June 15, 2016

5 Groundbreaking Editing Rules from Oscar-Winning Editor of 'Lawrence of Arabia' and 'The Elephant Man'

Editors could learn a thing or two from 91-year-old editing legend Anne V. Coates.

Legendary editor Anne V. Coates has won two and been nominated for five Oscars (including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007). The nonagenarian editor refuses to use Avid; instead, Coates said she "has her own system" which was custom-made to her preferencesmuch like the one made for Thelma Schoonmaker—though she refuses to elaborate on the details.

At the Sight, Sound & Story event at the NYIT Theater in Manhattan, Coates sat down for a wide-ranging conversation in which she dissected clips from some of her most famous films and dispensed wisdom about editing and working with directors (from David Lean to David Lynch). 

Here are five lessons you can learn from her. 

1. Have the courage not to cut

Coates, whose career has spanned more than six decades, won her first Academy Award in 1962 for David Lean'Lawrence of ArabiaIt features one of the most famous cuts in movie history: the spatial/temporal cut from a lit match being blown out to the blazing sun rising over the desert. The sun fills the 70mm frame, jolting the viewer forward in time and space. (While frequently referred to as a match cut, David Bordwell argues that it should be referred to as more of a "graphic match.")

Originally written in the script as a dissolve, the famous edit is the result of the so-called limitations of cinematic technology at the time​.

The scene is also notable for the length of time that the two-shot is held before the camera cuts to a close profile of a smiling Peter O'Toole as he blows out a match. Usually, such a scene would be cut with the shot/reverse shot technique, though the hold makes the graphic match that follows far more effective. 

Coates revealed that Lean was interested in French Nouvelle Vague techniques, to which she had introduced him. The cut, however, wasn't planned; originally written in the script as a dissolve, the famous edit is the result of the so-called limitations of cinematic technology at the time. All dissolves and other effects on film had to be processed with the use of an optical printer, which was not employed until the end of the editing process, when credits and other elements were added. The temporary cut, though, was so jolting that they kept it, and Lean's affinity for the French New Wave made him more amenable to the choice, though he instructed Coates to take "two frames" off.

Imagine how much less of an impact the transition would have were it a slow dissolve; by taking advantage of an unplanned opportunity, Coates and Lean made the film far more cinematic. 

2. Silence is power

A similar example of restraint Lawrence of Arabia is the scene at Ali's well, often cited as one of the best character introductions in the history of cinema. 

A striking element of this scene is its use of diegetic sound. Coates revealed that, usually, there would have been "all sorts of suspenseful music cues," but while editing, Coates and Lean recognized the power of silence inherent in building suspense. (It should be noted that the film's score, by Maurice Jarr, also won an Academy Award; all in all, the film won ten Oscars.) This sequence is also frequently cited as one of the best introductions of a character (played by Omar Sharif) in movies. 

In fact, the lack of music actually works far better than the "suspenseful" music usually placed in order to "cue" the audience to the fact that something is about to happen. The long shot of the approaching Ali on horseback, appearing in the distance as a shimmering mirage, is much more mysterious because we don't know his intentions; we can infer, however, from the behavior of Lawrence's Bedouin guide, that they are almost certainly not good. The sound of the horse approaching plays out a kind of musica rhythmthat doesn't increase in volume as Ali gets closer, but rather remains at a steady level throughout his approach. 

3. Get creative with character reveals

When working on David Lynch's The Elephant Man, his second feature after the groundbreaking Eraserhead, the director had to contend with producer Mel Brooks (who, because of his reputation as a satirist, left his name off the credits) regarding the issue of how to reveal the titular character, otherwise known as John Merrick (played by John Hurt in a masterful performance, both for its devastating emotion and the heavy prosthetics that took seven hours to apply). Coates, who was frequently on set, said that during a meeting in pre-production, Brooks told Lynch: "Listen, David, I know you're a genius, but..." and then enumerated his ideas for the introduction of the character.

Brooks' sensitivity about the subject matter and his own involvement (at the time, he had not yet decided to leave his name off) led to concerns that audiences would perceive the character as being mocked, rather than shown for his humanity. In the end, though, Coates cut the scene with great restraint, and by focusing on the face of Hopkins{C}{C}{C}{C}rather than Merrick, who is shown first hooded, and then in cuts of one or two seconds{C}{C}{C}{C}the power of the scene comes not from the reveal, but the emotion on Hopkins's face as a single tear falls down his face. (When the film was screened for executives who demanded cuts to the opening and ending sequences, Brooks defended the film, saying he had screened it for them as a courtesy but would not take suggestions from "raging primitives.")

4. Don't be afraid to stretch your style to its limits

Coates drew laughter from the crowd when she related how she told Steven Soderbergh to "stretch her" before they began working together on Out of Sight, the adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel starring George Clooney and J-Lo. Coates was speaking stylistically; while editing the film with Soderbergh, the two developed a cutting schema that Coates describes as somewhat "tricksy."

"There were sections we had to cut which we found a bit too tricksy; for instance, there was a scene in another prison, which never quite made sense to me," Coates said. "And Steven would say, 'I think we should reign it in here.'"

The scene below, where Clooney and Lopez meet for the first time since their initial encounter, is often praised as one of the best-written and edited love scenes in recent American film for its use of overlapping dialogue and images that echo each other as we move from the hotel bar to the room.

Coates spoke of how the conceitapparent in a few shots, where the image seems to freeze for a split secondwas originally developed in order to introduce characters, though when used in this sequence, Coates and Soderbergh found that it increased the power of the moment, particularly before they kiss on the bed. 

This openness to stylistic growth, as well as a knowledge of when to reign yourself in, is integral to any creative project, though particularly to filmmaking and editing, where no matter how attractive the "tricksy" cuts might be, the ultimate purpose is to serve the story. 

5. Be open to improv

While working on the cult classic What About Bob?, Coates revealed that she was shocked that the film did better on its second weekend than its firstthough she realized later that this was due to word of mouth, as well as the fact that the negative environment on set the film became newsworthy. (The principles didn't want to be in the same room; apparently, Frank Oz, Bill Murray, Richard Dreyfuss, and producer Laura Ziskin formed two camps, and much of the on-screen tension between the two leads is not faked.)

Coates said three endings were filmed: one by Oz, one devised by Murray, and the third by Dreyfuss, who ended up winning because his tested the best in front of audiences. She speculated that the infighting caused Oz's ending to be less powerful than it could have been, as the director was worn out by the shoot.

Coates spoke of the difficulties associated with shooting with an actor like Murray, who, she said, very rarely does the same thing twice from take to take. When shooting improvisation, she stressed, it's useful to have multiple cameras to get the coverage necessary in order to keep the story and narrative continuous. Coates's work on the classic dinner table scene is remarkable; in its use of Murray's improvised and exaggerated noises of pleasure at the meal contrasted with Dreyfuss' growing agitation, it's easy to see how Coates draws from the history of cinema, as the scene could have existed in a Marx Brothers film.       

Your Comment


I really like the match cut and character introduction from Lawrence of Arabia. What a great film!

June 16, 2016 at 10:54AM, Edited June 16, 10:54AM


"5 Editing rules" didn't sound clickbait enough? Geez.

June 16, 2016 at 2:52PM, Edited June 16, 2:52PM

Ezi Seel

Now that's a great post! This is what film-making is all about.

June 17, 2016 at 10:24AM, Edited June 17, 10:24AM

Stel Kouk

In “2. Silence is power” - there is a discrepancy:
"approaching Ali on HORSEBACK, appearing in the distance as a shimmering mirage, is much" and "The sound of the HORSE approaching plays out a kind of music"

I do totally understand the inference, however in the English language, they are normally called camels and are very different than horses.

June 17, 2016 at 3:19PM, Edited June 17, 3:19PM

Steve Thornton

Perhaps this article was dictated to a bot. Nonetheless, the misspelling of "rein" more than once is pathetic. Dictionary, anyone?

June 17, 2016 at 8:37PM

Bob Byars

Some worthwhile material in this, but the whole piece would carry a lot more weight as advice if it were proof-read prior to being posted. Referring to a giant of film music as "Maurice Jarr" does little for your credibility.

June 18, 2016 at 3:15PM, Edited June 18, 3:15PM