I received this article from a NY Film Academy teacher. It’s laudable because it explains to eager shooters the importance of editing and why it should be considered from the get go. Thank you John and Anjum Bhardwaj who emailed me the request and article!
When the Cinematographer Thinks Like an Editor
by John Loughlin, Chair of the Cinematography Department/The New York Film Academy
As I work with cinematography students, I sometimes have to break the news to them gently how they will not have the last say on the story. To be sure, cinematographers play a pivotal and significant role in the look, feel, and even meaning of a film. But they necessarily collaborate with the other players, the screenwriter and editor – and the actors – who help construct the story, as well as the director, who manages the story through every stage of the process.
I tell them that a film is written three times. It is first written as a script. It is rewritten when it is translated into shots during production. And it is rewritten again when those shots are put into sequence during the edit. The movie can become something very different during each of these rewrites. And when a cinematographer sees her shots cut together in a way other than intended, she can feel like the editor is doing it wrong, ruining the story. We face conflicting urges to take over and dictate the edit, and to get frustrated and write the movie off.
Even though we have to learn to let our shots go when in the hands of the editor it doesn’t mean we divorce our thoughts from the other parts of the filmmaking process. Far from it. In the same way that screenwriters need to write visually, cinematographers should find themselves shooting like editors. No crew member, and no student, is an island. Staying connected to the evolving movie pays educational dividends that will make shooters more sophisticated and refined in shooting effective shots. They are learning to “shoot for the edit.”
Although cinematographers are not expected to edit, because editing is a different job, I suggest that everyone benefits from editing his or her own projects while at school. We learn how a movie comes together only in the editing room. We begin to see what is meant by “the language of a movie” when shots work together, or when they do not – when shots are missing and it’s too late to go back and get that insert.
And we see the object of a movie, that what we deliver to the audience is a construct of specific parts – that it is this shot for this long only, and that is followed by specifically this next shot. A close up of a face looking through a window followed by a high angle shot of someone walking through city streets tells a story. The audience fills in the missing information at the edit, between the shots, and makes meaning.
Viewers draw a connection from the first shot to the second, and experience something that is not physically in either of those shots: maybe that the person in the window is spying on the person walking through the street. Or waiting for him. Or missing her. How can you possibly photograph “missing,” or “betrayed” or “regret”? Yet somehow the audience sees those things. So it is for all viewers. Through editing we discover that we deliver a specific experience via a specialized language, that of images in sequence.
Seeing this happen, in the editing suite, as cinematographers, we begin to see what our shots really are: elements of visual grammar. And from that realization we can begin to learn the nuances of which shots will work in which story moments. What if the shot of the person in the window is a profile? What if it is over the shoulder? Or a little bit tighter of a frame? What if we use a long lens for the high angle shot of the person in the street? Will it be more voyeuristic? What about a wide-angle lens? What if it’s not a high angle shot at all, but down at street level? Have we now adjusted the audience’s sense of setting? Is it time for that shift?
Maybe we discover that we needed such a shift in setting, that we need the audience to leave behind the person in the window, and join the experiences of the person on the street. But we only have an objective point-of-view of the person in the window. What can we do? There is an expression, “flop sweat,” meaning the panic you feel in the edit room when a scene is not coming together. Everyone asks, “How could we not see this failure coming?” This unpleasant circumstance turns out to be a great learning experience. It leads to an evolution in filmmakers, that they shoot for the edit, which really just means they have the ability to envision the scene edited, even while they prep and shoot it.
I also believe that editing is a beautiful and creative art. Sometimes we can find something greater than planned and expected, even for those who know how to shoot for the edit. For example, the way holding a close up for longer than you might have intended when shooting it can somehow spawn an idea or an emotion that didn’t exist in the edit before. Or the way a close up, stolen from the footage after the director calls “cut,” can become the perfect supporting reaction shot during some other character’s lengthy and inspired speech.
And so when we see a scene edited differently than how we shot-listed it, we can ask ourselves: Did the editor actually create something larger or more true than intended? Rewrite the scene into something better? After all, that’s what the editor’s there for. Or if the scene is weaker than intended, is it because we as cinematographers didn’t deliver the necessary shots for a cohesive scene? In other words, did we shoot for the edit? The best way to train yourself to shoot for the edit is to experiment with editing whenever you can, and to collaborate with your editor when your project has one. Find out how he sees the story, the scene, and where the hidden pitfalls may lie.
All films are always going to be a mix of players, each imprinting a bit of themselves through their contributions. But the greatest success for all happens when each player does what they do, and communicates what they want to do, with each other, so that the shots work together. That’s what it takes to make great films.
Editing practices, Editor’s role