11 Masters of The Craft that Can Teach You Everything You Need to Know about Film Editing

best film editors

In a way, film editors are given the permission to play the role of ancient Gods all the time, by stitching the mangled wombs of invented universes with a beatified cut.

Their work takes place inside a dark, lacuna-like space. But for them, this bleak cosmos might as well be a glorious, crystal dome among white clouds and blue skies that reach for Olympus. Wherever they might be, their job is to breath life into fiction, to bless or doom countless of character’s outcomes by manipulating their tempo, their choices, the order of their conscripted words.

In the filmmaking process, the life of a character is born with the pen of the writer, shaped and guided by the wits of the director, but conclusively, its course is decided within the walls of the editing room. Film editing is the staging of a character’s life.

Spielberg has repeatedly stated “I shoot for the editing room.” Stanly Kubrick used to say as well – “Being a film director means knowing your transitions.” Well, some directors do not know their transitions, and when they get to the editing room with tangible chaos on their hands – “God forsake us from this infernal mess” – it is the editor’s responsibility to sweep it off, and rescue something of worth, out of such mayhem.

Specifically, if he or she understands that it is up to him, to vamp the existence of vulnerable characters within a yet, shapeless story. For an editor, the destiny of a character is never to be plucked from his grasp.

As a side note, this list contains lessons for everyone who wish to embark on such a heightened journey, from 11 masters of the craft, chosen based on three principles: 1. That they are still alive (which removes such figures as Barbara Mclean, Sally Menke, Peter Zinner, and Ralph E. Winters.) 2. That they are still actively working in the industry, and… 3. That over the years, they have forged a relevant collaboration with a specific director.


1. Lee Smith (The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, The Dark Knight)


What he can teach you: “Film editing is not about cheating.”

Lee Smith recalls a particular moment when editing “Dead Poets Society.” After hours of engrossing work, Smith felt confident enough to show its director, Peter Weir, the scene that for days, had cause him to feel as if he was to dash his head against edgy stones: Robin Williams’ character is teaching his students, “the favored clever strategy” of concentration. He has brought a projector to the class. It is on.

The students ignore its purpose. There are no images beneath its tenuous light. “No vacant gazes beyond the limits of the exams in front of you. Eyes always down.” – Says Williams. Each student then, huddles in intimate conversation with his own private muted quiz. Immediately, as a crude vessel disgorging truth in tantalizing manners to prove his point, Williams begins exhibiting pictures of naked women on the projector – “Eyes down boys.” None notice.

Peter Weir laughed and laughed at the sight of the scene, it seemed as if his throat could no longer make such empty noises due to the choking of his igniting cackles. Smith was over pleased. As soon as the scene ended, and the crying laughs began to dissipate from the clustered air of the editing room, Weir exhumed – “Cut it. Take if off. It is a wonderful scene but it is not in accordance with the character’s personality.”

Dead Poets Society

Lee Smith was neither offended nor shocked. No uneasiness gnawed away at him. He voiced no argument. He followed instructions despite the fatal butchering of his hard work. He knew what his determination as an editor was – a scene needs to provide, not occupy space for the sake of weeps and laughs.

Film editing consists of change, then more change, and finally even more change. Each film is a jigsaw in its own right. Manipulating and moving the pieces may confer a sense of narrative destruction, or a successful discovery of visual mastery. It all depends on finding the parts that are essential to the genetic code of the characters and the story.

An empty hand can yet become fist. It is the editor’s mission to find, and spill depth on those moments that are not void of a beating heart. Adding and subtracting, both are elements bond within the same equation. A formula, which despite the many possibilities that may convolute, shall always end up leaping its origins and becoming one absorbing result:

“Our job as editors is to respect the audience. Never to confuse or unsettle it, if it is not for a good reason that attends to the needs of the story, and the character.”


2. Thelma Schoonmaker (Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Hugo)

Thelma Schoonmaker film editing

What she can teach you: “Film editing is all about discipline.”

“Sometimes, cutting a scene from a movie, feels like cutting off your leg.”

Jake La Motta steps into the ring driven only by his hunger for self-absolution. He requires no boxing technique, no fighting tactics, and no personal style. The ring allows no strategy, only the vivid use of rapid deftness propelled by fear, pride, and obsession.

For Jake La Motta the ring is a fountain of purgation. Sometimes it’s an unforgiving Calvary, others, it serves as repentance. It does not matter if his face gets smashed into lyrical pulp, or if his body gets soaked with the cleansing blood of a lesser challenger. For him, the ring always becomes therapy. It always denatures into rebirth.

“I was a boxer myself.” Thelma Schoonmaker once said, when asked about the editing process for Raging Bull, “The editing room was my personal ring.”

Much as the belligerent approach Jake La Motta had on the arena (or lacked), Schoonmaker broke down the fight scenes of the movie into dozens of hectic shots, as if infuriated with the movie herself. With each cut being a punishing blow, the film was her opponent. And she needed to destroy it, in order to be triumphant.


Film editing is a boxing match. All film editors are versions of a Jake La Motta, they are all just variations of a same, filled with paralyzing insecurities and lasting self-doubt figure, that nevertheless, requires discipline to transform those vacillations into winning artistry.

Thelma Schoonmaker has been “boxing” side by side with Martin Scorsese for more than 30 years. She has been waking up at the same time, and she has spend 11 hours a day in the same office for the last three decades, exploring, delving into the psychic realms of dramatic characterization. She searches where details need to be searched for, and makes incisions where emotional overtures need to collude.

“Put your foot on the door.” she says, “The only way to learn the craft is by working, by being willing to do things for free. We all did it.”

She has hammered down every single Scorsese character with precision and reformation. All their sexual inadequacies, all their damaged dander crippled by low self-esteem, their annoyingly fascinating animosities have been there, present, for us to gasp upon them, because this gray-haired, pocket size, female master of the subtraction craftsmanship has developed a very special kind of discipline required in this profession: The discipline of encapsulating spectacle.

“Film editing is not for everyone. Not because they don’t have the will to learn, but because they lack the discipline to thrive.”


3. Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, The English Patient)

Walter Murch

What he can teach you: The film editor is an advocate for the audience. He is the guardsman of the public’s emotions and, must always be on it’s side.

It is hard to verbalize something new and fresh about this editing prophet. Everything about his technique has been etched on stone. He is a landmark in the filmmaking world, and his influence in any film editing context, has always been as portentous as the beginning of Apocalypse Now: A fireball, blossoming like a flaming sunflower desperate to consummate itself in a raging blast.

If Eisenstein was the father of modern montage, Murch is probably, the over achieving son that wants to make daddy proud.

Walter Murch has a far-flung repertoire of eulogized celluloid to his credit, a testimony in itself, of his burgeoning talent both in the fields of visual and sound disjunction.

apocalypse now

The image of a blazing jungle, accompanied with the sound of a twirling helicopter helix, lethargically fades into the upside down face of a semi-naked man lying on bed. He smokes, drinks, he is entranced by the ordinary whirling of a cheap hotel fan that appears to extoll a carnival of memories and sounds. Helicopter sounds.

This is information given to us in slow, almost scared movements, procrastinating fades and cuts that feed us with calm images of a man reminiscing at something, we still ignore what. But we are consuming the visual data the same way a baby does when spoon-fed by his mother.

Then, out of nowhere, violently pushed by an ethereal soundtrack, the mother looses her shit and smacks the baby in the head. The drunken man rams the hotel room like a bull, smashing, bleeding everything around him with thirsty agony. Suddenly it hits us, are we still consuming this visual information through fades? Or was it just through fast cuts? We don´t remember anymore. We are still shivering from what just happened.

1-Emotion. 2-Story. 3-Rhythm. 4-Eye line. 5-Action line. 6-Tridimensional space.

These are six principles in order of importance, which Murch bestows to eager learners on how and when an editor should cut.

In the first few minutes of Apocalypse Now, the audience still knows nothing of the naked man, of his mission, of General Kurtz. But with that hotel scene, the audience in fact, has been enraptured by the itching sensation of cutthroat madness, one that will follow for the rest of the film.

Emotion always goes first when cutting a film. Even before story because in film, story is just a continuous sequence of plural emotions. It is the editor’s responsibility to be always aware of the public’s emotions. And, for Walter Murch, emotion equals first impressions:

“The first time I watch the dailies is probably the most important part of the process. First impressions can only happen once. The closest an editor will be to the audience’s emotion is when he watches the footage for the first time”.


4. Anne Voase Coates (Lawrence of Arabia, The Elephant man)

Anne Voase Coates

What she can teach you: The cut is all about the performance.

Lawrence of Arabia is the quintessential epic film about male grandeur. We have colossal landscapes of brutal emptiness. As if stabbed by the finger of God, a blood soaked sun, shines above this soil of inclemency, only to hide, to melt behind the dunes of boiling sand when scared by the rage the incestuous desert may unleash.

This is the scenario of an all-male cast playing a hedge pot of colorful wild men, refined leaders, and diverse members of sweaty armies, tribes, and lost gangs. All of them, motivated by the gastric desire to battle each other in a bulged arena filled with dangerous doses of testosterone.

Yes, every sequence is a perfect vignette of male predisposition for greatness, but also, never had a movie with such masculine digression endemic such a sensible portrayal of male imperfection. For each face hardened by contempt in the movie, there is a choral look, softened by melancholy. The grouchy, punch-spoken dialogue flows like poetry every time those men share a glimpse of their true selves between each other.

How is this to happen? Well, every cut is an impulsive discharge of human sensibility. The story was carved by the imagination of an adventurous filmmaker that recognized the duality inside every man (David Lean). However, ironically enough, a woman put it together, a female voice arranged the chords.

“I´ve never looked at myself as a woman in the business. I’ve just looked at myself as an editor.”

lawrence of arabia

Along with Barbara Mclean and Dede Allen, Anne Voase Coates has been one of the most influential, risk takers, female editors of all time. Perhaps risk taker is an underestimated concept, suicidal is a more proper term. Just as T.E. Lawrence, she has been a gutsy and flamboyant general, who with a gentle blow has extinguished light, and straight cut into a bigger than life adventure with the sore purposes of prominence.

“I cut by following my instinct. I like to think of myself as an editor of performances. I am guided by them.” She is a thorough rescuer of sensitiveness, a digger of details, and a righteous swordsman that only grips the blade when the film truly deserves it.

She looks for the unexpected wink in the middle of a heated conversation, a non-deliberate moan in a quiet contemplation, or a slight turn of head in the stoics of introspection. Above all, she is a patient observer who has crafted the art of waiting.

“Editors are not trained like that anymore. They are trained to cut, cut, cut. If there is nothing wrong with a shot then why cut? Hold it. Let it serve its purpose. Cutting is such a personal act.”


5. Richard Marks (The Godfather Part II, Julie & Julia)

Richard Marks

What he can teach you: “Editing is not about entrusting a style, but establishing a tone.”

Very few individuals in the film industry dare to emplane on a variety of projects that differ so much between each other in genre, aesthetics, and storytelling style. But even fewer, those who accomplish a successful transition within this range of selections.

One of these odd creatures in the business is editor Richard Marks, one of the most chameleonic filmmakers out there. He has been responsible for assembling bulky canons of dramatic proem such as The Godfather Part II, little austere cult pieces like Say Anything, and box-office romantic hits that span from You’ve got Mail to As Good as it Gets.

“You can slow down a rapid montage and soften the drama, or you can wind up a comedy by cutting it too slowly. It’s the footage that must guide your style.”

Both in The Godfather II (Francis Ford Coppola) and Julie and Julia (Nora Ephron), two extreme ended films in looks and story, Marks is able to stir up two different compelling stories into one single package. Both films are built under the same storytelling formula of splitting the main narrative into sequential, parallel memoirs: One, a potboiler allegory of the present, the other, an anecdotal version of the past.

The Godfather, Part II

The Godfather II is the mournful rite of passage of a young, idealistic prince that has taken over the merciless reign left by his father, and that in the process, has become a ruthless king himself.

At the same time, through a series of warm and rich toned flashbacks, we recollect on the humble beginnings of the previous fallen king (Vito Corleone), as he climbs the ladder of crime and Mafia, by making his way through the rooftops of an old New York that looks more like a fairy interpretation of a Caravaggio painting, than a city bereaved by the Depression.

Julie and Julia, on the other hand, is the tale of two unbending women obsessed with the determination of success and individualism, by the means of cooking. As in The Godfather II, we cut back and forth between the parables of each woman: Julia being the painteresque, iconic, six inched figure living in Paris that will inspire the journey of the irritatingly lovable Julie.

Two interpretative, separate films, two opposite directors who are able to evoke subtle and deep emotion to each correspondent subject and context, one editor to guide them both. Only with the same strategic knitting hand, can two antithetical films, retain the same conjuring melancholia of lost eras.

Richard Marks gives no room to chimerical notions such as that, of a personal style. He only allows entrance to the perception of an emotional link between tone and story.

“You have to establish the tone of the film as soon as possible. You are responsible for offering a path for the audience to follow.”