What is true about editing, therefore, is common to all phases of film production—the creative decisions involved typically have numerous authors. What, then, as a key collaborator on the production, does the editor do? The film editor reviews all of the footage shot on a production, selects the best takes of individual shots, and then orders these to produce an edited sequence that will convey the narrative action and emotion of the film's scenes. To accomplish this, editors must continually view and re-view the footage, trying different combinations of shots and gradually shaping the correct ones. Doing so moves their edit from a rough cut to a fine cut of the material. To maximize their ability to see all of the creative possibilities for combining the shots, most editors will not go on location while the film is being shot or watch the director at work. Seeing the actual layout of a set or other physical locale will tend to inhibit their perceptions about the ways that the shots may be joined, causing them to think in terms of the physical realities of place rather than the spatial realities they can create through editing.

Indeed, in earlier decades throughout most of the medium's history, editors worked on celluloid, physically cutting and splicing film using large bulky machines that ran footage in a linear and sequential fashion, from the beginning of a take to its end. The Moviola was an upright editor with a single screen that was used throughout much of Hollywood's history. Of European derivation, the Steenbeck, or KEM, was a horizontal, flatbed machine equipped with two screens and two soundtracks. It, too, was a linear editor because the footage could advance only in a sequential fashion, from head to tail

Complex editing appears in Don't Look Now (1973) by director-editor Nicolas Roeg.
of a clip or vice versa. Since the 1990s editors have been working on digital, nonlinear machines, such as Avid or Lightworks. These machines do not work on celluloid film; they provide computerized access to footage on digital video and enable an editor to go instantly to any point in this footage without having to scroll manually through every frame, the way a Moviola or Steenbeck requires. Rather than physically cutting and splicing film, the editor using a nonlinear system works at a keyboard, manipulating via computer the footage that has been digitized as video. Once the fine cut is finished, the camera negative is conformed to the final cut. Nonlinear editing has become the industry norm today, and it has had some important consequences for the stylistics of editing in contemporary film.

The foregoing description of editing makes it seem to be a very straightforward and relatively simple process. It is not. Many editors have a background in music or have musical affinities, and they speak of feeling where the cut needs to go, of responding kinesthetically to the emerging rhythms of the sequence. Edit points, therefore, often owe more to an editor's intuitive response to the emerging flow of the sequence than to coolly intellectual decisions. Indeed, there is no single right way to cut a sequence. There are many possible cuts, all of which will inflect the material in different ways. As this suggests, while editing plays a variety of narrative functions, presenting basic story information that advances the story, it also helps set the emotional tone and coloration of a sequence, the rhythm and pace of scenes; helps create performances by the actors; and solves the innumerable continuity problems that arise when trying to connect the footage shot during production.

These are very powerful interventions into the material of the film, and they suggest why so many directors have found editing to be a supremely decisive phase of filmmaking. It is commonly said that a director makes his or her film three times—first, as the screenplay is written; second, as the screenplay is altered at the point of filming; and third, as the material that has been directed and photographed is changed again in the editing process. For this reason, directors frequently partner with a favorite editor across many film productions, finding that this collaboration is a key means of achieving the results they want. Martin Scorsese regularly teamed with editor Thelma Schoonmaker (b. 1940) ( Raging Bull [1980], GoodFellas [1990], Gangs of New York [2002]). Susan E. Morse has edited most of the films that Woody Allen (b. 1935) has directed ( Manhattan [1979], Crimes and Misdemeanors [1989], Celebrity [1998]). Clint Eastwood (b. 1930) likes to work with Joel Cox ( Every Which Way But Loose [1978], Unforgiven [1992], Mystic River [2003]). Blake Edwards (b. 1922) used Ralph E. Winters (1909–2004) ( The Pink Panther [1964], 10 [1979], Victor/Victoria [1982]).

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