The Psychology of the Cutting Room

For Class #14

 Instructor: Norman Hollyn T.A.: Beth Moody
 Office: 310-821-2792 Phone: 323-472-1164

 E-Mail: nhollyn [at] cinema.usc.edu

E-Mail: elizabethmoody [at] gmail.com

by Edgar Burcksen

(Excerpt from an article originally printed in the ACE Cinemeditor Magazine)

As a young cocky editor just released from [a Netherlands] film school, my head full of film theories scratched up out of books from Eisenstein, Brecht, Bazin, Metz and Truffaut. I was appalled by the material directors brought into the cutting room. Then a director asked me if I wanted to help him on the set with a small reshoot. If I was able to assist the Director of Photography as a grip then I would be available for any questions about eyeline, continuity or staging. It is very easy to sit in your climate controlled cutting room with a cup of tea in one hand and the control of your editing device in the other, lean back in your comfortable chair and criticize the failings of the material brought in. However, it is another thing to wait in the rain, cold or sweltering heat for the right conditions for a shot, when you're pressing to avoid the cut-off time, your actor forgets his line constantly and when he gives the performance you've been waiting for, the camera rolls out. Shivering in the rain, moving lights and cables around, near the point of total exhaustion after a 12-hour day, my advice for eyelines, continuity or staging was embarrassingly absent.

After that experience, I admire every director who comes in the cutting room with a pile of cans, whatever may be on the film. The mere fact that he's able to bring in anything at all, is a pure miracle to me. Who am I to criticize a director's work? It's my duty to wrangle the best out of any material, whatever its quality. Without respect for your director or producer, you can forget to bring out the best.

The psychology of the editing process is very important and it differs for every project and every director, producer or actor you have to deal with. The egos of directors, producers and especially actors are much more competitive than ours are. Knowing that, you can use this to your advantage. You can credit them for your ideas or shepherd them toward your solution so they can claim it as their own creative contribution.

Pick your fights. It makes no sense to get into a heated discussion over a transition from one shot to another, more important are conceptual or story-related squabbles. If you're winning an argument make sure you'll give the other party an opportunity for a retreat without losing face. If you're losing an argument, regard it as one minor defeat that will not turn the film into a hit or a flop. When you're convinced that your solution was better, consider it their loss not yours. The only important objective is to make the film the best possible. And sometimes that includes imperfections. How you get there is always less important than that you just get there. When the film is finished no one will remember how it was achieved. The final edit is what everybody will remember you for.

Once, I had edited a sequence for the zillionth time and I announced to my director that I would 'grant' him one last edit. When he still requested another change, I showed him how the splicer worked, how the Steenbeck went forward, backward and stopped. Then, to his surprise, I left the cutting room and told him I would be back in an hour to see what he had done. Seven years later, that director would still spread the word that I was 'difficult.' I don't know how many jobs I lost by this exhibition of egotistic stubbornness but it taught me the hard way to check my ego before I enter the cutting room with a director.

Having said that, you should indulge your ego as much as possible in the solitude of your first assembly. It is important to print your stamp on the material as soon as you can. It's easier to show your ideas with picture, than to convince someone with words. When I put together the first assembly, I make sure that I edit sequences as if they were my final edit. That way I can input as many of my ideas as possible. If they're not in line with the directors ideas, I can always recut them with his input, keeping my version in the bowels of the computer.

As an editor you're bound to spend more time with your director than with your spouse during post production on a film. In a lot of ways you have to consider the editing process as a creative marriage between two people with all the traps and potholes of a real marriage. My wife is my best friend and thus I always aim to become a director's best friend, temporarily at least, but preferably for life. Openness and respect are the best strategy to accomplish that. All my psychological tricks and tribulations I explain to them beforehand, so they're able to recognize them and then subsequently act against them or ignore them with the wink of an eye. We both know what's going on, but we have a shared interest: making the film as perfect as it can be. And we can both be amused about our behavior to get there.

To consider the politics in editing, you have to understand the workings of the three main entities that are at work during the production of a film, the production office, the set and post production. In a perfect world, the flow of information between these entities zips uninterrupted back and forward. However, all too often miscommunication and lack of understanding of each other's responsibilities creates a paralyzing enmity.

In the first weeks of principal photography, when the load of dailies doesn't materialize, I make myself as visible as possible at the set without interrupting the flow of the work. Sharing the catered lunch with the crew and offering services as a courier between production office and set, "since I'm going there anyway," gives the crew the idea that your part of the team instead of this far away critic, locked in the comfort of his ivory tower. Showing a cut sequence to the D.P. and some of the heads of department, with approval of director and producer of course, does wonders. Seeing how things come together, they start coming up with ideas how they can contribute to make a scene work better. Requests from me are taken in consideration and advocated by the D.P., while before I started practicing this, they would be brushed aside without any serious thought. I make sure that the script supervisor becomes my confidant and liaison with the set when I'm not able to be there. With the exception of the director, this person usually knows best what the editor needs.

When working at Colossal Pictures in San Francisco as a commercial editor, I learned how to deal with the 'territorial' phenomenon. Usually people with a top managerial function would inevitably come by near the completion of an edit; one director called it "marking their territory." When the commercial is a success they can claim it, when it fails, they can announce that they tried everything to save it. Knowing this, the director and me put in one or two serious mistakes. These managers could then throw their weight around by requesting the change. If they didn't go for the bait, we could always repair the mistake before delivering the final edit.

Every film I do is a learning process. When I stop learning, I'll stop editing. Keeping this in mind, I force myself to keep an open mind for everything. Stupid, strange and outrageous edit proposals might not work in what you're trying to accomplish in your edit, but they can open you up to new ideas that do fit. Like one of my Dutch directors said, "it's impossible, but we're gonna try it anyway." Renewal is the cornerstone of our art."

2001 American Cinema Editors

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All material, except where noted, ©1999-2008 by Norman Hollyn. Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Send me an e-mail at my office
Last Modified - September 30, 2008