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August 26, 2003
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
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 brief introductions and a layout of the course plan (see
the Syllabus for a better discussion
of this), we will begin discussing the aesthetics of editing. Of primary
importance is something I call "the Rule Of Threes." 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
How do you know where to make a cut? I use three criteria. I cut away
from a shot when:
- There is no more information given in the shot.
- 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,
- 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 laterclass)
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 -- beats)?
We will discuss the various forms of editing and see examples
of the following films:
TOUCH OF EVIL
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
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
What we should be aware of is that Welles is editing
this shot, he's just not doing it with physical cuts.
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
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
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
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.
In addition to looking at the above scenes we will also discuss lining
script pages, an essential task for organizing the footage and look
at a brief lesson in synching dailies -- something that you will need
for this week's hands-on work. I guarantee you that this class will
go past the 10:00 pm ending time. But, as you will soon find out, that's
nothing surprising. In all probability, they all will.
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,
- This syllabus lays out just what is going to be happening in this
class. You can always find it in the menu bar at the left of these
- This survey will tell me alot about you, including your favorite
films and what you hope to get form the course. It will be due next
week. If you want to get a PDF version of the survey to fill out and
hand in, click
here. You will need Adobe Acrobat PDF to see the file. If you
have can't read the file, click on the logo at the right to go to
Adobe to get that program.
- AMERICAN BEAUTY Script
- Next week we will be looking at a scene from 1998's AMERICAN BEAUTY.
I'd like you to read the script pages for this scene before we look
at the scene so we can talk about the changes.
- Interview with Conrad
Gonzalez, from THE SOPRANOS
- 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.
Assignment for Next Time
- Complete and return the survey sheet.
- Make sure that you complete all of the information at the top of
- Read Chapters 1, 1A, 2, 2A, 3 and 3A in the textbook.
- You are going to be learning the basics of editing room organization.
- Read the scene from AMERICAN BEAUTY
- Pay attention to the details that Alan Ball (the scriptwriter) puts
in to show Carolyn Burnham's job, the types of people she interacts
with, and her feelings about her situation. We will look at this scene
in class the next time we meet.
(Page will open in a new window. Close it to return
to this page.)
OF EVIL recut
- 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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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.