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

6. Dylan Tichenor (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, Brokeback Mountain)

Turing the Page: Storytelling in the Digital Age

What he can teach you: Film editing is the art of subtraction.

Dylan Tichenor is a rare breed of a filmmaker. More than alluring a talent that sprouted naturally within him, it was more of a trancelike inevitability. His talent blossomed thanks to years of training under the apprenticeship of mesmerizing masters (he was an assistant editor to Geraldine Peroni, Robert Altman’s editor in The Player and Shortcuts).

Today, the eons of being a trainee have long faded away, only to shade into epochs of venturesome work. The notoriety of his skills has spread like locust, tempting the attention of both modern and classical pictorials that lust for his adroitness.

He has been the close collaborator of adept reporters of the human subconscious such as John Patrick Shanley, creators of disreputable intertwined worlds like the ones conceived by Paul Thomas Anderson, and whimsical idealists who prosper on dreamy neurosis like Wes Anderson.

there will be blood plainview eli

He is one of the most requested and respected editors in the business. His technique: deconstruction. Editing is not about assembling but disassembling. It is not a matter of embalming the film with generic touches of supposed geniality, cutting is an element of humility. The editor has to rip the movie away from its pretensions in order to leave it truthfully naked, it is a matter of reducing it through the enlargement of detail.

“Us editors know what the difference is between adding and subtracting a frame. If I let an eye to finish its blink, the image will mean one thing. If I stop it in the middle, the image will mean something else. The understanding of those little details and refinements can make the audience feel closer to the character.”


7. Tim Squyres (Gosford Park, Life of Pi)

Tim Squyres

What he can teach you: Each cut is a motivation.

“I like being at the end of the filmmaking process. No one can change what I’ve done. No one can fix my mistakes. I love being the last man.”

Most of the jobs in the film industry are correlated to a specific function, taken about in a specific amount of time. They nurse the process of the story temporarily, they only witness gloms of the whole picture, and they only carry fine cut bones from the entire skeleton.

Besides the producer and the director, the other back that is prone to crack due to the total weight of the story being plunk on his or her shoulders, is the editor’s. The choices an editor makes, ripple in time and determine the interchangeable fate of the film. Tim Squyres is a notable filmmaker. Precisely, because of how defendant he is towards the startling, daring recognition of this absolute: “Nothing can be done for the film after it has been shaped by me.”

Squyre is well aware of Ang Lee’s poetic idealism (he has edit all his films but one in the past decades). He is conscious of the boundless and discipline required from his work, in order to suffice such nobility. It is Squyre’s obligation to trigger this visual poesy with his cutting mechanism: “Each cut is a motivation. Each cut is new information.”

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Film editing is an exhilarating, emotional trade. Building a scene sometimes can be like taunting an injured snake. Your eyes upon the animal´s every move, proscribed from over confidence. The snake may lack claws but it remains with fangs, ready to be inlay into the flesh that dares to cross its path.

Editing is not about limiting oneself to a hobby of extravagant framing. It is not about choosing which floating head within a close up is to speak next, nor is it to concoct slashing tempos for an inappropriate effect. Editing is about trust. The editor needs to protect the emotions of the scenes, believe in them. Just as if watching the moves of the snake, he needs to sense the fear that rushes through his body. He must own those electric impulses that contrive him.

Look at the manner Squyres protects the scenes in Crouching Tigger, Hidden Dragon. Not the gorgeously crafted fight scenes, but the spaces in time when Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh share the same room.

There are no swords in these scenes, no fast cuts, only the unexpressed assertion of a cherished love between a man and a woman, unable to touch each other, forbidden to bond physically, but that somehow, through their smiles, through their wet eyes, these two characters are able to live and coexist inside the same perceptual membrane.


8. Michael Kahn (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Jurassic Park)

Michael Kahn

What he can teach you: Working with a perceptive director transforms a good film editor into a great one.

“The most valuable lesson I have learned is to never let the film I am editing, intimidate me.”

There was a scene in Schindler’s List, the audience never saw. Oskar Schindler gets notice of a train filled with Jews that have been evacuated from one of the concentration camps. Our hero gazes at the circumstance with glares of substantial hope. Dressed as usual, with a polished suit, he heads down to the station to receive the wagons.

When such are opened, Schindler contemplates deep into the gullet of the inferno that has swallowed them all. Hundreds of frozen Jews lie dead inside. Men, women, and children, are all lined up like dusty porcelain dolls inside an old lady’s cabinet. Blue faces benumbed forever. Lost eyes staring at nothing. It is a quiet tomb.

Steven Spielberg is a master in making the heart swell, only to deflate it with strong visual and narrative choices. Shredding tears in a Spielberg film comes as an inescapable dogmatism thanks to the tickling of our expectations. The audience weeps at his movies, because these are not melodramas, but strong human portraits sketched with a ting of magic and delusion, and a chime of terror and disillusion. Spielberg above all, is an Olympic storyteller.


He and his long time editor, Michael Khan, decided to remove the train scene from the final cut of Schindler’s List, in response to a mordant matter of human resistance. The audience has a limit. And these two knew it.

Had Kahn kept the train scene if Spielberg vexatious perception was not to interfere? Can one grumbling scene change the course of an entire film, even one as powerful as this one? We will never be able to look into the gloss of these answers. It does not matter. A choice was made through the accordance of two erratic points of view, and a flawless movie was composed.

Michael Kahn has worked with Steven Spielberg for over 37 years. He has won 3 Academy Awards. He is a living legend, and one of the last remaining traces of an endowed generation of film editors (next to Schoonmaker, Coates, and Marks), that bestrewed a nurturing ground for future talents. Still, as he confesses, this has not been a one-man task. In discontent to what others have argued, film editing is not a lonely vocation for this man.

“Thanks to Steven I have a full grounded career. Without him, I’d still be a good editor, perhaps a great one, but I would not be able to work with the footage and material he can provide to me.”


9. Joel Cox (Unforgiven, Mystic River)

Joel Cox

What he can teach you: Learn tempo from the masters.

There is a scene in Mystic River, where Tim Robbins confronts his wife, played with impassive nervousness by Marcia Gay Garden, about the private loyalties she has been hiding from him. He knows she doubts him, she suspects him about a murder he ultimately did not commit. What fever brisk her brain so tumultuously, in order to awake such doubts? Vampires and werewolves!

Tim Robbins’ jaw splits open, and his tongue broads out in sloppy and tired words regarding the pools of hatred that have been accumulating inside him, ever since two “werewolves” took him out to a 4 days ride when he was just a kid. From an accusation to a confession, the scene is about a life disrupted in midpoint. About a man’s undead pain, a suffering capable of spiraling down through the crumbles of the decades, all the way down through the carcass of the centuries, a pain as undead and lasting as a vampire.

Clint Eastwood learned his craft from Leone and Siegel. He learned that the film itself, should listen. Listen to its characters; listen to its action, to its tempo. The actors in this scene move like doomed, dueling gunmen dancing among pale shadows. Their ominous brooding of frustrations and soul stillness soars beneath the flapping darkness of the room.

Still, there is something hidden in the dark that listens to them. Something beyond terrain, something intangible, perhaps their humane recognition that now squanders through the dimness. Maybe it’s just us. The audience, immerse in that room.

Mystic River movie

Joel Cox has been Eastwood’s editor for more than 30 years. Mystic River was their 22nd collaboration. Cox, as well as Eastwood, has learned from these old masters, what visual elements are able to topple legends if managed correctly. Above all, he has learned to surpass such elements through the art of invisible cutting: “Cuts must be imperceptible. Good editing happens when the audience is so immerse in the story, that they don´t even realize the movie has been cut.”

Ralph E. Winters and Walter Thomson mentored cox before joining forces with Eastwood. For him, film editing is a family tree, a clean bloodline inherited through the right channels and midstream. “Pick and editor you admire, and get into his pocket.” prophesies Cox, with the same clamor as an ancient horn calling for war. This is his advise for the prospering generations.

Tim Robbins creeps towards his wife like a wounded succubus. She backs away like a dying vortex, swallowing herself into an empty abyss of blackness. They move, they sit, they touch, they repel from each other.

The sustained action in the scene screams effect! Not show! Every Eastwood film follows an unspoken pattern. The story is persistently told through deliberate honesty, through deliberate listening, thanks to the strident tempo Cox produces for them.


10. William Chang Suk-Ping (In the Mood for Love, 2046, Happy Together)

William Chang Suk-Ping

What he can teach you: All the editing techniques (fades, slow motion, jump cuts, etc.) must be utilized for the purpose of deepening the emotion of a scene. Not for the purpose of technique itself.

“Instead of music, I carry Chinese poetry in my head, it gives me rhythm, a feeling, a mood with which I can assemble a piece.”

A rainy night, a grotty staircase, a man goes up; surrounded by a cloud of smoke that follows him like a stray dog. He seems lost in thought, perhaps lost in internal voices that appear to cause his skull to ache. He crosses path with a woman that goes down, a vision in yellow, bruised with purple flowers.

Sparks moldering from her hidden breasts catch the man’s attention. He looks up. She looks down. They share a fainted smile. No tongue for overripe embellishment. Music bursts out as if fractured from the condensed air. Continents of emotions are discovered, vulnerabilities are shared for a few moments, before masks replace them, before they vanish among the colorful surface of this empty context.

A cerebral experience aids in their evaporation, as the man and the woman continue each other’s distant paths. This is In the Mood for Love. This is Wong Kar Wai at his best, viscerally assessed by his most faithful companion, his editor, his production designer, and his long time friend, William Chang Suk-Ping.

in the mood for love

Emotion is never the same, and Chang empowers this ideal, not because he considers it a lesson to be studied and reproduced in kind. No it is not a lesson to allot, he appoints none. Ego in film often imagines itself swollen beyond its worth. Emotion is a changing necessity that he assures to respect. If not with emotion, how else can the vexing visuals of cinema become enchanting pieces of illusion?

William Chang disheartens himself from the acute notion of beautifying the image through the editing possibilities at his grasp. He offers priority to the stages of light, to the envisioning of behavior and perverse human content. He uses the jarring power of emptiness, as well as the asymmetric stretching of dialogue to his advantage. He dares cut from a close up to a lonely frame, to a melting ice cream, to a burning soup.

Chang understands that Wong Kar Wai films are not about how love drains a man, but of how it can give him hope in the right arms, even if not able to be entangled by them.

Whether Chungkin Express is photographed in the terms of a MTV music video, or Happy Together is compassed in terms of shameful color mixtures, Chang revives what the medium has withered. He does not cut image for the purpose of visuals, the visuals are the offspring to the purpose of his cutting.

Chang enjoys expressing remorse and nostalgia through every cut, through every technique that can enhance this feeling. He delights himself, no, he bewitchingly relishes on the sense of editing as if a character were to enter the scene, talk, act, then time passes by, and the character leaves, never to return again.

Even if they do, he likes to think they won’t. This way, the suffocating matter of existence weights a heavier dread. “How will the audience remember this character? If I do not give him the emotion required, it is like if he never entered, like if he never had open his mouth to express something, as if he had never existed.”

No wonder Wong Kar Wai films flow with such melancholy.


11. Liao Ching-Sun (Flowers of Shanghai)

Flowers of Shanghai

What he can teach you: “Film editing is not a matter of narrative logic, but of poetic and emotional reasoning.”

“You don’t need to explain everything to the audience. It is not a matter of narrative logic, but of poetic and emotional reasoning. If the film sustains itself on this kind of poetic thought, everything will work out. The audience will understand it.”

Where logic plummets, poetry may soar. Liao Ching-Sun has been obsessed with the beauty of montage ever since he was a little kid. Every time he was allowed to go to the only movie theater in his Taipei suburb, he would stand eclipsed, at the intertwining of shots between scenes. He desired to split the darkness of the theater with the cries of his excitement, and burst as sun through clouds, at the sight of the moving images.

He was a boy belched from the bowels of Taipei´s underworld, but one that found an ember of purpose in film, and gave breath to it. Night after night of shattered sleep, he would watch American TV shows, such as Night Gallery, and with a red pen, he would make a list of shots for every scene in the show.

Afterwards, while bathed with the glimmer of the humble moon he coveted to wrest from the heavens, he was to analyze and explore the reason behind the order of the shots in each scene on his list.

Liao Ching-Sun smashed himself upon the cliff of broken dreams many times, leaving bits of bones and flesh as he struggled with muffled yelling, to calm the tempest of this rough terrain, the film industry’s terrain.

However, blood bears fruit. And after assisting Wang Jin-Chen in the epic movie about World War II, Ying lie qian quo, Liao met his most loyal partner, his fiercest enemy, and his closes friend-director, Hou Hsiao-hsien.

From The Puppet master to Flowers of Shanghai, this duo has distilled the wistfulness of forfeit times, and magnified the lustfulness wonders of its anonymity.

Liao Ching-sun´s life has been poetry in itself. Life has spoken to him in pestered conundrums, he has listen to what these circumstances have to say. The same way he listens to the films he cuts.

“Am I to direct the audience, tell them how they should feel, and as a result be very visible in the process as an author? Or should I let the audience feel by its own mediums, and discover things by themselves? Film editing implies a high degree of deliberation, one that can only be answered by listening to the film through emotional reasoning.”