The 3rd Dimension of Film Editing

I talked to Robert Hoffman, the editor of Art School Confidential, not too long ago about film editing and how technology and an increasing familiarity with tools that used to be the sole province of visual-effects guys is changing the practice of cutting films together. Hoffman told me about a technique he used on Art School that involved pulling entire visual elements out of one shot and placing them in another in order to create a perfect take that the director wasn’t able to get on set. As a specific example, he cites one scene where he pulled an actor out of one wide shot and placed him into another, creating a new context for his performance that suited the needs of the story — a seamless digital composite in service of narrative.

This didn’t shock me, exactly. Filmmakers have long been able to dive into a bag of tricks to put something on screen that would have been impossible or inconvenient to capture following the rules of “pure” cinema. (For some reason I was reminded of the “split diopter” lens that allows you to get a shot of two subjects in camera when it would be impossible to focus on both of them simultaneously with traditional optics. Brian De Palma sometimes uses it when real deep-focus cinematography is impractical.)

But it points to a kind of anything-goes future for filmmaking in which the possibility for post-production manipulation of your narrative is so great that it seems to matter less and less how much of it you can actually realize in camera and more and more how skilled a digital magician your editing or FX guru is. Hoffman mentioned that there’s a boundary beyond which this kind of manipulation of the image seems to lack propriety. When you take a performance out of its original context, are you being unfair to the actor by changing the meaning of what he’s doing up there on screen? But is this any different from what film editors have been doing for years with Eisensteinian montage, out-of-context reaction shots, and other techniques for creating new meaning by bumping two disparate elements together in the cutting room? I’m wondering what’s next.

The interview is here:

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