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Alan Heim and The Cutting Edge

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Some years ago, while an assistant film editor on a feature film, a “making-of” film crew visited the cutting room where I was working. They interviewed the director in front of the Kem—you might remember those 35mm editing consoles—but they only talked about production. When asked why there were no questions about the editing process, the answer was, “We don’t want to destroy the magic.” They wanted to maintain the illusion that the movie is magically made on set as the camera rolls. Attitudes like that have kept the art and craft of editing in the dark for decades.
With the documentary The Cutting Edge, the aesthetics of editing have finally come to light. Editor Alan Heim (All That Jazz) took on the role of producer, with documentary filmmaker Wendy Apple co-producing and directing. Heim, who has been an editor all his life, realized that nobody knew what he did for a living. Apple was teaching an editing course and saw that there was very little information about editing—some dated books, a few interviews, but nothing current about the aesthetics of editing. (Editor Walter Murch’s book, In the Blink of an Eye, has since come out.)
Inspired by Visions of Light, the film that revealed the art of cinematography, Heim and Apple determined to make a film that would explain to the mass audience what an editor does. They proposed the project to the Society of American Cinema Editors (ACE) and it was agreed to make the film through the ACE educational foundation.
To guide the viewer, as well as to make the film appealing to general audiences, the filmmakers enlisted the help of various editors and the directors they’ve worked with. The discussion covers not only style but also the collaborative nature of editing, and makes the point that editors, for the most part, have a self-effacing quality stemming from the nature of their work, in which they’re at the service of the film and the director.
The list of participants includes such long-standing teams as Michael Kahn/Steven Spielberg, Thelma Schoonmaker/Martin Scorsese and newer collaborations like Lynzee Klingman/Jodie Foster and Kevin Tent/Alexander Payne. Heim himself was interviewed for the film as well as editor/director teams Paul Hirsch/George Lucas and Walter Murch/Anthony Minghella.
Every angle is covered—history, style, methods of working and anecdotes. It is revealed that many of the original “cutters” were women—the craft of editing being somewhat like sewing. We learn that early Russian filmmakers experimented with a dramatic style of editing that contrasted with the American philosophy of invisible editing; Walter Murch edits standing up; and Kevin Tent paid Alexander Payne $75 to make his own version of an ending.
The filmmakers illustrate their points with film clips. For instance both endings of the Payne project are shown: Payne’s, which was inspired by The Good, the Bad and the Ugly—with long slow cuts, measured dramatic music and a tension-building ending—and Tent’s, with tiny, rapid-action cuts, frantically building to the conclusion.
It was Tent’s version that made it into the movie, demonstrating that the best editors are not yes-men or a pair of hands operating the equipment for the director, but truly creative contributors and storytellers in their own right.
Close to 300 film clips are used to illustrate the evolution of editing from the early days to the present, with Murch and Scorsese sharing their extensive knowledge of film history along the way. With the film’s limited budget, it was necessary to get the studios to donate clips. According to Heim, “We took a lot of executives to lunch.”
But even when a studio agreed to supply clips, complex co-production deals made it difficult to track rights. Many of the problems were not discovered until the film was locked and the final footage request went in. In one instance a studio was surprised to learn that it actually held the television rights to a film that had been playing on television for 30 years. “They thanked us for that little piece of information,” says Heim. “I wondered where all the money has been going.”
Securing music was also frustrating, and expensive. Despite all of the good will, residual rights still have to be paid. Heim hope that some of that will eventually be bounced back to the production from the guilds.
Several companies provided production funds. Starz supplied the lion’s share of the money. Other contributors include Japan’s NHK TV network, the BBC and Warner Home Video. Numerous individuals and production houses provided services for free. The sound and music crew from The Notebook volunteered their services and secured free mixing time at Todd AO.
The film premiered at the Hollywood Film Festival and played December 12 on Starz Encore. Several other film festival screenings are planned. It will also play on the BBC and NHK, and Warner is expected to release it on DVD in June 2005. Cinematographer John Bailey, ASC shot the interviews on HD. Tim Tobin edited the film with some additional editing by Brian McKenzie. Student interns from USC volunteered time.

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