Instructor - Norman Hollyn

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Lesson #1

August 26, 2003

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 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 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 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:

The 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.

Potemkin coverPOTEMKIN
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?

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 web pages.
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.
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 the form.
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.

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.
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.

Though I've tried to accomodate other browsers THIS SITE IS DESIGNED FOR BEST USE WITH IE for the PC, SAFARI for the Mac, and FIREFOX for both the PC and the Mac. It also looks reasonably good on the iPhone. Lucked out on that!

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