The Rough and the Fine -
About Macro- and Microfilmediting
by Gerhard Schumm
Boris Vian -songwriter, filmauthor, jazzmusician
What have I recently read in a film book? "The editor does his cutting by assembling the shots in the planned order and shortening them if necessary." Really cute.
Many people think it works like this. But it isn't quite that simple. Not with feature film, not with documentaries, and not with experimental film either. Oh well ..... perhaps with the editing of short, journalistic pieces.
Editing is much more the act of finding the later film in the given footage, in the pictures and the sound. Editing is about an attentive search, about finding, discovering and finding out, but rarely about inventing. Editing is a revealing, uncovering work at the structure of the film.
For example, documentaries develop mostly in the cutting room. Feature films get their valid and final form there as well. The script can be written ever so accurate and be dutifully obeyed at the shooting: It's in the cutting room where you have to find out what is hidden in the footage, what it has to tell. And you have to explore with a fresh, unbiased view which parts of the original imaginations, ideas for special shots and plans for the entire movie are existent in the footage. That is occasionally a fine rediscovery, often a wonderful new discovery and sometimes a critical inspection and a delicate revision as well.
How to do this, how to select and arrange material, for that amazingly there are no rules. There are methods, though. General methods and personal methods. Books about editing &endash; with their explanations of editing rules &endash; often give a wrong impression. If you believe them, you might think that the path is regulated and drawn out already and that it's just about doing things thoroughly. This is deceptive.
In editing there are no traffic regulations, no recipes for the good and the right and no tricks against bad mistakes. The only editing mistakes I know of are: editing with half-heartedness and editing without passion and enthusiasm. Filmediting is an amazingly open creative process. You have to sort out the own coherent expression for every film. For every film there is a language that has to be found &endash; it's own language.
On the one hand, editing is: screening the footage - over and over. That means the intense exploration of the footage by listening and watching, by pondering and reflecting. For whole days. For whole weeks. For whole months. For the whole editing.
On the other hand, editing is: to arrange and compose the emotional and logical structure of the film. You have to make a selection and find out how the material wants to be put together, and how you want to put together the material yourself. That's what is called the "rough cut". Here you outline it all: the macro-structure.
Thirdly, editing is: the interpretation and articulation of the material. In the composed material the main points are to be emphasized, separations and connections are to be worked in. To tighten, to gather, to stretch the material. To put rhythm to it. To phrase it. To make it continuous or faltering. That's what is called the "final cut". Here you take care of the details of the micro-structure.
These processes don't go off schematically one after another. They can't be separated stubbornly. They pervade in lively work. It could also be called: the examining arranging, the selecting examination, the selecting arranging, the arranging selection.
Exploring the footage
To screen the footage from the point of view of editing means: to look at the material and understand it as selectable, rearrangeable, shortenable and extendable pieces. This is a view that recognizes the connections within the material as alterable. You develop a special awareness of the own editing impulses and ideas while editing. You watch out for them. You remember them. You feel that: here the material could perhaps be arranged in a new, different way. Together or apart. There I would like to put something closer or further apart.
This kind of view with its specific impuls for variation. I experience as something very special. It is a peculiar look at the visable and the audible. In real life I normally don't look at my environment saying: Perhaps this tree should better be standing there or be gone alltogether.
The macrostructure - to arrange the material
With the rough cut the main work of the editing is done. Once the rough cut is finished, you know where the movie is supposed to go and what is to be said. The rough cut can be defined as fixing the selection and succession of shots. The order is crucial for the closeness and distance of pictures and sounds, their relation and &endash; not to forget &endash; their not-relation as well.
You create constellations within the material. You form connections between shots that are close together or far apart. But it is also very important to put in seperations, gaps, caesuras, unrelations. Pictures and sounds can get in contact in many ways. Affection and closeness is only one possibility. Pictures can also collide, they can ricochet off each other, they might want to be closely, loosely or not at all connected, they can stand in opposition or drift apart.
This is how you gradually design the structure of the rough cut by selection, arrangement and variation. Draft and footage are not opposed. The storyboard is not applied on the material and just worked through. The idea rather developes little by little. Material and idea merge and push each other forward mutually, into directions one pursues further and into directions one discards.
The microstructure - the interpretation and articulation of material
The final cut includes the more and more precise definition of the cutting points. These are spots of separation as well as connection. Separation, because separated shots meet. Connection, because the seperated shots touch very closely.
The final cut is an interpretation of the material at the respective cut by either stressing the seperation or covering it by emphasizing the closeness and the connection.
Stressed cuts articulate the breaks. Covered cuts hide the cutting. And then rhythm and timing are brought out.
You can see what a film has to say, to show, to tell after the rough cut. But how it says, shows, tells it, if fluently, contrary, hidden, clearly, with speed or jammed, full of energie or weak, accentuated or unobtrusive, soft or abrupt &endash; you don't know that until the end of the final cut. Things you can immediately see and hear are the centre of this work: a change in the image, a look, a rustle in the sound, a change of colour, the outlines, the lines in the pictures. In the final cut you scroll over the material back and forth, reflect the tiniest movements, gestures, sounds, the intonation and the timing. You watch the individual cuts incredibly often. Therefore you have to watch and listen as if it was the first time, you have to be able to be surprised by the pictures and the sound, attentive and indifferent at the same time. In this way editing people are, so to speak, the first viewer of a movie. They explore what might be interesting for them and for others, how it looks, how it sounds and feels. That is the paradoxical attitude of the foreign view: not too acurate, not too conscious, not too critical. This is really not easy after weeks of work when you know the pictures so well they sometimes even appear in your dreams. But it works.
Well, and what have I recently read in a film book, a different film book? "Editing is something very pleasant, full of joy. It's a process of intelligence and association. That's what makes thinking productive. You gain a liking for the own brain."
Translated by Brigitte Schultz