April 6, 2015

Breaking Down the Oscar-Winning Editing of 'Whiplash'

Editing Whiplash Tom Cross
Film editing can be many things: subtle or in your face, downtempo or high octane. Not only is the editing in Whiplash all of those things and then some, but it won an Oscar for it.

In a new video essay from Robigo TV, Rob Knook outlines a few of the most prevalent theories of film editing in contemporary cinema, then shows us how Whiplash, the winner of this year's Oscar for best editing (as well as a few others), used those theories to masterful effect in order to create one of the most compelling and emotionally devastating films of 2014.

Fair warning, if you haven't seen Whiplash yet, the very end of this video essay contains the last two minutes of the film, so maybe turn it off at the 22:45 mark if you don't want the ending spoiled. Otherwise, grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and get ready to learn you some editing theory as it applies to Whiplash!

One of my favorite things about this video essay is that it gives an excellent and relatable example of an editing concept that most of us have heard about at one point or another, but might not know how to use in any practical sense. I'm talking, of course, about Walter Murch's "rule of six," which he outlines in his seminal work In the Blink of an Eye. 

Essentially what this rule boils down to is that there are six things editors need to consider before making a cut, and emotion is by far the most important one. By cutting first and foremost for emotional content and subtext, editors can control how audiences engage with the content emotionally, which is an incredibly powerful tool. Though aspects like rhythm and story construction also play a role in using the rule of six as a guide for editing, emotionality is and always will be number one.

Hence the example from Whiplash in which the lead character Andrew goes on a first date with the lovely young Nicole. Through the shot choices and the way they are arranged in the scene, we get a few crucial pieces of information that inform the basic plot of the film, and which alert us to the underlying character differences that will eventually drive the couple apart in a later scene. Though the pair seem to be having a nice time and connecting (which is shown in intimate medium closeups), when we find out that Nicole doesn't have a major in college, a fact that contrasts sharply with Andrew's single-minded obsession with pursuing jazz drumming perfection, we cut out back to a wide two-shot that really emphasizes the physical distance between the two characters. This simple decision to cut back to the wide shot informs the audience of the philosophical rift between Andrew and Nicole, even before it ever becomes a significant plot point.

Outside of the exemplary editing in the scenes from the video essay, Whiplash editor Tom Cross also did something else that I loved, particularly as a jazz fan. In many of the film's establishing sequences of New York City and elsewhere (all of which are underscored by jazz tunes), Cross's editing mirrors the music in a way that is uniquely organic and jazzy. Some have called this a slick example of "cutting to the beat," but what Cross is doing here is a far cry from adding a cut for every quarter note in the underlying song. No, the editing in these scenes is jazz. It swings. It ebbs and flows. It keeps you on your toes. And ultimately, that feeling of uncertainty and spontaneity in the editing adds a nice touch to the overarching themes of the film.      

Your Comment

17 Comments

for me Whiplash was the best film of 2014

April 6, 2015 at 9:43PM

17
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Tomas Uher
Director / Filmmaker
141

You have not seen Birdman if u say so. Whiplash was amazing & it would be the best movie in may Oscar's years, but Birdman is probably one of the best movies ever made. For me Birdman is easily top10 best movies ever created.

August 24, 2015 at 9:29AM

6
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Andy Tokarski
Director, Editor, Colorist
1318

I think the grammatical errors, the sloppy writing, and the unnecessary verbosity in the video's text detract from the points the director/editor is trying to make. If you're using pictures, primarily, to make your point, you can perhaps slack off on the writing a bit. But in this case, text is supposed to tell us something about the pictures that we might not notice for ourselves. So it's particularly important to get the text right.

That said, the points made about Cross's editing techniques are probably worth making. I just wish they'd been presented more effectively.

April 7, 2015 at 12:13AM, Edited April 7, 12:13AM

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Clay Smith
Wannabe screenwriter, film editor, director
222

The dude's from Spain, english is probably not his first language and all the "grammatical errors" are related to how english is just a really confusing language when translating from something else. All of his "errors" would be correct if he was saying the same thing in Spanish. It's not like any of these errors made it any more difficult to understand.

God, everything is awesome and we all just complain.

April 7, 2015 at 12:41AM

7
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Julian Faras
Editor, Cinematographer, Director
459

Given that America dominates the entertainment industry, perhaps we should cut non-fluent English speakers a degree of slack we wouldn't cut non-fluent Spanish speakers if they were trying to reach an audience in, say, Guatemala. I'm not sure that, on the whole, it would be beneficial, but you could probably make a case.

However, the errors *do* make it more difficult to understand. That's what poor writing does, by definition.

April 7, 2015 at 5:51AM

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Clay Smith
Wannabe screenwriter, film editor, director
222

I totally concur with Clay Smith! Your writing says volumes about you and is often the first and only impression people have of you. If it is sloppy and riddled with typos and grammatical and mechanical errors, it takes away from the message and/or lesson you're trying to get across. That is a shame. You might consider going back and editing and/or have someone look at it and/or translate for you before posting. :)
That being said, I thought your comments were "timely" and effective. I learned quite a bit.

April 10, 2015 at 11:19PM

0
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Elaine McDonald
Advanced Film Teacher
81

It's eight minutes before the essay begins, then it starts by quoting Waler Murch and then never returns to the "rule of six" and instead is a commentary on what is by and large first year editing theory. Nothing poignant or insightful is presented in 30 minutes. Tony Zhou must be on vacation, I grade this "essay" a D, the movie gets a solid A+.

April 7, 2015 at 1:35AM

9
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Howard Roll
Boss
209

Thank you! This was terrible. So so lazy. Couldn't finish it. I'm gonna watch some tony Zhou to get the bad taste out of my mouth.

April 7, 2015 at 2:25AM

0
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Filmmagician
Writer/Director
76

This guy doesn't do video essays well. It's a video. Don't make me read pages of info. Tony Zhou is where it's at.

April 7, 2015 at 2:23AM

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Filmmagician
Writer/Director
76

I second this motion

April 7, 2015 at 6:54PM

1
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Max Ciesynski
Gaffer
594

brilliant essay. Well done. Great article.

April 7, 2015 at 5:10AM

4
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movie-ing
editor/photography
81

Conclusion: movies need to be well pre planed and editors are important... WTF

April 7, 2015 at 7:22AM, Edited April 7, 7:22AM

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Vladimir Miketa
Cinematographer & Editor
159

Awesome essay! Thanks for sharing, R.

April 7, 2015 at 12:50PM

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Rebecca Pelagio
film student
254

No better editing class for newby filmmakers. This was like cinematographic orgasm for me as a film editor. Thanks for sharing it!

April 7, 2015 at 6:13PM

5
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Sergio Clavijo
Editor
93

so some people are commenting that this video was "not my tempo, not my tempo, not my tempo". hehe ;-)

note to self, when rushing back to the performance after picking up the drum sticks you forgot, look both ways before crossing the intersection......

oh yeah, and decide the girl does actually fit into your life

April 7, 2015 at 9:33PM

0
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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
744

Points could have been made in much less than nearly half an hour.

April 12, 2015 at 10:40PM

3
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Raph Dae
Screenwriter & attempted director
444

I am new to editing and whiplash was a great boost indeed :)
Thanks for the video essay :)

June 13, 2015 at 7:58AM

5
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Dikshya Sinha
STUDENT OF FILMMAKING/FILM & VIDEO EDITOR
74

Thank you for sharing your knowledge and work on this movie. For a guy like me, who doesn't understand anything about film editing, it was amazing. All the best!

July 27, 2016 at 10:06PM

0
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