A Long Take on The Lost Art of Film Editing

HD for Indies and DVGuru both linked to Jessica Winter’s Boston Globe article on “the Lost Art of Film Editing” today. I don’t have an axe to grind with Jessica Winter. I enjoyed her article, and I agree with her lamenting the seemingly lost days of the long take in American cinema. But I think the reasoning that informs the article is a little off. I hope you’ll pardon the long take (pun intended) on the article. I freely admit to having made a “slow” movie or two, so I guess you could say I have some investment in the issue.

Are movies choppier and choppier these days? Definitely. I think we can all agree on that. And if you don’t agree, I’m sure if someone wanted to they could probably prove this by some sort of Bordwellian analysis that compared average cuts per second of films film the 50s and the 00s, respectively. (Sorry, folks. It ain’t gonna be me.)

Yet the article’s thesis is that faster cutting is the result of:

A) the developments of digital technology
B) filmmakers are transitioning from TV.

I think there are other reasons, and I’m not sure the ones above are even necessarily true.

The first part of argument “A” is an argument most of us in film have heard before. It’s the “Romance of The Olde Ways” argument.

True, digital technology has unquestionably made the process of making a physical splice undoubtedly faster. But cutting faster (taking less time to construct a movie) does not produce faster cutting (edits per second).

Just because film editing is time consuming, if someone wanted a lot of cuts, they could always do it with film. Eisenstein’s Potemkin, the ending of Bonnie and Clyde and Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving are just three examples of films that feature extended sequences of lightning fast cutting. All were cut on film well before the invention of the personal computer, much less Final Cut Pro.

Just think: If I replace my old fashioned hammer with a pneumatic nail driver, you know what? I’m still pounding nails, and I’m not going to hammer any more or fewer than I need to in order to build what I’m building. I’m not going to redesign the bookcase I’m building because, hey, I can hammer faster. Is there anyone out there that thinks this way?

The other part of argument “A” is also iffy. Winter argues that new technology like DVDs create a world where films are edited more and more by committee, and therefore are forced to be “punched up” with quick editing.

First, I simply don’t know how one can quantify that films are made “by committee” more today than they were in the past. Still, even if it is true that more films are made by committee, I fail to see how that accounts for the domination of fast cutting in movies today. Fast cutting in movies can be seen in the imitation-Tarantino shorts that one finds in intro film student classes, on the internet, and elsewhere… yet what committee is behind the fast cutting here? The answer, of course, is that there is no committee. The films were made in complete isolation by filmmakers playing a cinematic version of air guitar.

To me, this suggests that there’s something bigger here going on. But first, to argument “B”, which amounts to “Blame Television.”

This is a seductive argument if, for no other reason, than the fact that television is such a wasteland. And it makes some sense, at least at first: Television is a medium in which the network — and therefore the director and editor, who almost always answer to the network — must constantly keep your attention. If they don’t keep your attention, you change the channel. So rapid cutting is prescribed (and proscribed) as a solution. Lots of cuts = eyes staying busy = staying on channel. Sounds good so far.

But once directors make the leap from television and music videos to film they’re not cutting for television any longer. Surely at some point all but the densest of them (and they do exist, I guess) understand that they needn’t continue cutting for an audience with a remote control in their hands. Now their audience has, theoretically at least, chosen to watch their work in darkened theater, or at least at home on a DVD player. Spike Jonze’s films don’t feature especially fast cutting, and he’s from the dreaded MTV school, so to speak. So what gives?

I’m not saying Winter’s got things all wrong, but I think there are other issues at work. Here are three. I’m sure there are more.

First, there is the issue of inexperience. Winter bemoans a scene in Little Miss Sunshine that’s cut all to hell. I’ve seen the movie and, though I didn’t have the same reaction, I see her point. (If it were me, I’d have probably cited as an example the early kitchen scene in Junebug) Anyway, I think both scenes are a case of first-time feature filmmakers still finding their way through covering a scene. (By the way, I’m in no way saying I’m above this, superior, or anything of the sort. I’m sure I’ll continue to save myself through coverage for as long as I’m making films.) You might want to play from the master, but you realize that you’ve under-directed the actors, or under-written the scene, or whatever. Even if it’s choppy, cutting can solve some bigger problems. I say this from personal experience.

A second reason is that when you’re making an independent film you shoot fast, you get what you think you need, and then you move on quickly. Sometimes you don’t have time to nail the long take, however much you’d like to.You hope it works in the editing room and you do the best you can with what you have.

To me, either of these two reasons (and they’re related) could account for the moment that Winter discusses in Little Miss Sunshine. The filmmakers are first timers and, though their budget must have been far greater than anything I’ve worked with, I’m sure they didn’t have all the time in the world to shoot scene take after take so every scene could play in long take. And, beyond Little Miss Sunshine, I think these reasons are compelling arguments for some increase in cutting in recent years. More and more films are made independently on modest budgets and, likewise, more and more films are debut films.

As for cases like Miami Vice (or whatever other movie you want to supply) well, I think there’s a simpler issue here: The stories we’re being told these days at the movies are getting worse and worse. Indeed, slowing down the cutting of practically any studio movie released this summer would reveal what vacuous and boring spectacles these films really are. It’s not that they’re “bad”; it’s that there’s hardly any content at all. (This is just as true of the Tarantino fanboy knock offs, too.) Editing is a way to distract us from this. It has become Spectacle, especially in the films without any special effects to otherwise distract us. And, as Aristotle reminds us in the Poetics, Spectacle is the least interesting, and least essential, element of drama. Considered in this way, faster cutting is a kind of decadence, which David Mamet would argue, ultimately leads to obscenity (see Mamet’s “Countercultural Architecture” from On Directing Film or “Decadence” from Writing in Restaurants).

Finally, I don’t know if this is a reason for fast cutting, or if it’s just a related effect, but it is sad (to me) that even in film schools young filmmakers are rarely exposed to “slow” films, like Carl Dreyer’s later works, or Tarkovsky’s, or Ozu’s. When they are, it’s often in film history classes and provided with apologies from their professors. I guess I fall into the “apologies” camp, but I figure it’s better than not showing the stuff. I can say, though, that I’ve shown Ordet to my students, albeit with some preparation (which ultimately boils down to a warning that “This is no Jerry Bruckheimer film”), and at least a handful truly appreciate it. They have come up after class and privately thanked me for showing it, in fact. It is some consolation, I suppose, that some of these students wish to be editors.

15 Responses to “A Long Take on The Lost Art of Film Editing”

  1. Jason Scott Says:

    The article’s crap. She’s focusing on the current crop of summer movies as the be-all end all of “movies” and that must magically be all of them. A lot of movies have come out in the past few years and they’ve had varying styles of editing.

    I sentence Ms. Winter to a nice festival of Ming-liang Tsai movies, especially Goodbye Dragon Inn (Bu San) and What Time Is It There? (Ni neibian jidian). Bring snacks!

  2. editblog Says:

    There is much truth in both articles. Times change, technology changes, viewers change and art changes with them. And it is not always for the better. I think a lot of the so called “modern classics” won’t stand the test of time against. Flash can account for instant success but not longevity. Paul’s last paragraph is the most interesting in that film teachers have to apologize for showing the “slow” films of film history. It’s only a matter of time before teachers are apologizing for showing 2001: A Space Odyssey as well…. and that will be a sad day.

  3. Ajit Says:

    I have a problem with Fast Cuts, I have even ranted about it in this piece:
    http://squigglebooth.com/2006/07/fast-cuts/

    Like you, I think people raise the amount of cuts when there is not enough content to go around. CSI NY (not that I watch the show) is the most annoying show on this planet with its cut-a-second attitude. But that show besides having no content also has another problem: they have horrible cast of actors.

    And that brings me to another reason why sensible editors cut too often, they are working around the actor’s performance. Does it mean that today’s actors suck in relation to older actors? Possibly. But maybe another reason is that unlike before where directors nailed the master shot, today directors focus on compiling the scene. One line from master, a couple of lines from CU. I also don’t think directors nail the physical movement in a scene as detailed as directors from the past. Modern actors have adapted, giving performances of varying degrees in short spurts.

    One other reason I think fast cuts are so prevalent now in independent cinema is that a lot of cuts mean that there was some production value. When in reality they were working around some problem on set. To an audience, fast cutting indicates an excess. Filmmakers like Oliver Stone play on these excesses to create an epic mood.

    And the list goes on… BTW, I am quite guilty of fast cutting myself.

  4. Paul Says:

    Great comments! So… if there’s so much love for films and filmmakers that employ the long take, why is there so much cutting?

    And, by the way (cough, cough) did I hear someone call for a “long take” blog-a-thon?

  5. Karl Says:

    Paul makes a good point that fast cutting is probably a result of first-time directors, and a fast paced shooting schedule, but I also have to add that spiraling budgets have also an added factor. Maybe there isn’t enough time devoted to blocking with the DP, and the actors. I’m guilty many times of cutting to quickly, but proper planning in the pre-production stage would solve that. I see that in my students today. They were raised on a steady diet of MTV, and sit-coms. Their attention span has diminished to almost zero. I find myself always reminding them that sometimes the emotion is in the shot already. But as one writer has said sometimes the quick cutting is to hide mistakes, and usually those mistakes were because they cut the camera too quick and wanted to get to the other shot. As one gains more experience I find the shot ratio decreases due to better planning, and more confidence working with actors and in blocking.

  6. Shaun Huston Says:

    I appreciate Paul’s observations re: how independent or smaller budget produdctions may be working under limitations that necessistate some fast cutting to make a scene work with limited footage or footage that isn’t quite what you need it to be. I am currently editing my first narrative short film, an all volunteer, no/negative budget production, and have had to use some quick cuts in places to compensate for not having exactly the right blocking and to work around imperfect lighting changes. Reshooting just isn’t an option and there were also limits on what we could manage in preproduction. On the other hand, it is a film that will end up with a number of long takes (for example, the opening shot is a 26 second close up of a house plant). I am often frustrated by the tendency to treat artistic choices as mutually exclusive. Different productions, different scenes, require or demand different treatments. This isn’t to say that quick edits aren’t used to mask weaknesses or to present a veneer of substance when there’s really nothing there, but I don’t believe that any style of editing has an inherent superiority to any other.

    As a side note, and I realize I’ve already taken liberties with this space, like Paul I’m not so quick to blame television for any perceived loss of artistry in editing. With its short formats, from commercials to dramas that are divided into 8-10 minute segments, tv may lend itself to fast cutting, but there are no shortage of shows that are edited in interesting and even deliverate ways. These may be more common on commercial free networks like HBO, but long takes can be found on other networks as well. Battlestar Galactica, for example, often features long, slow takes, as well as fast cuts when the action demands.

  7. David Lowery Says:

    I think that editing rhythms (or lack thereof) are – like steadicams, CGI and big movie stars – tools that can be well employed or egregiously misused. I’m a bit tired of these wistful ‘back in the good old days’ musings. Filmmakers have been taking a sledgehammer to their craft ever since the invention of cinema, in one way or another. Fifty years from now, critics will surely be bemoaning some new technologically enabled directorial tic and recalling the heyday of 2006, when one could go to the theater and see quality films like Three Times or Time To Leave or The Proposition or L’enfant. Ah, those were the days!

    And Paul, if you’re not going to call for a “long take” blog-a-thon, then I will!

  8. erikharrison Says:

    Paul, I agree with you in general. You’ve responded to some Old Guard vitriol with a well reasoned reply.

    That said, I think that there is something to the idea that being a journeyman filmmaker in a fast cut environment leads to faster cutting in features. Sure, you can comprehend the idea that the mediums are different when you make the transition. But that doesn’t instantly give you mastery over the new medium – you still depend on what you’ve learned. Maybe you know intellectually that you can punch up this moment with a camera move, but don’t have the experience to pull it off. What do you do? Punch it up in the editing room.

    I think the same is true of your technology argument. There is something to be said for “if all you have is a hammer”. Steadicam’s are hard to operate! Cutting digitally is easy! Use cuts to do interesting things where in might more reasonably use a camera.

    Of course, I’m not sure that I buy the premise that we are deluged by senseless rapid editing. Sure, cuts are faster – in some work. Just as digital technology is making cutting easier, it’s also making cheaper and more user friendly cameras. I worked on a first feature by a writer director. His dialogue was snappy, he was clear and helpful to his actors. Then he’d plop a camera down, call action, and play everything in the master. The film was a string of 1 minute shots, with fade outs at the end of every scene. Just as making all cuts quick makes no cut have impact, so does making them all long – yet it’s so easy to make the jump from indie writer to indie writer/director/producer/editor, that those who don’t understand the camera are abusing it as readily as those who don’t understand editing.

    Modern sitcoms are classics of the long take. You have sets that look like houses (arranged in a completely unlivable way), where each room has one clear camera location where everything plays. It’s not a beautiful long take, it’s not a powerful long take. But it works. Of course, over on the West Wing we have television examples of awesome long takes, and moving cameras, where the intensity is punched up via the background action.

    In short: I think a lot of this crabbing is really just about bad films, bad television, bad commercials. Rather than fixating on the fact that it’s crap, the Olde Guard instead fixates on the differences in way the medium is being used. It cuts fast, that’s why it’s crap. No! It’s a terrible story made with no craftsmanship, which happens to cut fast!

    And now I’ve been talking too much

  9. nl Says:

    There’s truth in the piece, Most of the current crop of filmmakers come from spot and video work, and therefor don’t know any better. Look at Michael Bay’s films, he used to cut ever 3 seconds. Miami Vice was one movie this summer that tried to break that. Michael Mann’s fillm took long shots and stayed on the actors more than anything else I seen this summer. The weird thing was his tv show MV was one of the factors that led to the current editing style.

  10. Chris Hansen Says:

    I didn’t see this mentioned, but forgive me if I’m repeating what someone else has said. I think performance, especially in indie films, can often make cutting a necessity. Whether this is the fault of the director or the actors depends on the situation, I suppose. I’ve seen relatively short “long takes” drag on interminably in part because the scene was paced too slow, and I’ve seen LONGER takes that are compelling because I couldn’t take my eyes off the actors (I just watched THE SHAPE OF THINGS today, so several scenes from that spring to mind, just off the top of my head, but I am sure there are much better examples).

    (Now that I go back and read your post again, you did mention “under directed actors,” so perhaps I’m just echoing you or agreeing with you. )

  11. Rob Says:

    TOP REASONS FOR BAD EDITING:

    1 The director did not have a precise conception in either pre-production or on the set of WHAT THE FINAL SCENE WOULD LOOK LIKE ONSCREEN. If a director does not storyboard the scene, at least in their own head, it’s that much more likely that the final cut will be helter-skelter. Notable exception: the best moments in the best films of Cassavetes, where a rock-solid CONCEPTION of every moment aided the editor into assembling wildly different takes into a powerful final cut.

    2 The director just DOES NOT UNDERSTAND WHAT AN EDITOR DOES. If he’s never cut a scene in his life, how can he possibly understand how it all comes together? There’s a reason why the phrase “We’ll fix it in post” is such a cliche. It’s the last refuge of a director who refuses to accept responsibility. Which leads to:

    3 The director REFUSES TO OVERRIDE HIS EDITOR. If, for whatever reason, you’re stuck on a project with a flashcut-happy editor and you lack the confidence and/or wisdom to fight against that aesthetic, you’re going to be stuck with it.

    4 THERE IS A LACK OF UNDERSTANDING OF HOW FILM COMEDY REALLY WORKS. A scene played out mostly without closeups and with minimal cuts, if it’s staged effectively, will always be FUNNIER than one with lots of cuts. I’m thinking in particular of the movie “Monster-In-Law” … okay, a terrible movie on a lot of fronts, but if some of the scenes had just been staged differently, with fewer cuts, it would have been much funnier.

    5 MONKEY SEE, MONKEY DO. If contemporary filmmakers are just imitating the crappy filmmakers of the past, ones who fell victim to the above examples, then it stands to reason that their own films will have the same problems.

  12. Daniel Kremer Says:

    Speaking as a student filmmaker who tried to compose and execute a six-minute (and then some) long take recently for an extensive project (fresh from my “naive high” after seeing Antonioni’s The Passenger in theaters in January), I could say that I was pretty damn thankful for the coverage I shot for safety’s sake because the long take that felt right during shooting failed oh so very miserably in the editing room. And from the “ashes” of the ambition, I got a pretty intriguing and compelling scene from cutting it with the coverage. Kudos to the magic of editing! It has saved by derriere and others’ time and time again. I seem to recall the story of legendary editor Ralph Rosenblum rescuing two films in particular with a few snips with the editor’s eye in the late 60’s. Those two excellent films would have flopped into kingdom come if it had not have been for a good editor. I am speaking of Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run and William Friedkin’s The Night They Raided Minsky’s, 1969 and 1968 respectively.

    There seems to be a bitter (yes, bitter) dichotomy of students in film school. I know what comes now might be construed as petty generalizing, but bear with me. There are those students who wax knowledgeable about the Nouvelle Vague movements, know movies in and out and are out to make cinema art (and the projects of this ilk, filled with ostensible lethargy and lack of cutting, turn out to be a family-fun and free-balloons-for-Mom day in Pretentious-ville about 99% of the time–and I, myself, am overtly guilty of such bombastic, over-ambitious navel-gazing), and those who are out to make a “punchline film” (typically uninspired, slapdash films filled with splashy three-second cuts that conclude with what would seem to be the punchline of a cheap joke or a comical deus-ex-machina). What is the fundamental difference at the root of this dichotomy? Influences.

    Observe how Hal Ashby directs a comical scene in Being There with how a modern comedy-director directs a comical scene. The cuts in a movie like Being There are nuanced to maximum effect (think of the scene of Chance standing on his head as Eve masturbates next to a bed) as opposed to scene in, say, Failure to Launch, where all the editor is clearly concerned with is matching action, period.

    It is indeed a case of monkey-see, monkey-do. When watching the documentary Crumb with my friend/roommate lately, he told me, “Well, the more unnatural the ingested substances, the stinkier the shit” (excuse my French). This sentiment can also be readily applied to the state of film through a lack of true, legitimate legends and masters as influences. Usually at the root of a problem of a film is editing. Editing is really the factor that makes or breaks a film. Why, then, is it that the film industry has been bloated with the excrement of the unnatural substances? Lack of content, lack of inspiration, lack of nuanced editing.

    Reading Jessica Winter’s article, I have problems with it myself. I find her arguments rather obtuse. However, it does indicate one of the causes and symptoms of the shift in quality.

    I also worked with a cinematographer a long time ago who, when I asked him confused how he was going to edit, he replied, “Fudge editing.” Some people indeed do not realize an editor’s important role in filmmaking, even though it would seem glaringly obvious.

    Well, that’s my two cents. I’ve taken the graveyard shift at the library and, other than reading John Barth, I find myself writing another novel-sized rant and needing sleep. Soon, dear boy. Soon.

  13. Daniel Kremer Says:

    One more thing: as one of “those pretentious film students,” I have always hated when professors apologize before showing something like Bill Viola, Tarkovsky, Dreyer or Antonioni. These films do not need to be apologized for. Films like this are probably so alien to most of my comrades (ho hum, ho hum, , tongue planted firmly in cheek) that fascination will perhaps be a likely result. Of course, I am most likely incorrect…as I seem to be with a lot of things regarding what an audience wants from a film.

  14. deepstructure Says:

    i have no idea what daniel is talking about… :)

    but i took up your call for a blog-a-thon on this. here.

  15. Daniel Kremer Says:

    Hey, deepstructure!

    You’re not the only one who considers my words “Greek”. :-) I guess I make films the way that I write. Gee, isn’t it fun to be so self-deprecating? Anyway, I am glad this topic was explored on this blog. Thanks for allowing me to rant…eh, um…express my thoughts!