March 9, 2018
Berlinale 2018

Why 'Good Editing Is Like Good Sex'

At Berlinale 2018, Susan Korda discussed secrets from the editing room.

"I don't think we need to suffer in the editing room, but it's truly where the chicken comes home to roost," said Susan Korda, editor, producer, director, story consultant, and professor at Columbia University. In a workshop for editors at Berlinale this year, Korda shared some hard-won insights from her career as well as golden rules from Walter Murch (the rule of six) and William Faulker ("kill your darlings"). Breaking down scenes from Bonnie and Clyde and Jaws, Korda recreates the initial “Oh, shit!” experience in the editing room in order to reveal how courageous editing and the ability to surrender preconceived preferences can create a cinematic discovery from what initially appears to be a failure. After all, "God gave us digital to make the edit," said Korda.

Below, we have highlighted some of Korda's most salient editing tips. 

To start, learn what moves the director

When Korda first starts editing a film—especially a documentary—she takes a moment to ask the director to select 20 of his or her favorite moments in the footage. "It could be a look; it could be a line of dialogue," said Korda. This enables Korda to hone in on the emotional currents that are important to the director in his or her story. "As the editor, I connect the dots. I understand what moves the director." 

Editors should be actors

"One of the biggest tricks we have to do as editors is that we have to be actors," said Korda. "We know what's coming next, but we have to be in the moment and act as if we don't know what's coming next—but feel it, instead." Even though actors know their dialogue, their job is to "be in the moment to color the dialogue with the truth of that character in that moment, in the now," said Korda. Editors, too, need to construct pacing such that they "show the audience that this thing could only happen now—in this exact moment." The audience should never be able to guess what happens next (unless doing so is beneficial to the progression of the story).

"Editing is much more musical than it is pictorial. It has this flow to it."

Good editing is like good sex

"Good editing is like good sex," said Korda. "You provoke an expectation in your audience that they don't even know they have–and then you fulfill it. You don't want someone sitting there going, 'Can I touch you like that? How do you like to be touched?' We don't want a story like that, either. We want to feel it!"

Korda believes that exposition is an art form. While writers embrace the expression "show, not tell," Korda encourages editors: "Don't show, but experience."

"Showing something to an audience is inherently talking down to them," she continued. "It corners you into rational thinking and affects your rhythm, reading as if it were an essay. When you're experiencing a film, you're in a dance, in a movement. Editing is much more musical than it is pictorial. It has this flow to it."

Susan Korda presenting at BerlinaleCredit: Berlinale 2018

Kill your darlings

The phrase "kill your darlings" comes from William Faulkner, who admonished students who got too attached to a paragraph, sentence, or line of dialogue in their work. "When you're focusing on that one thing, you're neglecting everything else," said Korda. "This is very hard in film because you spend $50,000 on a Steadicam shot that you really love, and then, what are you going to do? Shelve it?" According to Korda, that is exactly what you should do.

And that's what Danny Boyle did after he shot 28 Days Later. According to Korda, Boyle knew his favorite shot wouldn't work in the cut—so he didn't even let it come into the editing room.

Continuity doesn't really matter

"A big editing misconception is that continuity is of primary importance," said Korda. While continuity is, of course, important to some degree, editors—especially inexperienced ones—can often enter into a myopic mindset that is not conducive to the evolution of the story. In other words, being preoccupied with continuity can become a handicap during the editing process. 

"Going into the editing room, I find that people get what I call creative autism," said Korda. "With an autistic person, everything comes in at the same valence, whether it's a buzz from a monitor, my voice, somebody breathing... you're trying to juggle everything." With so much information in the editing room, it's important for the editor to distinguish between what truly matters to the story and what is simply background noise. For this reason, she shared a trick in keeping perspective: "Never look at a cut over and over and over again. Instead, go back 10 cuts. Go back to the beginning of the scene."

In the end, "all your chattering mind's worry about the superficial stuff doesn't come forth in feedback screenings," Korda said. "People talk about what moved them, or what they didn't get."

"Edit like a child."

Edit playfully

Korda believes it is important to maintain a playful approach to editing. "Edit like a child," she said. "Play. When we play, we're discovering, we're relaxed, we're curious. Have you ever noticed that you can't be curious and be right at the same time?"

"The best way to cut is hungover, without a headache," she added. "Then, you're in your gut, not your head."

Cut for Walter Murch's Rule of Six

Credit: Berlinale 2018

Walter Murch's "rule of six," from his seminal text on editing, In the Blink of an Eye, states that editors should cut for the following six points:

  • Emotion: Performance, truth
  • Story: Note that this is different form plot. Plot is "The King is dead. The Queen is dead." Story is "The King is dead. The Queen died of a broken heart. In effect, story has emotional underpinnings, while plot is simply information.
  • Rhythm: Energy in relation to the story
  • Eye-trace: 180-rule 
  • 2-D compositional space: Composition
  • 3-D compositional space: Spatial continuity

Principle of Three

To follow Korda's "Principle of Three," ask yourself the following three questions when choosing whether or not to cut a scene:

  1. Does it move the story forward?
  2. Does it develop the character?
  3. Does it reflect the theme?

"This is especially important in documentary editing," Korda said, "because you end up having a lot of scenes that repeat what you saw before. The art is to build and to reveal information."

Delay music cues

Working with your composer poses its own set of challenges, but even more confusing can be deciding exactly where to place the score in the edit. "Don't hit the nail on the head," said Korda. "Start the music before or after it seems intuitive to do so in the scene."

"The director's job is just to shut up and feel the audience."

Don't show a rough cut at a feedback screening

When you're ready to screen a cut, make sure it's a fine cut rather than a rough cut. "In a rough cut, pacing is off and performances are off," said Korda. For feedback screenings, it's better to wait until you've whittled the film down to a fine cut; at that point, feedback will be more valuable and less obvious. 

Additionally, Korda emphasized that the director should not conduct the feedback screening. (It should be left to the editor or producer.) "The director's job is just to shut up and feel the audience," she said. Enforce a no-question rule for the audience. Instead, ask them these questions: 

  • What did you like?
  • What didn't you like?
  • Where were you bored?
  • Where were you confused or distracted?
Susan Korda referenced 'Jaws' in her talk Berlinale 2018 editing talk 'Kill Your Darlings.' Just don't take that advice literally.Credit: Universal Pictures

All editors should direct their own films

"It's humbling, and it allows us to understand how shitty directors feel after they've come off the set," said Korda.

On a similar note, when hiring editors, directors should never ask for clips. "We won't want to work with you," said Korda, "because if you know anything about editing, you know that you have to see the whole film." Instead, she suggested, "ask what they really fought for in the film that the director didn't initially want." 

Honor the tabula rasa

Aristotle's tabula rasa refers to the epistemological idea that individuals are born without preconceived notions; therefore, knowledge comes from experience. Essentially, we are blank slates. 

Editors, too, should be blank states. Korda underlined the importance of working to re-create the state of tabula rasa throughout the edit. Some tips to reset the cache: Go for a walk, cut a montage for fun, or change your distance to the screen.      

Your Comment


"Why Good Editing is Like Good Sex" -- because we all are better off with a little trim?

March 14, 2018 at 2:21PM

J Robbins

March 14, 2018 at 2:22PM

J Robbins

Some good insights, but good lord. Can we stop it with the "____ is like sex" comparisons? It's such a lazy, immature statement. I think I've heard this in some form from every single person who thinks they're being creative. Blech.

March 16, 2018 at 2:43PM