Years ago, I interviewed a number of film editors, which was a fascinating experience for me. You can learn a lot about the storytelling process from editors; they're in charge of one of the most important and under-appreciated aspects of filmmaking: choosing not only what shots to leave in, but what to leave out. The collaboration between director and editor on a movie is crucial, because having complete freedom with no outside guidance can ruin a film just as much as having no freedom at all.
Over the history of cinema, film editing went from physically cutting celluloid on flatbed moviolas to editing digitally on Avid machines, but the most important pieces in an editor’s arsenal have always been the same: timing, instinct, patience, and personal chemistry.
Steven Kemper’s area of expertise in the editing room is in the action genre. He has cut a number of films for John Woo, including Face / Off and Mission: Impossible 2. Woo’s action sequences are tight and well constructed, yet surprisingly Kemper says Woo gives his editors “tons of leeway” in the cutting room. Woo storyboards his action sequences, “but very often he wings it on the set if he doesn’t get a shot, a shot isn’t working out the way he hoped or he ran out of time. None of the scenes look like the storyboards when you’re done, but you do get an idea of what he’s going for, there are focus points in the sequence that we make sure to hold on to. You end up doing much more than John originally intended. That’s what I really enjoyed about working with him, is he’s totally open to stuff.”
Working on a John Woo film, the editor has many options open to him considering Woo has multiple cameras rolling during an action scene, sometimes as many as 16 shooting all at once. Woo’s action sequences are famous for deftly blending together numerous camera angles and speeds, which breaks the monotony of typical action editing. “A lot of movies I see today, it seems gratuitous that they go to slow motion in certain spots,” says Kemper. “One of the things I worked particularly hard on, on all of Woo’s pictures is to carefully meld the over-cranked, under-cranked, and normal speed material. If you catch it at the right action, it’s almost seamless. It’s almost like you haven’t realized for a beat that you’ve gone from slow motion right back to a 24-frame shot. I found it not only challenging, but a heck of a lot of fun.”
In talking with Kemper, I learned that patience is one of the most important skills for an editor. In cutting the last forty minutes of Mission: Impossible 2, Kemper spent ten weeks--seven days a week, from seven in the morning to eleven at night--editing that portion of the film. For forty minutes, the editor sifted through 12 to 15 hours of film, which he cut down to what you see in the movie. “Woo shoots so much great stuff, to not sift through every frame is a crime!,” Kemper says.