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The Invisible Art of Film Editing

By Serena Fox

How do you take hundreds of hours of expensive, star-studded Hollywood footage and boil it down, cut by cut, choice by choice, into a coherent, impactful, two-hour narrative?

Until recently, this was an esoteric problem that few of us could relate to. But in an era where every phone is a camera, video sharing is as common as emailing, and YouTube and SnapChat are dominant forms of communication, we’re all editors.

So what makes a good edit? We asked Billy Fox, a veteran editor who recently cut Sony/Columbia Picture’s Only the Brave.

“What we strive for is that you don’t notice the edit, you don’t notice how the story is being told,” says Fox. “There are rare exceptions where the editing is a character in the movie, or even the star of the movie. But mostly, when you do your job well, the audience is totally in the moment and totally in the story, and never notices your work at all.”

Fox has a long history with “the invisible art,” as it is termed by the American Cinema Editors association. His credits include Straight Outta Compton, the Academy Award-nominated Hustle and Flow, and Band of Brothers (for which he won a Golden Globe), plus stints at Law & Order and NBC Sports that garnered him a four Emmys and a Peabody award.

As movie-goers, says Fox, we usually notice a movie’s edits only when they’re bad: Erratic jumps that confuse us, frenetic pacing that gives us no chance to absorb what just happened, over-tight scenes that flatten emotion to mere plot points.

Cut too little, and the audience feels led by the nose through an over-told story where the outcome is obvious. Cut too much, and viewers are confused, restless, and can’t connect emotionally to the characters.

Conversely, a well-edited film is like a well-written book. The writing—or the movie theater—disappears. We’re engrossed in the journey, we care about the characters as we travel with them. We laugh, or cry, or jump in fear, or exhale with relief, because we are there. We relate to the beautiful cinematography as part of the story. We connect clues or plot twists in delighted “A-ha!” moments. 

Click the image above to watch the trailer for Only the Brave. The movie tells the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite crew of 20 firefighters who in 2013 were dispatched to battle the deadliest wildfire in United States history near Yarnell, Arizona. Directed by Joseph Kosinski, the raw, emotional film follows the tight-knit team as they struggle with personal issues and addiction while protecting surrounding communities from fire. “Yes, it’s an action movie, with huge fire-fighting sequences and dramatic visual effects,” says Billy Fox. “But all drama is character-driven. The audience has to get to know these men and their families, see them as real people and care about them, so that when bad things happen, it matters to the viewer on a personal level.”

“It comes down to motivation,” says Fox. “Every edit has to have a purpose, and it has to forward the story. It can be there for plot information, or to further the emotion, or to allow the viewer to take a breath and digest the information they just received. But you eliminate what I call flat edits: a shot that just lays there. It doesn’t forward the story, or it slows down the pace for no good purpose. Viewers won’t tolerate it. It takes you out of the movie.”

Fox describes a working process that draws on a bevvy of storytelling tools: performance choice, shot selection, scene structure, rhythm, pacing, humor, sound, music, visual effects, and color.

“What people commonly think of as editing is actually the automatic part,” he says. “Looking at the footage and deciding how to construct a scene in terms of camera choices—wide shot here, close up here—that’s just like breathing, it’s the foundation. The real editing is the choice of pacing and rhythm and music, when to slow down the emotion or accelerate the action, how to keep the viewer a little off-guard and engaged on a story-telling level, all the things that go into creating good drama.”

The choices aren’t easy. For example, Fox cites one line in a scene of Only the Brave where Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), a horse-trainer and firefighter’s wife, confronts a brutally abused horse she has just taken in for rehabilitation. “You’ve got no reason to trust me,” she says before approaching the wary animal.

“It was a great line,” says Fox, “an important line for themes in the movie, and she delivered it beautifully. I tried so hard to keep it. But the scene was slow, the pacing was off. We tried it all different ways, and as soon as we took out that line, the scene just worked.”

“So much of editing is what you get away with,” Fox continues. “I think it was John Frankenheimer who first said, ‘Continuity is for sissies.’ If the emotion is right, you’re given a gift of being able to suspend strict continuity. Of course, jarring continuity issues are a problem, but really good drama can cheat continuity, accelerate the story, and make the film better in the process.”

EVOLUTION OF THE TOOLS

From a technical standpoint, Fox points out how far digital video editing tools have come, and as a result, how much more of the work of filmmaking has moved upstream in post-production. The accepted standard for a director’s cut—a term for the editorial team’s final deliverable—has changed significantly.

Not long ago, a director’s cut was a fairly rough affair, often with placeholders for visual effects, unmixed temp music, rudimentary sound effects, and no color correction. That’s what went to the studio for testing, and then on to multi-million dollar facilities for sound, music, color, and effects finishing.

“We can do so much more in-house now,” says Fox. “We get as close as possible to final sound, visual effects, color correction, and music, so what we hand over is an exact template of not just the timing and the cut, but also what the movie is supposed to look like and sound like. The mixers, the colorist, the visual effects departments, they make it grow exponentially from there. But they have a template of exactly what our intent was. It’s what the director loved, it’s what the studio has seen, it’s what the previews were based on.”

For Only the Brave, the editorial team used Adobe Premiere Pro CC not just to edit the movie, but also to create and mix a sophisticated temp dub (dialog, sound effects, and temporary music) in 5.1 surround sound, and did a full color-correction using the Lumetri Color panel.  Visual effects editor Jon Carr created more than 200 temp visual effects in-house using Cinema 4D and After Effects to make a realistic reference of what the film would look like when the visual effects house, LucasFilm’s Industrial Light and Magic, completed their work. He also delivered more than 60 final visual effects shots and opticals (blow-ups, paint-outs, or split-screens that swap in one actor’s performance in half of the frame) that were included in the final film.

There’s real value in doing so much more work up front, says Fox. For one thing, “The more polished and finished your product is in the earlier stages of editing, the better your previews and the better your testing,” he says. And the better you test, the more political capital you hand to your director in the final stages of edit. “In the case of this movie, our previews got a 91 and a 96, and it’s pretty rare to test in the 90s. You felt that studio executives who might otherwise have been ready to jump, ready to give all kinds of notes, they just backed off because it was clear the film was working with audiences.”

MOVING THE STORY FORWARD

But no matter how good the preview numbers, there’s no way to get around the economic realities of a theatrical release. Studios that invest tens of millions in each film need a return on their investment. Typical audiences won’t tolerate a movie longer than about two hours, and at 90 minutes, theaters can get in an additional screening each night. For these and a host of other reasons, the name of the editorial game is tighten, tighten, tighten—without losing the emotion or the story.

As viewers, we tend to forget that for every movie we watch, there are whole scenes, good scenes, important and well acted and meticulously crafted, that never see the light of day.

‘You have to ask the question, ‘Does it move the story forward? Does the audience need to know this?’ If it doesn’t, no matter how beautiful the scene is, it usually goes,” Fox says.

“There’s a moment in every movie, usually a couple of months into it, when I close my system and say, ‘We have a heartbeat.’ It’s a great day,” says Fox. “The first half of the edit is spent developing that heartbeat. The second half is spent protecting it, through all the decisions that have to be made, and keeping it alive for the audience to hear.” 

Click the image above to watch Billy Fox explain the thinking behind his editing process. Fast-forward to 02:20 to skip the Only the Brave trailer.

To learn more about Fox’s work, see “Creating a Heroic Tribute to Firefighters in Only the Brave.”