The editor works with the director to assemble the existing film footage into a logical story progression. There are legendary editors who have supposedly "saved" films by re-jiggering the existing footage in inventive ways. But in most cases the editor wrestles with subtler issues of timing and emphasis. With post-production periods on most films now shorter than ever, the editor's work routinely begins while shooting is still in progress, as she assembles the "dailies" (the usable film footage shot each day) into a sequential "rough cut" or "first assemblage." New digital editing tools have streamlined this process enormously. In post-production the editor works with the director to craft a fine-cut version of the story that plays well for an audience. The editor reports to the director -- at least until this "first cut" is in the can. From that point on, unless the director is one of the powerful few who has earned "final cut" privileges, the editor's obligation shifts; she now works for the producer, and her job is to create a version of the movie that is acceptable to the studio or production company.
Born to Edit
"Most editors live through their eyes and through their hands. They have an internal clock, a sense of rhythm -- many editors come from a musical background. You have to have a very strong visual sense, and you have to be manual. You have to be a quick learner. You also have to like to problem-solve. Someone I used to work with believed that every child who likes to do puzzles would like being an editor."
The Job of Editing
"Editing is highly manipulative. It's very calculated. We try to make the audience feel something, to shift focus. It's as if we can be the wind that causes the sail to change just a little bit, that changes the speed of the boat, that changes the length of time that it takes to get to port. Everything that we do impacts the viewing experience."
"Editors always think of themselves as unsung heroes. We're invisible to the audience. If you see what we're doing, then we're not doing our job."
Working With the Director
"I try to read people. I knew Debbie was a dancer and therefore a person who was physically based in the world in a way many people are not. So she was going to be aware of space. There are a couple of times where you see reflections [in mirrors in the scenes]. I always went to the line being played in the reflection, behind the character. I assume that if a director shoots it, they want me to use it."
"The first session I had with Debbie, she had a stack of notes, but none of them were major. She said that I had good instincts. The notes were more on what line should play over what character, different angles to use, different performances perhaps that she liked better. She helped me a lot with the feeling of comedy, because I was not seeing the comedy in the piece. Sometimes I would be too tight on lines or I needed to be on another character when we had the lines being said. And of course she helped me with the dance sequences because she had something very specific in mind."
The Editing Process
"The final aim of an editor is to have a scene that plays as if you are watching life. So the viewer doesn't feel interrupted or manipulated toward feeling a certain way. As you look at the dailies, you start to have an impulse or an instinct as to where you'd like to see or to feel something. That's the point at which you make the edit. If you have multiple characters who are talking to each other, when do you want to go to that person saying something? Is it because they are actually talking or because they are reacting? You get inside the characters' minds."
"Coverage is a sticky issue. Sometimes a director has a very specific idea of how to construct a scene and only gives you enough coverage, as Alfred Hitchcock did, among others, so you can cut it a certain way. The good directors know what they want, they don't cover the scene all the way through, there is a specific point at which they start the dialogue in the close-ups so that that is where you go for the close-up. But sometimes you get stuck. If you only had a close-up that was neutral, if you only had a cutaway of the glass on the table, you could either shorten the scene, change it, make it work in a different position in the film."
Linear Vs Non-Linear Editing
"Linear versus non-linear editing reflects the physical way you edit. The thinking process is always non-linear. With film, at any point in time you can break open a splice, insert new material, then reassemble the whole around it. With standard videotape or offline editing, if you have a 20-minute cut and you decide you want to replace shot number 14, you can't just open it up. You have to relay everything. You can't interrupt the flow. With non-linear or digital editing, you can open up the cut or timeline at any point, make any change, and lose nothing but time."
Lillian Benson has broken new ground as the first black woman selected for membership in American Cinema Editors (ACE), the internationally recognized honorary society of film editors, currently numbering 190 active members. Ms. Benson's appointment to ACE came on the heels of an Emmy nomination for her work on the acclaimed civil rights series Eyes on the Prize.
Ms. Benson's 1990 News and Documentary Emmy nomination was for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Videotape Editing of The Promised Land, which focuses on the last year of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life. Ms. Benson also edited The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry, which premiered as part of "The American Experience" series on PBS.
Among her many credits, Ms. Benson has several feature films including Twisted, starring Christian Slater; Alma's Rainbow and Soul Food. She has worked on episodic television series such as Soul Food - the Series for Showtime and True to the Game.
Ms. Benson has edited several HBO documentaries, including Death by Hanging, a 90-minute verite film; A Century of Living, a portrait about 17 centenarians; and Out at Work, about gay discrimination. She edited a trio of hour-long specials for the "Buildings, Bridges and Tunnels" series on the Discovery Channel, and the ABC project, Motown 40th: A Retrospective.