Jump to: navigation, search

British Kinematography (1948) - The Function of Editing in Film Making




Hugh Stewart

Report of a paper read to a joint meeting of the B.K.S. with the A.C.T. on March 24th, 1948.

Mr. Stewart said the function of editing in film making was an intangible subject. There were no rules ; and each cut was, or should be, a fresh event. Editing really meant a feeling for story value and the ability to manipulate the film to express such a feeling.

At its worst, cutting was a hack job of putting bits of film together in a manner that might or might not spoil the story. At its best, it was a stage of creation. That was an angle on which any cutter would dilate at length. In a properly made studio film there was a definite limit to the creative work of the editor, but the same could be said about direction.

Editing in Perspective

Editors had to get right back and view the. problem of film making as a whole in order to get their own craft into its right perspective. The script was, or should be, 80% of the creative part of the film. Direction should be a form of creative interpretation.

Editing was an extension of the same influence. A well-written script, conceived by a writer who knew his job, was a sine qua non of successful, and at the same time artistic, film making.

Script Writing

Mr. Stewart expressed the opinion that encouragement should be given to writers to learn the job of presenting a script which could be made into a good film just as they wrote it. Until there were more knowledgeable writers it might be taken for granted that all the good directors and cutters in the world would not enable good pictures to be made.

To many people a script was a succession of pages in a typewritten book. In fact, it could only make sense in terms of images. The inclusion of irrelevant scenes, unnecessary lines and ill-thought-out ideas meant headaches for the director and editor, and did not contribute to the improvement of the film.

Just as the value of a set or an actor could be assessed according to the contribution to the story, so a scene could be envisaged in the same way. Script faults complicated the director's work, and although he might put some of them right, the remainder were passed on intact to the editor. Problems that were not solved as they arose gathered force and landed with impetus in the hands of the editor.

The well written script automatically gave the director a straightforward job, so that his energies could, as was proper, be devoted to directing the actors. This in turn facilitated the work of the editor.

Exemplary Films

One of the best films he had ever cut was, said Mr. Stewart, Alfred Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much," in 1934. It joined together with the neatness of a jig-saw puzzle. One scene had been exceptionally interesting to work on from the point of view of creative editing.

In the story the mother, Edna Best, went to a concert at the Albert Hall. As she sat there she realised that an assassin was going to kill an ambassador sitting in the Royal Box. The assassin had also stolen her child, so she was there with a double purpose. The words of the chorale being performed included the phrase "Save the Child," which was an ingenious underlining of the second motif which was in her mind, though not in the visible action. Hitchcock made a variety of shots, and the author had the task of piecing them together, using the music as a frame-work.

A similar occasion had arisen during the making of "A Spy in Black," a good film made by Michael Powell in 1938. A German "U" Boat, with Conrad Veidt as Captain, was making its way through a minefield outside the Orkneys. The quality of suspense was very necessary, so a few chart inserts were shot, some underwater submarine shots were found, and a delightful couple of days were spent working up a sequence.

Conveying Atmosphere

Normally a little thought and care soon would reveal what was, within limits, the only way to cut a scene. A film should have an integrity of its own, and continual re-cutting of a scene was the rare exception rather than the rule.

The incompetent director over-covered to secure against not having enough close-ups, or to be able to make a cut if the scene were too long. But the competent director might, by panning and tracking his camera, and moving his artists about, achieve in one shot what would otherwise be done in several set-ups cut together.

In "Les Enfants du Paradis" Marcel Carné had used with great brilliance various techniques in presenting his story. In the scene where Garance returned to the Count's house and met Lacenaire again, there were very few cuts ; the movements of the camera and the actors emphasised the dramatic points and caught the mood of reminiscence. In the subsequent scene between Lacenaire and the Count, both men stood quite still, and the antagonism between them was suggested by the sharpness of the cross-cutting.

Documentary Films

In documentary films the relationship between the work of the writer, director and editor was completely different from that of the general film. The writer had a much vaguer idea of the exact appearance of the actual scene. He might know what the ultimate effect would be, but he could not give directions for achieving it in the same way as he could when writing a scene with directions as to voice pitch and gestures, or with sets built to specification.

The writer of an ordinary script could indicate so exactly what he wanted that he did not need to be aware of the finer points of editorial work. But the vaguer images of a documentary writer required a very exact grasp of editorial detail in order that he might more accurately discipline the construction of his scene.

Integrated Work

The well-made studio film had readily ascertainable and evenly balanced components. But the documentary film needed much editorial knowledge by the writer to compensate for the more fluid script. Thus the function of writer, director and editor overlapped far more in making documentary films. In fact it was not possible to make fine distinctions in designating their various activities.

The process of overlapping was found at an extreme in campaign films such as " Tunisian Victory." Not until the end of the campaign was it possible to plan a coherent account ; in other words, the rushes were all delivered before the script could be written. A rough assembly of all available film was the pre-requisite to creative writing. Thus the work of the writer, director and editor became completely identified.

To attain dramatic interest the greatest variety and use of commentary was made. Sometimes it was in unison with the images, sometimes in complete contrast, and sometimes (best of all) non-existent.

Great Innovators

In film making it was a truism that one had to be continually striving for improvement and constantly searching for novelty. It applied to editing as much as any other aspect.

The techniques of the early film makers were revolutionised by the innovations of D. W. Griffiths, and of Eisenstein and Pudovkin. During the thirties film makers like Capra and Ford tended to reserve the use of single close-ups for moments of great dramatic importance, and to play scenes between two people in " tight twos." Many examples of developments of technique could be quoted, but the achievements of those directors to whom reference had been made acted as a starting point for discussion.

An innovator might shock many people, but if he were a sincere artist his work would make an impression and a contribution to film artistry. It would set a milestone. The general public might be suspicious of something quite different, but they were affected by it. They might turn in relief to that to which they were accustomed, but something had happened to show that taste had moved on.

Post-War Demands

The wide demand for good factual films during the war led to a new kind of entertainment film.

The first popular film that had come out of America since the war was William Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives." Its style of writing, directing and editing was obviously different from anything that happened before the war. It was very different, in fact, from Wyler's war-time success "Mrs. Minniver."

Old v. New

Constant development was the most fascinating part of editing. The blending of new ideas with the tradition of the old was used so that the kinema might be progressive and yet avoid unharmonious crankiness. People with new ideas might despise the more conservative producers, but traditional experience was necessary to keep the balance. At the same time, conservative producers might despise men with new ideas, but they could not do without them. Traditional film making unspurred by novelty would become stale, and new ideas were necessary to prevent that.

However, all the techniques and variety of styles would not make a good picture out of a bad one, and in properly organised film making the editor should not be called upon to correct the errors of others. Editors had the great advantage that they had before them examples of how, and how not, to interpret a piece of writing into celluloid. They received the best training in the world for estimating what was the minimum amount of shooting required to put over a scene. The intelligent editor developed an instinct for knowing exactly what was wanted and, provided always that he had the inborn gift of directing actors, his work gave him the basic training required by a film director.


Mr. K. Gordon : Do you think that co-operation between the director and the editor on the floor is a necessity?

The Author : I think it helps.

Miss Coborn : Do you think that the eye and ear do or do not co-operate? Do you believe that strong sound and strong visual can be used together, or in general, that one should give way to the other?

The Author : So much depends on the context. I was thinking of the effect in juxtaposition of the enormous close-up at the beginning of "Citizen Kane" — two enormous lips saying the word "Rosebud." On one hand, you can have a strong dramatic sequence which is silent — the suspense is built up with the use of imagery — and you can have dull visuals where the sound can be exciting.

Mr. R. H. Cricks : Mr. Stewart has suggested that the director should graduate from editing. Should not the script writer also graduate from editing?

The Author : The script writer should certainly know editing in the broad sense ; he should also know the dramatic impact of camera movement, and have a feeling for the art of the camera.

A Visitor : Should editors necessarily graduate from first assistant cutters?

The Author : First assistants may be efficient technicians, but an editor has to be an artist as well.