I’m a realist. Long ago I abandoned my dream of becoming a writer/director. It was around the time I realized I couldn’t pen a single sentence of meaningful dialogue or instruct an actor with any degree of confidence. Sometimes it’s best to be honest with yourself. But one thing I found myself drawn to in editing was how you could manipulate images and sounds to construct a perceived reality that was almost totally different from the conditions in which the material was recorded.
Any hack can string a bunch of images together; but as anyone with a real filmmaking sense knows, it takes a skilled artist to be able to control the numerous unseen factors that come into play when telling a story through images. Aside from the photographic decisions of camera placement and frame size that the editor takes into account, there are certain elements – emotion, tone, rhythm, pacing – that are more intangible and flexible when it comes to storytelling.
As I gravitated toward post production over the past few years and began to internalize the subtleties of good editing (both from direct teaching methods, such as film courses and Walter Murch’s books, as well as from indirect methods like the work of my peers and the challenges of my own editing projects), I found myself drawing creative inspiration from many different sources outside of my work. As a music enthusiast, I am fascinated by the work of DJ’s (the ones who mix songs into a seamless listening experience, not the ones who talk between songs on the radio). If you think about it, DJ’s are really live music editors – they are charged with creating a seamless progression of sound, controlling melody, rhythm, and energy. When I listen to music, I often visualize a series of images that fit the mood and rhythm of the piece – in essence, creating a music video in real-time in my head.
People sometimes ask if I watch films differently as an editor; usually I do not, but if my mind begins to wander, I find myself guessing when each cut will occur. It’s pretty difficult when you don’t know what’s coming, but once you internalize the rhythm of a scene, sometimes you can anticipate cuts with surprising accuracy. I also find myself critiquing amateur videos I see on YouTube (or particularly poor-quality professional content) and imagining how they could be edited much better.
One look at my student films from a few years ago would be enough to convince anyone that I made the right choice by not aspiring to be a director. But the most tolerable parts of them show evidence of an early predisposition towards editing that has developed into a full-fledged passion today. In order to be a good editor, you need to think like an editor, not just push the right buttons on a keyboard. And the more creative inspiration you can find in your everyday life, the better off you’ll be when you’re pulling an all-nighter in a windowless room to address 4 pages of producers’ notes.