Cutting on Sound: Learn from the Transitions of 'Lawrence of Arabia' Director David Lean
Eight crucial editing techniques from the legendary Editor/Director of Lawerence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and The Bridge on the River Kwai.
There may be no better path to directing your own feature than through editing the work of others. Time and time again we hear that editing can make you a better director, especially when it’s for your own material. The prolific career of director David Lean is a clear example of this principle at work.
Prior to his directorial debut with Major Barbara in 1941, Lean had edited a total of 25 films in eleven years. A few of those films would go on to become classics (including Pygmalion and Laurence Olivier’s As You Like It) but they were nothing compared to what would come next.
Lean stuck to editing through his first two features (this would be his first time editing his own work) but, once he had made a name for himself and solidified his place on the directorial plain, he could afford the luxury of letting someone else do the grunt work. With all that extra time he would go on to define the modern epic with his films The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawerence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago.
His love for the art of editing was never lost, however. In a moment of prescience, he chose to edit the last film he would ever direct, the Oscar-nominated A Passage to India. All this to say editing had prepared him for one of the greatest filmmaking careers ever.
In the video essay below, Andrew Saladino has put together a wonderful examination of some of the less standard techniques Lean used throughout his career to make his transitions shine.
Here are a few takeaways we gathered from Lean's unique style:
1. No wipes, fades or dissolves
It's hard to imagine following this advice in today's world of NLE editing programs with built-in packages of transitions. However, It's easy to see how this type of transition can really take viewers out of the action of the film. Lean swore by editing to sound cues instead, to keep the pace and picture moving as continuously as possible.
2. Use music-to-music cuts sparingly
Though this seems like the most obvious way to transition with sound (and as Saladino explains, it's often used to great effect) Lean limited the number of times he would cut on music because he found that, if every scene started with a musical cue, it would get repetitive and boring fast.
3. Try cutting with sound effects instead
Instead of music, Lean chose to transition mostly with sound effects because they're clean and precise and can be well hidden. He doesn’t want viewers to be conscious of the cut. Rather, he wants the cut to go as smoothly as possible, and sound often affords that opportunity. You can do these sound effect transitions with literally anything, including the sounds of nature or lines of dialogue.
4. When cutting with dialogue, do it quickly
Lean would often cut two shots together with the first ending on a line of dialogue. These were most effective when he would pull the second shot back really far, to the point where he would almost cut off the last word being said in the previous scene.
5. Transition with a sound effect into music or vice versa
When cutting with two sounds, either bring music into the mix as another layer of back up for the sound effect from the previous scene (so it blends), or cut hard from one to the other, depending on whether you're looking for a smooth or jarring transition.
6. Use similar sounds for smooth transitions
The more Lean directed, the less he would transition from sound effect to score, choosing instead to cut sounds together directly, which is a much harder edit to get just right. Lean's trick when employing this strategy was his discovery that the more similar the two sounds are to one another, the better.
"To hell with the photography, it's the cutter."
7. For effective jarring cuts, build up your sound throughout the scene
If you do want a jarring cut, build up whatever sound you have in a shot prior to the transition—and then drop everything. Or, of course, you can do the opposite, keeping the score soft and light and suprising the audience with a blaring sound effect instead.
8. Use the "graphic echo"
The "graphic echo" is a time-compressing cut usually done in three shots. In the first shot, the first character draws attention to an object either on screen or off screen. The second is a close-up of the object in question, and then the third shot echoes the first, usually from the vantage point of a second character.
It's in playing around with the variations of this technique where Lean's real mastery is found. Most importantly, the sound is consistent on every cut, so that the three or four or five or however many shots all come together to look like one continuous shot. Lean once proclaimed, "To hell with the photography, it's the cutter."
For a more comprehensive dive into these editing techniques and more, check out this 1985 documentary chronicling the legendary director's career. Its footage contains many wise words straight from the man himself.