Breaking Down the Oscar-Winning Editing of 'Whiplash'
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.