Textbook Examples: Two Different Views on Filmmaking and Editing

by Betsy A. McLane

Film-Making in Action is basic in content and cutting-edge in form. Cutting Rhythms is basic in form and avant-garde in content. Take your pick.

Film-Making in Action by Adam Leipzig, Barry
 S. Weiss and Michael Goldman (the latter a frequent contributor to CineMontage) is a hardcore instructional manual, the subtitle of which, “Your Guide to the Skills and Craft,” sums up its intent. It is a glossy, colorful how-to designed to appeal to today’s beginning filmmaker.

Featuring bold yellow, orange, green and blue graphics, screen grabs from recent movies, boxed outlines to highlight important information and pretty head
shots of filmmakers, this book is one part of a MacMillan Education LaunchPad project. LaunchPad is an online learning platform for higher education that provides students and teachers with ready-made lesson plans, activities and support. The print book is the text for this “class” and is offered in a loose-leaf binder edition as well as a paperback.

The book is seemingly the only title in the LaunchPad catalogue to deal with learning a practicable skill, and
 it is one of only two about filmmaking; the other is a cinema appreciation text, The Film Experience. Most of the subjects represented are traditionally academic—statistics, history, physics, etc. To use the LaunchPad interface, one purchases time-limited access to the online content and receives the print book as part of the package.

The authors, and DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg — whose jacket blurb states, “Film-Making in Action manages to capture every detail and nuance of the incredibly complex filmmaking process” — are enthusiastic. This is a book crammed with data and detail. There are 15 chapters that cover everything from “Why Make a Film?” through script, camera and sound to marketing, distribution and potential careers. Editing is represented by two chapters in Part Three, “Production Glue.”

Film-Making in Action: Your Guide to the Skills and Craft by Adam Leipzig, Barry S. Weiss with Michael Goldman Bedford St. Martins
Paperback, 388 pages, $113.00
ISBN # 978-0-312-61699-1

The first, “Editing Skills,” is loaded with terminology and tips for nonlinear, explaining everything from bins and metadata to three-point editing. Featured in this section is assistant editor Mindy Elliott (The Descendants, Girls, Nebraska) in a section on “How Do I…Keep Track 
of Footage?” For her answer, one must go online to LaunchPad at macmillanhighered.com/filmmaking.

The second editing chapter is “Telling the Story Through Editing.” It begins with sage advice from editor Michael Kahn, ACE: “If you put yourself into a scene,
you can contribute to what a director is giving you. Be a collaborator, not just a pair of hands.” The key concepts here are storytelling, tempo and pace, and adherence
 to basic principles for cutting. The featured editor is William Goldenberg, ACE (The Imitation Game, Argo, Pleasantville), who explains how he edited by linking Ben Affleck’s physical similarities from shot to shot in Argo, and answers the question, “How do I…Show Point of View Through Editing?” — but only online at LaunchPad.

Can a person with no previous filmmaking knowledge complete a satisfactory film by using this course? It will be interesting to track the success of this learning platform.

Cutting Rhythms: Intuitive Film Editing is also a text, but one conceived and written as a traditional study of editing as practice and art. Karen Pearlman is a former President of the Australian Screen Editors Guild (ASE), a filmmaker with her own production company and a PhD lecturer in Screen Production at Macquarie University near Sydney. One nice extra is the listing of the criteria by which the ASE judges its awards. The book is based on her doctoral thesis, yet is personal and readable. It could be described as theoretical, but that off-putting word might keep away readers and even working editors who will find the book insightful.

The author specializes in making dance films, and develops a way of articulating film editing partly through ideas about dance — in other words, movement. Editing has often been discussed in terms of musical rhythms; Pearlman quotes Martin Scorsese (from an article in the June 1997 Motion Picture Editors Guild Newsletter): “For me, the editor is like a musician, and often a composer.” Pearlman feels that a more apt musical comparison would be a conductor, but the underlying concept is basically the same.

She finds dance a more comprehensive way to explain editing processes and uses research on kinesthesia as an underpinning. Kinesthetic empathy is our own body’s physical history/knowledge of movement, which allows us to imagine what movement feels like when we see or hear the movement of others. It exists partly because of “mirror neurons” in the brain that charge when we engage in physical action and when we simply see that action. In other words, “Neurologically speaking, we participate in the movement of people we see, even if we are sitting still.”

Cutting Rhythms: Intuitive Film Editing, Second Edition by Karen Pearlman, ASE Focal Press Paperback, 264 pages, $34.88 ISBN # 978-1-138-85651-6

Obviously, picture editors do a lot of sitting still while watching movement. Pearlman translates the scientific research on kinesthesia from a discussion of how people watch dance to how people watch on-screen movement. She includes not only the physical movements of people within the frame, but also movement from frame to frame, aiming at the very heart of editing.

Her ideas may be somewhat novel, but Cutting Rhythms provides ample scientific and historical references to support them. In fact, this book almost unintentionally offers a general survey of important writing about screen editing, beginning with Vertov, Eisenstein and Pudovkin through Jean Mitry to Godard and Walter Murch. Pearlman does not take a highbrow approach to their ideas. She contextualizes theory in specific examples (including the usual suspects The Great Train Robbery, Strangers on a Train, Psycho,
 The Godfather, along with 21st century titles) and with interesting exercises designed to sensitize editors to their own inherent artistry.

This book is a rare example of film theory put to good practice. There are moments of overkill, specifically the chapter on “Style,” in which Pearlman categorizes films
on an axis of collision, linkage, thematic and continuity editing. But she does not advocate spouting theory during the editing flow. Such discussion is for outside the editing room or when a problem seems unsolvable.

Cutting Rhythms is essential reading for those starting out, and offers provocative ideas for experienced hands. The sidebar “Good Editing is Not Invisible” is 
such an example. “You don’t see the edits, but you do 
see the editing,” she writes. “I propose that editors stop perpetuating the myth that good editing is invisible. Instead…editors can say, ‘Well, you can see movement can’t you? Editing shapes the movement that you see.’”

About Betsy McLane 44 Articles
Betsy A. McLane is the author of A New History of Documentary Film: Second Edition. She served as the project director for the American Documentary Showcase, and was the executive director of the International Documentary Association. Contact her at [email protected].