Archive for the ‘Editing & screenwriting’ Category

Editor’s Eye: Visualizing Your Film from the
Postproduction POV – Part 1

October 17th, 2012

Many people believe that if a show is well shot it’s just a matter of bust removing the bad bits and the show automagically comes together in the cutting room. Not true. Editing, a.k.a. postproduction, like any other phase of filmmaking, has a mission, and, like a military operation, requires vision and much groundwork.

When you really think about it, a script (fiction shows) or outline (non-fiction shows) are merely of words on paper which may or may not lead to an outstanding film. Films are made of images – still and moving – along with sound: words, SFX, and music. It is editing that brings all these elements together.

Here’s how Alexander Payne, director of The Descendants, Sideways, and Election, expressed it in a recent article in CinemaEditor, “Of the three areas of filmmaking – writing, directing, and editing – editing is by far my favorite. I call it the Promised Land…Writing is hideously painful, directing is exhilarating but physically taxing and demands a lot of constant ego massaging of others. As [director Akira] Kurosawa used to say, ‘The only reason you write and direct is to get material to edit.’ And that’s exactly true. Editing is where you make the film. It’s a very beautiful thing.”

So let’s look at how you can envision your film with an editorial eye and anticipate both its magical, imagineering aspects and grounded engineering requirements.

Harold and Maude poster

1) Visualize your images – and plan

The opening shot of the 1971 film Harold and Maude shows Harold attempting to hang himself from a homemade scaffold. I once heard screenwriter Colin Higgins explain how this shot initiated the film’s plot. As a UCLA student working on his thesis film, Higgins wanted to drop the camera vertically as fast and far as possible and had to motivate this technical move. Voila! The cult film’s death/life plot.

The point here is to visualize your movie as you read the script or create the outline if it’s a non-fiction piece. What set-ups will work best? What objects, images, or VFX will tell your story most effectively? Especially if you need animation or VFX, start drafting, storyboarding, and budgeting right away.

That’s all for today, folks. Next post will delve into visualizing sound and music – and making a sound plan (yes, I can never resist a pun) for both.

Editing & screenwriting, Editing practices, Editor’s role, Sound & music editing, Technical & process, Visual FX editing

Letterman Countdown: Part 2:
10 Popular Beliefs about What Editors Do that are Just Plain Wrong

September 27th, 2012

Today’s post concludes the Letterman-style countdown designed to counteract the misconceptions held by way too many people.

5. Putting footage together is a no brainer.
Au contraire. I, and filmmakers far greater than me, believe that editing is what set filmmaking apart from other arts. Editing mimics thought. It accomplishes this with the selection of shots – close-ups, wide shots, POVs, etc. – and their juxtaposition. Editing uses flashcuts, flashbacks, flashforwards, short and long cuts, close-ups and manipulates the “real” filmed time to do this. Editing imitates the brain and it takes brain to do it. To quote John Huston who directed Chinatown, The African Queen, The Maltese Falcon and many more, “Film is like thought. It’s the closest to the thought process of any art.”
editor poster
4. Editors leave actors on the cutting room floor.
In reality, the editor is the actor’s best friend whom they rarely get to meet. Editors coordinate actors’ timings and reactions so that each performance is consistent and attains its dramatic purpose and builds the character’s arc. Sometimes this means holding a beat on an actor to expand the emotion and time. Sometimes it means cutting tight to sustain a performance and keep a taut pace. Always, it means molding the best performance to fit the character and the scene.

3. “We’ll save it in post.”

While postproduction (editing) has rescued many a project from doom, it cannot resuscitate a poorly conceived or written story, abominably lit scenery, or sound that is distorted or otherwise poorly recorded. Again plan. Or ignore post at the peril of your pocketbook and the look and sound of your show.

2. Editing is a craft, not particularly creative, and not nearly as important as screenwriting, directing, acting, or cinematography.

Try it. You‘ll see. Here’s what Francis Ford Coppola has to say, “The essence of cinema is editing. It’s the combination of what can be extraordinary images of people during emotional moments, or images in a general sense, put together in a kind of alchemy.” I couldn’t have said it any better.

1. Editors just take out the bad bits.
The show is mere footage until editor sculpts it. Or, to put it crassly, the show on arrival at the editor’s cutting room is merely a hunk of meat (or raw carrot for you veggies). It may be filet mignon but it’s not a meal until the editor makes it into a meal. Or as director Angle Lee puts it more eloquently: “Shooting is like buying groceries and the real cooking is at the editing table.”

Just as house selling comes down to “location, location, location” for editing comes down to “story, story, story.” Each cut that an editor lays down must be motivated to move the story forward. It must give more information, up the conflict, drama, or emotion – or do all of the above. As the 2-10 above show, editing is far more than a taking out. Rather, it’s a joining of frames taken from shots to make a whole. We’ll leave the last word to Walter Murch, the reigning editor-guru who cuts picture and sound on such film as Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, and On Cold Mountain. “Editing is not so much a putting together as it is the discovery of a path.”

Editing & life, Editing & screenwriting, Editing practices, Editor’s role

Letterman Countdown:
10 Popular Beliefs about What Editors Do that are Just Plain Wrong

September 18th, 2012

In talking about my upcoming editing course debuting in October, friends suggested that I write down the most serious misconceptions about editing. So here’s the list – a Letterman-style countdown – to combat the delusions and set down the realities of editing today.

editor poster

10. Editing requires no planning
You need to backward engineer your show. In other words, to know where you’re going when you’re planning and designing a project, you must know the end result: Where your audience will view your show, what your show’s final forma(s) will be (file, ape, disc or film), and what its delivery requirements are e.g. what Film Festival rules stipulate as to show length, format, etc. But only think about these and other postproduction issues if you want your show to be efficient in terms of cost, time, process, and effort.

9. Editing is easy with digital equipment. Anyone can do it.
Yeah. Look at the all the teen videos on YouTube. How many nanoseconds did it take you to click away from it? Digital editing systems are complex: you don’t learn all the features overnight – and, due to the type of show you’re working on, you may never use some features e.g. reverse telecine tool. You will need to know how to choose the correct codec for your project, upload, download, troubleshoot when system goes down or won’t talk to another device and use all the tools: VFX, sound, color correction, V scopes, etc. But knowing an editing device doesn’t make you an editor anymore than being able to chop celery makes you a chef. It’s a tool, albeit an incredibly multi-faceted and powerful one, but not a decision maker.

8. Music videos are no brainers to cut: Just lay down the music and fill in the pictures – like paint by numbers.

Granted, they’re often mindless, repetitively using the same footage in ways that don’t tell any kind of story or achieve the purpose – to sell the music. BUT they can be quite creative. In essence, music videos are documentaries – non-scripted shows where the editor commonly gets a lot of footage and an outline but there is no clear story as with scripted shows.  So the editor can have a big hand in creating the story and the final show more than on many scripted shows. Dean Gonzalez, editor of Green Day: Heart like a Hand Grenade among other music, relates, “On a music video you get a treatment that the crew didn’t completely shoot. So you have to be very creative with the footage. I find it exciting and daunting to create something without all the elements – to make a story out footage that isn’t always there. I love storytelling.”

7. Editing doesn’t take very much time.

Editing takes a lot longer than the uninitiated ever know. It takes time to log and organize footage, ingest the footage, then comb through it to find the right shot for the right time in a show. And then there’s rendering which can render you hairless while you wait. Not to mention the time required to review what you’ve edited to make sure a scene and a show hang together, that there are no audio drop outs or other things that distract from seeing the show as a whole. And yes, as with all creativity, in addition to execution time there’s time to cogitate and consider, experiment, make mistakes, and start over. No show, no matter how superbly acted or shot, goes together without time and thought.


6. Editing is more of an assembly job: If the director does his/her job the footage cuts like butter.

I’ll let a few directors take this one:

“As [the great Japanese director] Kurosawa used to say, ‘The only reason you write and direct is to get material to edit.’ And that’s exactly true. Editing is where you make the film. It’s a very beautiful thing… I shoot to cut”

Alexander Payne, The Descendants, Sideways, About Schmidt, Election

“There is a brotherhood in filmmaking…between the film editor and the film director.  It’s a brotherhood of trust and interdependence, and it is a sanctuary.  It is for me where the filmmaking really gets started, and it’s where I feel most comfortable.”

Steven Spielberg,

“Editing is the voice of the film, and also a deeply collaborative art…Out of all processes I love editing the most.”

James Cameron

The next post will continue the countdown to numero uno.

Editing & life, Editing & screenwriting, Editing practices, Editor’s role

A Veteran Sound Editor Sounds Off and
Imparts a Terabyte of Filmmaking Knowledge from Development to the Mix

August 6th, 2012

Sound editor Vickie Sampson was the featured speaker at LAFPUG* recently which has posted her edited talk. This 34-minute video is a must see for anyone entering the biz, wishing to make their own film, or wanting to learn more about planning for sound and editing it. Vickie is a long time sound editor on many illustrious films, starting with New York, New York and continuing through both Sex in the City movies. (How’s that for getting caught between the moon and NYC!)

What Vickie knows about sound and filmmaking is worth listening to.

She’s human, entertaining, and instructional as she’s done it all: Directed and written her own films, commercials, and shorts in addition to her sound work. She also is a consummate teacher, giving regular sources at Video Symphony in Burbank. But this lecture is free. And worth your time.

The last thing I want to say before turning you over to the video: Vickie has been a long time friend and resource for both editions of Cut by Cut: Editing Your Film or Video books. She kindly wrote the Foreword to the current (second) edition.

So I am very happy to introduce you the intrepid, inimitable Vickie!

*Los Angeles Final Cut Pro Users Group

Editing & life, Editing & screenwriting, Editing practices, Editor’s role, Sound & music editing, User groups & meetings, Visual FX editing

MW Online Film School

August 19th, 2011

MW Film School Logo

My publisher, MWP (Michael Wiese Productions), is launching an online school with 12 online classes beginning September 6th.

Goals of school

  • To help people become better filmmakers.
  • To empower storytellers and filmmakers to
    inspire millions and evolve a better world.

My fellow MWP authors and I will be teaching everything from writing to pitching your script, from pre-production to post-production, from funding to marketing and distribution.

Click here to view the MWP Film School website. There you will meet each of the teachers and learn about the class they’re presenting.

Right now MWP is offering a $10 discount on all classes.

My editing class
I will be presenting “Inglourious Editors: State of Editors and Editing Today.”
The 2.5 hour course will look at the editor’s role in movies, reality shows, docs, and comedies, today. There will be a special focus on editing practices comparing traditional, Hollywood-style editing and modern, MTV-style editing.

Class attendees will receive a free handout charting the difference between the styles, based on a new section from my upcoming book; the second edition of Cut by Cut: Editing Your Film or Video, due out in 2012.

Date: Thursday, October 13, 2011.

Time: 6:00 – 8:30 p.m. PST.

Course: Inglourious Editors: State of Editors and Editing Today.

Click here to learn more about the class.

Announcements, Editing & screenwriting, Editing practices, Editor’s role

The sound and music of story

April 25th, 2011

As I’ve mentioned, I am updating my first book, Cut by Cut: Editing Your Film or Video for a 2012 – exact pub date, TBD by Michael Wiese Productions, my publisher. Presently, I am in the thick of the two chapters on sound and music editing. In them, I discuss the details of designing, editing, and mixing sound and music.

I also look at how sound and music affect the story on any type of show, a subject I warm up to endlessly. I love hearing sound and music editors and composers philosophize about what they do. So I came up with the chart below, which translates story to its sound and music equivalents. What do you think? I always like to hear from you with your insights and ideas.

Translating story to sound and music

Story Sound Music
screenplay sound design score
screenwriter sound designer composer
director sound supervisor conductor
actors Foley artists, ADR creators,
loop group
character hard SFX instrument
DP sound editors music editor
theme repeated hard and background SFX song or melody
era (time) background sound/ambience diegetic and non-diegetic sound musical period e.g. romantic, baroque
setting (place) background sound/ambience

diegetic and non-diegetic sound

style e.g. jazz, hip hop
dialogue cleaned & filled dialogue & ADR tracks lyric
pace sonic pacing tempo
beat targeted sound cues meter
exposition introductory sounds/worldizing overture/form/
title (theme) music
arc of scene building up sound over scene crescendo
conflict counter sounds e.g. overlaps, shrill pitches, sudden loud noises dissonance
scene/sequence sound mix verse or form/sequence

Editing & screenwriting, Sound & music editing

Inglourious Editors: A View into the Cutting Room
My article in MovieMaker mag’s Fall edition

November 3rd, 2010

Movie Maker Cover MovieMaker magazine, professes to be “The World’s Best-Selling Independent Movie Magazine.” So when the editor solicited me for an article for their Fall edition in exchange for ad space about my latest book (Film Editing: Great Cuts Every Filmmaker and Movie Lover Must Know), I accepted her proposition. I wrote and titled this extensive piece weeks before the untimely death of Sally Menke (see September 28 post), so it serves as a further tribute to her as the editor of Inglourious Basterds and all of Tarantino’s films.

Here’s a pdf of the article.

If you want to read a hard copy of the article, the new issue will be on newsstands this week.

Special offer
Movie Maker Logo
If you’d like to subscribe to MovieMaker, its editor, Jennifer Woods, has offered a special rate of $8.95 for one year for www.joyoffilmediting readers.
To subscribe, click on:

Excerpt of article

Here’s the beginning of the article:

Inglourious Editors: A View into the Cutting Room

Whatever part(s) you play on a film – writer, director, actor, cinematographer, hair stylist, etc. – your work winds up in the cutting room in the hands of the editor. Since the editor takes your work – the raw material = the footage – and makes it into the product the audience will see, it’s important to know how editors think and why they make the choices they do. This article will unlock the door to the cutting room and look at a few of the ways that editors approach the footage.

What an editor sees

Editing, which it is often compared to sculpting, involves deciding what to put in and what to leave out in creating the piece. “Left on the cutting room floor” is a well known cutting cliché. How does an editor judge which shots and frames to omit and which to put in?

Immersed by a myriad of shots on a digital monitor, an editor addresses a lot of elements simultaneously: lighting, continuity, story, pace, emotion, shot angle, shot type, sound, and more. A huge factor driving the “in or out” decision is a question that’s never far from the editor’s consciousness: How much does the audience need to know? Viewers are savvy; they can get what’s going on in a second or two. Here are a few types of cuts that illustrate how quickly an audience takes in information: (see full article for more).

Editing & screenwriting, Editing practices, Editor’s role

Guest Writer

October 22nd, 2010

Script Journal bannerThe Script Journal invited me to blog on their site. The requester prefaced the post with a personal note since her father was an editor. So here’s the latest iteration of my article on writing for editing:

And here’s a link to the journal:


Editing & screenwriting, Editor’s role

An LA editor’s story

September 28th, 2010

Sally Menke, famed for editing all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, died yesterday on a hike near the Hollywood sign, apparently due to the record breaking heat. Touchingly, the search team that discovered her body found that her dog stayed with her. As a hiker prone to heat exhaustion and ignoring it myself, I am paying heed to the nature of her death and hope you will too. And I wish to pay tribute to her.

I have quoted Menke before and by way of saluting her accomplishments, have gathered a few quotes and videos that honor her.


“…I do feel there’s an internal rhythm in every person which is reflected in your work. Somehow a painting looks like its painter. There’s an innate response to footage that I feel is very much mine. Sometimes it’s not at all what Quentin or another director wants, so I change it. I approach the footage in a detailed way, SallyMenke looking at mannerisms as much as I listen to the dialogue- what their body is saying.”

“I don’t do match cuts really. That’s a ridiculous thing to say – I do. But we always explore how we can propel a scene, and that’s including dialogue, without doing match cuts. Because the audience is really willing to accept a lot of discontinuity.”

“I’ve learnt so much from every film and every director – a new perspective, a greater appreciation of the art.”

“We [Tarantino and I] muse over everything for a long time. Nothing is simply connected for the sake of connecting.”

All quotes and photo from “Cutting For Quentin, An Interview with Sally Menke” by Garrett Gilchrist.

Video tributes

In The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing the unequalled doc on Hollywood editing, Tarantino and Menke talk about their collaboration. Start watching at six minutes in. Tarantino really lets loose.

I can’t think of too many directors that have gone as far out of their way to appreciate their female editor than Quentin Tarantino. This has got to be a huge loss for him. Here he talks about how they write the film together during editing.

How many editors get recognized on set, let alone beyond anywhere else? Here’s a light hearted tribute to her from the director, cast and crew of Inglourious Basterds, her last Tarantino movie.

So long Sally and condolences to your family, friends, and film community.

Editing & life, Editing & screenwriting, Editing practices, Editor’s role

A Fairy Tale and Reasons not to Make a Cut

January 5th, 2010

Phantom Tollbooth Cover I reread a couple of books from my childhood in the past few months. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, 1961, illustrated by cartoonist Jules Feiffer is a sly, humorous book for both children and adults that’s rife with wordplay, number play, and artfully disguised life lessons.

It’s the quintessential road trip /life journey fable: Milo, the depressed 10-year-old main character, hooks up with a literal watch dog and they meet a lot of earnestly quirky, delightfully named characters and have various experiences in a welter of different lands.

For always remember, that while it is wrong to use too few, [words] it often far worse to use too many. Faintly Macabre, page 68.

In Dictionopolis Milo encounters Faintly Macabre, a Which, in a dungeon. She relates her history: For years she was in charge of choosing which words to use on which occasions.Phantom Tollbooth Scene She became exasperated at people’s carelessness with words and grew stingier and more restrictive about which words, if any could be used. Eventually, no one could say anything and she received a life sentence (my word play – a hat tip to Juster). As a result, the Which explains to Milo,”…today people use as many as words as they can and think themselves very wise for doing so.”

It’s easy to apply the Which’s words to screenwriting: Avoid using too much dialogue when a look will do – film is a visual art and audiences grasp meaning swiftly from a short glance or glimpse.

It’s also easy to apply the Which’s words to editing: Too many unmotivated cuts  – cuts put in for the sake of cutting – make a scene “cutty” and worse, they sap the life and meaning from the scene. MTV falls into this trap all too often – visuals are cut in to cover the music and the song’s impact diminishes with every subsequent phrase.


It’s much more important to learn what not to cut. That’s the hardest thing for any young editor starting out; it was for me.

Tom Rolf, A.C.E., Taxi Driver, The Executioner’s Song, New York, New York, and Jacob’s Ladder among many others

1) You think you should

Never cut arbitrarily. Remember: motivation, motivation, motivation. So what affect does an unmotivated, unwarranted cut have? It bogs the show down, particularly if there are a lot of unnecessary shots edited in. This can put the show off kilter and distract, annoy, or possibly lose the audience.

2) You think you shouldn’t — the shot’s sooooo beautiful!

Don’t stick with a shot due to its stunning scenery or camera work. When the locale has been established, the moment made, the information conveyed, it’s time to move on.

Yours truly worked on a TV show where the plot centered on a teenage boy learning to drive. The opening shot of the show, a master shot, included a long pan of a junkyard from which I cut out at an appropriate place. The director, for his cut, insisted I stay on the shot until it panned past an upturned wheel. To him this symbolized the whole show: the kid and his first set of wheels. Nice concept but I got it from the director, not the footage. The producers didn’t get it either. The wheel went out and we all explained why to the director.

3) The shot took the crew a whole day on their bellies to get. It’s expensive. It took months of negotiating and planning. It must go in.

No way. This is what you’re paid for: to be detached from the location shoot or a spectacular performance and to tell the story in the most polished, well paced fashion possible. You don’t want to drag the audience down with shots that say, show, or do nothing for the story or subject. In Film Editing Nuts and Bolt, editor-author Film Guy puts it bluntly; “Basically the audience could care less what you had to through to bring off a scene.” The effect of cutting in unneeded footage drains the vitality from your film and the patience of your audience.

4) The director printed the shot, it must be used

Nothing doing. Again, if the shot slows the story down or doesn’t add crucial information that could be gained more smoothly and engagingly, leave it out. However if the director asked to see the shot cut in, unless you two have a long-standing relationship, you probably should cut it in. It’s often better to try and make a cut work and let the director see that it doesn’t, than to merely say it doesn’t work. Yes, a picture, even a miscut, unnecessary one, can be worth a thousand words. And your job.

5) You’re the editor. You’re supposed to make cuts

You don’t get paid by the cut. You get paid to shape the material into the most moving, breathtaking show possible. If a scene plays in the master, leave it. Too many edits can be the sign of a novice editor and look cutty. “If in doubt, leave it out” should be your mantra.

So when and why should you make a cut? I’ll talk about the five reasons to make a cut in my next post.

Editing & screenwriting, Editing practices, Editor’s role