The Challenge of Explaining How to Edit Movies

"Do or do not, there is no try," is as relevant to editing as lifting starships with space magic.

by Beckett Mufson
14 May 2016, 12:20pm

Screencap via

A friend of mine once said a film has three writers: the screenwriter, the director, and the editor. He's primarily an editor, so he's definitely biased, but it rings true; it doesn't matter how well-shot a film is if it's cut carelessly. Film essayist and editor Tony Zhou, known for his highly engaging Every Frame a Painting series, put together a rather meta short called How Does an Editor Think and Feel? that analyzes what exactly goes down in an editing suite.

It turns out, this is harder to explain than you might think. "Like a lot of editors, I cut based on instinct," Zhou says in the beginnng of the film. Nevertheless he tries, like many artists before him, to explain this instinct in layman's terms throughout the nine-minute video. And he largely succeeds! It's a compelling series of concepts, dissected scenes, and quotes from great editors that boils down to one thing: rhythm. "Editing is 70% about rhythm," says Walter Murch, legendary editor of Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 war epic Apocalpyse Now. Zhou describes different types of rhythms, both obvious and subtle, but continues to cite emotions as the editor's true guide. "If you watch anything over and over again, you eventually feel the moment the shot wants you to cut," he says.

Ultimately, rhythm is a vehicle for translating the emotions imagined by the screenwriter, elicited by the directors, and actualised by the actors into a cohesive story. It's hard to explain because it's not something that can be explained. It's like trying to explain painting, or flowers, or Zhou's example, dancing. It must be practiced, in person, by a body and a brain. 

Check out How Does an Editor Think and Feel? in full below.

See more of Tony Zhou's videos on his YouTube channel.


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