The Magical Glue That Holds Movies Together: Editing
We’ve talked about a lot of stuff for Cracked's Secret Rules of Hollywood, aka the column series you are reading right now. Well, three things, but ultimately the Hero’s Journey, the three-act structures, and likable protagonists are window-dressing. Today, we’re going to get into something much more primal, much more integral to film: editing. Editing is like your pancreas – when it’s doing its job well you don’t notice it, but when it’s not functioning properly it makes you beg for the sweet release of death.
What’s the Rule?
Man, this is less of a filmmaking rule and more of a law. It’s so deeply entrenched it’s hard to describe what it even is. Editing is the process by which the actual footage captured by cameras is arranged to tell a coherent story. It’s known by film students worldwide as “oh my god this sucks so much maybe I should switch majors to Hydrofoil Maintenance '' and is the second-leading cause of punched monitors just behind the total BS of the Malenia fight in Elden Ring. Why, yes, I used to edit professionally, how could you tell?
Before this becomes a several-thousand-page tirade about everything wrong with Avid’s editing platform, I suppose I’d better talk more about editing. Editing is a huge subject and one that’s difficult to talk about without delving into scholarly language because, to a modern audience, it’s something we’re so immersed in we don’t even know that we know the rules. We grew up with them, but there was a time when Russian Editing Scientists like Sergei Eisenstein got into fistfights with each other over the meaning and purpose of the editing techniques they were inventing.
Possibly the most fundamental editing rule is the Kuleshov Effect: when we are shown two different images sequentially, we assume there is a relationship of meaning between them. It’s why when we see a shot of a Star Destroyer in space and then a shot of Darth Vader, we assume he is in that Star Destroyer and not the Old Spaghetti Factory in Zanesville, Ohio. Huge shoutout to the Old Spaghetti Factory for finding the most unappealing possible place to eat affordable family-friendly quasi-Italian fare (a factory) and then having the courage to make it even worse (“Okay, but what if the factory was also old?”).
But Why, Though?
Because that’s the way it’s almost always been. I don’t think editing is a bad thing! It’s almost certainly the single most important development that allowed cinema to become its own artform and explode in popularity, second only to having sickass explosions and being a way to watch people bone that’s more convenient than an erotic zoetrope.
Before editing, films very rarely had stories – we’ll talk more about this in tomorrow’s column. They were usually single static shots, like Edison’s early shorts. Here’s the earliest-surviving copyrighted motion picture:
Yep, a dude sneezes and… that’s it. Your ancestors paid their hard-earned money from shoveling asbestos into the engine of the machine that turned worthless orphans into invaluable lead-based food preservatives to see that. The first ever known use of having two different shots spliced into a single reel is from 1898’s Come Along Do!:
The second shot only survives in fragments, in case you’re wondering why it seems like it becomes stop motion at the end there. A man and a woman see people go into an art exhibit and follow them in, only for the woman to become incensed when the man becomes unbearably, comically horny for Venus with the Apple. “Too Horn’t Up for the Art Museum” is one of those classic comedy premises that you just don’t see anymore, like “Clumsy Pie Delivery Man is Clumsy” or Jackie Gleeson’s pioneering “Credibly Threatening Domestic Violence.” My point here is that editing is, seemingly, necessary to tell complex stories with multiple locations.
Another important function of editing is the insertion of effects. It’s nearly impossible today to find mainstream films without any kind of post-production goosing. I’m not just talking about greenscreening in an entire scene around Chris Pratt squinting at Andy Serkis’ mocap performance of what will eventually be a triceratops; I mean even simple things like color grading or putting in musical cues or foley. This probably goes back to George Méliès, the French director, magician, and accent mark hoarder. He was famous for using techniques like double exposure to create early special effects in film, usually involving some form of head-based chicanery.
While double exposure is done in-camera by filming something, cranking the film back, and then filming something again over film that’s already been partially exposed, Ol’ George also utilized a technique to colorize his films after they’d been developed: a scientific process known as “just paint every single frame by hand like a goddamn lunatic.” This was a precursor to modern post production both in what it achieved and in how soul-shatteringly monotonous it was. Fun fact: Méliès only hired women to paint his films. He said it was because their small hands made it easier to paint the frames, but it was probably because he was an 1890s French guy and employing only women made it easier to cheat on his wife.
As films have become more complicated over time, shooting the film out of sequence has become a necessity. Not only that, but without editing you wouldn’t have access to separate takes. An actor forgets his line? Too bad, now it’s “Say hello to my little… buddy? Is it ‘buddy?” forever. I guess what I’m saying is that editing is everywhere. Even live events like late night talk shows and sports have editing: multiple cameras are filming at the same time, and the director watches all of them at once and tells the technical director what camera to be taking from. This kind of on-the-fly generally works pretty well, unless it doesn’t.
He deserves a gold medal in Scurrying.
Editing is part and parcel of filmmaking. It’s an independent creative branch that’s just as important as writing, or directing, or acting, no matter how deeply wrong and extremely insulting Patton “I Wrote a Whole Book About What a Film Buff I Am” Oswalt’s stand-up about it is to editors. Editing and directing are different disciplines and trying to say that editing is actually directing to emphasize how important it is like telling the guy preparing your sushi that he’s actually just making a really good fish burrito and therefore technically counts as a “real chef” and not just a mere lowly itamae, you’re welcome, *hold for applause.*
Editing is crucial to filmmaking. To make a film without editing you’d have to be an absolute nutjob, an unhinged maniac of the highest degree. Now, before I read the next section, let me just take a gigantic quaff of water from my comedy-size novelty glass–
Okay, But What if You Didn’t, Though?
Surprise, me! There are films made without editing! The style of “one-take” films was quite popular for a while, with long single-take sequences appearing in Scorsese’s Hugo and 1917. Except these movies cheat. 1917, in particular, presents itself as being a single take, but it clearly isn’t – there are plenty of hidden edits. Which kind of seems like spray painting a McDonald’s soda lid gold and claiming it’s an Olympic medal in Lying? So we’re going to talk about a true oner, one of my favorite movies of all time, a film almost certainly unlike anything you’ve ever seen before: Russian Ark.
Russian Ark is an incredibly beautiful film and the fact of its very existence evinces an accomplishment of such difficulty it should have won an Oscar in the category of Spitting in the Face of God (Fiction). The entire film is shot in one glorious, uncut take. It takes place in Saint Petersburg Hermitage Museum, an art museum that was once the Winter Palace of the Tsars. As the Narrator follows a ghost around the Palace they become unstuck in time like so much Billy Pilgrim and observe scenes from Russian history that happened there, from lavish balls that would make even the most ostentatious of rappers blush to a man building his own coffin out of scrap wood during a Nazi siege. It’s a film about the culture of Russia, time, history, the illusion of the ‘present’ and how we relate to it, plus it’s a film about the dangers of eating the entire baggie of mushrooms you bought from Dreadlock Dave and then going to the art museum. Most importantly, it’s a movie which actually uses the single take to comment on something (in this case, to paraphrase James Joyce, how history is the nightmare from which we’re all trying to awaken) rather than to just be difficult ‘cause the filmmakers thought it would look cool.
And yet even here I’m being really, really generous with calling this film “free of editing:” it was color-corrected in post, had its sound recorded and mixed separately, and even had a few minor mistakes such as visible cables CGI’d out. But to me, this film answers a larger question: not just is it possible to break free from the tyranny of editing, but is editing actually restrictive at all? I believe art is worth making even if it just experiments and pushes boundaries, so it’s worth looking at films that take away fundamental parts of filmmaking.
Which brings us to tomorrow’s column: films made entirely by eating and then pooping out filmstock. Am I joking? Tune in tomorrow to find out! Unless you’re too scared, neener-neener-neener.
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter, a Nicholl Top 50 Finalist, and an award-winning filmmaker. He’s currently looking to be a writer’s assistant or showrunner’s assistant on a television show: tell your friends, and if you don’t have any friends, tell your enemies! You can also view his mind-diarrhea on Twitter.
Top image: Fabio Pagani/Shutterstock