I know nothing about editing. I don’t even understand how people get it by just watching films. But recently i read a wonderful piece on editing by Deepa Bhatia. I requested her if it can be shared on the blog so that it can reach more people. She agreed instantly and so here it is. Thanks to her, and hope you guys enjoy it as much as i did.
Deepa has edited films like Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa, Thakshak, Dev, Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara, Taare Zameen Par, Rock On!!, Stanley Ka Dabba, My Name Is Khan, Ferrari Ki Sawaari, Student Of The Year, Kai Po Che, and has directed the documentary Nero’s Guest. Over to her – @CilemSnob
A media school requested me to put down a note on my process of editing for fresher film students. ‘A ready-reckoner sort of thing’, they said. Of course, I didn’t offer the short cut document they were looking for, but the idea set me thinking. Let me attempt expressing; if only for myself, the delicacy, the intricacy and the nuances of editing.
As I sit to try and articulate my thoughts, my know-it-all- son prompts, ‘joining?’ Having made his share of little videos, edited mostly on i movie, it’s a fair shot. But not good enough, I answer. My mother in long shot contributes, ‘Like Stitching?’ ‘Somewhat Mum…Stitching together a design (read scene) visualized by the designer (read director), darning over its flaws, cutting it correctly so it fits into the larger landscape of the garment. (Read film)’
Not bad, but still not bulls eye. Agnes Guillemot’s description comes to my mind. “I discovered that cinema is music and editing is like being a conductor. I don’t invent the themes but I can produce orchestrations- I can adapt therefore I can edit.”
So there are shots, and each shot has multiple takes. To pick then, the right take, from the right shot and arrange it in that perfectly right way for the magic to happen.
That’s the moment I seek. A shot placed differently to change the meaning of the narrative. 6 frames off a cut and the moment transforms drastically. A sequence rearranged to create a new truth.
In the quiet of my empty editing room, my heart shrieks with joy.
The heart thumps at the discovery…a day well spent.
SEEING THE MATERIAL
The moment of ‘magic’ is within reaching distance of those interested in ‘listening’ to the material. More than the script, more than the director, it is the material that speaks. It reaches out, hoping you see it with care and attention, not missing a detail…a tear, a quiver in the voice, an actor trying something new, hoping you will catch on to his or her little secret, a camera lingering that extra second or a surprise shift focus that adds a delicious taste to the scene.
So the key lies in seeing. Really seeing with all your senses alive and focused. When that happens, the director usually appreciates the cut. ‘Great, that’s exactly as I saw it’. Or ‘That’s more interesting than the way I saw it.’ That’s when you know that you saw with your soul and intellect in perfect harmony.
HARMONY AND RHYTHM
Harmony is of utmost significance.
Soul and Intellect.
Reason and Instinct.
Listening and Dictating.
Following and Leading.
It’s a tight rope. I often realize that, when I am guiding my young team through their scene cuts, and helping them achieve that harmony. ‘You are ignoring the actor’s rhythm; you are imposing your own rhythm on the material. WHY ARE YOU NOT LISTENING TO THE VOICE OF THE MATERIAL?’ At other times, I implore, ‘didn’t you see the pauses are too much and the performance is lagging? USE YOUR SKILL AND BRING RHYTHM INTO THE SCENE.’’
Contrary advice because editing demands that you react differently to different kinds of material and give it form in response to its ‘personality’. Like parenting. As a mother, I know for a fact, no single rule applies to all children and all situations, so your ear better be on the ground. Listening when the child needs to speak, but speaking when it is his time to be quiet and listen.
Asserting, yet leaving room for dialogue.
A little of this and a little of that.
And in that delicate balance, lies the art of editing.
And how will you find the magic? Craft helps, no doubt. Experience too wizens you. But, in the end, for me, it boils down to integrity. Integrity in watching the material, in seeking the truth from it, in devoting complete time to a project so the process becomes instinctive and not merely physical. I am inspired by the devotion of classical musicians, and I believe editors must have the same quiet soulful relationship with the material. If you are running from one editing ‘job’ to another, where is the time to ruminate, to mull, and to contemplate? Writing and Editing, the two ends of the filmmaking spectrum, that allow you time to think, we editors insist on rushing through.
When I lock the edit of a film, I often embark on yet another journey of watching and revisiting all the rush again. When a scene is edited, it is in the context of the script and of the film, as you know it then.
Once it is edited, it is an all-together different entity, a full-blooded organism. You will be amazed at how you find bits of film that didn’t seem relevant at first cut or even final edit, that worm their way into the film. So processes are critical. Give yourself time to think and contemplate. It’s my golden rule: the answer to most cinematic problems lies in the rushes.
The script makes an imprint. Then the material follows with its own voice. And yet, the editor must be able to see things differently, to be able to flip the visual on its head if the need arises, to relook at material all the time, with new eyes and new imagination. I call it the Little Prince approach. ‘Is it a hat, or an animal swallowed by a boa constrictor?’ Keep your heart and mind open to discover that.
When you enjoy the material, and editor-director sensibilities match, that’s the film that’s going to work best.
When you sleep thinking about the film, and wake up, raring to go to the editing room, that’s the film that’s going to work best.
When your director respects that you have a point of view; that may or may not be his/her view, that’s the film that’s going to work best.
When you work like co-parents to protect, nurture and raise the child, without ego, without doubt, always, always aware, that the child is bigger and more important than anyone, that’s the film that’s going to work best.
I also feel it is important to develop your own relationship with the material. A director lives with his film for years. He starts with the germ of the idea; it simmers in his heart and mind, is then poured out into the script and finally filmed with effort, time and money. If you are to be of some use to the director, it is important to own the film as much as he does, to know it as intimately, so you can do your best for it. A mother can touch the head of her child and sense that the temperature is different from usual. She can sense that because she knows her child so intimately and deeply and dearly. This innate knowledge helps her sense something amiss and find the right and timely solution for her baby. An editor must be committed and sensitive enough to find the same deep relationship with the material, to be equipped to do the best possible to it, for it.
My son pops his head in and brings me back to base. ‘You started by wanting to explain what editing is. That hasn’t happened yet mum…’
Why is it so important to explain what I do? Because very few, even in the business of filmmaking, seem to recognize it for what it is.
There are some simple ways of judging editing.
Anything short is usually good editing.
Anything fast too is good editing.
Anything with razzmatazz is of course good editing.
DAMN, IS THIS FILM WELL CUT OR NOT?
As an academic exercise, I looked into recent films that I liked and didn’t, and studied the critical response to them, particularly to the edit. The truth stares out clearly.
Somehow, no one is able to separate the film experience from the editing. The two are deeply linked. It’s easy to spot good cinematography, art direction, costumes, but can you ‘see’ an edit, beyond the film?
And so it follows, have you ever read about an editor being praised for a film that the reviewer did not like? It’s impossible! This facet of cinema is so deeply linked to the final outcome, to the way the film finally shapes up, that we, as editors must accept that burden completely. Very recently, I edited “Student of the Year” for Karan Johar. One critic found it ’20 minutes too long’, while another said the editing was ‘fantastic’. On Stanley Ka Dabba, one critic commented, ‘Let me warn you that Stanley Ka Dabba is slow. In places, the story seems stretched’ Another felt its ‘very-well sliced together…the pacing really works’
‘The truth is that their reaction to the edit is linked directly to their reaction to the film.
So can a bad film be cut well?
Or is every good film well cut?
I believe both are true. I believe if you like a film, or if it ‘works’, it means the editor has done the job well. The fact that a film comes together and the spell works, implies a good editor at work. (A recent example being English Vinglish, that I thought was beautifully edited by Hemanti Sarkar).
Being an editor, I often see the craft and emotional tenor in the work of some of my peers. Not a single review of Paa, for example, spoke of the breakthrough scene cutting, where jump cuts were used within a dialogue scene to create a certain pace and energy. Not many people appreciated the use of freeze frames in a film about speed and motion, a device Aarti Bajaj employed with great effectiveness in Paan Singh Tomar.
In terms of processes too, some films fly out of you with very little effort. Rock On, for example, is really one the simplest films I have cut and we completed the edit in a relatively short time span. Taare Zameen Par required more work and application because people in test screenings were resistant to its philosophy and we needed to get the balance of the edit delicately right to achieve a certain aesthetic portrayal, while telling a story.
Stanley Ka Dabba, in particular, was a labour of love. Certain processes were followed while filming, that defied conventional grammar, and yet we had to achieve a narrative that was acceptable to an audience. Amole and me spent many hours playing with footage; reinventing the story and its telling, and literally carved out the purest film possible from the material. Yet, I’ve rarely been complimented on its editing, the way I have been for say, Rock On. And yet in my mind, it remains my best work!
I’ve finally concluded that films that have form to fall back on are much easier to edit than stark plainer films. The editing is in the face, easy to notice and therefore easy to appreciate.
The hitch is when the film needs work on the table. That’s the time when director and editor need to recognize and accept that work is needed, reinterpretation is needed, a fresh approach is needed. It’s a very delicate process, for makers are deeply attached to their material. Editing out a chunk is heartbreaking. Editors must be deeply sensitive at such times and accept that the process will take time and effort. And sometimes you hit a deadlock because directors are too headstrong and sometimes, we ourselves, as editors lack clarity and vision. I try my hardest; I fight with my entire being if I am convinced something should go out of the film. I explain, try to convince, scream, shout, bully and finally beg and implore if I am dead sure! I don’t always succeed but I try my best.
I personally felt a sense on failure while editing My Name is Khan. We had some issues with the unfolding of the second half. (I took about a year to edit the film). We slogged to get it right and at one point, I felt that I had achieved the balance. My director was totally supportive of me shaping the film, and was completely open to shortening and re-interpreting, and yet I didn’t get it bang on. A dear critic friend met me and dug the nail deep. ‘I thought it was a super film, and then the Hurricane came’.
So obviously, we were unable to curb the excesses that bothered both critics and audiences and I take the blame completely. Somewhere, in working overtime to get the second half right, I lost objectivity and I feel it took a toll on the film. I failed on the one benchmark I set for myself. Make the film the best it can be. Whatever the material, whoever the director, make sure the film reaches its own ‘potential’.
In the end, the truth about editing lies buried in an editing room, known best to only the director and the editor. The director, of course knows the contribution and role of the editor, regardless of the outcome of the film. But it is the editors and the editors alone that know how committed and focused they were, how truthfully they engaged in the ‘process’ of editing. For in the process lies the fruit. In the effort lies the reward. And in a truthful approach, lies a good, peaceful night’s sleep… That you did everything possible to make the film the best it could be, without short-changing it, without judging it, without giving up on it, regardless of how good or bad it was.