October 1, 2019

4 Great Editing Tips You Can Learn From 'Mindhunter'

Netflix's Mindhunter has some excellent examples of great editing, and Season 2 took it to a whole new level. Here's how.

Mindhunter's second season was an intense look at the more human side of the work and the casualties of devoting your life to the task. While the direction and cinematography of the show usually get the spotlight, today the show's exceptional editing deserves our attention.  

Editing is one of those incredible arts that seamlessly blends into the background. If you notice the editing, then it can take you out of the viewing experience. But it can also add a layer of meaning, tension, and storytelling. 

The editing of Mindhunter might be the best on TV. In fact, it might be the best editing anywhere. 

I want to distill the editing down to four tips for everyone out there, with a little help from a video essay that did most of the research for me. 

Check out this video from Thomas Flight and let's talk after the jump. 

4 Tips From the Show's Brilliant Editing 

When the first season of Mindhunter made its debut, it got labeled as the "David Fincher show." So, obviously, we all expected there to be a ton of takes and camera moves. But that was probably unfair. Sure, there's the slow-burn storytelling Fincher loves, but what he really gave the show was his perfectionism. 

Everything here feels calculated. Especially the editing and pacing. 

Let's take a look at some of the subtle yet effective techniques used by the show's editors to create the look and feel of serial murder. 

1. Match the rhythm to the conversation 

Mindhunter is a show built on and around long conversations. Since we are shifting from interrogations to personal lives, there's several scenes of stagnancy and then a lot of action. The way the show keeps viewers attached is to find the beats within each scene. 

These beats build up to a story -- but none of that is accomplished without editing. Let's take the series' key Manson scene from Season 2 and dissect it. 

Okay, you just were introduced to Charles Manson. Fun, right? 

The first thing you'll notice is how we start far away from Manson, as they bring him in, and then slowly we cut and cut and cut until he's much closer. That;'s done for tension. It's done to put us figuratively in the room with these guys. 

Manson is now close to us. Much less fun. 

But once you get into the meat of the scene, the camera moves much less. That means the editor needs to help build excitement. How can this be achieved with little to no camera movement? 

Faster cuts are one way, but you don't want this to look like a Tony Scott production. 

The way they do it on Mindhunter is timing the cuts to natural beats. You cut when there's a rise of intensity in the conversation, then linger on the monologues. Check out the pattern below. Each slash mark represents an edit.  

Eagle-eyed viewers will notice a pattern here. It's highlighted in the video as well.  

This pattern shows the conflict flares and lulls within the scene. These crescendos allow the editor to build tight edits that revolve around the characters, while also highlighting something we'll cover below: 

2. Composition matters

As you likely know, the director and cinematographer work out each scene's composition. It's a tiring process that involves camera moves, setups, and capturing multiple angles. This is all done do that the editor has a bunch of choices later. 

So how does the editor make those choices? 

Usually, they do it by creating a mini-story for the audience. They can be scene-sized stories or sub-scenes. Take a look at this picture of Dr. Carr's interrogation. Look at the first and final frames presented here. 

See anything special? 

They come from the same composition! 

This sub-scene is used to lull the criminal into sharing more of his past. To do this, the editor built in a story that the audience would be hooked on, and used the edits to create a bookend so we knew there was a transition. Since this scene is ten minutes long, this sub-scene gives a subconscious break and lets us readjust for the rest of the story.   

It's akin to the first and final frames we talk about when outlining our screenplay

As you can see, these cuts are all delicate. And a lot of them are based on what we cover in the next bullet...

3. Let eyelines cue the cuts 

When you have a show about serial killers, you're going to get a lot of awkward looks. Not just if you're watching it on an airplane (been that guy), but also within each scene. Eyelines are a great way to connect actors and edits. And no show does the eyeline match better than Mindhunter

Let's go back to than Manson scene to show what I'm talking about. 

Here, we start with the character of Tench looking at Manson. We can cut back and forth to them fairly easily. But there's a third character in this scene. How do we get over to him without disorienting the audience? 

We'll break the 180-degree rule to do it. 

The answer comes with a simple look off to the side. 

The editor knows that the audience will want to know the reaction to tench. Since we subliminally anticipate the dit, we don't mind that it might change the perspective in which we've settled. 

We can cut to this angle seamlessly because the eyelines of these guys match. And we can cut back to Manson because they both look to him. 

These edits all come fast, but the editing can be sped up and not lost because the eyelines connect each character. The character on the screen looks at the person we just cut from, so we feel like a voyeur. We have our attention re-focused on where we want to go. 

Our want directs the edit. 

Suddenly storytelling, cinematography, direction, and edit are all working in tandem. And we delight in the cooperation. 

This all works in the scene and defies the parameters of the 180-degree Rule because these cuts not only use the eyeline, but are motivated in other ways -- like rhythm and composition. 

This all works within a scene. But what about editing within transitions? 

4.  Pre-lapping and post-lapping audio

It's hard to find a visual example here, so we will have to just talk about sound. One thing Mindhunter does well -- and frequently -- is it allows the scene-to-scene transitions that either trail off into one another (post-lapping) or cue up the next scene by pre-lapping. 

This can be incredibly useful when it comes to playing with irony and time jumps. It's also effective when trying to mark the transition to new information for the audience. This subtle audio cue that a transition is coming can make the visual jump less jarring. It canalso hammer home plot or character points so the audience doesn't miss any details. 

What's next? David Fincher Hijacked Your Eyes and You Never Even Noticed

Who's to say where, in the creation of an artistic work, the actual work comes in? In film, we find that some filmmakers work very hard at plotting, creating vast architectures that are miraculous in their completion (think Spielberg, Lucas, Lumet, Hitchcock). Some invest incredible energy in visual detail, creating sensory feasts that stick in our memories more than any twist or turn of their story (think Malick, Kubrick).

So how does Fincher do it? Click here to find out!     

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1 Comment

F'n bravo, Jason! Thanks!

October 4, 2019 at 12:37AM

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Dean
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