Spielberg’s Editor – Michael Kahn on Editing

Michael Kahn’s Insights on Film Editing

Michael Kahn film editor

Michael Kahn has been Spielberg’s editor since Close Encounters of the Third Kind, collaborating together for over thirty years. I can only think of Scorcese and Thelma Schoonmaker as another example of an editor and director having that kind of working history. Last night he was in LA for a showing of Lincoln and stayed on to give a Q+A to an eager audience. Not living in LA myself here’s the best of twitter from that night…

On Editing:

Don’t edit from knowledge, edit from feeling.

If you never make changes to a cut you will never get to the best cut.

Approach every gig like it’s the first time you have ever edited anything. Don’t bring baggage from previous shows.

We put film together, tell the story, give it clarity. That’s what we do.

Thought process is what you bring to film. If you see a film that doesn’t work, ask yourself what you would have done differently.

Only assistants are allowed in his editing room and he allows them to sit with him while he edits.

One of Michael’s former assistants is William Goldenberg who is now nominated against him at the Oscars for both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty.

Tips for Editors:

Michael uses the theory of 3’s for reaction shots. Scenes play best with 3 reaction shots, no more, no less.

To learn about editing, see as many movies as you can, good and bad.

Always duplicate/overlap 2-3 frames on match cuts because of eye sensory lag.

Keep fresh by walking away from your edit. You’ll come back the next day and see a different scene.

film editor michael kahn

On Lincoln:

It took Michael & Stephen Spielberg a while to figure out when not to cut.

Just because you have a lot of coverage doesn’t mean you have to use it. (With Lincoln) They stuck with master shots because Daniel Day Lewis was so good.

The congress voting scene was shot at different times which made it difficult to cut.

Stephen Spielberg dressed nicely during production to complement the “president”.

On Spielberg:

Kahn used to select takes himself but on Close Encounters he had Spielberg do it to save a lot of time.

In their 37 years together, Steven won’t watch a cut without temp music.

I don’t do what Stephen asks me to do, I do what I think he actually wants.

Tweets from Jamie Cobb, Dan Wolfmeyer, Adam Bedford, Monica Daniel,

Michael Kahn in Conversation

If you want more insights from the great man check out this 30 minute interview from the ever entertaining DP/30. For even more DP/30 conversations with legendary film editors check out this previous post.

About Jonny

Jonny Elwyn - A freelance film editor, living and working in London.
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10 Responses to Spielberg’s Editor – Michael Kahn on Editing

  1. Actually, Michael said to overlap/duplicate 2-3 frames at the cut, not leave them out.

  2. Pravin says:

    “I shall fix it in the post”
    Good one Jonny ;-)

  3. James says:

    “Always duplicate/overlap 2-3 frames on match cuts because of eye sensory lag.” I honestly don’t understand that. Can you explain it in detail?

    • Zach says:

      James,

      This one took me some time to get my head around as well. The advice comes from the idea that a cut can be somewhat jarring for the eye-to-brain communication because it has to take a microsecond to recalibrate the camera’s new spatial location to begin processing the action of the scene. The amount of time that many editors estimate it takes for the lag process to be complete is 2-3 frames.

      This is fixed by this editing overlap.

      Lets throw a theoretical situation out. You have your wide shot (WS) and a medium shot (MS) of the same action. Lets say this was a two camera shoot and both shots were attained in the same take.

      If you start on the wide shot for 5 seconds and 6 frames before cutting to the medium shot, common sense would say to start the medium shot at the 5 second, 7 frame mark for perfect continuation. But due to the eye lag, it would be ideal to start the medium shot at the 5 second, 4 frame / 5 frame mark to account for the eye lag. This creates a split second of redundant action, but by the time your eye picks back up with the action, it is now at the 5 second, 7 frame mark.

      If you edit videos, try this out at as an experiment by adding in that buffer. When I experimented with it, I started to realized that my cuts that did not account for the buffer seemed off when compared to the other ones.

      This was honestly one of the best pieces of advice I received, as it was as if I learned an ancient secret editors used to make their cuts work.

      I hope this clears things up!

  4. jonny says:

    I’m going to answer this question in two parts because I’m not sure of the context of the original quote.

    Initially it seems to me that Michael would be talking about ‘cutting on action’ so an example would be, someone getting up from behind a desk and as they get up you cut from a close up to a wide shot, but you match the action so they are in the same position and travelling at the same speed etc so everything looks smooth. In this case you could overlap 2 or 3 frames of the action to make it look smoother, to give the eye time to catch up with the change.

    But the term ‘match cut’ (see wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Match_cut) is actually about cutting ”between either two different objects, two different spaces, or two different compositions in which an object in the two shots graphically match, often helping to establish a strong continuity of action and linking the two shots metaphorically.” – The iconic example they give is from 2001: A Space Odyssey where the bone is thrown up into the air and ‘match-cuts’ into a space ship.

    But you can’t ”overlap” a match cut because you’re cutting between two different things, so I would assume that he’s actually talking about matching a cut when cutting on action.

    But that’s my guess! Does that explain it?

    If you want a good explanation of cutting on action (or motion) check out this video…

  5. Jacob Browning says:

    I am a Radio-TV-Film student from Wisconsin. I am looking for contact information for Michael Khan. I am writing a paper about him and his editing techniques and would like to interview him if possible. Can anyone help please?

    • jonny says:

      Sorry Jacob I’m afraid I can’t help there. You could try The ACE (American Cinema Editors society) or try to find out who his agent is?

  6. Alan says:

    Jacob. Did you finish the paper on michael Kahn?

  7. D-money says:

    Michael Kahn is the greatest editor of all time.

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