Making the cut

How do you turn 37 hours of film into a 90-minute movie? With art, science, and 'movie magic.'

'Best Picture' will be the most visible award given out on Oscar night this Sunday. Another will be presented for an "invisible art" - the art that saved the cinema.

If you've ever watched home videos of someone else's family, you know how boring they can be, even after just a few minutes. So why do you gladly sit in the dark for two hours at the local cineplex?

It's not enough to have good actors, a good screenplay, or even a good director. Someone has to search through many hours of film footage to find the best parts and join them together so that they make you laugh, cry - or at least make sense.

That "someone" is the film editor.

You get to say 'that's boring'

When you watch a movie, you see only what the camera saw. And on a typical movie shoot, the camera saw a lot. On average, 37 hours of film are shot. That's about 200,000 feet, or 37 miles' worth, of exposed film.

To make a 90-minute movie, the editor has to reduce that to just 8,100 feet. But film editing involves much more than just cutting out the bloopers.

"It is actually participating in the storytelling," says editor Paul Hirsch via e-mail. Mr. Hirsch was nominated for an Oscar this year for his work on "Ray," the story of musician Ray Charles. "It's like having a first-row seat, and being able to pipe up and say, 'That's boring,' or 'That's confusing.' "

Using the screenplay as a blueprint, the editor watches all the footage, finds the best parts, and - under the guidance of the director - puts the images together in a way that best tells the story. The editor tries to show you just what you'd want to see at a given moment: a guitarist's fingers flying across the strings, a dog's wagging tail, the emotion on someone's face.

"The editor is the super-audience," says Matt Chessé, editor of "Finding Neverland," a movie about the man who wrote "Peter Pan." "You have the ability to arrange the movie the way you want it to play for the audience. You try to make the most enjoyable, funniest, scariest, or most romantic moment out of what you have to choose from." Mr. Chessé has also been nominated for an Academy Award for his work on that film.

How one scene was put together

Creating these "moments" is a subtle skill. Chessé told how he built a particularly moving scene in "Finding Neverland."

In the scene, young Peter Llewelyn Davies (played by Freddie Highmore) throws a tantrum in front of J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp). In real life, Peter inspired Barrie to write "Peter Pan."

"The way the scene plays," Chessé says, "you get this feeling that you're moving in on Freddie, closer and closer into his fierceness - pulled right into his little face."

This "feeling" is the result of manipulation, otherwise known as "movie magic": Chessé used a trick to combine different versions, or "takes" of the actor's performance. He put them together in a way that created the illusion of a seamless whole.

As Chessé recalls, "Freddie got fiercer and fiercer in his performance with each take. And the camera moved closer and closer with each take." Chessé recognized that this zooming-in movement would heighten the drama of the scene.

But there was a problem: If he placed the different shots of Freddie one right after the other, the "jump cuts" would distract viewers from the emotion of the scene. Instead, Chessé "cut away" from the boy to Mr. Depp's reaction, then back to a closer shot of Freddie, then back to Depp, and so on, closer and closer to Freddie.

Examine the 'cuts' on your DVD

Because the images in a movie pass by so quickly, you probably don't notice most of the thousands of "cuts" an editor has made. On a VCR or DVD player, you can slow down the playback for your favorite scenes. Notice how the scene was put together. See if you can figure out how the editing helped to make you jump, giggle, or feel sad.

The juxtaposition of images (that is, placing them side by side) creates an effect on the viewer, Chessé says. "That girl's reaction against that guy's line - you keep putting the takes against each other until it makes the most sense of the joke or the romance. You're constantly tinkering with your choices until you get them arranged in the way that they make the most pleasing combination."

"Editing is a bit of a misnomer, like the word 'computer,' " Hirsch says. Few people use a computer to compute something these days. "The same is true with editing," he says. "It is a little bit like text editing, a bit like modeling in clay, a bit like dancing, a bit like playing with puppets, a bit like conducting. It is putting on a show, and you have to be a bit of a showman to do it well."

'An invention with no future'

After Auguste and Louis Lumière patented their Cinématographe camera in 1895, their first film caused a sensation just by showing an approaching train. But the novelty soon wore off. Why would one pay to see something you could watch in real life for free? Louis Lumière said sadly, "The cinema is an invention without a future."

A director at Thomas Edison's film studio soon rode to the rescue of the movies. (Edison had patented the single-viewer Kinetoscope in 1893.) Edwin Porter was the first to cut up and rearrange film in 1903 for "Life of an American Fireman." Movies that told stories captivated audiences.

For his controversial "The Birth of a Nation" (1915), director D.W. Griffith and his film editors, husband-and-wife James and Rose Smith, invented the fluid storytelling "language" of filming and editing techniques.

Sergei Eisenstein, the great Soviet filmmaker, broke all of Griffith's rules with his "montage" style of rapid, clashing images. His "Odessa Steps" scene in "Battleship Potemkin" (1925) continues to influence editors, especially of action movies.

Editors used to physically cut and splice film together. "Outtakes" ended up "on the cutting-room floor." Since the 1990s, though, computer editing programs have become today's tools of choice. They let editors try out many different sequences before the actual film is cut.

But the editor's job remains the same: Tell the story. "A computer is just another splicer," says Ed Rothkowitz, editor of "The Kids Are Alright," a 1979 documentary of The Who. "Pushing buttons is not editing. It takes years of training to become a great editor."


Continuity: Multiple "takes" of one scene may be put together in the final film. The takes may be from the same or different angles. An editor must be sure that there's "continuity" between cuts - that is, that all the action matches. For example: If an actress picks up a letter with her right hand in one shot, she must be holding it in her right hand in the next shot.

Cross cutting: Cutting back and forth between two actions happening at the same time. In Edwin Porter's "Life of an American Fireman" (1903), he cut between a burning house and the firefighters preparing to race to the scene.

Cut: The division between the end of one moving image and the beginning of the next.

Eyeline match: The direction in which two or more actors are looking must match up. If Julia (in Shot A) looks to the right at George (Shot B), he should look to the left at Julia.

Frame: A single image in a film. Each frame is on screen for just 1/24th of a second. A cut that's one or two frames longer or shorter can make a big difference in a scene.

Jump cut: Taking out frames to create a jerky sense of acceleration. Music-video editors may use jump cuts to make dancers look as though they are moving even faster.

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