Visual Media

The Eye is Quicker

Heuristics for editing film

As any kid with iMovie knows, you assemble a film from short pieces cut from raw shots. Ah, but where do you cut? This frame, or that one? And which order do you join them? The art of a movie often lies in exactly how it is edited frame by frame. Much like the art of placing one word after another. The possibilities could go a million ways, but only one sequence will appear inevitable in retrospect. So how do you decide?

Of all the many books on editing motion pictures, I found this one explains the logic of editing best. It assumes you can handle the mechanics of the craft (no software menus or photo tech speak here). Instead what I got from this idiosyncratic book is a set of very handy rules of thumb for editing moving pictures. I’d say that this guide won’t be of much help for your YouTube videos, but would enlighten any attempt at a long-form film.

-- KK 10/31/08


One Sunday evening, while my family watched one of Ed's magicians, my father offered up the 'secret' of their incredible practiced craft. "The hand is quicker than the eye!" I have heard the assertion many times. It is not true. The eye is quicker! This fact is indispensable for film editors. It holds a very simple significance: Directly it means that the moment selected for the joining of images must be 'calculated' to the very speedy interpretive facility of our eyes -- a specific cut can work well or poorly. It is equally fundamental to our ability to 'decode' collections of images: The eye is ever alert to 'take in' information, and swift to embrace intricate descriptions. The eye is quicker than you might envision to 'get the picture.'

David Mamet gives a clear -- and simple -- example of this in On Directing Film: "The movie... is much closer than the play to simple storytelling. If you listen to the way people tell stories, you will hear that they tell them cinematically. They jump from one thing to the next, and the story is moved along by the juxtaposition of images -- which is to say by the cut. People say, "I'm standing on the corner. It's a foggy day. A bunch of people are running around crazy. Might have been a full moon. All of a sudden, a car comes up and the guy next to me says..."

Witness. The Amish Boy in the Train Station Restroom scene. Time is extended -- many more toilets than earlier -- as one of the killers searches the stalls looking for the source of a low cry. The Amish Boy escapes detection. the shot holds on his face. Beat, beat, beat. Then a cut: We see the back of a policeman. We hear police walkie-talkies. The policeman clears the frame, and we see the Amish Boy in the arms of his mother. They are seated on a bench in the station waiting area. Policemen are all about.

By 'passing up' images of the Amish boy 'screaming' out from the restroom, a brilliant instance of pure cinematic storyshowing is crafted:


The clout in Time Left Out!
Plainly put, the good film editor strives to join the many film fragments, so that the structure established might hold enchantment, with no attentive concern about a cut. If there is form and purpose the audience can be captivated by the experience. In all creative storytelling, whether film, theatre, or literature, the aim is the same: have the fragments fade, and what remains is the harmony of the whole.

I never cut for matches, I cut for impact. --Sam O'Steen


Editors are sculptors who bend, mold, and breach time -- in semblance, not in exactness. ... This means that a 'feeling' has been stirred that a pause, or a 'holding' (on a shot) of some additional 'time' is required; or that the opposite is needed -- an existing beat, or two, shouldn't.

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