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The Art of the Edit, Scene by Scene

London, UK
A treat for film nerds as top editors from Cut & Run, The Quarry, Final Cut and Work break down iconic edits for an illuminating masterclass
In an attempt to trim down the mammoth running time of the 2019 Oscars ceremony, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to ditch cinematography and editing from the televised ceremony. That decision was swiftly reversed when it was pointed out by the wider movie making community that cinematography and editing are corner stones of film.

An editor’s choices can make or break a piece of film. Through their craft, they create structure, rhythm, pace, sense, story and – most importantly – emotion. When an edit is good, we feel it. But, as lay people, we might not be able to quite describe it. A frequent source of irritation for editors is the assumption that a good edit means ‘lots of cuts’ – and while the choppy, fast-paced cuts of a film like Vice serves the story brilliantly, a there’s a power to a restrained and subtle edit.

Getting one’s head around the complexities of the craft isn’t easy – there’s a reason great editors are so highly valued. But one exercise we found incredibly useful last year at Kinsale was to talk through iconic scenes with some of the industry’s best to uncover the questions, tensions and subtleties at play. 

And if it’s an area of craft you really want to bone up on, dig out the seminal book In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch.

City of God Opening Scene – Chosen by Cut & Run Editor Nick Armstrong
Dirs: Fernando Merelles; Katia Lund
Editor: Daniel Rezende

I love an edit that goes all-out when it needs to, stamping the editor’s aesthetic on a film and delivering a visceral experience in such a way that only the editor can. The intro sequence to City of God is an essential example of this, demonstrating just how far an editor can go when given the space to do so, while using all that deft technique in a way that doesn’t simple showcase technical flare, but also provides a kind of narrative overture, giving an audience an idea of what to expect in the remainder of the film.

When people talk about “good editing”, I often feel like they are talking about this kind of approach: the craft is most obviously on show and the edit is wholly observable in its clear, technical flourishes – it’s “cuttyness.” The edit is almost palpable. Indeed, it’s edits like this that impress juries and win awards. City of God won the Bafta for best editing and was nominated for the Oscar.

The beginning of a film, an advert, or any other kind of visual content should set the tone for the entire work. Yes, you can shift the gears up and down, but if you’re going to provide a thrill-ride for your spectator, the introductory sequence is perfectly placed to provide a shorthand version of that. You can set expectations as to pace and narrative – that’s exactly what Daniel Rezende has accomplished here. A good opening is a microcosm of a film as a whole: in these three minutes, the chicken represents the protagonist Rocket and his journey through the film.

When it comes to the technical craft, this sequence has all the toys thrown at the wall. To begin, the first minute simply shows a chicken being slaughtered for food, but in this minute we get a smorgasbord of short and fast cuts, in rapid, rhythmic succession. At one point we observe seven easily appreciable cuts in the pan of four seconds, but the editor seizes our attention and never loses his audience in the tumult. This is masterful, controlled chaos. 

From there, Rezende only ramps the action: parallel editing, cuts-to-black, match cuts, slight overlaps of repeated action. The scene is mostly shot from the chicken’s POV but there are close-ups, long-shots, crane-shots, tracking and chasing shots along with several instances of match-on-action editing when rounding corners or jumping from buildings. It all makes for a ridiculous, yet incredibly artful chase sequence; a frenetic music video-like pace topped off with a 180-degree bullet time edit. 

When I first saw City of God as a teen, I was so used to a Hollywood action film aesthetic that I found this so jarring and new. It may not feel that way now, as it’s essentially a documentary-like style mixed with the shaky-cam action of Paul Greengrass, but this was the first time I had seen it and it was a ride.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – chosen by Final Cut’s Struan Clay
Dir: Stanley Kubrick
Editor: Anthony Harvey

I love an edit where you can feel the restraint of the filmmakers. A great exponent of this is Stanley Kubrick and a brilliant example comes in 'Dr Strangelove'. We are in General Ripper's office at the US Air Force Base and Peter Seller's RAF officer Group Captain Mandrake is trying to persuade the American General to recall the US bomber that has been launched to drop a nuclear bomb on Russia and so start World War 3. It's a black comedy and to help the comedy, Kubrick often lets the action unfold in long two shots. In this instance, a wide ‘two shot’ is held for a long time and then a cut is used to amplify the power of the moment. There are several moments in this opening shot where the editor must have been tempted to cut to a close up but by holding the two shot longer the cut itself has extra potency and reveals the General's intent.

This scene starts with a two shot that holds for just over three minutes without a cut.
When we do cut it's to a reverse low angle cu of General Ripper looking threateningly at the Group Captain. This is only held for two seconds before we cut to...
A close up of his reveal of his handgun on his desk that lasts for three seconds...
This is followed by Peter Seller’s reaction and the scene continues after that.

The beautiful black and white cinematography adds to the impact of these cuts, but those first two cuts are so powerful and brilliantly calculated. The comedy and absurdity of the scene has played out in the very wide 2 shot with the General's back to us the whole time. From behind, we see him put his cigar in his mouth and let his hand drop to the table and that's when we cut. The cut round to the menacing close up of his face is powerful for several reasons

It instigates a change of pace in cutting. It's a dramatic change of frame - from very wide to close up. The angle changes - from behind the General to looking straight at him. And it signals a mood change where suddenly the tone gets significantly more sinister with the reveal of the gun in the next cut.

The use of the long two shot keeps the comedy neutral without attempting to signal the comedic beats by cutting to close ups. Because you are seeing the actions and reactions of both characters unfold in a two shot, you allow the audience to find the comedy themselves. 

There’s a great quote from Anthony Harvey, the editor on the film, talking about Kubrick’s perspective: "He said that when you have a close-up and you have two wonderful actors, don't go backward and forward, leave the actor that was marvellous and stay on that shot. It's a much better way of putting a film together."

It shows that, for Kubrick, the emphasis should be on performance rather than cutting.

Wrangler: Whatever You Ride – chosen by The Quarry’s Jonnie Scarlett
Agency: AMV BBDO
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Editor: Sam Sneade

Wrangler | Whatever you Ride from Speade | Archive on Vimeo.

Wrangler “Whatever You Ride” is a great example of distilling an adventure story that takes place over a few months into 60 seconds. Hours of footage have been sifted through, selected and different edit structures experimented with to produce the best articulation of the footage captured and make each shot work as powerfully as they can. They have been optimised both as standalone shots and in relationship to the shots and scenes around them. The end result feels effortless, but a lot of hard work has gone into it. The viewer being fully immersed in the story and carried along for the ride. The cut is a mix of what you would expect to see in a road movie to anchor it in the genre - motels, hitchhiking, trains - but interspersed with a mix of surprising and fascinating images that you wouldn’t expect to see. 

Every shot has earned its right to be there and is working hard. In 60 seconds you can’t have any passengers and in an edit of this nature as much thought goes into what you leave out as what you leave in. I find it extraordinarily bold that a fifth of the running time is given over to two shots, the burning house and the buffalo. That is a lot of editing real estate to give up in 60 seconds and a fair few scenes would have been sacrificed to accommodate it. I can only surmise that the power of those two long shots was greater than any additional scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor.

Wrangler also illustrates some great editorial constructs to condense passage of time. Through the constant thread of hitchhiking, the viewer is catapulted across the United States. The cuts from jacket on to jacket off, rain to sun, night to day and back again help you feel the length of the journey. The sheer variety and breadth of locations mirrors the vastness the country and the difficulties of the travelling across it.

On a project like this, an emotional journey is as important as a geographical one. We experience excitement, fear, pleasure and pain. This all helps thicken the broth and make the road trip longer and more immersive for the viewer. There is a real assault on the senses here, sometimes single shots of food being wolfed down or the more played out scenes in the motel, bar or train carriage. Rattlesnakes are cut next to the potential perils of the hitchhiking, the grimness of the car crash next to the happy but slightly unnerving bar scene. Things being left unexplained with just enough narrative is a powerful tool to convey a bigger story and a greater depth than you are actually showing. I don’t think you really notice the editing mechanics when you watch Wrangler… but you certainly feel something because of the editing.

It would be hard to talk about Wrangler without mentioning the music. I don’t think there are many other commercials where the music gets talked about as much as “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”. It is an incredibly difficult thing to pull off, an unexpected track that doesn’t feel too forced or too deliberately juxtapositional. It could have been written for the ad and complements this vision of a road trip perfectly.

Wrangler is always my inspiration when I have a lot of footage. If such a compelling emotional journey can be told in 60 seconds with such flair and brevity then the project I’m working on can too. I just need to work and think harder about what is essential. 

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly end scene – chosen by The Quarry’s Anne Perri at Work Editorial
Dir: Sergio Leone
Editors: Eugenio Alabiso, Nino Baragli

I’m obsessed with Spaghetti Westerns – and this is one of the iconic scenes. The scene is set at the centre of a massive civil war cemetery and three characters have to gun each other down for a pile of gold buried in one of the graves. 

The timing, rhythm and pace of this scene is so important and come from the unbelievable craft of the edit.  The shots start off wide and balanced and as the shots get closer they get faster and more frenetic as it builds into a crescendo. 

There is no dialogue or movement in the two minute climax of scene but the edit delivers incredible storytelling that makes the audience feel tension, suspense and anticipation.  The shots have all been carefully thought about to create this intense showdown. Even if you removed the music it would still make you feel on edge.  As a viewer you feel like you are in the minds of the characters.

It’s still considered to be the most iconic scene in cinema today and I think that’s because the edit is perfectly synchronised with the music and performance.
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