The Invisible Art
“I think they look at the film overall and see which parts are unnecessary and can be removed. And which parts can be reshot,” comments one Facebook user regarding the role of film editors. “They look over the film making cuts to get the movie ready for release,” says another. A third responds, “They’re the ones who slap all of the footage together into a movie and make the necessary cuts for runtime sake.”
The general public doesn’t have a great understanding of the role of editors in film. Many think their purpose is to make cuts and simply stitch scenes together. While these things are a part of what editors do, they are a small part of a much larger whole. The truth is, film editing is not supposed to be a standout, and is often referred to as “The Invisible Art.”
“The idea is not to stand out, not to have people aware of your work because you’re showing different angles, different parts of the story and you want it to feel smooth,” says Lee Percy, an Emmy award winning film editor whose resume includes HBO’s Taking Chance, Oliver Stone’s Snowden, and more recently, The Mountain Between Us, starring Idris Elba and Kate Winslet. The Mountain Between Us tells the tale of two strangers who become stranded in remote, mountainous, snow-covered terrain, who must work together and push themselves to new limits in order to survive.
“I must admit, there’s an alienating quality about it. In part, because people don’t really know what it is that you do. People say to me, ‘Oh, you’re a film editor, you cut the bad parts out.’ And that’s part of it, sure, but there’s so much more.” A Juilliard-trained actor, Lee Percy places significant importance on performance. “As an editor, you are putting the performance together by selecting the best takes, and making decisions like, ‘Are you focusing on the person who’s speaking, or the person who’s listening?’ or ‘Are there nonverbal scenes that create an important moment?’”
In a scene from The Mountain Between Us, Winslet and Elba’s characters have stopped by a waterfall, and they’re arguing about how to proceed. Kate asks him, ‘Do you really think we’re going to make it?’ and there’s this moment where you see him looking at her, and then looking away, and finally coming to the resolution that he truly believes they’re not going to make it. It was Percy’s job as an editor to take the footage from that scene to build that moment.
Communication and collaboration are at the center of every human interaction. In every field, from film editing to engineering, from union stevedore to law enforcement, and everything in between, two pillars integral to success are communication and collaboration. Within each of these fields, each person has unique insights and experiences regarding those pillars. Those insights can in turn provide value to people in other fields dealing with collaboration and communication. Percy’s key insights as a film editor have to do with the sharing of ideas: “Particularly with film making, there’s a lot of emotion, a lot of ego, and in the case of larger films, a lot of money on the table. The ability to put your ideas forward in a non-confrontational way is therefore invaluable.”
“I always have a strong opinion about how I feel the story should be structured,” says Percy, whose experience provides him with a strong point of view. “At the same time, it’s important that when you start working with someone, to get a sense of how open they are to changes. I’ve worked with some folks that reject ideas directly out of hand.” In this case, Percy’s strategic advice is to come at them from the side, listen to their ideas, and present your ideas in such a way that they are non-confrontational, almost as if it was their idea.
The director of The Mountain Between Us is Hany Abu-Assad, perhaps best known for his films Paradise Now and Omar, both of which garnered him Academy Award nominations. Interestingly, Hany is a trained engineer – having studied aerodynamics and worked as an aerospace engineer. Engineers are trained in the design process, an iterative process used for problem solving. While each engineer has their unique process, testing, evaluation, and feedback are imperative aspects of the process. As a result, Abu-Assad is open and welcoming to new ideas, feedback, and constant iteration.
“Hany is totally honest, totally upfront, and nothing is precious to him. Early on, he told me that if one scene doesn’t lead to the next, we should get rid of it. It was extremely gratifying because you’re not having to struggle with the other person or deal with egos. In filmmaking particularly, the actors are in my hands and the director’s hands for the many months we’re editing a film. Everybody is dependent on everybody.”
An important aspect of communication is the ability to mediate between two or more parties. Whether that’s translating business requirements to engineering requirements and vice versa or acting as a liaison between client and company. In the film world, this often exists as mediating between director and studio. “I often act as a marriage counselor of sorts between the director and the studio because the director has a strong creative vision, and the studio has a strong vision from a market perspective,” Percy explains. “In the worst case scenario, they tend to look at the director as a spoiled artist with no sense of fiduciary responsibility and the director looks on the studio as money focused charlatans.”
Each of these viewpoints has value, as you want a well-made artistic film, but you also want people to go see it. “A lot of times, I’m the counselor between these two. Trying to keep people talking to each other rather than arguing, really trying to keep a balance.” In most films, this conflict can also involve actors, especially in films with many actors, all of whom bring their own creative ideas to the table. In the case of The Mountain Between Us, there are only two actors: Idris Elba and Kate Winslet – along with some other very minor characters. However, that comes with it’s own challenges, particularly for the editor.
“You can’t cut to a parallel story or another scene, you’re focused on them, their adventure, and their relationship developing in a way that’s interesting and exciting for the audience, because there’s nowhere else to go. We spend a lot of time adjusting the story and moving scenes, trimming scenes, and repurposing scenes. I remember one large adventure scene that was going to involve a lot of expensive effects, so we decided it wasn’t necessary for the film, and we took all of that material and repurposed it in other parts of the film in ways that were really exciting.”
A Tall Tale
At the end of the day, filmmaking is storytelling. In fact, most things boil down to storytelling, many of which we overlook. That presentation you’re making for your boss – you’re telling them a story. That statistics class you think you’ll never use – you’re learning to tell a story with numbers. A concept of operations document for a new product – that’s telling a story. Perhaps none of these is more prolific in our daily lives as marketing. It seems that at every waking moment, marketing is tugging at your shirt. From Facebook ads to Coca-Cola billboards, from TV commercials to the layout of grocery stores – it’s all marketing. And marketing is storytelling; telling the customer a story through your product so enticing that they decide to spend their money or time on that product.
Subsequently, film editing and marketing share many common traits. One, it seems, is testing. In growth marketing, or growth-hacking, as Sean Ellis coined, tests are constantly being run to determine the best way forward. These are often referred to as A/B Tests. A/B tests begin with questions, “Which Call to Action will convert better?” and run tests to find answers. Film editors ask different questions, but seek the same results.
“One thing we do in editing is we try things, and we have to be willing to try things,” Lee Percy begins. “Oftentimes, writers, directors, producers – they have a set view of what they want the story to be and may not be willing to compromise on that view. As an editor, we have to look at the film differently and see other ways it can be changed.”
In The Mountain Between Us, the director had quite a different vision on the start of the film than the final result. “Originally, Hany wanted to start the movie on the plane, moments before the crash. The screenplays had about 10 minutes of scenes setting up the characters in the airport. The final cut has two minutes of set up. I also did a version that starts with Idris awaking after the crash. The first shot is the close-up of his eyes opening and saying, ‘Alex’, and you’re just in the middle of the story. ‘What happened? Who’s Alex? Who’s the body?’ Then there’s a flashback to the airport. Ultimately, that didn’t have the satisfying structure we were looking for, but we had people come in and watch it that way and observe how they responded.”
At the end of the day, the film tells you the story through the work of the actors and director and crew on set, and the editor helps the director find that story. There’s a saying that a film is written three times: in the screenplay, in the shooting, and in the editing. “A lot of what I do is rewriting. Cutting things out, moving them around. Screenplays are written with a lot of dialogue so the folks who finance the film have an idea of what the characters are thinking. Once you have actors in front of the camera, they don’t need to say every line, because they say it with their face, their eyes, their body language.”
“We do a ton of testing as editors. Sometimes we test for other people, and sometimes just for ourselves. You can try something different and say, ‘Yeah, that doesn’t work,’ but it may give you a fresh perspective, and offer you ideas you wouldn’t have thought of if you didn’t test. They began filming in November of last year, and our team spent from the beginning of March until two weeks prior to the release of the film editing it. You try things, you show them to a large audience, you have a preview, and the audience has a reaction. You need to take that reaction and build on what worked and fix what didn’t.”
In this piece, we have explored the actual role of film editors through the lens of Lee Percy and his work on The Mountain Between Us. We’ve discovered that most people truly do not understand the role of film editors. In fact, film editors do much more than cut and piece together a film. They build moments. They act as the mediator between the financial expectations of the studio and the creative vision of the director. Their job is to piece together a film that satisfies both the studio, the director, and the audience. How does the editor accomplish that? Primarily through testing; experimenting with different scenes in different places, both for themselves, the studio/director, and active audiences. This concept of testing and experimenting is not often associated with the film industry, rather, it is associated with fields that are viewed as more technical, such as engineering and growth marketing. Film editors, then, must have both technical and communication skills, making them some of the most diverse and valuable members of a film crew.