The Elusive Art of Film Editing

Film Editing is both an art form and a technical process. At the end of which you get the finished film. But before it is finished, one must go through countless hours of raw footage multiple times. And juxtapose it in a way that makes sense. And is aligned to the script and the vision of the director. 

A Brief History:

The term is derived from the early days of filmmaking in the 1890s, wherein people would splice the film negative and then glue the pieces together to create cuts. During this time, very few movies used continuity editing. Which meant having continuous scenes strung together seamlessly. Famed French filmmaker Georges Méliès was also experimenting with editing as a visual effect during this time. Then in the 1900s, narrative features were born. Films like The Great Train Robbery (1903) started experimentation with editing and created the cinematic illusions of time and space as we know them today. Then the Soviet Montage movement emerged in the 1910s and 1920s, with filmmaker Lev Kuleshov pioneering his famous Kuleshov Experiment. It involved juxtaposing footage of a man with a bowl of soup, a child in a coffin, and an alluring woman; it would show his unchanging face and cut to one of the three. 

The idea was to demonstrate the power of editing. You could make the audience believe that the man had certain feelings towards any one of these scenes.

“But I suppose film is distinctive because of its nature, of its being able to cut through time with editing.” 

Oliver Stone

The Process and the tools used today:

Thankfully we don’t have to deal with bundles of expensive film negatives and glue all over our rooms anymore. What editors do today is known as Non-Linear Editing. Specialized software is used today which do not modify the original footage but instead prepares what’s known as an Edit decision list (EDL) which keeps track of the various cut points in the footage. Some of the most common Non-Linear Editing Software used in the industry are Avid Media Composer, Apple Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere Pro, and Da Vinci Resolve. 

Editing Techniques 

“The notion of directing a film is the invention of critics – the whole eloquence of cinema is achieved in the editing room.”

Walter Murch

Continuity Editing: The most common form of editing. 

In a scene where characters in a film are supposed to be at one time and place, the editor must ensure that things remain the same from one shot to the next. For example, if a character walks from left to right in a wide-angle shot, they must still be walking when cut to a closeup. Continuity errors are something that the audience will notice immediately. It could take the audience out of the movie and make the experience jarring. Something we filmmakers absolutely do not want. As editors, we must ensure the audience does not notice our craft. And the more invested they are in the story without registering our cuts, the better we did our job. 

Cross-Cutting: The editing technique wherein we show two or more actions separated by time and/or space by cutting between them. This creates complex illusions or serves as parallels of themes. Director Christopher Nolan is perhaps the modern master of this technique. Films like Inception and Dunkirk used these techniques extensively to create a rising tension and momentum. 

The Cutaway: This involves cutting away from one thing to another abruptly. Sometimes this is used to bring attention from one thing to another. It can be used in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is done to show what the character is looking at. Sometimes to provide irony to a scene. Or to unsettle the rhythm of the film and provide a reset. 

Dissolve: This term is used when the visuals of one-shot overlap the visuals of the other shot. It’s used when we want the audience to ruminate on what just happened. Or to draw parallels in visual symmetry or simply to show a passage of time. 

J & L Cut:  The J cut is when the audio from the upcoming shot starts before the previous shot ends. And the L cut is when audio from the current shot overlaps the next shot. This is commonly used in conversations to blend the scene together and imbibe a rhythmic flow.  

Jump Cut:  This was popularised during the French New Wave in the late 1950s. Here there seems to be no continuity in between shots. It’s called Jump cuts because the shots seem to jump ahead in time during the same action. 

Significance of Editing:

Some of the earliest filmmakers noted that the film editing process is unique to motion pictures. Every other aspect of filmmaking originated in a different medium than film (photography, art direction, writing, sound recording), but editing is the one process that is unique to film. With editing, you can relive an entire human life within a feature film length or shorter. With editing, you can travel the world or even the whole of the universe. 

“Editing is where movies are made or broken. Many a film has been saved and many a film has been ruined in the editing room.” 

Joe Dante

When Movie Theatres Re-open in India.

I am thinking of ending things. No, not through suicide. But you know, not being able to go to a theatre to watch a movie. I am thinking about ending the fear and planning to enter a large screen auditorium again. 

Mulan the film is based on the Chinese folklore “The Ballad of Mulan”. The world currently is suffering from a virus that originated in China. So is that why Disney+ decided to release the 200M USD production as a premium premiere option? I am not too sure. But the route to bypass cinemas when TENET has opened exclusively in theatres is a curious one. The talk about the sound design of TENET more than the movie or its story itself is also the same. 

Also, I cannot wait for the Justice League miniseries from Zack Snyder, which features an “Elseworlds” story. Probably the best part from the theatrical cut of the film was the video and song released by Junkie Xl and Gary Clark Jr. This is also taking a risk, investing another reported 70-80 M USD to film additional scenes with the main cast and restoring the score, visual effects and re-editing the film from scratch. 

For cinephiles, indulging into some of the classics was always on. 

Now it is the only option. Many tentpole movies are pushing themselves as far away from the pandemic as possible. In terms of the Indian film industry, the market is now open. I doubt or would accept that I do not understand the distribution industry in India in detail. As film fans, it is easy to see that all bets are off. All studios are making deals with various streaming platforms and putting out as many films as possible. I am unable to grasp a sense of the industry’s calls for the need of the theatrical experience. 

Anyone who cares about quality art as a necessary part of the culture and the health of society would look elsewhere. Many people, especially in the larger cities, have access to unlimited international streaming content. They would perhaps develop a taste as they grow up with characters and moralities of other nations. Our consumers might not be able to accept some of the mindless entertainment which was going on in Indian cinemas.  

Marvel’s Avengers — The Problem with Infinity

Once upon a time, all Marvel movies were running riot at the box offices across the world. Young adolescent guys went about telling their gals in most screenings; which character showed up in which sequel and why they absolutely must wait till the end of the credits as straight face onlookers started looking at their phones again. “Because that guy will show up in the next movie!”, the guy would say with a toothy grin. And the girls would either nod stupidly or get disgusted internally.

So anyways the film starts off with the death of Loki and Heimdall and the Hulk gets knocked out by a tall, purple and bald alien with a grimace. But Heimdall manages to send the Hulk away in rainbow colours after which one bad guy says, “That was a mistake.” You know what was a mistake? They didn’t build up to the movie title with the Avengers theme by a line from fake Voldemort, “No one has ever wielded more than one infinity stone! Who could possibly stop him now?” *Cue theme.

Tony Stank and Pepper Potts will eventually have a boy called Morgan at the end of Avengers 4. We now know that. But then everything leading up to the guardians is absolute GOLD. Bautista as Drax is absolutely on fire! If it’s true that James Gunn rewrote all lines for the Guardians then he deserves two Oscars. We do see more of the emotional beats from Gamora and Thanos than anyone else. Thor is on a wonderful adventure, to a made up name for the planet Niðavellir, ideal for cross-cutting between that and the story of Vision and Scarlet Witch who are helped out by Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner, Black Widow, War Machine, Winter Soldier, Falcon, Black Panther among more people too ridiculous even for this absurdly long sentence! If you think about it for 6 whole seconds then surely you’d think up moon-sized praise for the Russo Brothers and, the screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.

So what’s my problem in life you ask? I’d give you my number and we could talk about that for weeks but for now, I’d rather discuss the strange feeling of incompleteness and dissatisfaction that I felt after the end of Infinity War. Let’s call them SIX INFINITY ISSUES.

  1. We know that characters like Spiderman and Black Panther are sure to return from the dead. Given that fact; did you really feel anything, really? When he died in Tony Stark’s arms? Unless the audience is sure that there will be consequences they are not going to feel the desired emotional impact. It plays in a serious tone but would have been hilarious if it was intended as a joke. Absurdity brings laughter and if the filmmakers were going for deep emotional impact in a world where we know Tom Holland is shooting Spiderman: Far From Home soon then that’s absurd.
  2. Thanos achieved what he wanted. They (The Filmmakers) called it the hero’s journey for Thanos. But is he the hero?
  3. A plot point that was set up in this film; Doctor Strange knowing about the 1 in 14,000,605 chance of their victory, was not resolved within the confines of this film. Are we watching a TV series? Yes, it’s mutating into that but no! A good film must resolve what it sets up.
  4. They gave Thanos something to chase at all times but was there any sense of urgency? What was the source of it exactly? When thinking about screenwriting we are often advised to build a countdown (sometimes this features literally as a ticking clock in many movies), especially in the heist film genre. If this was that then what would happen if Thanos didn’t collect the stones immediately?
  5. The Snap as they call it now in the MCU has been shown to have consequences across Ant-Man and the Wasp as well as the upcoming Captain Marvel I’m sure but again it’s something could’ve worked in a fashion where it made Infinity War a bit more whole by perhaps resolving the conflict between Captain America and Iron Man by having them fight together for a common cause which was setup up nicely during Civil War. But despite that Thanos could have escaped after the snap but the team would’ve been reunited at last. Ask yourself what was resolved during this film exactly? I say not much. It was all set up for the next one. That’s infinitely disappointing.
  6. The after-credits scene for Captain Marvel was intended to invoke some form of hope but it seemed to invoke nothing more than curiosity mingled with confusion. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Now, these are issues with infinity not faults in the film. I enjoy the film very much and will do so for years to come, I am sure. It’s an excellent fantasy adventure of the highest quality and talent behind it. My thoughts here are more like What Ifs. Now imagine a little swap. At the end of this film, we go to the planet Thanos is at at the end and we find out that he’s alive and that his gauntlet is complete with all stones in it before we fade to black. And the after-credits scene in Captain Marvel, after the audience appreciates the range of her powers, becomes the one we saw in Infinity War.

Gangs of Wasseypur — The Hollow Epic

After careful examination of Anurag Kashyap’s well-renowned work in Gangs of Wasseypur and recently Sacred Games, one can make a variety of claims. His works may be more gritty and authentic but terms like that get tossed around by filmmakers everywhere without actually trying to make them work in the story they are attempting to tell. Stories are journeys of discoveries but often the satisfying ones which are certain about some characters and take a moral stand.

Sure, there are memorable lines and character interactions in Gangs Of Wasseypur sprinkled throughout its runtime. Lines are spoken by characters that mirror reality through a raw lens, inarguably more authentic than the ludicrous fantasies many big studio Hindi films offer today. But what’s lacking is a sense of morality or focus on the main threads of the narratives. Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1, for example, starts with a shootout which repeats later in the second film only to continue the story into another significant chunk. So the purpose of that inciting incident wasn’t really to incite or end anything, Was it? Or were we to savour the gunshots and dingy streets in a single long take which are just cinematically more experiential and engrossing. In such moments, we look for meaning and if such promises are handled with ridicule or confusion rather than a careful examination of difficult motivations then one is left disappointed, to claim the least.

The story actually begins with Shahid Khan who is murdered by the orders of the politician Ramadhir Singh and the revenge drama develops into a massive 5-hour epic which is enjoyable in parts for sure, mainly due to eccentricities exhibited by the characters, but ends in “Definite” killing Faizal Khan who is his step-brother. The narrator, who basically explains the whole story in voice-over throughout many sections, exclaims that “Wasseypur wasn’t affected by Faizal’s death, nor due to Ramadhir Singh’s death, It was a battlefield then and it is a battlefield now and will perhaps always be.” Now if someone, who is looking to figure out what to do in life, receives that cynical piece of advice then where is one to look for hope?

The Godfather series is ultimately a family tragedy which Gangs of Wasseypur could gloriously have been for Indian audiences but instead, it turned out to be a hollow, if not depressing and hopeless look at society. Vito Corleone, in The Godfather Part 1, hopes for this son Micheal to become the true Godfather that people respect. As in the very famous first scene, someone offers Vito money on the day of his daughter’s wedding to commit murder. He realises that he has no real respect or friends but only fear from the rest of the community. But the Mafia still stands a moral high ground because the police and government around them are either useless or corrupt. They would kill in the name of loyalty but even at any cost, Vito Corleone would never let the family get involved in the drug business. The loyalty for the family was of the utmost importance and that’s where Faizal Khan’s motivations also lie in Wasseypur. But unlike in the Godfather series; where there is apparent respect for the family, even though at the cost of law and other human lives, Wasseypur tells us that anyone can betray anyone. Isn’t “Definite”, the step-brother of Faizal Khan, the one who kills him on J.P. Singh’s orders to walk away with his mother at the end? Characters get so confusing that you forget who’s the good guy?

What Anurag Kashyap is really good at, is getting his actors to be uninhibited in their performances which is a quality of a great director but what’s lacking is the structural focus and perspective control in his narratives. He often fails to make a point entirely, even metaphorically or symbolically or visually. A theatre is a place where the audience comes to hear the truth. Drama helps us face that truth. I am paraphrasing Aristotle here. That’s why we would pay our hard-earned money and watch something horrible happen to someone else on a screen so that we can gauge what were we to do if we were in a situation like that? We go there to seek moral instructions not to come out feeling cynical and nihilistic. We can do that sitting at home doing nothing at all very well, thank you.

What The World of DC Films could have been

My pitch for the perfect balance between what the studio would have liked and what Zack Snyder was good at. And we’re gonna assume that only Man of Steel exists as it is in our analysis.

The idea for Ben Affleck to love Batman was to play a more fucked up older version, who’s intent on going to any level (even brand them) in order to stop crime. He has had a torrid 20 years in Gotham. “How many good guys are left and how many stayed that way?” — Bruce Wayne line in Batman V Superman 2016.

And now he doesn’t even care about his own life. So the opening sequence in the actual film; Bruce runs towards a falling building while everyone else runs away from it does what the opening car crash scene, in the DC animated film The Dark Knight Returns Part-1, does in its opening. Bruce doesn’t care about his life anymore.

Gordon is about to retire. He reveals, just like in the animated film, that Commissioner Gordon knows Bruce Wayne is Batman. We’ve never done it in the films! And imagine the dynamic between Ben Affleck and J.K.Simmons as fine actors throughout the series. Now obviously everyone is losing their shit that an alien with god-like superpowers now lives on earth. Imagine how such a discussion would manifest itself in the real world with the political climate today? The moral question of the world of the film is one line from that news world montage featuring real thought leaders of the modern world, “Must there be a Superman?”

But this thread goes from here into things being slightly different from the movie that was released. Let’s completely get done with the Africa – Lex Luthor bullet subplot. Stay with me here.

One ex-military person who has lost both his legs during the battle in Man of Steel starts to become a force in the media that questions his free will and might. While the senator is under a lot of pressure to impose some restrictions on Superman. Or try to find out who he is. She requests him on LIVE TV to make an appearance at a public hearing and answer some questions from the people. Clark Kent meanwhile contemplates this with Martha Kent and Lois Lane.

Lex Luthor’s thugs are smuggling Kryptonite into Metropolis. It’s revealed that Lex has been trying to get a license for months but now he doesn’t care to do it legally anymore. Some Bat figure shows up in the lightning (First reveal of this Batman) and steals the Kryptonite. #BecauseIamBatman #BadAssActionSequenceWithJunkieXLScore.

Bruce Wayne meets Clark Kent at the Lex Luthor Gala. Where we’re introduced to them all, a mysterious woman steals a sword at Luthor’s exhibition. In this scene, we make it absolutely clear that Bruce Wayne finds out he is Superman. A shot of Clark cleaning his glasses as he puts them back on while nobody except Bruce Wayne was watching. Clarke suspects him knowing about his identity but can’t read his mind (even though he is Superman).

Batman: “So the question is, who wants to eliminate me?

Alfred: “That line is forming around the block, sir.”―Batman and Alfred discussing an attempt on his life from Batman, the animated series.

Batman then threatens a criminal for information on who is branding everyone else by branding him. Then Superman shows up, asks him to control his outings as a masked vigilante and Bruce Wayne realises that he has figured it out. Superman on the other hand now having seen Bruce’s face fears that he might reveal his identity.

He asks him with a smirk, “Do you bleed?”

Superman says consider this mercy and flies away.

Bruce Wayne starts to get a lot of emails from an unknown source. They show a series of photos of people he hasn’t even branded. Petty criminals Batman would normally not even care to get involved with. Small time thugs. And he gets a picture of his mother’s pearls and the old story of the Wayne Murder. Whoever sent these pictures to him knows about his identity. He suspects that these are threats from Superman asking him to stop branding criminals or he will eliminate this vigilante who everyone is terrorized by. Bruce discusses this with Gordon. Gordon reluctantly says he will look into this.

Clark Kent goes to a public hearing, the senator asks some really tough questions on the god-like will he imposes on people. Superman doesn’t seem to have any answers and just then he notices a man without legs in the front row of the people. His chair is made out of the lead, which Superman cannot X-Ray like he normally does. We make it clear visually what happens and then it all blows up! Superman is blamed even more by the people.

Batman decides he must stop him. Even if it takes his life that’s fine. He says his father would have been proud to have died for something like this. He prepares to fight Superman with the armoured suit and Kryptonite on his side.

Lex Luthor gets crazy on his company’s rooftop on a rainy night and calls out to GOD. Superman shows up. He blames Superman for all the chaos in the world and mentions the world is right in blaming him. If he has the power of a god then he cannot be all good. That’s why he lets Batman operate and terrorize people. He shows them the pictures of the people Batman hasn’t branded in real. The audience gets it clearly now that it’s Lex who’s sending Bruce these photos. Under pressure from Luthor’s allegations and unable to give any answers about the operations of the Batman, he goes to reason with him and probably take him down. They fight. For a much much longer time as the fans get exactly the visuals, they need to wet their pants.

Superman doesn’t want to show his full power. Batman resists capture by the use of the Kryptonite and starts hurting Superman. Superman wants to now use all his power and stop Batman. Just as he is about to pierce Batman with his Kryptonite armour, Woman Woman shows up and stops him. She reveals what Lex did to make you too go against each other and then reveals about the mother boxes and the Doomsday plot. Gordon confirms Lex Luthor’s hand in this.

Batman realizing his mistake tears through Luthor’s science facility (practical effects action sequence) in an anger/rage to catch him. Luthor releases Doomsday as he is about to be caught. The Trinity fight Doomsday. Superman dies because he sacrifices himself. Aliens are coming. We must make the Justice League says Bruce by revealing other metahumans exist based on information stolen from the Lex Luthor facility.

Wonder Woman the film stays the same more or less. Maybe even Suicide Squad with the exception of the Joker being the villain and the Harley-Joker relationship being the main thread. Wonder Woman could have transcended the genre by establishing that Ares was something inside mankind rather than being David Thewlis with a real moustache but with CGI smoke in the background. Wonder Woman would have grown up with the realisation that the enemy is perennial. It’s inside mankind and it could manifest in many forms so she must fight and protect the innocent.

We enter Justice League and establish a more determined Batman. Wanting to right his wrongs in BvS by assembling the league.