Thoughts on Picture Editing

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The writer John Gardner once described a good novel as a “long and continuous dream.”Picture editing at its best, works similarly. It’s an immersive experience.

When I think about picture editing, I think of the exact moment one image changes to the next. It’s here that meaning is created, in the viewer’s attempt to make a connection between two different pictures [1]. That “blink” is likewise the foundation of cinema.

Picture editing for me is an intuitive process—I’ve been called slow but I think deliberate may be more accurate. I’m obsessive, trying and retrying dozens of variations until one feels right. It’s not always easy to articulate exactly how or why something works because like a dream, the best edits often provoke the viewer precognitively.

Nevertheless, here are some questions I ask myself as I work:

  • Does the image advance the story? Does it create forward movement in the narrative by offering new information?
  • Does the combination of images offer some kind of surprise in their juxtaposition?
  • How far does the eye have to move in order to see the most significant part of the next picture? Do you want the viewer’s gaze to stay in place or to jump?
  • Are the two images of a similar color palette? Should they be?
  • Are the images compositionally similar, i.e., is the cut highlighting similar shapes and forms?
  • Is the edit smooth or abrupt? Which is more fitting?
  • Does the edit happen on the musical beat? Cutting on the beat makes the edit emphatic. Off the beat is more subtle and can create tension. Which works better?

There’s no right answer to these questions, but the more layers of meaning you can add to your cuts, the more powerful your image sequence will become.

What are your strategies for picture editing? Let us know in the comments below.

  1. See the Kuleshov Effect and Walter Murch’s excellent In the Blink of an Eye