Film editing has a rich history that now spans roughly one hundred years of entertainment and art.
Though professional film editors rarely spend much time in the spotlight, they are absolutely crucial to telling a story through film, and without their skill, the most beloved movies of the last one hundred years may have been forgotten with time.
While technological advances have made film editing simpler, at least in a practical sense, the artistry in the process has continued on. In fact, we’re now seeing some compelling new techniques being used to tell exciting and dramatic new stories.
Charles Carter is our guest today, and during our interview, he looked at the present and the future of film editing, as well as commenting on his role within the filmmaking process.
If you’re unfamiliar with Carter’s work, he has been the editor behind a number of acclaimed projects, from ‘Luce,’ ‘The History of Monsters,’ ‘Single,’ and the upcoming feature film ‘Feral State.’
Coming from an interesting artistic background, Carter stays dedicated to each story and strives to find ways to best communicate the story’s emotion to the audience.
We hope you’ll enjoy our interview with Carter. If you’d like to learn more about his work, we’ve included links at the bottom of the article.
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Would you call your personal editing approach traditional? Innovative? A mix of both?
Carter: My approach to the footage is always determined by the vision for the story, and whether that is best served with traditional storytelling techniques, as in the short film ‘The History of Monsters,’ or the more stylistic and innovative editing techniques I used in ‘Luce.’
It comes down to how you respond to the material and what direction it’s pushing you in. In the short ‘Single,’ the performances, narrative, and emotional story beats gave me the opportunity to take an approach that was a mixture of the two. The narrative allowed me to be imaginative with the footage in certain scenes and in others to focus on the subtle emotional nuances of performance.
I’ve developed two approaches that work for me as a way to get into scenes. The first is based on the Meisner training I did as an actor that gives me an understanding of where the characters are emotionally coming from and how an actor has responded to those ‘wants and needs.’
The other approach I take is that I will cut a scene three times, one version with picture and audio, another with only picture, and the third with just audio. This is a hybrid of a technique used by Walter Murch, and I find each version gives me a different perspective on the material, which helps me to discover its possibilities.
What do you think are some of the biggest changes to editing technique over the last 20 or so years?
Carter: Technology drives technique in that it determines what you can do with the footage. To give one example, editors now have the ability to merge different takes of the same two-shot for performance reasons by creating a split-screen composite and making it look seamless.
In this sense the fundamentals of editing haven’t changed: good storytelling. In the distant past editing was very labor-intensive, but nowadays editors have, at a touch, almost instantaneous access to whatever clip they want, shared workflow access, multiple versions of scenes to compare, and much greater control, overall, of the post-production process with motion graphics, compositing, and visual effects.
Also, with the democratization of the visual medium via advances in personal technology, audiences are much more aware of cinematic language, and because of this accessibility, they consume it faster and faster.
But with advances, there is always the danger that elements of the craft can be diminished. For me, cutting fast is effortless, but slowing something down, giving it air, is the real challenge and it’s very rewarding when it’s done with character in mind.
If editing is anything, it is the contraction and stretching of time and that makes it unique. Everything at a rapid pace eventually becomes a blur without those moments of quiet intensity between characters. And it is those moments that audiences ultimately remember.
When you were still learning the basics of editing, were there any professional editors whose work you really connected with?
Carter: There are many editors whose work has inspired me, but if I have to single out those whose approach to the craft has influenced my own then there are three who sit at the top of the list.
Walter Murch has a zen-like approach to editing. I met him in London several years ago, when he was giving a talk and I was struck by his calmness and breadth of knowledge, not just of editing but of disciplines outside of the craft that feeds back into his work, and he encouraged me to develop my own appreciation of other art forms.
He contributes to a project beyond the post-production process and that makes him, for me, a consummate storyteller whose skill with picture and sound is unrivaled. Just watch ‘The Conversation’ or ‘The English Patient’ and you’ll understand.
Tom Cross’s rhythmic editing has always connected with me. Even when there is no music present, there is a musicality to his films that seems effortless, but which I know is very hard to achieve. I loved his work on ‘First Man’ and his editing on ‘Whiplash’ was exceptional. The drum-playing scenes have a rhythm that, by their very nature, get under your skin and build throughout the film.
It becomes an externalization of the emotions the pupil character is going through. It’s visceral in its depiction and is a sonic representation of the struggle that is going on between teacher and pupil in the pressure cooker of this musical conservatory. It’s a brilliant metaphor for conflict. In those scenes, Cross punctuates it with jump cuts, short shots and rapid-fire editing which gives it a stylized feel that is perfect for the story at those points.
Outside of the white heat of the performance arena, the editing is more unnoticed and seamless and allows the audience to take a breath, but the juxtaposition of these scenes with the brutality of the musical scenes heightens the conflict even more as one part of the lead character’s life bleeds into the other and everything begins to unravel.
Another important editor for me is Graeme Clifford and his work on ‘Don’t Look Now’ which is timeless. In three pivotal scenes, the editing seeks to do something different, which is more akin to the editing techniques of Eisenstein and the principles of montage.
One of the pivotal moments is the opening sequence, which cuts between two children playing outside on a winter’s afternoon and two adults, who we assume to be their parents, inside a house, working and reading.
The editing in this enigmatic and visceral opening is not simply a stylistic choice, but comes directly from character, which is John Baxter’s ability to sense the future, albeit a future that he finally misinterprets.
Clifford wanted the audience to be unsettled. He did this by holding shots longer than expected or cutting off them too quickly. He also used misdirection as a tool for disorientating the audience. For example, when the Baxters’ son falls off his bike and there is a quick cut to John raising his eyes from the slide on the table, it creates a sense of foreboding and insinuation, but ultimately it is not Baxter’s son who is in real danger.
In the opening of ‘Don’t Look Now,’ the audience is forced to engage with the images, and because human beings are hard-wired to look for patterns and predict outcomes, the sense of unease and discomfort is raised to a point where we feel something terrible is about to occur.
What I admire most about the editing of Thelma Schoonmaker is her boldness in her storytelling. Most of the time you want to make a beautiful cut, an edit that appears invisible to the eye and gives the impression of continuous time. But there are occasions within a scene where that is not the right place to cut emotionally.
Recognizing those moments requires a connection with the material that is comprehensive and an understanding of the particular emotional story beat you want to hit and then making that cut without concern for continuity or continuous time. Watching her films I am reminded of this and it inspires me to approach a project with the same focus and intention.
Do you think editing software has opened up a lot of new creative opportunities for editors?
Carter: The last 20 years have seen computers and editing software becoming more sophisticated and yet cheaper, especially with Adobe Premiere Pro, a subscription-based software, which, bought within the creative cloud costs between $30 and $50, also gives you a plethora of other products, such as After Effects, Photoshop, and Dynamic Link.
Then there’s Da Vinci Resolve, Final Cut Pro X which costs you a flat fee of $229, and even Avid which used to be more expensive, have had to opt for a subscription-based service for around the same as the creative cloud.
This software has all become easier and easier to build edits with and the different programs are used by editors on a wide range of projects all the way up to multi-million dollar movies.
They all have pros and cons, but personally, I still prefer the mechanics of Avid, which might, at first, be a little less user-friendly than the others, but once you know your way around it, the precision is unsurpassed and it is still the industry standard.
Then there are the editing software programs, such as ScriptSync that make your workflow much more efficient and give you more time to focus on the creative decisions within the edit. Due to this accessibility, the techniques of how you build a cut have changed from drag and drop editing, just pressing the delete key to remove an unwanted segment, to dragging out a shot to a point that feels right.
These advances within editing software give editors incredible creative control over the material, allowing them to manipulate and enhance the image through compositing, motion control, and visual effects. New technologies mean that editors are not just editing picture and sound but also editing pixels, which will allow us to create unique worlds that exist solely within the screen.
However, these advances should always be in service of the fundamentals of storytelling. Otherwise, they will be no more than spectacle. Frames will still be important because they are the DNA of film editing.
Which stage of the editing process is usually the most creatively engaging for you?
Carter: For me, there’s a sense of relief when I deliver the first rough cut and the director and I have watched it through. I’ve heard it said that if you like your first cut you’re in trouble, so I am never concerned if I see there’s a lot of work to do and look forward to the part of the process I find the most rewarding, which is when you begin to shape and sculpt the film into its best form, otherwise known as the fine cut, where something good can be elevated to something great.
This is the moment that you begin to truly explore the architecture of the story and its characters as you start chipping away and eliminating what isn’t working within the narrative. It’s time to kill your darlings, the things you love but no longer fit into the focus of the story.
However, chip away too much and the film can paradoxically feel longer and therefore sometimes you need to add time either for story clarity or for pacing reasons. It’s an incredibly creative period where you can rewrite the film by being bold and imaginative with the material, whether that’s shifting scenes away from their scripted timeline or subtly changing the emotional narrative through performance choices. If your rough cut is the foundations upon which you build, then the fine cut is the house itself and everything inside it that makes it a home.
How has your understanding of the ‘craft’ of editing changed since you were introduced to video editing?
Carter: Experience is a wonderful teacher. When I started, I had the theory of how visual narrative should work and relied on my instincts in how to build an edit. One of my first films was a one-minute short which was a great exercise in brevity, and with the short films that followed I was lucky enough to have a family member who was in the business who gave me some guidance about crafting an edit.
But my fortunes really changed when I attended the American Film Institute Conservatory and was mentored by some of the best editors in the industry and worked with some of the best young filmmakers in the world. It was there that I began to refine my workflow so that I could know my footage inside out. I learned how to manipulate and shape the material so that I could present to the director and the team a vision of the film that went beyond what was in the script.
I realized that every frame is important in this collision of images and has an effect on the rhythm of a scene and ultimately a movie. I am now more aware of narrative flow and question whether those critical moments in the film are happening at the right time, or if some scenes need to breathe more or, alternatively, be condensed or even lost.
I understand now that not everything needs clarity, that some story beats can finish with a little mystery. This year I cut my first feature, ‘Feral State’, which was a great experience in shaping a movie over 90 minutes. I expect to be learning about the craft of editing forever and that’s a good thing because if I’m discovering new things about it and having to rethink my approach to the material in front of me, then I’ll always have something to give.
Can you tell us about a time when you needed to find a unique solution to a problem during an edit?
Carter: On the short film ‘Luce’ the director and I created the opening and closing montages entirely in the edit as they were not originally scripted. We felt we needed them to give the characters something of a backstory without trying to overexplain it too much.
We wanted there to be a little mystery and for the audience to piece it together from the visual clues we gave them, and so we created two sequences that had a similar architecture but were different in their emotional story beats. The first montage was elliptical in how it showed a close relationship between a brother and sister changing. I used shot juxtaposition to suggest this shift in their emotional disconnection. I began with a shot of their entwined feet slowly and slightly awkwardly dancing on a tree stump, then led with a sound effect into the next shot of the empty tree stump, followed by an image of the back of a boy with another child.
Throughout the rest of the montage, we didn’t want to reveal the reason for this fracture in their relationship but keep the audience guessing as we moved into the present day. If this first montage was the ‘call’ then the second montage is the ‘response’, which is near the conclusion of the film.
In this one we give more information as to why the brother and sister separated. I repeated shots from the first montage that are now seen in a different context with the other new shots around them, which suggest the father’s dominant role in these people’s lives. I was very pleased with the outcome of these two unscripted sequences as they set up questions about the characters that were mostly answered, and I think there’s enough mystery at the end to hopefully make you want to see it again.
Are there any projects you’re currently working on that you would like to share with our audience?
Carter: It’s been a difficult year because of the Covid pandemic and I have kept going by finishing off the post production on ‘Feral State’, which now has a distribution deal with Vertical Entertainment LLC, which I’m really excited about.
I’ve cut an episode of a new web series, ‘Meet Me At The Barre, as well as a few music videos. I’ve also been working on a Fox reality TV program, ‘The Megan Polmer Show’, and it’s a lot of fun. Next year I’m due to work on Jon Carlo’s second feature ‘Feed’. We had a very creative experience on ‘Feral State’ and I’m really looking forward to working with this talented director again.
Following this, I have some great projects in the pipeline which include the horror/comedy feature ‘Steam’ with Black Eyed Content and ‘The Ambush’ with Ciro Apicella, a gifted screenwriter and director from Italy who I worked with on ‘Luce.’
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For more information on Carter and his work, please visit the following pages: