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The Invisible Art of Cutting Films


“Every editor is going to tell you the same thing,” says Sheldon Kahn, A.C.E. “If you don’t notice the editing, that’s good editing. Whether it’s an animated picture or a live-action picture—when I get immersed in the world of the movie, I’m enjoying it. As an editor, I do not look for faults; I do not look for something that doesn’t match, unless I get bored and the editing is spotty. Then I’ll start looking at the edges of the frame, places I should not be looking at, because I’m not into the picture.” Kahn was twice nominated for an Oscar for Out of Africa and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and has produced and edited regularly for producer and director Ivan Reitman on comedy classics such as Ghostbusters and Dave.

Sheldon Kahn
Sheldon Kahn

“If you’re looking at a movie and it feels perfect, then the editing is pretty good,” says Lynzee Klingman, A.C.E., who shared the Oscar nomination with Kahn for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and is also credited on Ali and Man on the Moon. She added, “I love to look at a movie and see it just flow. When you’re drawn into the film, it’s probably good editing.”

Believing in performance-driven editing, Kahn admits he does not understand what many consider to be MTV-style editing, where you cut every two seconds. “If you’ve got a performance going from an actor or actress, why are you cutting?” said Kahn. “Is it just because you have more material? I don’t understand why they have to keep moving from one angle on a person, to another angle of the same person, and yet another angle on that same person, when they are getting something good to start with.”

“If you don’t notice the editing, that’s good editing. Whether it’s an animated picture or a live-action picture—when I get immersed in the world of the movie, I’m enjoying it.” – Sheldon Kahn

“It is so apples and oranges,” says William Hoy, A.C.E., known for his editing on 300, Watchmen and Dances with Wolves. “It’s really about how you respond to the picture. It’s about personal taste.” Hoy agrees with Kahn that the best editing should be invisible, but as an editor looking at another editor’s work, he often wonders, “How did they do that?”

Hoy looks differently at the editing of different genres. He explains, “In a dialog picture, how do they handle the dialog? Can they keep it moving?” In a musical “it’s if music is incorporated into the story in a cinematic way.” In an action picture, where there is a lot of footage and many stories to be told within an action sequence, the challenge is “keeping all the elements going, while at the same time, putting all the disparate pieces together into a coherent story. Those are the things that come to mind when I am watching a picture,” says Hoy.

“There are some comedies that are brilliantly edited that never get considered because they’re comedies. They’re hard to cut. You might be laughing the whole movie, but it doesn’t get nominated. Hopefully that will change,” opines Klingman. “Still and all, you look for editorial dazzle in a way. Bourne Identity is a great example of editing that dazzles. Dazzle will get you, especially when a film works as well as the Bourne Identity.”

Klingman also tends to be impressed with things that go back and forth in time, such as the film Memento and she thinks that musicals tend to be more visible and the viewer understands there is more work involved. An Oscar winning film such as Crash, is worthy of the best editing nod because of the complexity of editing multiple storylines fluidly and clearly.

“In many of the pictures I see, I find the editing to be outstanding and I get immersed in the picture. Those are the kind of pictures I vote for,” reveals Kahn. “Sometimes I find the small picture that nobody else has seen, and vote for it because I discovered how wonderful it is. Last year in the foreign picture category, there was a picture that was one of my favorites over all the pictures that were nominated. It was Departures. The picture totally worked and took you into that world. That’s what’s so exciting to me.”

“You never know what the editor had to work with,” says Hoy. “Sometimes I think they should give an award for the editor who makes the most out of nothing.” Every film has variables that the viewer has no way of determining, such as where the influence of the director ends and the talents of the editor begin. Some pictures are made in the editing room.

Klingman comments, “Often you see something, and you don’t know whether the editor, the director or the studio did it. You don’t know why it was done that way. Then you have to think of the film as a whole.”

Hoy has a similar belief in the effect of the film as a whole on an audience. For films that get to the level of being considered award-worthy, he believes overall excellence is created by the “collaboration of all the artists on the film.” Films with a “best storytelling team” often sweep the awards in numerous categories based on the superiority of the craft and the resonance of the story with audiences. “A lot of times, people vote for the same picture they feel is the best picture in every category,” admits Kahn. “And it is true that these filmmakers strived to make the picture, the best picture they can. It definitely deserves recognition.”

“It’s great that editing is recognized,” concludes Hoy. “It’s very prestigious if you win an Oscar, but I think to be nominated, to be picked out of all the films in a year, and recognized by your peers for your contribution to the picture is an honor.”

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