestible by the audience. Mysterious when it needs to be mysterious, and understandable when it needs to be understandable.
What you really want to do when first assembling a film is to put it together, right from the beginning, without second-guessing anything. Don’t try to be too smart too early. When you’ve finally gotten it all assembled, you can see how far the film has strayed from its intended trajectory. There may have been lots of deviations, but in the end, let’s say they’ve mostly canceled one another out and the film is only ten percent off. Now you can stand back from the whole thing and begin to reshape it judiciously, with some objectivity.
Two levels of work
The editor works at both the macroscopic and the microscopic level: ranging from deciding how long precisely each shot is held to restructuring and repositioning scenes, and sometimes to eliminating entire subplots.
A long intimacy
Henry Green has called prose “a long intimacy,” and it is a phrase that aptly describes the work of an editor, who might spend hours studying and aligning a small gesture in an actor; who knows actors—though they often do not know him—in such detail and intricacy that he even knows how to use their bad moments to benefit a performance. (…) For instance, some actors might turn their head to the left before they say the word ‘but’ or blink seven times a minute when they’re thinking hard…. You learn all these things, and they’re important.
They’re as important to you as signs in the forest are important to a hunter. Where was the deer? Is this a trail? What does this bent twig mean? All these things become tremendously significant. You have to find things that are good that work with the film….
By the same token, you begin to realize that if you put something weak in the right place, it can actually be very compelling. There are a number of times that I’ve used shots of actors trying to remember their lines. It’s a very honest emotion. They are embarrassed, they’re confused, they hope they remember the line, and you can see all of this on their face. In a certain context, that’s absolutely the wrong thing to use. But placed in a different context, it can be wonderful and magical.
What cutting away means
(…) by cutting away from a certain character before he finishes speaking, I might encourage the audience to think only about the face value of what he said. On the other hand, if I linger on the character after he finishes speaking, I allow the audience to see, from the expression in his eyes, that he is probably not telling the truth, and they will think differently about him and what he said. But since it takes a certain amount of time to make that observation, I cannot cut away from the character too early…. I hold until the audience realizes he is lying.
When you’re putting a scene together, the three key things you are deciding, over and over again, are: What shot shall I use? Where shall I begin it? Where shall I end it? An average film may have a thousand edits in it, so: three thousand decisions. But if you can answer those questions in the most interesting, complex, musical, dramatic way, then the film will be as alive as it can be.
For me, the most rhythmically important decision of the three is the last: Where do you end the shot? You end it at the exact moment in which it has revealed everything that it’s going to reveal, in its fullness, without being overripe. If you end the shot too soon, you have the equivalent of youth cut off in its bloom. Its potential is unrealized. If you hold a shot too long, things tend to putrefy.
Every shot is a thought or a series of thoughts, expressed visually. When a thought begins to run out of steam, that’s the point at which you cut. You want that to be the moment at which the impulse to go to the next shot is at its strongest, so you are propelled into it. If you hold the shot too long, the impulse is deadened, and when you do go to the next shot, it lacks a certain energy. I’m always trying to find that balance point between fruition of the internal dynamics of the thought and the rhythm of the shot.
In film, at the moment of the cut you are juxtaposing one image with another, and that’s the equivalent of rhyme. It’s how rhyme and alliteration work in poetry, or how we juxtapose two words or two images, and what that juxtaposition implies. Either by emphasizing the theme or by countering it, modulating it, like an invisible Greek chorus.
What’s being stated may be one thing, but by juxtaposing two different images at the moment of the cut, and making them as striking as possible, we can say, Yes, but there’s something else going on here. The trick is to make that flow an organic part of the process. Editing is a construction, a mosaic in three dimensions, two of space and one of time. It’s a miniature version of the way films are made, which is an artificial, piece-by-piece process. To determine that end frame, I look at the shot intently. It’s running along, and then at a certain point I flinch—it’s almost an involuntary flinch, an equivalent of the blink. That flinch point is where the shot will end.
More on Filmmaking in The 5 Best Books on Making Movies, by Darren Aronofsky, Best “Making Of” Books: The Making of BLADE RUNNER, All DUNES before DUNE (TV and Movies, from Jodorowky’s to Villeneuve’s), The Use of Colour in JOKER and Honoring THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS 30 years after, amongst many others.