Lesson #1

August 25, 2014

Courtesy Rienpost


Added Materials

Assignments for Next Week

Handouts for this Week

Lesson for This Week

Welcome to my class!!

Editing is much more than putting images together.

That's the first line in my syllabus. It may even be the first thing I say tonight (probably not; that'll probably be "Hiya. This is CTPR535. If you want to be somewhere else, you should be."). It interests me that, even as graduate students, most of you start out thinking that editing is about interesting and powerful ways of putting images next to one another.

That's not a bad start -- because that is partially what editing is -- partially. But only a small part.

And that has little to do with what you're going to get out of this class. If I've learned anything in my years of editing films and the few years I've spent teaching here at USC, it's that you'll get nowhere simply putting images together. While we'll certainly talk about that (count how many times I say "Rule of Threes" between now and the end of the semester), I'm going to be talking about story, story, story more than anything. You can put images together, but unless you know why you're putting them together, you're not going to doing it in a very cohesive and interesting way. And, therefore, you won't hold your audience -- the most crucial goal of filmmaking.

I'm constantly amazed at how much like writing this process of editing really is. We are inherently dealing with the same tools -- character, pacing, story arc, beats of storytelling. It's just that editors don't have a blank page in front of them. We're filling our blank screens with material which has been already shot for us. But we are writing nonetheless.

Editing is re-writing. And that's what we will spending the next thirteen weeks dealing with.

This first class will not only lay out what the next 15 weeks will have in store for you but will also discuss editing as an art form. There'll be more details in the Lesson section below. This will be an introductory class in which I will discuss a large variety of topics including how the class will work, the process of editing, the nuts and bolts of the editorial process, and present a few pieces of film for examination.


The Editing Thought Process

After some introductions and a layout of the course plan, we will begin discussing the aesthetics of editing. Of primary importance is something I call "the Rule Of Threes" which you may remember from the two visits I made to your CTPR 510. Rather than go over it in super detail, let me recap.

In essence, this means that every shot, scene or sequence exists as more than just a separate entity. Their meaning and impact is very dependent on the shots, scenes or sequences that come both before and after them.

How do you know where to make a cut? I use three criteria. I cut away from a shot when:

  1. There is no more information given in the shot.
  2. There is something in the shot that I don't want to reveal (an emotion, an actor fluff, some information that I want to hold back, etc).
  3. There is something that I need to see that exists in another shot.

Otherwise, I don't change shots. (Oh, there is something called style, which will also tell me when to change my shots, but we'll leave that for a later class).

We will begin, in a very cursory way, a discussion of scene analysis. What is the point of any given scene? What is its point in the context of what came before and what is coming after it? What is its point within the context of the entire film? Who changes during the scene? At what exact points to those changes occur (I call those moments -- Lean Forward Moments)?

We will discuss the various forms of editing and see examples drawn from some of the following films:


This scene, which is discussed in our text THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, shows Francis Coppola at the top of his game. In it, Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino) must make a choice as to whether he can actually pull the trigger and kill the mob leader Solozzo, who has attempted to kill Michael's father. There are several Lean Forward Moments in the scene which all lead up to the decisive moment where Michael does pull the trigger.

Note how Coppola ignores real time sound in order to use the elevated train sounds (allegedly from outside the restaurant) as a musical accompaniment to Michael's emotions. What is the analysis of this scene? How does Coppola use the limited, but varied, coverage to accent the scene. You should also note how Coppola ignores the usual practice of giving the scene's first closeup to the main character. Yet he still manages to shape the scene entirely around Michael's arc -- using every craft of the filmmaking process.

Zeega, and another website called Popcorn, are curation sites where you can create your own films from YouTube, Vine, Vimeo and other websites. The cool things about Zeega is that, after you assemble the short films and a single soundtrack, the audience determines where the edits will be. Check out this Zeega to see what I mean and don't forget to click on the arrows at the sides of the screen.

This introduces an interesting concept for editors, in much the way that games leave a lot of the control in the hands of the viewer. We will be exploring that a little bit this year, but check out the sample Zeegas on the site, especially with the hashtags that you're interested in.

Probably won't look at these, but give them a look-see if you can.

touch of evil phototouch of evil photo 2The opening shot of this film, which we will watch in the originally released version (as opposed to the restored version released in 1999) is played without a single cut. The action is orchestrated in front of the camera so as to make edits unnecessary. All of the information that you need to understand the setup of the film is revealed here. Suspense and tension is revealed through the ticking bomb (the actual sound of the ticking is replaced by the musical score as soon as we pull back from the bomb); the passenger in the doomed car mentions the ticking in case we've forgotten it., The relationship of the Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh characters is established through dialogue. The car enters and exits the frame, simulating edits. Note how Welles doesn't cut away until criteria number three from the list above is met -- he wants to show what Heston (and, to a lesser extent, Leigh) is reacting to. A detailed analysis of the film can be found on Tim Dirks' filmsite.org site. The clip on the right is a frame from the famous three minute plus opening shot that we will be looking at tonight.

What we should be aware of is that Welles is editing this shot, he's just not doing it with physical cuts.


The scene of Kevin Costner waiting for his prey in the Chicago train station is a deliberate homage to the Odessa Steps sequence in POTEMKIN. As well executed as it is, however, it fails to have the resonance that Eisenstein's sequence does because this one is virtually all style. Costner's character is, perhaps, revealed a bit through his choice to help the mother with the baby carriage. But the essential drama of the scene is not played through the editing choices. A scene analysis here would reveal some very different underpinnings than in the Odessa Steps sequence above. What is the point of the baby carriage? What is the point of the carnage? How do these things fulfill the scene analysis?

DePalma is often accused, rightfully so in my opinion, of paying to much homage to past masters. The opening tracking shot in BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES is a deliberate homage to the Orson Welles shot we've seen earlier tonight from TOUCH OF EVIL. His film BLOWOUT uses some of the devices of Antonioni's BLOW-UP. And many of DePalma's earlier films, such as DRESSED TO KILL feel like Hitchcock. It is unfair to critique these films as a whole on the basis of their using techniques and scene constructions from earlier works, however for the point of this class we can certainly examine whether certain scenes work as well as their originals.

This opening sequence, the first after a deliberately non-moving title sequence, shows us all three main characters, in separate locations but all on their way to perform a scam of some sort. The opening voice-over (devliered by John Cusack, one of the three characters) gives us information that helps set up Anjelica Huston's task, but the crowning moment (when all three characters -- Annette Bening is the third -- stare at the camera in their respective screen splits) unites them in a strong manner. This is a perfect example of a character oriented choice, as opposed to the other three possible choices -- action, storyline and style. It is said that a film has about ten minutes to capture the audience; ten minutes during which the audience will follow along almost uncritically. In the opening of this film, director Stephen Frears has let us know that these people are doing something illicit (or, at least, one of them) and that there is something that unites all of them. He has given us a sense of what the movie is about and who it will focus on. And he has done so in an intriguing manner. That is a successful way to trap the audience.


POTEMKIN (viewed in CTPR 510)
potemkin In contrast to the film we've already seen the famous scene of the slaughter of the Russian peasants on the Odessa steps is told through many cuts (see how I'm already using the concept of the Rule of Threes -- the impact of this next clip will be heightened by placing it after the preceding clip; had it come before, you would have gotten a different feel for it). Shots are shortened or lengthened depending upon how much information is in the frame, tension is created by cutting back and forth between the peasants and the Cossacks who are threatening our "heroes". Think about why Eisenstein created the tension and energy using editorial. Note that he is quite clear about maintaining screen direction (the 180 degree line) when he is emphasizing the confrontation, and is very comfortable breaking that line when he wants to create chaos. The closeups of the peasants reacting to the soldiers march often have no screen direction at all. When the famous baby carriage is introduced, however, it does cross the line. To accommodate this jump, it is introduced with a strong action/motion. Cutting on action is one good way of breaking screen direction and "crossing the line." Note, however, that once he's broken the line, he maintains that new screen direction in regards to the carriage.

In addition to screen direction, you should also figure out an analysis for the scene. What is Eisenstein trying to say? How does he use the shooting and editorial techniques to carry out that analysis?

Just as a goof , I thought we'd take a look at a slimmed down version of this XtraNormal video, in which a producer talks to an editor about what it is, exactly, that he does.

Once we understand what the scene is about then we can begin talking about a concept which I call the "lean forward moment" which will help guide our editing decisions throughout this class. These are moments in a scene (usually no more than two in each scene/sequence) where something is happening which will indelibly affect the characters and /or the movie from thereon. As a result, you want the audience to pay special attention, to "lean forward" (figuratively, of course). This concept is not completely my own, Henri Cartier-Bresson, the renown French photographer, talked about the "Decisive Moment" in hiw 1952 book of that name. For Cartier-Bresson, the definition of his "decisive moment" is:

the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression

David Friend, in the magazine The Digital Journalist, desribes it this way:

He displayed an intuitive knack for choosing "the decisive moment," as it came to be called, that instant when a shutter click can suspend an event within the eye and heart of the beholder, an exhilarating confluence of observer and observed.

We are extending this concept from a still image one, to one dealing with continuous images and sound -- that is, film and television.

This concept will go hand-in -hand with a discussion of how we accent these moments. Prominent among them is how we control what the audience's eyes see. There are three basic concepts behind this theory which you can see in this pop-up window.


The following handouts will be given out this week. Click on the blue highlighted terms to get to the actual handouts. When a handout is not highlighted you will need to get the material in class. ALL material will be distributed in class, in any case,

Syllabus (PDF File)
This syllabus lays out just what is going to be happening in this class. You can always find it here as well, by clicking on the syllabus link in the navigation pane to the left.
You will actually be doing this survey online, using the URL I gave you in class. This outdated link for for a PDF which will show other viewers of this site, what type of information I ask for. This survey will tell me alot about you, including your favorite films and what you hope to get form the course.
Script Pages for the LAW & ORDER Scene (PDF File)
This is the scene that we will start editing this week. Actually, it is four scenes, and each group will take one of either scene
Script Pages for NAKED
Next week, we will take a look at a scene from Mike Leigh's film NAKED, in order to start examining the scene's editorial construction. These are the script pages for the scene.

Assignment for Next Time

Complete the online survey .
Make sure that you complete all of the information at the top of the form.
Choose your partners for editing
You should have done this by the end of the first class. If your partner drops from this class section you should notify your SA and me so we can restructure the partnerships.
Create a zeega film
What you want to do is figure out how to structure your clips (and choose the music) so that it conveys some sort of story -- regardless of the places that your audience makes its edits.
Read Scene 47 from LAW & ORDER
I the scene from LAW & ORDER
What is this scene about? Who changes during the scene? What changes during the scene? Where (exactly) do these changes occur? Analyze the footage and compare it to your analysis that you made of the scene based on the script you received tonight. What is the same? What is different? Does your analysis still hold up?
Read the scene from NAKED
We will be looking at the scene next time in class, so please read over the script and try and ask yourself the question that we started talking about today -- whose scene is it? how does that character change from the beginning to the end of the scene? where does that change happen?

Added Materials

(Page will open in a new window. Close it to return to this page.)

In 1999, Rick Schmidlin, along with Walter Murch, reconstructed the film that we saw part of tonight -- TOUCH OF EVIL, using Orson Welles' original notes. This interview talks about the process with Rick Schmidlin.
Eisenstein's Theories In A Nutshell
This handout, from the Chicago Mediaworks course on documentary editing, takes a historical and educational approach to Eisenstein's theories of filmmaking in general and editing in specific. It works as a nice addition to our viewing of THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN.
An Analysis of the Odessa Steps sequence from THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN
Stephen Attaway breaks down the sequence we looked at tonight. He also quotes extensively from Eisenstein's notes about the film -- good reading as a way into the filmmaker's mind.
Interview with Conrad Gonzalez, from THE SOPRANOS (PDF File)
This show has become something of an icon in cable television. In this interview (from the excellent site www.zoom-in.com) Gonzalez talks about a number of things that are interesting to our studies -- the style of dialogue presentation, how to give yourself some space during the editing process, and "killing your babies" (losing things that you like because they don't help the overall film or show. This handout is in PDF format.
Biography of Henri Cartier-Bresson
This short bio of Cartier-Bresson discusses his methods of photography as well as his "decisive moment." It also talks about one his photos that captures the spirit of his decisive moment quite well, a shot of a man leaping over a rain puddle near the Gare St-Lazare.
The AFI's Top 100 American Movies
Any list that has both CITIZEN KANE and THE GODFATHER in the top ten can't be all bad (actually, they're in the top five, but who's counting?). Lots of quibbles here, but it's a good place to start. How many of of these movies have you yet to see?
The Guardian's Review/Analysis of TOUCH OF EVIL
A short analysis of what makes this film an historical masterpiece, one that (as the article points out) only the French seem to have noticed at the time.
But The Old Version Was Better!!
This review, detailing many of the changes that were made in the 1998 restoration of TOUCH OF EVIL, makes the case that many of the old cuts were better and that the famous 58 page memo that Welles sent to Universal that was used as the basis for this latest recut was more a petulant tactic to get his film back than actual editing notes.
The Editing of SIX FEET UNDER
Alan Ball, who wrote one of the films that we will see a scene from next week -- AMERICAN BEAUTY -- has created this new HBO show. This interview with editor Tanya Swerdling talks about the editing process of the show. Pay particular attention to her discussion about she works with Ball -- who is a writer -- versus Kathy Bates, who is an actress.
Thelma Schoonmaker Talks About Editing
Martin Scorsese's longtime editor talks about the artistry and the process involved in editing. She talks about how they had to re-edit the film to change its structure from how it was scripted in order to make it work better. This points up two crucial points to learn about editing. First -- editing is really re-editing. And second -- nothing is sacred. Everything can be changed so long as the script's original intent and meaning is respected.

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Last Modified - August 25, 2014