Teaching editing

Transcription of an article published in FINAL CUT – The Yearbook of the European Film College 2004-2005

by  Mamoun Hassan

I entered the film industry as an assistant film editor because I wanted to become a director. In those days it was a common first step. My editor Kevin Brownlow was an editor-director (since then he has become what Hollywood calls a multi-hyphenate). Kevin was cutting a film at the time for John Krish, the distinguished documentarist, who had also been an editor. Kevin’s colleague and former assistant, Peter Watkins, took the same route. Our model was the editor-director: David Lean. In other countries the path was more diverse: directors came from production, screenwriting, acting, design and so on. But, whatever the tradition, I would still have preferred to start my life in films in a cutting room. The feel of film in one’s hands, the smell of the stock, the look of it, the way one could examine each frame, the way film clattered and purred through the moviola as it snaked past the viewing lens, and the way that every cut changed rhythm and meaning: that was pure magic. (Students will find an equivalent charm in our digital age – or at least that is what I say to them).

Of all the disciplines, editing is the quintessential cinematic process. Writing, shooting, design, performance have something in common with other crafts. Editing is unique: it stands on its own. The question is how to teach it.

Film can be learnt, but can it be taught? On occasion, maybe. And then only with a good student. Quite what is being taught and what is being learnt is another matter. Teaching is one way in a two-way street. Is one a ‘good teacher’, even if brilliant at explaining this and that, if the student learns little? It is, at best, a good performance but is it teaching? It is not enough to have insights; the task is to dramatise it for the student – to give it meaning. Good students make teachers good: they turn sow ears into silk purses or transcend the good teacher. They take what they want, need or find useful and not what the teacher thinks is important. (A successful producer I taught at the Danish Film School told me he would never forget what I told him, namely, that he should do some aerobic training to increase his stamina before embarking on a film.) A problem arises with exceptionally gifted students who don’t listen and tend to go their own way (I’ve met one or two) and those who would have been better advised to move into banking or politics. Or is this a lame explanation for having failed with some students?

There is also the matter of what to teach. The facts of filmmaking are surprisingly few (perhaps there are more in cinematography than in other disciplines); so much is ineffable – it can only be hinted at or communicated indirectly. I vividly recall Stanley Donen, who directed the great MGM musicals and thrillers such as Charade, saying, ‘Tell it to me with your hands’ when I was writing a screenplay for him. Forget the ones who tell you filmmaking can all be formulated every step of the way. That is a silly oversell. You can sup with them – but use a very long spoon.

There still has to be some hard stuff, an idea or a system of tuition, at base. For editors, this often comes down to a curriculum, a schedule, a defined experience – like joining a closed order. After the foundation year most film schools put the editors into the edit suites (cutting rooms have long gone) and lock the doors. The students cut and cut and cut… it is like working in the industry but with more variable material – and no pay. Surely, the school should provide something that the industry cannot – the broadest possible perspective on every aspect of film-making – and in a benign ambience (although I must admit I have seen students using their elbows in ways that would make the hardest hack blush.)

The story of a film is the story of three deaths and one life. The original idea is transformed into a script; the script is transformed into filmed material; and, finally, that material is transformed into the final film. A large number of people have made a contribution on the way. It is the editor’s task to bring these contributions into play. By the end of training, editors should be able to see more than action and performance. Scrutinising rushes is of course essential, as is dialogue with the director, but all this is looking from the outside in. I believe in training from the inside out. Editors should have specialist workshops in every discipline, not to turn them into writers, directors, cinematographers, designers etc, but to enable them to intuit what, how and why their colleagues do what they do. It was a standing joke at the National Film and Television School in the UK that my editing students had more directing workshops than the directors. It sometimes happens, although it is not the aim, that a student discovers he has a particular gift in another area. A student in Cuba discovered that he was an excellent verité cinematographer, another found hidden talents as a director of actors and so on. I say ‘he’ but, in fact, editing is one of the few disciplines which welcomed women right from the start: Margaret Booth joined the industry during the silent era in the ‘20s and became the first supervising editor in 1939; Didi Allen and Thelma Schoonemaker followed in her footsteps. The demarcation of roles is destructive in film school and industry alike.

This brings me to the role of film analysis. Detailed frame by frame analysis – in which no comment is irrelevant, no observation dismissed, and every red herring is pursued – communicates the richness and density of information inherent in every frame, every shot and every scene. It is perhaps not analysis that proceeds by cutting into small elements, the better to understand the whole, but a synthesis of numerous elements that have contributed to what is there. It is an observation of something from 360 degrees, with the background and connection constantly changing and adding to one’s knowledge. It is both about the role of conscious thought in what we do and also about intuition and instinct, which are beyond our control. Students everywhere ask for more film analysis.

Last year I analysed some scenes from a number of Kurosawa films as I was writing (still am) a book about him. I was, in a sense, exploiting the students by testing my ideas. One night I showed Stray Dog with the intention of speaking about it in a more general way. The students’ response was positive and lively – and then one of them, Maria, asked a question: ‘ Mamoun, why is it so hot?’ I was stopped in my tracks. Maria had, with unerring instinct, touched on a problematic aspect of the film. Many critics have written about the exaggerated and melodramatic way that Kurosawa had wrapped his characters in stifling heat from first frame to last. There is a very long sequence of Toshiro Mifune walking through the hazy furnace of down town Tokyo, following leads to a killer. I essayed a reply to Maria, but I was not convinced. I went back to my apartment still thinking about it. I woke in the middle of the night with what might be the explanation. American occupation liberated Japan in many ways but it also imposed complete censorship on the media. For instance, no depiction whatsoever of the occupation was allowed, not even a favourable one. Worse still, no mention of the censorship itself was allowed. Artists were forced to become blind, deaf and dumb. It was insufferable, like the oppressive heat. The occupation was getting under their skin. It made them sweat.

Thank you, Maria. I learnt something that day.

Editor’s note: Mamoun Hassan has offered workshops on creative editing at the EFC for years.

One response to “Teaching editing

  1. Pingback: An introduction to Stray Dog filmed at National Film and Television School | Movie Masterclass

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