This updated and revised new edition of The Healthy Edit provides aspiring and working editors with creative editing strategies they can employ to enhance a film, while also overcoming common production problems. With decades of experience editing and film doctoring Hollywood features, author John Rosenberg reveals both the aesthetic and technical aspects of the editor’s art, demonstrating tricks and techniques for nursing an ailing project back to health or enhancing a well one. Whether it's a bad performance from an actor, a hole in the story or script, a continuity or pacing issue, or a poorly-composed shot, every film or show we watch encounters challenges during production—and fixing these issues becomes the job of the editor.
Utilizing an approach comparing film editing to medicine, working editor and professor John Rosenberg offers a software-agnostic guide to best editing practices, offering solutions to everything from story and script inconsistencies to genre-specific structural issues. Accessibly written and brought fully up-to-date to embrace the predominance of file-based digital production, this second edition offers new insights into ultra-high-resolution footage, transitions, visual effects, collaboration, sound and music editing, as well as highlighting historic advances in the art form.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
1. Prescriptions for Success
2. Mastering the Art of Film Editing
3. The Film Doctor Is In
4. The Instruments
5. Internal Medicine
6. Alternative Medicine
7. A Brief History of the Practice
8. Genre Editing Styles I
9. Genre Editing Styles II
10. Genre Editing Styles III
12. Psychiatry of Character Disorders—Part I
13. Psychiatry of Character Disorders—Part II
15. Cardiac Unit
16. Rites of Passage
19. Bedside Manner
John Rosenberg is a Hollywood-based film editor and professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, where he teaches the aesthetics of motion picture editing. He attended UC Berkeley and UCLA, graduating with honors from the film school. As an editor, Rosenberg is credited on nearly three dozen feature films, including Prancer, Mannequin: On the Move , Playmaker, The Convent, and Brush with Danger—as well as television (Gift of Fear and National Geographic’s Expeditions from the Edge)—for such companies as 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate, Orion, New Line, and Artisan. He is the author of the award winning novel, Tincture of Time (2012).
"The Healthy Edit is just what the doctor ordered! The analogy of the film editor as ‘doctor’ is a fresh view into the complexities and vagaries of film editing. Rosenberg serves up hefty doses of ideas about structure, rhythm, pace and timing. Essential tools to diagnose and treat any ‘patient.’ It is a perfect prescription for success!"
—Duwayne Dunham, Editor, Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of The Jedi (1983), Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks (1990-1991, 2017)
"John Rosenberg is a remarkable teacher of the art of editing. So many USC students have benefited from his knowledge and experience. I am thrilled to see him share his insights beyond our campus so that many aspiring filmmakers can benefit."
—Elizabeth M. Daley, Dean, USC School of Cinematic Arts
"John is a wonderful writer who captures the process of a master editor. With great insight into the interplay of cinematic storytelling and human psychology, he offers example after example of the challenges faced by films of every stripe and size. Using our common life experiences to illustrate why some choices work and others don’t, John gets us to where the real magic happens – when the film takes on a life of its own. I highly recommend this book to students, teachers and professionals – whether editors, directors, writers, cinematographers, producers, anyone in every creative craft."
—Jason Rosenfield, ACE
"John Rosenberg’s discussions of genre—in particular, his take on the always-difficult practice of comedy editing—and how to manipulate time, are just two examples of the value of this book. His experience and his ability to craft words both contribute to a wonderful book that every student of cinema can learn from."
—Norman Hollyn, Author, Speaker, Professor and Inaugural Holder, Michael Kahn Endowed Chair in Editing, USC School of Cinematic Arts
Editing the opening scene to The Convent, a horror comedy that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, presented several challenges. From the opening shot the editing choices evolved differently than originally conceived in the dailies. In the dailies a Sixties-style car drove in from the left side of frame and stopped. The camera dollied around to the front of the car, passing the hood and chrome bumper, and ending on the driver’s side door. The door opened to reveal a young woman’s foot emerging. It seems like a simple enough shot, but there were several major problems with this opening image. First, the shiny hubcap and car hood treated the audience to a view of the film crew reflected in the mirror-like surfaces (though, in subsequent takes, dulling spray had been applied to the hub cap). Second, it took a significant amount of time to transit from the passenger’s side, around the front of the car, to the driver’s side door.
Opening shots are important. They establish the tone and subject of the film. Unlike the movie Christine, which is about an evil car, this film was about a young woman settling a score with zombie nuns! Though Christine wasn’t far from the writer’s mind – one of the main characters played by Adrian Barbeau is named Christine, clearly an homage -- there was no need to give undue emphasis to the cool looking car. We would never see it again after this opening shot. My approach was this – we should just bring the car in, let the girl (Oakley Stevenson) exit the car, and get on with the story. In the next angle we see that she is carrying a gas can and a satchel containing a baseball bat and shotgun, so she’s clearly on a mission!
As a horror comedy, the film contains significant levels of violence, including in the opening scene. Initially, the violence was filmed in slow motion (overcranked on 35mm film), an old school technique going back to the films of Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs). In his films the slo-mo effect emphasized the enormity of what transpired, giving the viewer a visceral response to the extended and detailed killings. The Convent, on the other hand, was a comedy – albeit scary -- and rather than showing the violence in slow motion, I felt that it gained a comical, almost cartoon-like tone, by going in the opposite direction and speeding up the action. The director agreed. Proceeding in this manner also contributed in another way. The director had a song in mind to play over the scene, Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” Though the rights to the song were expensive, I was able to negotiate a greatly reduced rate, so the song made it into the film. In constructing this scene we were somewhat constrained by the length of the song. Through music editing, I was able to extend the cue, but the action still needed to play within a circumscribed timeframe. Speeding up some of the action helped reduce the length and make the scene fit within the song’s length. The song helped fuel the scene and even inspired some of the cuts – at one point I alternately flopped every other discharge of the shotgun to the beat of the music. Even though it was the same shot, it added variety and excitement to the cutting.
In the case study of the Christmas movie Prancer in Chapter 3, we examined the first half of the ending, which was altered in the final editing process. Following the farewell between Jessie (Rebecca Harrell) and Prancer, the reindeer disappears into the woods. But that is not the final ending. One more beat has to occur before the film ends. Originally, this was left equivocal. Jessie and her father (Sam Elliott) wander out to the edge of the forest and discover the reindeer’s hoof prints in the snow, leading to the edge of a cliff. “He couldn’t have jumped and lived,” says Jessie. “Maybe he flew,” replies her father. In that moment we realize that the once skeptical and detached father has gravitated to his daughter’s viewpoint while the innocent believer, Jessie, has gained some skepticism.
But the answer as to what really happened to Prancer was left inconclusive. In the original version, as the father and daughter stare upward into the empty night sky they – and the audience -- were left to wonder if Prancer really belonged to Santa’s team. The question was never answered. In other genres this may be appropriate, but not in a Christmas movie where the audience has come to anticipate something magical, an epiphany, a reaffirmation of the season. In spite of the fact that we had to finalize the cut, I continued to contend that the audience -- which would consist primarily of children -- needed to have an answer. Imagine if the filmmakers never revealed who was behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz.
Through editing and the use of simple visual effects it was possible to alter the film’s outcome. In the end, Jessie gazes up into the sky as a glow passes over her face. She sees a tiny spark of light arching through the firmament toward a team of reindeer crossing the full moon; and, as the light joins a gap among the other reindeer, Prancer returns to his rightful place.
This enchanting ending, elegantly tempered by the darker, more serious tone that the director brought to the film, added a crucial extra beat, fulfilling the audience’s expectations and the story’s promise. With the use of shot selection, juxtaposition, sound, and visual effects, the movie’s equivocal conclusion became a magical ending consistent with the film’s genre. The film became a hit.
The enormous success of HBO’s Game of Thrones, speaks to the audience’s desire to experience, at a safe distance and with a compelling story, strong manifestations of sex, as in the brothel scenes, and violence, as in the Red Wedding episode. On the other end of the spectrum, Britain’s BBC shows that end up on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater in the United States, such as Downton Abbey, Indian Summers, Poldark and Selfridge exhibit excellent examples of romantic love scenes where small dalliances lead to large consequences.
When editing love and sex scenes two primary aspects to keep in mind are arousal and consummation. As with most sex acts, foreplay is a significant part of the process -- though, as in life, foreplay can take various forms which include dinner scenes, lovers’ quarrels, and so on; resistance can build desire. (It should be noted, however, that rape and sexual abuse, while they involve sexual encounters, are actually scenes of violence and should be treated as such.)
But in the bedroom, on film, foreplay becomes a sort of audio visual striptease. The audience’s interest is piqued by the growing seduction of images. Revealing too much at first, as in any good story, lessens the impact of the climax. In sex scenes, greater impact resides in cutting away from the slowly disrobing bodies to the lovers faces, to neutral images of hands or bed clothes and so on, and continually hiding and withholding the naked reveal.
How does the editor create anticipation? By doling out information in small parcels. While reviewing the dailies, the editor should look for moments where glimpses grab our attention. These glimpses do not reveal too much, but whet the appetite to know more, see more. Glimpse by glimpse the editor reveals what lies ahead until the culmination of the scene where much – or at least more – is revealed. It is a strange aspect of human nature that what eludes us tends to attract us, until we get it. In a sense, this is the way of all good storytelling. And editing is storytelling.
When I was first starting out, I was the editor of a Colin Firth film entitled Playmaker. In it, Firth plays an unorthodox acting coach who becomes embroiled in a murder plot, after putting his student Jamie Harris (Jennifer Rubin) through a series of unusual and, at times, extreme acting exercises. At one point he even cuts off her clothes.
In editing the scene, I decided to hold off the reveal of Rubin’s naked torso, spending more time on Firth, close-ups of the scissors and Rubin’s face. When I screened it for the producer, we weren’t very far into the scene when he insisted that I stop the machine. He turned to me, a bit annoyed, and asked why I hadn’t shown her naked chest. I explained that it was a tease and that all would be revealed by the end. “Oh…!” he said, now pleased with the design of the scene and, perhaps, with his investment.
(Please note: Contains Nudity. The portion of the scene described above begins at 9:47)
Anyone who has ever listened to an uncle or co-worker who is not proficient in storytelling knows there are two basic approaches that do not work. One is found in the person who rambles on endlessly about a minor event devoid of conflict or a conflict-filled event devoid of character, supplying every minute detail, many of which have no impact on the story, and ultimately boring his or her listener. The other is the person who does not have the patience to develop a story and anxiously whips through the facts to get to the main point, diving headlong toward the ending before he or she has let us know the characters, setting, conflicts. Their story blips along with plot spikes but misses all the important moments. On a graph these moments may appear as valleys or plateaus, but without these the spikes make little sense.
In creating love and sex scenes it is important to create moments. A moment suggests a particular allotment of time where a feeling can develop. Imagine two people who come from different backgrounds, whose families disagree on many things, who would feel more comfortable having never met each other. Yet something brings them together. Even though they argue, try to avoid each other, put up with the criticisms from their parents, one day they discover an overwhelming attraction between them. The tension breaks and they fall into an embrace or a kiss. As it turns out, the tension was not one of dislike but of sexual tension. That moment, when they realize how much the other means to them, requires the editor to slow down and develop that experience. The moment arises out of the look in the other’s eyes, a tiny fidget or a turn of the mouth. The moment may also incorporate the surrounding landscape, the way a breeze moves through the trees or a flower dips its head, the way sunlight hits the gossamer strands of a spider’s web – think of the lovemaking scene in David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter.
These shots, when paced with the right timing, help the audience to experience what the lovers feel in their hearts. The scene may or may not be infused with dialogue. Sometimes the dialogue in these scenes is overwritten. In the script it served to communicate to the reader what could not be seen. Yet once the director has envisioned it, once it resides on film or video, so much more becomes obvious and clear. And with editing, where small, neutral images build toward overwhelming moments, certain dialogue may sound superfluous. The editor may find that it is best to leave it out. Generally, this deletion occurs in collaboration with the director. But at times when one feels comfortable to experiment and feels trust with the director, the editor may leave out a line to find out if it is missed. Often it is not.
Other scenes incorporate an impetuous approach on the part of the characters. As in life, sex often involves a gradual seduction, a slow burn toward a final conflagration of passion. But in other cases, characters can be overcome by passion. where one character says “We’re not going to have sex,” and the next cut shows them in bed together!
Since The Vampire Diaries is a TV series, viewers had come to know the characters and look forward to them ultimately hooking up. In fact, fans counted down the years (two), months (seven) and days (three) till the fateful day.
In the episode where they finally get together, the editor, Nancy Forner, was careful to squeeze every bit of joyful anticipation from the scene before paying it off with a passionate kiss. As she acknowledges, love scenes are oddly analogous to horror scenes when it comes to editing. “You tease, tease, tease, then boom, kill!”
Mac and Me
As the editor of the pivotal chase sequence in the family action film Mac and Me, the story of a disabled boy, Eric (Jade Calegory), who befriends an alien who was mistakenly sucked off his own planet by a United States space probe, I found myself immersed in footage of swerving cars, sprinting FBI agents, and a determined boy cradling an alien as he navigated his wheelchair downhill through heavy traffic. It was excellent action footage shot by a veteran director, Stewart Raffill. But during the shooting of this scene, an accident occurred. The stunt double who was piloting the wheelchair miscalculated. A pickup truck plowed into him as it passed, sending him to the hospital. Fortunately, he was okay. But the animatronic alien that was riding on his lap got fairly beat up. As happens when editing on 35 mm film, the spoiled take wasn’t printed. Instead the script supervisor marked it as N.G.: no good.
Later, in the editing room, it occurred to me that this accident might be of value, since it was full of real jeopardy. I asked the assistants to order a print of it from the film lab. At first, I received some disapproving looks, as if I had a morbid interest in accidents. I was reminded that the scene was not about the boy getting hit by a car, but about him successfully maneuvering his way through traffic to avoid the FBI’s clutches. Having read the script, I was aware of this. But I felt that the footage of the collision could somehow be used to improve the scene’s intent.
The take arrived and I watched it. As it played out, the camera followed behind the wheelchair-bound boy. In an instant, a truck appeared and smacked into him, sending him flying. Perfect. I realized that I could use the take up until the actual impact. One frame before the collision, I cut away to the reverse angle of the boy passing the truck and heading toward the camera. When the two pieces were cut together, they played as an extremely close call. When the director saw it, he was thrilled. After sound effects and Alan Silvestri’s music were added, the scene became even more exciting. Whenever I watch it with an audience, they elicit the kind of visceral reaction I’d hoped for. As the truck speeds past, they gasp, sensing how close it was, relieved that it misses the boy, and completely unaware of what actually happened.
In Mac and Me, a variety of inconsistencies in continuity occur. These other accidents are rarely, if ever, noticed. One appears in the chase scene where wheelchair-bound Eric speeds down a road with the alien on his lap, chased by the FBI agents.
In order to rescue Eric and the alien, Eric’s brother (Jonathan Ward) and the brother’s girlfriend speed up beside him in a van, open the side door, and reach out to retrieve them. Since all the necessary coverage couldn’t be shot at the same time—some of the kids’ close-up reactions were later picked up on a soundstage—and either no one had shot Polaroids or made a note of the costumes, some clothing didn’t match. Particularly, the brother’s sunglasses. As the van approaches the camera in a wide shot, we see the older brother lean out to retrieve the wheelchair with his brother and the alien. In this angle he’s wearing sunglasses. Then I cut back inside the van for the kids crossing their fingers and cheering him on. Here he wears no sunglasses. Then I cut back outside where the brother is again wearing sunglasses. As the FBI closes in on them, the kids finally manage to heft the wheelchair up and into the van. By freely cutting from one angle to another, allowing the tension and pace to build, I was able to draw the audience into the scene so they didn’t notice the break in continuity.
Additionally, it is interesting to note that within that scene there are other breaks in continuity due to the fact that the scene was shot in three different locations – the exterior of a Sears store, the interior of the van with a mismatching process shot on the sound stage and some close-up pick-up shots in another locale. I’ve shown this scene to hundreds of students over the years and, like audiences who saw it when it was first released, only a couple have ever spotted the disparity during the first viewing. The challenge is to cut the scene well enough that the audience is so absorbed by the on-screen action that their attention doesn’t wander to ancillary aspects. Hence, go for the story, not for technical perfection.
(A side note – Mac and Me didn’t score points with some critics because of its voracious use of product placement (which has since been exceeded by other films) and its E.T. parallels, but it was groundbreaking in its depiction of a disabled young man as the movie’s protaganist. The film premiered at a conference in Washington D.C. and influenced the inclusion of disabled people in features and television, as well as wheelchair accessible theaters.)
The power of rhythm and pace, that visual music that resonates on a deeply primal level, exerts such enormous influence that it is sometimes possible to overcome lapses in other areas, including story, through the creative and determined application of these qualities.
While pacing can be fast, slow, or somewhere in between, rhythm is characterized by a pattern of strong and weak forces. This is accomplished by varying the choice of shots, the length of shots, and the placement of shots—again, the Editing Triangle.
A revealing tribute to the music of editorial rhythm occurs in the French film Delicatessen (1991). Here, a series of associative cuts, growing shorter in duration and tighter in angle, build to a literal orgasmic climax. The action takes place in a bizarre tenement-like apartment building. In this scene, the main character, an unemployed clown (Dominique Pinon) applies a paint roller to the ceiling, then pauses and removes his suspenders. It then cuts to a tight 2-shot of a man and woman kissing. As they tip back out of frame the editor cuts to the bedsprings giving way under their weight. From there begins a dance of images that beautifully illustrate the rhythm of editing. Notice that the length of the shots as well as the movement within the frame reinforce the sense of rhythm and pacing.
Here is a live action representation of the David Bohm experiment that is discussed in Chapter 21. This relates to the enfolding of information as one experiences in the editing process.