The Commenting Editor Technique

While a film is by no means the sum of its parts, it is probably safe to say that a film is the edited union of its parts. The editing can determine the nature or genre of a film, the film’s pace, an actor’s performance, the order of the story, and much more. The editor is rarely noticed, however, for two main reasons. The first is that a film is very much seen by audiences today – especially by critics and movie buffs – as being the vision of the director. So, if the editor determines the essence of a film, people with naturally attribute the essence of the film to the director, thus ignoring the editor completely. Secondly, part of the editor’s job is to remain unnoticed, in much the same way that it is a puppeteer’s job to remain unseen as he/she performs. I expect, however, that we have reached a level of video literacy at which we can soon expect to see the film editors break a new kind of fourth wall and blatantly converse with the audience.

Along similar lines, it is traditionally bad form for the camerawork to be done in such a way that the audience is conscious of the camera, and the goal in film was, for many decades, to make the camera unnoticed. (This is comparable to the way that the lighting crew in a theatrical production is essential to making the performance visible/possible, but is seldom noticed unless it makes a big mistake.) In recent years, we have seen experiments in filmmaking in which the audience is supposed to be conscious of the camera, particularly in the genre of found footage horror films. This new direction is possible only because we are used to seeing the camera since the innovation of home video, in which awareness of the camera is nearly inevitable. It follows that one would expect an innovation to become popular that makes viewers aware of the editor, which will allow for movies that mimic the same techniques. I propose that this innovation does exist, and it is online video.

To best explain what online video means for the evolution of film editing, I should clarify what I do and do not mean in regards to an editor conversing with the audience. I am not merely talking about films in which the editing style is unique, drawing attention to itself. Films such as the 2008 Speed Racer film or the works of Robert Rodriguez are not necessarily conversational in nature. Annie Hall comes much closer to a talkative editor in the scene in which Woody Allen and Diane Keaton have one conversation while subtitles show what they truly want to say, but this still comes across as the voice of writer/director Woody Allen. Television has come close by using frequent cutaways in shows such as Family Guy, but these feel very much like they are a part of the pre-production and animation/production phases, and they are not primarily editing. The Colbert Report used a regular segment called “The Wørd” to provide a sort of visual commentary on what Colbert said, and while this may be a little too involved in the pre-production and production (a.k.a. principal photography) phases, this does succeed in providing a form of “editor’s commentary,” which is what has become a big part of online video.

Online, it is common to see a video or YouTube channel that has a host-to-viewer format, such as the PBS Idea Channel, using little pictures, GIFs, and other brief visuals to not only depict what the host is saying, but to comment on it. This takes the type of commenting common on social media, in which a the Ben Stiller “post for ants” meme might be used to comment on a post that’s not legible, and makes it a part of the post itself. On YouTube it’s common to see a picture flash on screen for half a second just to make a joke, even though the picture is not necessary for the speaker to make his/her point, or for the story to be told. Rather, these very brief visual gags are comments on the video more than they are a part of it, since they are not usually diegetic in nature. This is actually very similar to a director’s audio commentary on a film, except an editor’s commentary is generally not continuous throughout, and is a part of the video instead of being a bonus feature.

If I must give specific criteria, an editor’s commentary is:

  1. post-production-driven,
  2. non-diegetic,
  3. not a part of telling the work’s main story,
  4. nonessential to the clarity of the work,
  5. not long enough to be its own scene.

For example, when a character in a movie notes that everyone is freezing, a picture of Elsa might flash on screen for a split second. When characters discuss their favorite science fiction films, the scene might conclude with a Star Wars-esque wipe transition. When a scene begins with lots of text to read on screen, the CinemaSins “ding” sound might be heard. When an actor flubs a line, the mistake can be left in and just corrected later by cutting to a frame with a title joking about what he meant to say (which is pretty much what they did for a little documentary about Star Trek IV when one of the interviewees mixed up his words a little). There are plenty of ways to do it creatively and in a style unique to the editor and director making the film.

While the possibilities are theoretically endless, the concept of the Commenting Editor is limited in a few ways. First of all, it should probably be used sparingly and carefully so it doesn’t become gimmicky. Secondly, there is great difficulty in doing this in such a way that the commentary is nearly exclusively created in the realm of post-production where the editor is king. If it is not very exclusive to this realm, the other areas (where the writer and director are supposedly the rulers) will receive the attribution. Whenever clever text is put up on screen, it is assumed to be clever writing, and the goal is to create the sense that the editing is clever, even if the editor’s comments are written into the script. The main limitation, however, is that the Commenting Editor is comedic in nature, and I don’t see it working well for anything but comedy.

The comedy in the Commenting Editor concept comes from both the fact that the viewers must quickly make connections, causing their brains to trip over themselves, as is the case with most jokes, and the fact that the editor has broken the unspoken rules. Since everyone knows that no one is supposed to talk during the movie, there is something chaotic and comedic about the editor himself (or herself) stepping out of the film to talk about the movie the whole time. While this concept could add to the aesthetic distance by reminding the viewers that they are watching an edited production, it could also decrease aesthetic distance by putting the editor in the audience, joining the viewers in the experience. This would make for a fascinating and important development in film because it creates a kind of movie that is self-aware, but not just by breaking the fourth wall. If a movie is essentially the editing, the movie can become a character of its own by talking to the audience about itself, and the viewers will not only enjoy the experience of relating to the characters in the film, but also the experience of conversing with the film itself.

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