I’ve always loved movies. I often try to apply what I learn from filmmakers to the video marketing content we produce for our clients. Everytime I watch a film I’m always thinking about how it was made and particularly for me, how it was edited. But how can you tell what’s been edited?

Editing is often called “the invisible art to filmmaking”. In some ways it is. The most simple, linear thought behind this is you’re not supposed to notice editing. And if you do notice a cut that is awkward or off-putting, the viewer is taken out of the movie. But this idea is also extremely fundamental. Even if an editor makes a movie without noticeable cuts, that doesn’t prove they did a good job.

In most cases, a cut considered “noticeable” will be done for stylistic reasons, and does not typically feel like an error. This is most obvious in the work of Martin Scorsese with his editor Thelma Schoonmaker, where aggressive cutting draws attention to itself but never feels unnatural.

The theory of invisibility in editing has many layers beyond the idea of noticeable cuts. There are so many choices an editor can make with an entire production’s worth of footage. What’s invisible to the audience is the path an editor took to get to a completed project.

Here’s a breakdown of some ways film editors manipulate footage that’s invisible to the average viewer. I use a lot of these same techniques in our video marketing projects to help

Re-Inventing a Story

An editor has the power to arrange scenes or moments in a way that stray far from the script. They can change the direction of a story and it’s characters in a way that, in the end, is completely invisible to the audience.

Terrence Malick’s movies are lauded for their cinematography, but in my opinion he is an editor’s director. His films are scriptless and are entirely crafted in the editing process. The Tree of Life is a particular work that does not have many full ‘scenes’. It’s highly comprised of montages of moments and emotions that are used to craft the characters and build the story. In this sense, the editors are using a wide variety of footage to tell a story separate from the script.

For good reason, The Tree of Life is the newest film on this Motion Picture Editor’s Guild list of “The 75 Best Edited Movies”

Editing Performances

Editing is essentially ‘re-directing’, whether it’s a long form film or a social media video campaign.

There is no such thing as choosing the “most well-acted” line from an actor. It’s choosing from very different, specific deliveries of lines that can alter character motivations. Directors typically get several different deliveries of particular lines from actors. But then it’s in the hands of the editor to build the character’s dynamic through context and manipulation.

Take one of your favorite movie scenes. Then consider the different ways the actor may have delivered certain lines. If it’s delivered with sadness, imagine that there was another take with it delivered in anger. Now, consider how that would have changed the scene and the dynamic between the characters. There are tens of thousands of decisions like this made by the editor that are unknown to an audience. While a scene could play out entirely using one take, there is also the possibility that a scene is seamlessly comprised of multiple different takes.

What’s Not Included?

The inclusion or exclusion of one scene has the power to change the entire course of a story, as well as how and why characters act toward one another.

In Cinema Paradiso, there are major differences between the theatrical cut and the director’s cut. In the theatrical, it’s simply fate that drives Toto and Elena to not be together. In the end, Toto becomes a great filmmaker, and longingly looks on his past with her.

In the director’s cut, it’s revealed that Toto’s father figure, Alfredo, asked Elena to never speak to Toto again. Alfredo did this to force Toto into pursuing his film career. The exclusion of these scenes in the theatrical cut changes the entire meaning of the movie, and our perception of Alfredo.

While other examples of invisible editing are more subtle, this is a major choice made by an editor that is again unbeknownst to the audience.

Accidental Material

An observant editor has the power to craft incredibly strong moments that were never intentionally scripted, directed, or acted. Sometimes a quick, off-the-cuff reaction from actors can actually build their characters in different, sometimes more natural ways.

The most pivotal moment in Boogie Nights was shot on accident but noticed by the editor.

When Dirk spaces out during a climactic drug deal scene, the shot is held for a noticeably long time. As viewers, we begin to understand what is going through Dirk’s head as he’s putting together all the mistakes he’s made to get where he is. This moment was not planned at all. It was shot as Mark Wahlberg was tired and hyperventilating from heat exhaustion. It’s a scene completely crafted by the editor, absent of any planning until post-production.

An editor has to possess the qualities of a director in a more complentative way between feeling the natural flow of images and understanding characters motivations. If a film is bad, the viewer will never really know if the editor did a bad job or the best work they could. You don’t know what they have to work with. But if it’s a good film, in most cases, it’s proof enough that the editor did a good job.

Editing is an invisible art. In most cases, it’s so invisible it can’t even be properly critiqued or analyzed.

The amount of subtle choices that are made and material never seen is astronomical. Invisibility in editing goes far beyond the obvious, to levels that can never be understood by just watching a completed work.

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