Unreal Nature

November 27, 2014

The Whole Jigsaw

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… The director is ultimately the immune system of the film.

… The editor is the only one who has time to deal with the whole jigsaw. The director simply doesn’t.

This is from The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje (2002):

[ … ]

Murch: … The fact is that there is always much more film shot than can ever be included in the finished product: on average, about twenty-five times too much — which would mean fifty hours of material for a two-hour film. Sometimes the ratio is as high as a hundred to one, as it was on Apocalypse Now. And films are almost always shot out of sequence, which means that on the same day the crew could find themselves filming scenes from the beginning, the end, and the middle of the script. This is done to make the schedule more efficient, but it means that someone — the editor — must take on the responsibility for finding the best material out of that great surplus and putting it in the correct order. Although there is a universe of complexity hidden in those short words “best” and “correct.”

When it works, film editing — which could just as easily be called “film construction” — identifies and exploits underlying patterns of sound and image that are not obvious on the surface. Putting a film together is, in an ideal sense, the orchestrating of all those patterns, just like the different musical themes are orchestrated in a symphony. It is all pretty mysterious. It’s right at the heart of the whole exercise.

[ … ]

Ondaatje: What’s the distinction of roles between editor and director — in the way a scene is finally cut or the way a plot is possibly altered from a script? We know the editor has a very intimate relationship to the material. Does this give him or her a finer sense than the director of subliminal details and hidden structures in the film? …

M: A talented director lays out opportunities that can be seized by other people — by other heads of departments, and by the actors, who are in effect heads of their own departments. This is the real function of a director, I believe, And then to protect that communal vision by accepting or rejecting certain contributions. The director is ultimately the immune system of the film.

Those images you are talking about from The Conversation are images that Francis shot. He chose to shoot them, and in ninety-nine percent of the cases I chose to use them deliberately — I recognized their power and put them in the order you see in the finished film. Francis would then of course see my work and accept or reject the approach I was taking.

There are many other possible alternatives: the structure of a film is created out of finding those harmonies we were talking about earlier — visual harmonies, thematic harmonies — and finding them at deeper and deeper levels as you work on the film.

Sometimes it happens in purely accidental ways, but I don’t think an editor — except in certain kinds of documentaries — can impose on a film a vision that wasn’t there to begin with. All the things you talk about were in Francis’s head, in some form. I may have found things that worked along with his vision in a unique way, orchestrated it more fully in certain areas perhaps, but I doubt whether that would have happened had Francis not already written the melody, so to speak.

I become tuned to see things in a certain way when I’m working on a film. One of your obligations as an editor is to drench yourself in the sensibility of the film, to the point where you’re alive to the smallest details and also the most important themes. This also applies to the head of every department. It’s very similar, I’m sure, to how a conductor relates to the performers in an orchestra.

The practical aspect of what you were talking about though is very potent. The editor is the only one who has time to deal with the whole jigsaw. The director simply doesn’t. To actually look at all the film the director has shot, and review it and sort through it, to rebalance all of that and make very specific notes about tiny details that are sometimes extremely significant, this falls to the editor.

My previous post from Ondaatje’s book is here.

-Julie

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