5 Books on Film Editing for 2019
If you’re looking for an up to date book to read on the craft, business and technique of film editing, then most of these books will deliver that in spades, whilst a couple will give you a more time-worn perspective, which is just as valuable.
In this post I review the following 5 books on the craft of film editing:
- Writing for The Cut, Greg Loftin (2019, 190 pages)
- The Guide to Managing PostProduction for Film, TV and Digital Distribution, Barbara Clark et al (2019, 310 pages)
- The Healthy Edit, 2nd Edition, John Rosenberg (2019, 358 pages)
- The Total Filmmaker, Jerry Lewis (1971, 208 pages)
- On Film Editing, Edward Dmytryk (1984, 160 pages)
You would do well to seriously consider reading both The Guide to Managing PostProduction, for a really helpful, detailed and practical read and Writing for The Cut, for a refreshing, insightful and inspiring re-contextualising of the craft.
If you’ve never read Edward Dmytryk’s On Film Editing, it is rightly considered a classic and well worth your time.
I’ll get into each of these books in more detail, and they’re all worth reading in their own right but for quite different reasons.
Highly creative top directors like Joe Mankiewicz still read books on film editing. They read them, reread them, then toss them away because of the preponderance of non sense in them.
The only place to learn film editing is in the cutting room, sitting at the Moviola or standing behind the cutter’s high swivel chair, watching the emulsion fly by.” – Jerry Lewis
It’s worth pointing out now that The Total Filmmaker by Jerry Lewis is long out of print, and available copies on Amazon.com sell for hundreds of dollars. Thankfully you can download a copy here thanks to Cinephilia & Beyond.
Writing for The Cut by Greg Loftin Review
What could screenwriters learn from film editors about storytelling?
That’s the question author, filmmaker and lecturer Greg Loftin sets out to answer in his highly engaging and fairly swift book Writing for The Cut.
“This book looks at one craft through the lens of another. Although it touches on some of the traditional territory of screenwriting manuals – genre, character, structure and dialogue – the emphasis here is on delivering practical tools to help you write your story the way an editor cuts a film.” – p. xi
At first this might seem like a strange book for a film editor to read given that it’s end goal is better scriptwriting, but just as an editor might turn the TV upside down, switch off the sound or make the image black and white; all in an attempt to get a little distance and therefore a little perspective on their cut, viewing your craft from the perspective of another part of the filmmaking art form, is a revelatory experience.
In that regard I would highly recommend every editor read Greg’s book as it leaves you feeling entirely refreshed in your attitude towards editing.
Or at least, it did for me, now a decade or so into my own professional editing career. I kept thinking: ‘I should really try that technique/idea/approach next time I’m cutting’. And precisely because the book is written for screenwriters, through the lens of screenwriting, the change in context really helps to bring familiar ol’ editing principles to life once again.
For example, the idea of juxtaposition, the foundational building block of all film editing, is at the core of both solid storytelling through writing and film editing.
“Juxtaposition is a kind of magic. Through the collision of images, we ignite fresh ideas in the mind of the viewer. And when we do that, viewers become active partners in the storytelling – they discover the story for themselves. Discovering the story, rather than literally being told the story, is what gives us the greatest pleasure when we watch a film.”
He goes on to quote Pixar director, Andrew Stanton:
“Good storytelling never gives you four, it gives you two plus two… but don’t then give the audience the answer.
Audiences have an unconscious desire to work for their entertainment. They are rewarded with a sense of thrill and delight when they find the answers themselves.”
In this way revisiting and reviewing your own handling of the juxtaposition of images and sounds to create those 2+2 = _____ moments helps you to consider fresh ways of creating those magical collisions in the mind of your audience. How will you use every cut, every scene break, every transition to drive forward another moment of juxtaposition through either matching, continuing or colliding ideas.
“Writing for the cut means writing in images and sounds with editing in mind. It aligns the screenplay with the ways movies are actually made, capturing the dance of the edit in the writing.
We have identified a number of for-the-cut strategies screenwriters can use. However, what we’re describing is probably more sensibility than a method.
All professional screenwriters write for the cut. Probably most would just call it screenwriting.
This juxtapositional way of writing both animates and “tells” the story. It obliges the viewer to make sense of the cut and, in so doing, contribute to the unfolding of the story.” – p.92
In a nutshell that’s what the book is all about, and although Greg does deliver on his promise to give you a ‘number of for-the-cut strategies‘ it’s important to keep in mind his caveat that these are ‘more a sensibility than a method.’ not to be blindly followed in all circumstances but to be added to your internal tool box of craft capabilities.
Some of these strategies are reinforced through ‘homework’ exercises at the end of each chapter. These provide a whole host of interesting ideas for editors and writers on making cuts, scenes and narrative structure far more engaging for the audience by arming you with a series of simple tools that can have a transformative effect on the creativity and meaning delivered by the edit.
One of my own takeaways was that editors should read more screenplays. (See my interview with Greg for more on this below) Editors should also try cutting them.
By that I mean doing a ‘paper edit’ of your favourite movie, by printing out the script and then taking bits out, considering what the central conflict in each scene is, who they would want to be on for certain lines, re-arranging the structure of the scene or overlapping and condensing scenes.
By being able to break down scripts in this way, you’ll not only hone your narrative skills – especially if you actually then do a similar edit of the finished film – but it will also help you further along in your career when your decision to do a project is based only on the reputation of the cast and crew and the script.
How else will you know how to answer the defining question: Is this script any good?
The book is also peppered with quotes, stories and insights from a wide range of editors and filmmakers. These add some nice spice to the content and occasionally Greg intentionally disguises the identity of a quoted editor for their career protection.
The honesty in these answers make the anonymity worth it, and demonstrate once again that you should never under estimate the diplomacy required in being a successful editor.
One of my favourite chapters was on the power of the cut as a diagnostic tool, as a lie detector:
“Editing is beautiful alchemical craft. But it has a dark side: editing is a lie detector. It detects acting lies, directing lies, dialogue lies and cinematography lies. But the biggest lie it detects is the flaw in the story.” p.102
The chapter recounts the true story of a $100 million movie from an A-list writer and director which simply didn’t work. Despite multiple edits, a huge re-shoot and months of work the excitement around the reputations involved obfuscated the lack of integrity in the script. It simply wasn’t put under the scrutiny it should have been ahead of production, and as a result it went straight to streaming.
The chapter then discusses how complex the process is, on a human ego and creative-collaboration level, of an editor inputting their opinion and perspective in the pre-production stage.
“When you read the script, you think, ‘Oh well. They probably won’t shoot that,’ and then they do. And when you do cut those scenes out they mostly don’t mind… But it’s something they can’t seem to take out at that early stage. And I know as an editor it’s not going to be in the final cut.” – Anne V. Coates
Later chapters also have some intriguing ideas on writing scripts in a new way, such as using Prezi and even getting writers to cut their own sizzle reel for their projects. Check out this previous post on how to cut trailers and sizzle reels for more resources on that.
It also reminded me of the screenplay breakdown from Lessons From The Screenplay for A Quiet Place, where the writers utilised some unique techniques with regard to fonts, text size and images to make the script read differently, and put the reader in the world of the film. For more on sound design and editing check out this previous post on Better Editing Through Sound Design.
Greg’s book, Writing for the Cut is a breezy read but also a breathe of fresh air on the topic of film editing. It’s packed with really useful insights and considerations to apply to your next edit, as well as your next screenplay.
I’ve not seen a book like this before, where one aspect of the craft critiques and informs another, but I really enjoyed it and I hope it makes a way for more cross-craft-pollination.
Tonally he’s not overly serious but he is in love with filmmaking and fully aware of the power and poetry of the cut.
This makes his book an engaging and informative read and one that mentally entrenched or lazy editors would do well to read, for a jolt of fresh inspiration.
5 Questions with Author Greg Loftin
What made you want to study this unique area of filmmaking – writing from an editors perspective?
How do screen stories work? How does the cut tell the story? How does juxtaposition invite viewers to discover the story for themselves?
These questions lie at the heart of my passion for the moving image. I probably got the editing bug at Uni when I was studying the great Soviet filmmakers, particularly Kuleshov, the dude who gave his name to the ‘effect’ that is the magic of our craft.
I write scripts and I edit – I’ve made lots of short dramas, and I made a feature film called Saxon.
Writing, shooting, and editing your own work gives you a special insight into how the story shifts across these three storytelling moments – and you often come to see the huge gap-of-fit between intentions and outcomes.
Can we better design our stories so they anticipate the shoot and the edit? This was the start of my research journey.
Should editors read more scripts, and why?
Yes – and I think drama editors could really benefit from reading screenwriting manuals. Several of the feature film editors I interviewed read manuals – books such as Linda Aronson’s 21st Century Screenplay and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat – these books really nail story structure.
JE – If you need a couple of jumping off points for finding scripts online, then start with these two excellent resources featuring both modern movies and older masterpieces:
- Cinephilia and Beyond – Annotated Scripts in PDF download, including; The Usual Suspects, Midnight Express, Following, The Shining…
- Go Into The Story – 100+ scripts to download including; A Quiet Place, Dallas Buyer’s Club, First Man, Inherent Vice, Old Man and the Gun….
One of the techniques that legendary screenwriter Aaron Sorkin recommends in his excellent Masterclass (here’s my in-depth review) is to find the scripts to your five favourite films, and sit and watch the film with the script open on your lap, and see what was on the page and how that was translated into the film before you. Or not, and why is it different and how did it work on the page?
It’s his methodology for reverse-engineering the film to some of its component parts. The same could be true of taking a scene and breaking it down shot by shot, cut by cut.
Why do you think viewing one aspect of the craft of filmmaking (e.g. editing) through another lens of the same craft (e.g. screenwriting) helps to make your own craft component that much clearer?
I just got back from an academic conference in Minneapolis where film tutors are now saying to their students “You want to write? You want to shoot? OK – first we’re going to teach you editing”. And this just makes sense to me.
Everything we do as filmmakers should hail the edit suite: this is the place where our film takes flight. And yes editors should read screenwriter manuals – oh I said that already…
What would you hope an editor would take from your book?
Writing for the Cut is for screenwriters, but editors love this book because, in describing to writers how the cut tells the story, it reminds editors of all the wonders of their craft.
What was your biggest learning during the process of researching and writing the book?
Probably the biggest lightning flash in my research was finding an interview between Joy Katz and Walter Murch for the poetry review Parnassus – in it, Murch makes a brilliant comparison between editing and poetry.
This led me to discover that poetry was also the bridge between screenwriting and the moving image.
I think you could make a case for an analogy between the length of the individual line in a poem and the duration of the individual shot in a film…
Why does a poet choose to end one line where he does, on a particular word, even though it may make no grammatical sense to do so?
Perhaps because of what you might call a rhythmic and contextual “ripeness” in the line, and because he wants to draw subtle attention to the last word in the line and the first word in the next.
Similarly, I will keep a shot on screen until it feels rhythmically and contextually “ripe.” If I held it any longer, or shorter, the balance of the movements of forms and ideas within the shot would be spoiled, because I want to draw subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) attention to the final image of the outgoing shot and compare it with the first image of the next. – Walter Murch
The Guide to Managing PostProduction for Film, TV and Digital Distribution, by Barbara Clark et al. Review
Of all the books in this list, this was definitely one of my favourites and I dare say an essential ‘must read’ for anyone looking to work as post production supervisor. Or indeed any editor or assistant editor looking to move into much larger, more collaborative workflows who wants to get their head around the bigger picture.
Not only will this help you know what you’re actually supposed to be doing but it will equip you to be a far better team player who is able to assist others in their roles more artfully and as a result likely get hired back more often. Either way, a cursory read of The Guide to Managing PostProduction for Film, TV and Digital Distribution will give a 30,000 ft view of the post process, whilst also putting a handy reference for all the nitty-gritty on your book shelf if you really want to become a post-supervisor.
This third edition was also published in 2019 so it’s entirely up-to-date. Obviously it covers digital acquisition and delivery but, given it’s origins, also covers handling a production which has been shot on film and guiding that to a successful finish.
The glossary in the final pages of the book is also extensive and up to date too. For example here is it’s definition of a K.D.M = Key Delivery Message “Contains all the keys necessary to allow the playback of content in a digital cinema package on a specific server at a designated time.”
Tonally it’s page by page a practical step-by-step guide to every element of a film or TV show’s post production journey, but it’s also a fairly light-hearted read:
“Welcome to the this edition of our book, where we introduce you to the wonderful, wacky, unpredictable, fun, funny and stressful world of film, TV and streaming. You’ll love it and you’ll curse it. But, ultimately, we hope to help you enjoy it as much as we do.” p.1
As mentioned this is the third edition of The Guide and helpfully the opening chapter highlights all of the new or expanded content in every other chapter of the book. This will help returning readers immensely but also gives you a sense of the latest industry topics the authors chose to cover.
So for example there are new chapters on piracy, digital workflows and mastering for digital cinema. The book concludes with a look to the future of post production as seen through the lens of the latest developments in 2019, covering topics such as Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Cloud Storage, LED cinema screens, Object-Orientated Sound, Multi-screen formats and a more.
“These improvements and many more are on the horizon of the cinematic experience. It remains to be seen what will happen, but experimentation always brings lessons.” – p.271
Although their wisdom is often delivered with a humorous touch, there are occasions where they lay down some hard won wisdom with the required tone:
“If you are a postproduction supervisor on a project and have the honour of viewing the complete budget for your show (with a summary top sheet attached), behave accordingly. Do not repeat the figures you have seen or the bottom line to anyone.
These numbers are privileged information, and the fact that they have been show to you means that you are respected and trusted. Do not risk your job or your reputation by sharing this information.
We have written this book with the humour and lightheartedness that is needed in this crazy business, but this advice is not a joke and is given in all seriousness.” – p.39
The expert authors of the book are:
Susan J. Spohr, a seasoned associate producer and postproduction supervisor at Technicolor who has worked on TV series, pilots, mini-series, features and more than 35 TV movies. She has also taught summer courses at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
Barbara Clark, a former Executive Director of Technical Services at 20th Century Fox, who oversaw the creation of all international and domestic syndication versions for their TV and feature productions.
Dawn Higginbotham, a postproduction supervisor for Dolby Laboratories and Lucasfilm on films such as Star Wars: Episodes I-III, Saving Private Ryan and Avatar among many others.
Kumari Bakhru, Director of Strategic Planning and Project Management for Walt Disney Studios Worldwide Motion Pictures Theatrical Distribution, (does that fit on a business card?). She has also worked for KPBS, Warner Bros. Lucasfilm and Dolby Laboratories.
Between them they have easily over 50-75 years of industry experience to share with every engaged reader, and it shows in the practical, grounded nature of the writing.
There’s even content colorists will enjoy too:
“Set up your colour pipeline in preproduction. (This cannot be overstated, as this often dictates the look of the film, and people often fall in love with the dailies.” – p.54
As a quick aside, another highly recommended book that I would again suggest to anyone looking to work in post production read is Jump Cut by Lori Jane Coleman ACE and Diana Friedberg ACE.
I’ve previously reviewed it in detail here, but to summarise: These two authors are experienced editors who also served as directors of the American Cinema Editor’s internship program for a decade and know the mechanics of both the editing room and the film industry inside and out. They are expert guides that anyone looking for career advancement should listen to!
What Jump Cut does so well is to pack in a tremendous amount of wisdom, tips, tricks and insights into what it takes to not only become a better editor, but to make the leap from working as an assistant into the editors chair. This is a topic that’s not always easy to find reliable information on and often, especially if it comes from only one editor’s experience, can be a little narrowed in it’s view. Jump Cut however draws on the author’s experience not only as editors themselves, but the wide-ranging roster of ACE editor’s they’ve had access to for over a decade.
Read alongside The Guide to Managing PostProduction, you will then be extremely well-educated on the way an editorial department functions internally and collaborates externally too.
“An important note regarding editors: It has been our experience that a demanding or frustrated editor is often acting out of the same passion for the project as the director, reacting to a less than ideal situation and out of desire for the best outcome for the feature or series.
It is not always possible, but try to understand where your editor is coming from, and be willing to compromise.” – p.107
This is a really great book and one that will deliver a lot of return on the relatively light investment of time and money. It’s easy to read, relevant to today’s workflows and most of all an empowering read for anyone looking to advance their career in post production through a better understanding of the process, the politics and the business involved.
Overall The Guide explains everything in much better detail than many other post books I’ve read, which is why I’m so confident to recommend it.
For any working or would-be assistant editors, this book would be a great companion to a training course like Master The Workflow, an outstanding way to learn the skills required to be an assistant editor working in features and TV, supported by a vibrant online community of fellow post production professionals. You can check out the course in more detail here, and download some excellent free resources too.
I’ll finish this review with one of my favourite moments in the book from p.118 in the chapter on Online Editing.
Lies producers tell editors:
- It’s pretty simple. It should only take an hour.
- I’m positive we’ve got this shot from another angle.
- I’ve never had this problem at any other facility
- I thought you’d be able to just paint it out.
Lies editors tell producers:
- I’ll fill in the paperwork tomorrow.
- Oh, don’t go by THAT monitor.
- It’s on the source file.
- I think it looks just fine.
The Healthy Edit (2nd Ed.) by John Rosenberg Review
I really wanted to love The Healthy Edit (2nd Edition) by John Rosenberg.
It’s written by a highly experienced editor with 27 editor credits to his name. It is also covering the rarely disclosed topic of operating as a film doctor; the person they call to come in and ‘fix’ films that aren’t working. Often this work goes uncredited, undiscussed and it happens far more frequently than you might expect.
But the book has some real problems that make loving it quite difficult, and essentially it would benefit from a healthy edit of it’s own. Or cleaving itself in two.
My main problem with the book was that it needs to choose an audience. Either the experienced editor or the complete neophyte. Personally, I would have loved it if the focus had been on the experienced editor, removing all the introductory comments and basic side notes.
The book’s then streamlined attention could have been focused on the detailed work of being a film doctor through fleshing out the case studies which are to me, by far and away the most interesting part of it.
These are generously peppered throughout the manuscript and add a huge array of insider stories, anecdotes and valuable lessons. There are stories about directors cutting their own films, a negative cutter’s cover ups, clever fixes to seemingly insurmountable narrative problems and much more.
The best case studies are a bit too long and involved to quote here in full, but to give you a sense of it they often describe, in detail, editing problems such as how to fix broken story arcs by removing scenes, intercutting moments of dialogue or by re-arranging scenes entirely to create better transitions and remove unnecessary footage.
But there are just too many tangents and ‘added notes’ – Doctors Orders, Tech Notes, Case Study, Rx, Checking the Pulse, Definitions of Terms and Warnings – which make it rather difficult to read.
For example, do we really need to know how to perform a specific function in Avid or Premiere, or have very basic terms explained in the midst of the flow of the paragraph, when those words can also be looked up in the ample glossary if required?
This jumbled layout delivers too much context switching to make it a pleasant experience. However, if you stick with it, and skim around a bit, you can pick up some really useful editorial insights.
So although I do have problems with this book, there are plenty of valuable lessons to be extracted from it, that you also won’t find in other books on film editing, that do make it worth the purchase price.
At 358 pages and 21 chapters the book covers a lot of ground, so you’re likely to find a section on most aspects of the craft of film editing. The later chapters on pace and rhythm (Cardiac Unit) intercutting (Rites of Passage), the politics of the edit suite (Bedside Manner), film doctoring (Triage) were the most interesting to me.
In putting together this post I came across this review on Amazon.co.uk by Conrad J. Obregon, which sums things up nicely. He still gave it 5 stars while commenting:
“I’ve read many books on editing film and videos, but no other has created such wide swings from dissatisfaction to satisfaction and back as this. Yet for me, the satisfactions made me consider this a very worthwhile book.
At first glance, this book seems to cover the same ground as several of the other editing books on the market. There is frequent repetition of the fact that the role of editing is to better tell the story. The medical metaphor used throughout by the author doesn’t seem to be particularly useful, especially since it is sometimes used ambiguously, sometimes meaning any editor who must put together a movie, and at other times a specialist who is called in to save a movie that hasn’t been successfully edited.
In order to demonstrate the principles, the book is rife with tales relating to the editing of specific movies. They include movies as recent as “Wonder Woman” and “Manchester by the Sea”. Unfortunately, often time the story ends in generalities that are of little practical application.”
So in summary, definitely check this book out if you can afford to, but just be warned you might have to wade through it to find the truly valuable nuggets for your context. But if you’re only going to buy one or two books on the list, I’d stick to the others.
The Total Filmmaker by Jerry Lewis, Reviewed
I asked around in the BCPC facebook group for some book recommendations, and the very well read Andy Young, suggested I read The Total Filmmaker by Jerry Lewis (yes, that Jerry Lewis).
As I mentioned at the start of this post, The Total Filmmaker has long been out of print since it’s publication in 1971, and vintage copies sell for hundreds of dollars on Amazon.com.
It’s a fascinating read from what feels like a by-gone era of filmmaking, but I’m sure the principles hold true for filmmakers today. Either way it’s a thoroughly entertaining read.
I am not ashamed or embarrassed at how seemingly trite or saccharine something in my films will sound. I really do make films for my great-great-grandchildren and not for my fellows at the Screen Directors’ Guild or for the critics!
I’m never going to meet my great-great-grandchildren in these seventy-some years that may be allotted to me, but when they see my films they’ll also see what I wanted to say. And they won’t be purposely bad or uncaring films. As a matter of pride, I also hope I look nifty for them.
I believe that the quickest way to find out your capacity for being a total film-maker is to determine whether or not you have something to say on film.
If the answer is negative, I suggest saving grief and dropping out.
Total film making requires the definite point of view. Of course, an awful lot is meant to be said in many films, mine included, that doesn’t get across. That’s no crime. The crime is starting out by having nothing to say.” – p 21-22.
Jerry Lewis delivers a really fascinating, no holes-barred telling of a career in film through the production and post production process. Jerry wrote, directed, starred and produced many of his own films and knew the industry inside out and front to back. Some of the specific details read like ancient history, but I’m sure many of the broader principles remain the same today.
If you’re a director or want to be one, this is a brilliant read. Although you might have to filter the ideas through into a more modern context and potentially different personality type.
Here are a few of my favourite quotes.
On dealing with Studio Execs:
On the same picture I went to him with an idea. I said, “I got something marvellous. If we can get the kid to want to really be like his father, work in front of a mirror . . . “
“No,” he answered, “I like it the way it is. Screw off.”
I screwed off but I’d begun to learn. I loved that picture and didn’t want anything to louse it up. Three days later I went back to his office.
I said, “You know that idea you told the director about the kid, and his father . . . the mirror. That’s the best thing I ever heard.”
He said, “You like it?”
We did it! What’s more, the son-of-a-bitch really thought it was his idea. I worked that routine at least a dozen times with him.
“Remember that night when we were having a drink at Lucy’s and you said the girl shouldn’t dance? That was very smart.”
“Yeah?”?He couldn’t wait to get the broad out of the picture! She was out, out, out! It was his idea.
When I finished my contract, I wrote him a note:
“Thank you for putting me in the picture business but please don’t confuse my gratitude with my principles. You are a shit.” – p37
On working with actors:
I always deliver the first spanking in a far corner. If a second one is needed I make certain it is in the middle of the set where everyone hears it.
Actors, like children, sometimes test to see how far they can go. If it goes too far, it infiltrates the rest of the cast and the crew. Suddenly control is lost.
By and large, an actor wants the director to have firm and complete control.
It is not a matter of set discipline alone. Actors some times decide to change characterization, very subtly, for reasons only the actor and his God can know.
For four weeks he’s been playing a sympathetic character and suddenly one day he decides to add a little Bogart.
Obviously, he has to be knocked down. He can play Bogart in his next film!
On director led-editing:
Once I walked into a cold, sleepy cutting room at four thirty in the morning and lifted a son-of-a-bitch of a shot out of a film. Two and a half feet! I hated it with a passion.
It was right for the film, right for the scene, but I hadn’t shot it the right way.
Even though it worked, it wasn’t honest. I yanked it. – p.133
On cutting comedy:
“It is punctuation. Frames! Three frames, six frames!
Frame cutting particularly works in comedy. Two extra frames spoil a joke. A joke plays great in thirty frames but you may think it will play even better in twenty-nine.
Yet you don’t say, “Rusty, make it twenty-nine.” Simply, you hit that break and mark it. It works on the moviola but bombs on the big screen.
Back to the bench and put four frames on; take six off, add three. Try again!” – p.134
On working with editors:
I give my editor as much creative respect as I give my cinematographer. When he is better than I am, deals with my film in such a way that it rises above the design, I’m wise to leave it that way. He has saved my life a dozen times.
However, when I’m right, or when it is the exact way I want it, right or wrong: “That’s the cut, Rusty. Mark it.” There is no discussion.
He marks it and I watch him make the physical cut on the moviola, “Now, let’s review it and move on to the next cut.”
If I’m wrong, I may sit at the moviola and hit the brake until my hand comes off.
Finally he’ll say quietly, “Would you like me to fix it?”
“Fix it, schmuck, it’s eleven-thirty at night.”” – p.135
There are 10 chapters on production, 4 on post production and 3 specifically focused on comedy. One downside to the book is that the chapters on post production are relatively short compared to the others, but still well worth a read.
In conclusion The Total Filmmaker is an interesting and wildly entertaining gem but may not be hugely edifying for most modern editors. But still, well worth a read as it is a rare book and you can access it for free thanks to Cinephilia.
On Film Editing by Edward Dmytryk
The final book in this 6000+ word opus of a post is somewhat of a classic tome in the pantheon of film editing literature. But should you bother to read a book on the craft of film editing that’s this old? Hasn’t the craft moved on in style, taste and editorial requirements in the past 35 years?
First published in 1984, On Film Editing by Edward Dmytryk seeks to deliver a “veritable masterclass on the editor’s craft” sharing Edward’s “expertise and experience in film editing in a precise and philosophical way.“
Now re-released in 2018 with an introduction from lecturer, editor and filmmaker Andrew Lund – who provides a fairly concise biography of Dmytryk’s life and work, as well as an introduction to the book itself and a full section of chapter notes including summarised lessons and suggested practical exercises to help bring Dmytryk’s teaching to life.
So after all these years, does it still stand up?
Yes and no. But mostly yes.
First, the no. If you basically ignore most of the film-print specific instructions and adapt the cultural taste of the era of filmmaking Dmytryk was part of to our modern viewer’s palette, then pretty much everything else still applies.
And in many ways he anticipated this anyway:
At a purely technical level, each editor develops his own approach to his work, although that approach will most likely be a variation of one of those few which time and trial have proven to be most efficient.
Here, I will concentrate on the method which works best for me, and which, naturally, is the one I can support wholeheartedly. However, the beginning cutter can modify this procedure to suit his own needs and, what is more important, his special talents. – p.17
(Just so you know Dmytryk refers to an editor as a ‘cutter’ and most often uses a male pronoun.)
The book is concisely written in an engaging and witty voice, with short chapters packed with authoritative prose. Like good editing, each chapter is only as long as it needs to be to make the point and then moves on. Theres no fluff.
In the opening chapter he points out (as others have done after him) how important it is to view the current edit on a big screen, to get the fullest sense of how it will be seen by it’s intended audience. As things can play very differently, in scale, duration and intention on the small and big screens.
But a cut, or even a short portion of a cut, which the viewer cares nothing about is a waste of time.
All this may seem obvious, yet the verges of the road to success are strewn with the bodies of filmmakers who ignored this principle and brought in films which, wholly or in part, audiences found flat and unentertaining…
In cutting as in directing, objectivity is of the utmost importance – self-indulgence leads only to disaster. p.19
Part of the goal of writing the book was to codify some rules for film editors around film editing, and in this way Dmytryk lays down 7 rules throughout the book to this end.
Chapter 5 – You’ve Got to Have a Reason
Rule 1. Never make a cut without a positive reason.
Rules 2. When undecided about the exact frame to cut on, cut long rather than short.*
*The rules of cutting, as stated, are mine. Some of those which I will lay down in this book have been observed for many years, a few before my time, but they have never to my knowledge been codified. Experienced editors will probably agree with most of my rules. However, if you want to question on now and then – have fun.
As best as I can recall while reading the book these lessons hold their own to this day. Styles and tastes may have changed but the foundations of the craft remain the same. On page 25 Dmytryk writes about close ups that “the overuse of any effect diminishes it’s true worth.” But that could equally be applied to many, many other filmmaking techniques.
And although he calls them rules, and they are stated as such, you could consider them editing truths to be applied in a contextual fashion. Similar to Walter Murch’s famous ‘Rule of Six’.
Chapter 7 – Keep It Fresh and Fast with the Overlap
Cutters, on the whole, are a conscientious lot, but inevitably some are ignorant, some are careless, and some are lazy. The first condition is lamentable, the second correctible but the third is unforgivable. The lazy cutter cheats not only his director, his producer, and his employer, but he also cheats the viewer.
A cutter who cuts ‘straight across’ because the overlapping takes more time and greater effort (which it certainly does) puts out a film which falls short of its potential. – p.35
One of the most interesting aspects of the book are the case studies from his own editing career, which he weaves in to exemplify his points.
In the film noir Murder My Sweet, he struggled to get the flashing neon sign which was illuminating the scene to match during the final cut of the scene, whereupon he ”decided to go for broke and cut the sequence for its values, completely ignoring the light changes.“
Ignore the mismatch. If the cut is dramatically correct, it is remarkable how often the bad match will be completely unnoticed by the viewer… In short, the proper cut to the proper shot at the proper time is always the cut of choice. – p.45
There are detailed chapters on cutting dialogue scenes, working with reaction shots, reducing scenes in length and tightening them dramatically which are supported by annotated script breakdowns of the edits. These work effectively to convey the rhythm and structure of the intended edits, while being confined to the written word.
These chapters are bit denser than the rest but the reward from taking the time to ‘un-pick the knitting’ is worth it to fully grasp what he is communicating.
In all good films it is essential that the characters grow, or to put it more accurately, develop, and such development is most effectively shown through their reactions either to physical crises or to verbal stimuli.
These are the ‘moments of transition’ which every actor and director looks for in the script’s scenes, whether or not they consciously identify them as such. In addition, these are the moments of which every film editor should be especially aware, the moments which he should treat with special care. – p.47
To sum things up, this book is fantastic, an easy read with serious depth to it, and you absolutely owe it to yourself to read it once every few years. I’ll leave you with Edward Dmytryk’s own Epilogue: