The Unsung Heroes of Film: The Editor

James Ellis on the unsung heroes of film…

Most people don’t realise what goes into making the films we love and adore. There is pre-production – all the writing of scripts and getting everything and everybody together. Then there is the production – all the shooting and explosions and arty bits. Finally there is the post-production – that’s the editing, CGI and music etc. Now while the infamous director holds most of these together, sometimes directors are just brought on for the shooting and leave. But auteurs on the other hand have a passion and style that needs to be satiated. Most directors like to work with the same people, people they can trust and depend on to fulfil their masterful vision. Before I drift into talking about the genius of some directors I want to sing the song of the unsung hero of filmmaking:

The editor.

The editor is the person that takes all the footage and ‘cuts’ it together to create an understandable film. It has often been forgotten amongst audience how much work and craft goes into this, the pacing and tone can all be changed through the editing. Editing has be claimed to be the sculpting of the stone (footage). Greg S. Faller said that an editor should be invisible, the cuts should move seamlessly from one to another creating the least amount jarring for the audience. There are rules to follow – trust me there are a shit load – I have a book called ‘The Grammar of the Edit’ that sets them out. Editors do need to follow these rules but like with any art when they are broken and broken right it makes for such a powerful impact, they can make the film their own.

One of these ‘unsung’ heroes is Thelma Schoonmaker, the long time editor for Martin Scorsese. Now every one knows the explosive directorial style of Scorsese, but ever since their first collaboration on Raging Bull (1980), Thelma Schoonmaker has consistently made sure her style is original, creative and that she pushes the boundaries of editing convention each time. Scorsese and her make a perfect couple. A match made in Heaven some would say. Now put her name into Google and you can get plenty of in depth analysis of her style and life story. I just want to make sure all of you readers just realise what goes into her work, and give her the credit she deserves.

Lets take her first feature film, which was Woodstock (1969) (not with Scorsese), a phenomenal documentary. Editing in documentary is a large part of crafting of the story, especially as I can only imagine what the footage was like from an LSD fuelled festival (don’t quote me on that please, I have no proof I am only speculating). Schoonmaker constantly plays with our expectations of a documentary cross fading between dreamy images of rock stars, instruments and the addled audience. Using the space of the frame intelligently splitting them up into multiple screens so we can see all parts of the performance and festival. With this piece of work we can see a glimmer of Schoonmaker’s brilliant talent, she changed how documentaries could be edited, how they could be sculpted to dictate the subjects tone and makes sure the audience feel like they are there and relating with the legendary atmosphere of the festival. She also earned an Oscar nomination for her efforts.

Her next Oscar nomination was the beautiful-but-brutal Raging Bull (1980), the biopic that would follow the violent life of middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta. Here I feel is when she showed how a film could really be edited. She would mix classic Hollywood editing with a modern unstoppable staccato of images that cannot be compared and would lead the way for a montage style that is still used today. Her managing of scenes involving Jake La Motta and his family could be seen as a perfect by the book editing of shot reverse shot, letting the actors work the screen, holding on to images so the performances can really shine through. Then when the fight scenes came around her editing knife really starts to slice up the action. She would cut between images of blood, fists, sweat, tears and ropes of the ring and making sure the audience could never get out of fight. Taking Scorsese’s legions of footage; twisting them and turning them so the audience can’t get away from the barrage of punishment that Jake La Motta gives out or takes depending on the fight. I remember watching this film and realising how an editor can put their mark on a film so powerfully. It was here that at the end credits I burned her name to my memory and took a keen eye to her career. Scorsese is a master director picking shots that some times need to be held on to and some that need to be shown but for but the briefest of times. She, unlike the director, won the Oscar for Best Editing. Just one of three she would later earn.

If you are reading this then I would be right to assume that you have a vested interest in films and probably watch more than the average punter. If you have been inspired or intrigued by what I write then please go out and watch or re-watch Scorsese’s film back catalogue from Raging Bull. Look at the time she stays on long takes and when she ups the pace with a tirade of rapid images cut together so cleanly. I see her as the perfect serial killer cutting up her victims perfectly and guiltlessly. Her editing will often mimic Scorsese’s characters emphasising their ability to suddenly shock and eviscerate into violence.

Her last Oscar was also awarded the same time that Scorsese won his first in 2007 for The Departed. Here was the first time, in a feature film, I witnessed non-linear editing. Non-linear editing is when inexplicably action from the same shot is skipped to forward on the movements of the character. Now remember generally in films when a character is doing an action a cut further on of the same shot is a big no-no especially in the ‘Grammar of the Edit”. But to do it right is so effective, the first time it is prevalent in The Departed is when Leonardo Di Caprio’s character is packing to leave his life of under cover police work. The pressure for the character has built up so much that on the one shot of him packing the bag, we see multiple cuts of this shot; almost seamlessly speeding up the action and creating an utter urgency for this character. He needs to leave and this is completely embraced by Schoonmaker utilising a new convention of editing.

I love that this lady of 66 years old, who even in her later years is still breaking rules and making sure she will not be forgotten. Changing how editing and the depiction of images can be conceived so differently when placed together in different ways. Sergei Eisenstein may have created montage editing with The Battleship Potemkin (1925) but Thelma Schoonmaker regularly takes it to the next level.

These films are an essential watch if you want to see how this master sculptor works her stone…

Raging Bull (1980)
The Color Of Money (1986)
GoodFellas (1990)
Cape Fear (1991)
The Departed (2006)
Shutter Island (2010)

James Ellis

  • The Mad Hatter

    LOVE this post. As someone who is married to an editor, I have become a big fan of the art ot it all.<br /><br />Could this perhaps become the start of a series outlining some of Hollywood&#39;s best editors?

  • flickeringmyth

    Hi Mad Hatter<br /><br />We have a five-part feature on Walter Murch on the site but will try to accomodate!

  • E

    I think you have a little bit of confusion with the terms you used. What you describe in the last paragraph sounds like jump-cuts, which is quite common, it has been in use since around 1900, and thanks to Godard, it&#39;s quite main-stream. <br /><br />Non-linear editing is digital editing where you can reach any footage at any given time, all the edit we do in this day and age is non-linear.<br