Secrets of Indie Filmmaking

Secrets of Indie Filmmaking: How I Discovered Editing

Ardent Partner Chris Comrie talks about the importance of discovery through learning-by-doing in Secrets of Indie Filmmaking: How I Discovered Editing.

Few experiences in my life have been as fascinating as my ongoing self-education in the art and craft of movie editing. I didn’t intend to edit, I figured I hand my hands full doing every other job on my movies. I didn’t have a choice though, because the experienced editor who had agreed to cut my first feature backed out at the last minute. This sort of thing happens quite often in ultra-low budget movies. So I said what I always do: “fine, I’ll do it myself”.

Editing is really, really hard. To do well, that is.

So, I began knowing absolutely nothing. Like many people, I thought I knew more about filmmaking than I did, because I had watched so many movies. Observing and doing are two very different things, however. I essentially taught myself to edit, by assembling my own footage that I had directed, reading the software manual, and scrutinizing great movies to try and understand how they were cut together.

My daily editing experience veered from painful drudgery to sheer elation whenever I figured something out for myself. I didn’t actually invent any editing techniques; it just felt like I did, as I sat locked in my dark room day after day, month after month.
Of course it was the most basic editing principals that struck me like thunderclaps of revelation when I found them. My first assembly of the movie ran to over twice its intended running time. So I went back and tightened cuts on alternating reverse angles in dialogue, trimmed the beginnings and ends off scenes. Still way too long. This is where I started to get into the nitty gritty.

A big breakthrough for me happened while I was trying to tighten a scene with two actors who were talking while moving around the room quite a bit. I was doing my best to cut on action or match on action, which is to say, picking up exactly where the action left off in the previous cut. A person’s hand starts to move, I cut to a different angle and do my best to pick up the continuation of that character’s arm movement in the next shot so the movement appears continuous.

Now, this scene was taking way too long because the actors were covering a lot of space in the room. Suddenly I wondered what would happen if, instead of following a performer’s progress all the way across the room until they hit the edge of the frame, and then picking them up in that same exact spot on the cut as they enter the frame and continue over to stand next to the other performer, I were to instead cut as soon as they took their first step or so in the one angle, then cut immediately to their last step up to the other performer. It worked perfectly! Eureka!
Right now, anyone who knows anything about editing is probably rolling their eyes, because this is one of the most basic things about editing: you can and should skip the obvious and boring stuff. No one is going to leap from their seat in the cinema and scream, “Did that woman just teleport across the room?”

I can’t tell you how many possibilities this personal discovery opened up for me. I went through the entire movie, avidly looking for any actions that could be removed without causing confusion for the audience. This made an absolutely enormous difference to the quality and pace of the movie. It became far less tedious and plodding. I began boldly defying time and space all over the place. As long as the connection between the cuts made sense to the audience, all was well.
“Drama s life with the dull bits cut out” – Alfred Hitchcock
“Art is the elimination of the unnecessary” – Pablo Picasso

And so with editing. Much of my progress as a person who edits is refining my sense of what is necessary and what is not. I’ll talk more about this in the next Secrets of Indie Filmmaking.

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