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Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting?

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Oskari Korenius
Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting?
on Mar 1, 2009 at 10:02:47 pm

Dear All,

I have an question regarding the art of film editing, this question probably is more concerned with fiction editing.

I have edited many short films and music videos before, and I have worked mainly in Final Cut Pro. No one has ever taught me to edit, I have learned everything by myself, and my editing has always been a very intuitive process.

Now I have started studying editing in a respected film school, and the teachers are emphasizing a lot in the fact that I should learn to my material and be able to work (almost) with pen and paper, practically cut your film in your head, and using the computer only to show your edit to the others.

We work mainly in Avid which I find much less intuitive than Final Cut Pro, but I am starting to get used to it and it starts to feel ok.

What I find very difficult is to edit "on paper" and in my head, as I have always before worked intuitively by finding things as I go thru the footage on the computer by playing around with the footage. I know that I am not as well in charge of the material if I do not know it by heart, and able to make connections without accessing it in the computer.

Anyway what are your thoughts on this? Is it a bad thing to work intuitively by experimenting in the timeline - editing 'with your gut' - or should I try to learn to edit as people had to do when every editor was still working on a Steenbeck, by knowing the material and what I want before starting to line up things on the timeline.

In time as I edit more and more, will I enhance my ability to remember footage and make connections in my head without the aid of the computer?

What do you think that Walter Murch thinks about all this?

Thank you.

- OK

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Mark Suszko
Re: Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting?
on Mar 2, 2009 at 2:47:28 pm

There are two kinds of basic editing technique, what I call additive and subtractive. In Europe, their tradition is more on the additive side, in the US, the tradition is more subtractive, though of course everyone does a bit of both. But in Europe, they called editors "joiners" and here they called them "cutters", and they are two very opposite approaches. The names say it all.

Additive editing is like building up a clay sculpture by adding small pieces to it, a piece at a time, in just the right places.
Subtractive editing, I would illustrate as a guy chipping away at ablock of marble, leaving only the sculpture.

You can get an identical sculpture from either method. And no editor works 100 percent in jut one of those two modes, to be certain. But the overall style you choose influences how you edit.
Also, the type of program sometimes lends itself more to one technique over another.

Editing news packages on deadline pressure, for example, well, most of that is going to be subtractive editing, cutting out anything that doesn't move the story along in the time you have. Adding additional meaning by the way the shots inter-relate is decidedly secondary there.

If you're working in documentary form, your edits are going to be more additive, building up a meaning in a context, making something more out of the individual pieces by the way they build on and relate to one another.

So, looking over scripts and tape logs, you can work either way on a project, additively or subtractively, as the job requires, and mark up the pages to suit that process.

Does any of this help answer your question at all?

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Nick Griffin
Re: Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting?
on Mar 2, 2009 at 5:48:55 pm

Oskari -

I believe that this is a fairly close parallel to how math is taught in school. The idea is not so much to quickly deliver the right answer using a calculator, but rather to help develop your thinking about the nature of your decision process. So even though we all use calculators and spreadsheets to do our work these days, it helped that we were at least exposed to some basic principals in school. It's all about the growth of your brain.

Then there's the matter of using Avid, FCP, M100, Premiere, whatever as a tool and not as a crutch. Personally I've gone from 3/4 Umatic cut only editing, to 1" A-B roll CMX suite, to what is now my third brand of NLE and you in your career should expect even more developmental changes. 20 years from now the editing system you'll be using will make today's systems look fairly humorous, so you're much better off concentrating on why you're doing something in an edit rather than how.

One other thought: great, as well as most good, art almost always begins in the mind. The painter, sculptor, cinematographer, writer... editor, has in his mind's eye what the final work will look like and then goes about creating it. There's nothing wrong with experimenting with variations but it's no where near as productive by itself as is starting with a plan in mind.

And, Mark-
Thanks for some great information on "joiners" vs. "cutters." I continue to enjoy and learn from your posts.

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Oskari Korenius
Re: Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting?
on Mar 2, 2009 at 9:46:23 pm

Thank you Mark and Nick on your thoughts on this!

One other question is that is there a particular book you would recommend for me, with some thoughts on preparations to do before starting to edit in the timeline. I heard for example that Walter Murch uses some kind of process where he is laying cards on the wall regarding the structure of a film etc.. Is there any good publications that would help me on the process of editing?

Best regards,

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Mike Smith
Re: Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting?
on Mar 3, 2009 at 1:05:35 pm

The classic text here is Reisz and Millar's Technique of Film Editing, if you can get hold of a copy. Old but unsurpassed.

Otherwise, it might go read the script, listen to the director, view the rushes with the director, log the material ...

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Matthew Radcliff
Re: Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting?
on Mar 3, 2009 at 9:58:08 pm

The Reisz book is well worth it, in fact I should go read it again. It's been a number of years.

Walter Murch's "In the Blink of an Eye" is great for his philosophy of editing (as I call it), and his book "Behind the Seen" is an interesting look at his philosophy in action, but it also includes technical issues.

Normyn Hollyn just wrote a book, I believe called "The Lean Forward Moment" which is about the why of editing. That's on my list to get.


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Rocco Forte
Re: Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting?
on Mar 3, 2009 at 9:59:49 am

Editing "on paper" basically means writing and storyboarding and it can be very helpful to develop these skills so you can visualize and imagine your story. Like embarking on any creative endeavor, it's probably a good idea to have some kind of plan or road map laid out so you know where to go. But that's about as far as it goes, I think. You can only get a rudimentary idea, a rough outline and a plan together: a script or storyboard. (Having said that, Hitchcock I believe was very precise and anal about his paper edits. Most are not)

It can be very frustrating to have to do what your tutors say and edit before you edit when all you want to do is get started. Unless they mean rough it out, which is probably a good idea. But there's no way in the world you can predict the complex arrangements that evolve as you move and re-edit with music, decide on different takes, angles etc. Unless it's a very formulaic production. But even then there are so may choices.

What I do when I read a script is assign a particular mood to a scene. So in a scene where there's supposed to be tension I'd write "TENSION HERE" so I know that I'd edit this particular scene with tension in mind.

As for Walter Murch, well he does exactly what your teachers point out, in a way, by printing out a frame of each shot of his project to surround his room while he edits. Doing this enables very quick access to juxtapositions and sequences simply by grabbing images off the wall and throwing them on the floor and all around you so you can create paper edits of any scene at any time. His paper edit is always there with him, but it's very liberal and is a paper edit of the longest possible version of the film!

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Tim Wilson
Re: Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting?
on Mar 3, 2009 at 3:40:09 pm

A wise man once said that there's a fine line between clever and stupid. I'll add that there's a fine line between flexibility and weakness. Get too flexible and everything falls apart.

There was plenty of experimental editing before 19991, when the first version of Avid Media Composer became widely available. Take a look at Luis Bunuel, Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, and scores of other narrative and documentary filmmakers who for over 100 years did everything they needed to do with a razor.

There's a reason that filmmakers like these were called visionaries: their experimentation came from their vision, enabled by their discipline -- starting with their discipline for properly wielding a razor.

[Nick Griffin] "The painter, sculptor, cinematographer, writer... editor, has in his mind's eye what the final work will look like and then goes about creating it."

There's actually a specific form of Japanese painting: artists visualize first and using a single brush's worth of paint or ink, create the broad strokes of the entire image -- if not the entire image! Perhaps a few details filled in afterward. It's not just an artform, though. It's an exercise to build the disciplines an artist needs. It just happens that well disciplined artists can turn their practice into actual ART.

My wife and I have a painting done in the manner over our bed, 5 ponies leaping in joy. It has always struck us as a perfect example of the creative process: visualization, execution, delight. Discipline that leads to beauty, and joy.

I also like the analogy of math training. When I studied physics, our only task on a test was to set up the problem. That's it. No need to "solve" it. As the teacher put it - solving the problem is easy. The hard part is *understanding* the problem. After you set up the equation, hey, you can get to the answer from there practically counting on your fingers. And if you can't articulate the problem well enough to put the right numbers in the computer in the first place, ain't no way you're coming up with the right answer. See the problem, solve the problem.

You see where I'm going with this, right?

And not just for editing -- shooting too. I'll go further: when shooting unscripted (docs, news, magazine shows, etc.), there's NO more important skill than starting the edit in your head.

On a scripted feature, the story is typically at least outlined, and there are often people who are paid to make sure that editors have what they need before anyone leaves the set.

But shooting non-scripted, it's often YOUR job, and yours alone, to make sure that the editor has everything that they need. No matter how much you shoot, without the story at least outlined in your head, there's no way you can get what the editors what they need.

This is even more true if you're also the editor, because then there are no excuses.

When I was shooting interviews, even though I was "just" the shooter-editor, I was always able to contribute a couple of questions after the interviewer was done, to get the answers I needed to complete the edit before the talent and the subject walked away. Sometimes it was simply a refinement -- I might have heard allllllmost what I needed in the middle of a previous answer, but I wanted as close as I could get to the best question to get the best answer for my "internal" edit. I fed the interviewer those questions, and positioned myself for maximum success.

Not that I had that internal edit before the interview began. I LISTENED, and WATCHED, and at least a mental OUTLINE began to emerge. These are disciplines, and they come from practice.

With this in hand, I was able to collect the b-roll I needed, and to ask at that moment for maps, photos, and other physical things, and get their card myself. Otherwise, I'd be stuck finding out what I needed that much closer to the deadline...almost invariably WAY too close for comfort, maybe even too late to get into the story at all.

Beginning the edit in my head before I put the camera back in the bag was the only way to give myself even a CHANCE to put together my best possible edit.

Of course, there are many times that the edit changes the story. Without the distractions of the field, you might find that you're not editing the story you thought you were after all. But that's the difference between flexible and weak. There's something to change TO, instead of HOPING something will happen once you get there.

Plenty enough other obstacles to face on the way to my best edit without me sabotaging myself through lack of vision, and the discipline required to turn vision into delight.

Get it in your head: the best edits start in your head.

Since we're talking about visualization...I LOVE that you're looking for books. Books are critical. But just as a musician also develops composition skills through careful listening, you can develop your editing chops by watching edits. Not just movies: EDITS.

You'll be delighted to know that I just cut a whole long section of this post full of suggestions for how best to watch movies and TV shows to learn from them, and a whole bunch of clues from editors and theorists starting with Eisenstein and Kuleshov. I'll summarize all of that here: pay attention.

In the end, I think your teachers are right for film editing, and the same principles are true for architecture, engineering, painting...

Visualization. Execution. Delight. Discipline that leads to beauty, and joy.

And by extension I suppose, horror and fear. So more broadly than beauty and joy, call it integrity and intention. You get the idea.

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Oskari Korenius
Re: Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting?
on Mar 3, 2009 at 11:31:53 pm

I should definatelly look into that Karl Reisz book on editing, as well as Walter Murch's ones.

I am definately getting some practice on visualizing a scene in my head now, as we just started a workshop, editing a scene from a real feature film with a Steenbeck machine on 16mm film, so it has to be pretty much all been edited in our heads.. :)

Thanks a lot for great and helpful posts that gives me a lot to think about!

- Oskari

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Lawrence Gray
Re: Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting?
on Mar 4, 2009 at 8:44:44 am

Excellent advice... If you don't shoot to edit, it's very time consuming trying to edit what you shot in a coherent manner. In fact nigh on impossible because most of the stuff probably won't cut together that well.

I think the term Editing is perhaps misleading. It sort of implies tidying up. In film it is much more than that. It's part of the creation.

Having a sense of story, or how a dramatic scene should progress, will give an idea on how an edit should proceed... establishing shot, reverse angles, reaction shots, etc. building to revelations, dramatic moments, and leading to meaningful transitions...

If you don't know that's what you're looking for, it's hard to find it! And if the material doesn't actually have it, the edit has to somehow compensate... probably trial and error comes into play as much as preparation, but it is so much easier if everyone has an idea before starting as to how things might be structured.

Lawrence Gray

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Peter Ralph
Re: Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting?
on Mar 4, 2009 at 5:37:47 pm

I think what Murch would say is:

being able to conceptualize the process is the first step towards being able to refine it.


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Bill Davis
Re: Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting? Outside that tired old box.
on Mar 4, 2009 at 6:20:40 pm

Because many here touched on the need to go outside just reading about editing and watching editing, I'll recommend a few exercises that have NOTHING to do with editing media that would also help you become an editor.

Read stuff that's NOT about editing.

Spend an afternoon with the latest copy of Architectural Digest.

Or perhaps one of the following novels:
Dick Francis's "In the Frame" - simple and breezy to read yet instructive since the plot centers around a movie director - but Francis was a master of plot and pacing that seldom if ever resorted to the common shorthands of sex or violence to propel the story. When violence appears, it's organic and real and he's interested in the RESULTS - not the acts themselves.
Also the ever brilliant William Gibson. Pick up a copy of Pattern Recognition. It's about video editing - but it's not. The future where social networking is media and media is social networking - written before social networking was the topic du jour.

Go hiking. Preferably somewhere other than your own neighborhood. If you live in the mountains, hike a desert. If you live in the desert hike on ice...

And my favorite, spend some money on admission to MUSEUMS.
I learned more about beauty in two dimensions by spending an afternoon at the Chicago institute of Art on a lecture trip - and learned more about radical visualization at a small gallery under a bridge in Cleveland Ohio where a giant, inflatable, prone, bleeding Mickey Mouse sculpture both welcomed and really surprised me.

We are all the sum of what we experience and we forget that we control what and when we're exposed to things. So get out of the edit suite now and then. Go see the world.

Everything you see and everything you read and best of all, everyone you meet - have the potential to make you a better editor.

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Richard Herd
Re: Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting?
on Mar 4, 2009 at 6:19:46 pm

Sorry to get pedantic, but you mean "NLE/video editing." Big difference! :-)

Imagine the amount of coverage between a :30 ad, a 3 minute pop tune, 20 minute short, and TRT=120 minute feature length movie!

There's no way that the amount of coverage in the :30 or video will even come close to the actual TRT of the feature. The short might get that close with a 6:1 shooting ratio, but even with a Clint Eastwood style coverage plan, you're looking at 360 minutes of coverage.

For fictional narratives, I'm a big believer in not only a paper edit, but an assemble edit, a rough, then a picture lock.

Whereas in a :30 spot, you can go with the "selects" editing, but there's not that much (usable) footage. I edited several spots where the :30 spot's shooting ratio was 90:1--and it was 35mm. Basically, that means 45 minutes of crap, of course I didn't tell the client that.

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Mike Cohen
Re: Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting?
on Mar 4, 2009 at 10:59:51 pm

In school, we were taught to edit on paper, going so far as to manually type an edl before going near the edit bay. Part of this was to teach us the concepts discussed throughout this thread...visualize your production without actually doing the actual mechanical process. My professor made it very clear that the mechanical actions in production are simply that - mechanical ways of making our ideas into reality.

The other side of a paper edit was to save wear and tear on tape decks and the tapes themselves. You would not go into a $300/hr online edit bay and start shuttling tapes looking for the right shot. If you are not prepared you will spend a lot of money.
With NLE, those issues of wear and tear are gone but you still must be organized, even if you get organized using the NLE as a logging system. Now you can prepare for an edit however you like, with or without your edit gear.

Another good read is "When the Shooting Stops..The Editing Begins."

Good luck. It is great seeing students seeking out advice on these forums. I wish we had the internet!

Mike Cohen

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Fernando Mol
Re: Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting?
on Mar 10, 2009 at 5:32:50 am

Wow, great comments here!

There are so much things in editing. The sounds, the images, the meaning, the screen geography.

They say a good screenplay with a bad director can make a regular movie, and not even the best director can't do anything with a bad script.

But a good editor can save them all from ruin!

I never heard about editing with a pencil (but it doesn't sound that crazy). I edit with my headbang.

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grinner hester
Re: Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting?
on Mar 12, 2009 at 5:54:55 pm

Instincts and daring nature being the most valuable assets in the industry, dude I'd not spend time tamin' em.
Paper cuts we created by people who can't edit. Your simply skipping the middle man. Not all ides work. Ya won't know till ya see em. Attack your vision then proudly play it.

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Richard Herd
Re: Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting?
on Mar 12, 2009 at 8:54:49 pm

[grinner hester] "Paper cuts we created by people who can't edit."

I thought it was created by people who didn't want to cut a piece of film--and then have to reprint from a negative--and the paper was a kind of previz technique.

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grinner hester
Re: Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting?
on Mar 12, 2009 at 10:05:22 pm

Makes sense back in the day of razor blades. Lways seemed a lazy producer to me, in video world.
I mean if taking the time to rough out from burn ins, seems like a brother would just learn a craft and start cuttin.
Glad that aint the case. I'd be unemployed.

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Richard Herd
Re: Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting?
on Mar 13, 2009 at 12:29:46 am

Lazy? Not in my experiences. I'd call it "graft." Another way a producer/creative director can bill the client.

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grinner hester
Re: Editing: Experimenting or Papercutting?
on Mar 13, 2009 at 4:47:11 am

That's the drag.
Yesterday's vidiot pool milked the system 8 ways to Sunday, leaving no budget for tomorrow's vidiot.
Dang troff right there.
You've seen it. Ad agencies are the worst. Billing 4 rooms a day on a project that requires a fraction.
It just may be that the industry going out of it's way not to be streamlined cannot be afforded.

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