Cutting Rhythms
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Cutting Rhythms

Intuitive Film Editing

Karen Pearlman

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eBook - ePub

Cutting Rhythms

Intuitive Film Editing

Karen Pearlman

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Über dieses Buch

There are many books on the technical aspects of film and video editing. Much rarer are books on how editors think and make creative decisions.

Filled with timeless principles and thought-provoking examples from a variety of international films, the second edition of Karen Pearlman's Cutting Rhythms offers an in-depth study of the film editor's rhythmic creativity and intuition, the processes and tools editors use to shape rhythms, and how rhythm works to engage audiences in film. While respecting the importance of intuitive flow in the cutting room, this book offers processes for understanding what editing intuition is and how to develop it. This fully revised and updated edition contains:

  • New chapters on collaboration and "editing thinking";

  • Advice on making onscreen drafts before finalizing your story

  • Tips on how to create and sustain audience empathy and engagement;

  • Explanations of how rhythm is perceived, learned, practiced and applied in editing;

  • Updated discussions of intuition, structure and dynamics;

  • An all-new companion website ( with video examples and links for expanding and illustrating the principles of key chapters in the book.

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Chapter 1

Rhythmic Intuition

How does an editor make decisions about where and when to cut in order to shape the rhythm of a film?
When asked, most editors will say something along the lines of “by intuition” or “you just know when it’s right.” For example, in First Cut, Conversations with Film Editors by Gabriella Oldham, editors are quoted talking about rhythm and editing as “magic” (Sheldon Kahn), “feels right” (Carl Kress), “it’s intuitive” (Bill Pankow), “it’s intuition” (Paul Hirsch), “having a sense” (Donn Cambern), “you just know” (Sidney Levin), “exclusively in the realm of intuition” (Merle Worth), “an internal sense” (Richard Marks), and “we go by intuition” (Alan Heim).1 These are extraordinary editors, and there is no question they are right: editing, especially the shaping of rhythm in editing, is highly intuitive.
But is there anything else that can be said? Anything that can provide an idea of what this kind of intuition really is and how it can be developed? This chapter aims to paint a picture of what an editor’s intuition may be and how it can be developed.
But first it is important to dispel some myths about the dangers of discussing intuition.
Many people, especially editors, shy away from speaking about things they consider to be “intuitive.” The fear is that analyzing intuition will disrupt it. Since no creative person wants their intuition disrupted, it is important to separate out talking about intuition and engaging in an intuitive practice. They can both happen, they just can’t happen at the same time, because trying to break down and observe an action at the same moment as doing it causes the brain’s attention to be split and diffused. Doing and analyzing at the same time disrupts the action. Or the analysis. Or both.
Neurologist Richard Restak explains:
In terms of brain performance, “just doing it” involves the smooth non-self-conscious transfer of learned actions from working memory, stored in frontal lobes, to the pre-motor and motor areas that transform the working memory into those effective, winning plays that result from thousands of hours of practice 
This doesn’t mean we can’t develop an understanding of what intuition is and how it can be strengthened, in fact quite the opposite. We need to understand the kinds of knowledge and support the brain needs to be able to do an action “unselfconsciously.” Our intuition can be developed, strengthened, and enhanced by all kinds of knowledge, as long as the process of consciously acquiring knowledge is at a different time, in a different place, or as a different action from the expert execution of a task that intuition supports.
Intuition is not the same as instinct. People are born with instincts, but intuition is something we develop over time, through experience. In other words, it is learned. Scientists, educators, and even artists are clear: the knowledge and analysis that underpins expert action has to be gathered. Explicit knowledge is an essential support to intuition. It is the learned knowledge that gets transferred from working memory into intuitive action. The more that is explicitly known, the more readily accessible intuitive responses will be. “Geniuses 
 share a similar talent for storing vast amounts of information in long-term memory and then retrieving the information as circumstances demand.”3
So, the aim of this chapter is simple: explore what an editor’s intuition is, where it comes from, and how it is developed so that it can be accessed when working with the editing strategies and ideas that come up in subsequent chapters.

Intuitive Thinking

Six Components of Intuition

Guy Claxton, educator and co-editor of The Intuitive Practitioner, articulates six types of things that are at work when we say something is intuitive: expertise, implicit learning, judgment, sensitivity, creativity, and rumination. Each of these things could be at work at any moment that intuition is activated and often in complex combinations. But to pull them apart for a moment and see how they work in the process of editing, I have listed them below, first with Claxton’s definition,4 followed by my thoughts about some of the ways they apply specifically to an editor’s intuitive processes.
  1. “Expertise—the unreflective execution of intricate skilled performance”
    An example of expertise is the way a professional editor with years of experience uses her gear. It’s like touch-typing or riding a bicycle; she doesn’t have to think about what button to push in order to do an operation, and this frees her concentration to focus on the material she’s working with. I call it “breathing with the Avid,” but it’s not restricted to Avid. It’s a matter of knowing your gear of choice so expertly that its operation doesn’t require conscious thought.
    Another important instance of expertise is that which arises from years of experience with the editing process. Editors often say that each new project is like learning to edit all over again, and in my experience this is an accurate description of what it feels like. However, after accruing a degree of experience in shaping a story or scene, an editor becomes expert, in the sense that she can see a possible organization or flow very quickly and without conscious thought. Note, however, that there is practice and learning at work in acquiring this expertise that, just like learning the gear, can be made explicit. Later chapters in this book break down some of that learning into principles and tasks that can be practiced.
  2. “Implicit learning—the acquisition of such expertise by non-conscious or non-conceptual means”
    A lot of implicit learning about editing is acquired by watching films. There are conventions of filmmaking that show up in most TV programs, ads, and movies. An editor may not know the names of these conventions or techniques but has seen them enough to know what they are without ever having consciously learned them.
    An editor also accrues a substantial amount of implicit learning about the world through observation and participation in the movement and rhythms of the world. This is something that all humans do, of course, but as will be discussed below, doing it mindfully is a useful tool for enhancing an editor’s rhythmic intuition.
  3. “Judgment—making accurate decisions and categorizations without, at the time, being able to justify them”
    Judgment can be seen at work whenever an editor makes an adjustment to a cut and it works better. Once the “working better” is visible, an editor is rarely called upon to explain why or how. In fact, there are reasons why something works better that can be articulated, but the use of judgment implies making good decisions without going through the process of justifying them. Judgment is, however, acquired by having a thorough understanding of the material, the story, the conditions, and the traditions within which you are working. The capacity to make judgments is a good example of something no one is born with, but which can be enhanced and developed through explicit teaching and learning.
  4. “Sensitivity—a heightened attentiveness, both conscious and non-conscious, to details of a situation”
    An editor has sensitivity or heightened attentiveness to movement and emotion in the material. Developing sensitivity is a matter of learning to see the potential of movements and moments before they are shaped—a subject that will be taken up at length in this book!
  5. “Creativity—the use of incubation and reverie to enhance problem solving”
    Creativity is a complex and much discussed notion, sometimes understood to mean generating new ideas or concepts, but just as often considered to be the process of making new associations or links, which, of course, is exactly what an editor does. Editing creativity is the lateral association of images or sounds to solve the problem at hand, which is the shaping of the film and its rhythms. The editor’s reveries yield connections between images, sounds, and movements in the raw material, which will create new and coherent meanings. Practice, and trial and error, informs these reveries, of course, but also the editor’s acquired knowledge of the world, herself, and her sensitivity to movement and emotion give her the basis from which to make creative connections and associations.
  6. “Rumination—the process of ‘chewing the cud’ of experience in order to extract its meanings and its implications”
    Rumination is what is at work when you are washing the dishes and suddenly the solution to an intractable sequence is clear to you. It is the kind of thinking that happens when you’re thinking about something else, and you have immersed yourself so deeply in your material that it inhabits a part of your brain even when you’re not actually looking at it or working on it. Rumination is what happens on the weekend or while you’re making a cup of tea and can yield some of your best solutions and ideas, which is why healthy work/rest cycles are so important to editing: they enhance your intuition!
Looking at intuition as these six types of thinking clearly demonstrates that intuitive thinking need not draw a protective veil around itself. The ecology of mind that allows these kinds of thinking to flourish is nourished by explicit acquisition of skills and knowledge. In short, intuition isn’t something you just have. It is something that can be developed, enhanced, and even acquired through practical and theoretical experience and education. The question implied by Claxton’s list is this: Where, specifically, does the experience and education of rhythm, which editors use as fodder for their intuition, come from?

Movement and Intuition

The editor’s intuitive thinking is based in movement: movement of story, movement of emotion, movement of image and sound. The rest of this book will develop ideas about shaping rhythm by shaping movement. Chapter 2 will look at how choreographers do it. Chapter 3 will unpack the specific tools of timing, pacing, and trajectory phrasing of movement. Chapter 4 is about the tension and release of movement. Chapters 5, 6, 7, and 8 break it down into physical, emotional, and event movement, and then put it back together again. This book is all about movement, and the rest of Chapter 1 is about why movement isn’t just what an editor thinks about, it is how an editor thinks.
Here is how the argument will go:
  1. Editors shape movement. Physics, filmmakers, and philosophers all weigh in here to say that movement is what we perceive and what we are.
  2. Editors’ brains are especially tuned to movement. We use kinaesthetic empathy and mirror neurons to understand movement’s expressive potential. (These terms will be unpacked below.)
  3. Editors respond with their own internal sense of movement to the movement they see and hear. Or as Dany Cooper, ASE, multi award winning editor and former President of the Australian Screen Editor’s Guild says: “It’s a body thing.”5

Rhythm is Made of movement

The universe is rhythmic at a physical, material level. Seasons, tides, days, months, years, and the movement of the stars are all examples of universal rhythms, and our survival depends on us oscillating with these rhythms and functioning as part of a rhythmic environment.
Waking/sleeping, eating/digesting, working/resting, and inhaling/exhaling are just some of living beings’ ways of following the rhythms of the world, of surviving by oscillating or moving with the rhythms of their physical world.
Going beyond rhythmic survival and into rhythmic creativity is partly a matter of developing awareness of rhythm. If we actively see and hear and feel the world’s rhythms, what we are actually seeing, hearing, and feeling is movement. Movement happens in time, and it is impelled by energy, but we can’t see time and energy. We see movement and use it to understand time and energy. Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky uses the metaphor of a reed quivering to describe the way that movement shows us time and energy in life and in film:
 is able to record time in outward and visible signs, recognizable to the feelings 
 Rhythm in cinema is convey...