DAVID LEAN: A Study in Editing

There are two types of editing: editing that you notice and editing that you don’t.

Within the editing that you notice you have people like Edgar Wright, Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino (though not so much in his later films) and Akira Kurosawa.

Within the editing that you don’t notice you have people like Rian Johnson, David FIncher, Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock, and Carol Reed.

Then, there’s a director in his own category, who’s editing you simultaneously notice and don’t notice, a feat that no other director can or will achieve.

David Lean.

As I have been studying him, preparing my notes and lessons for my Film Making class (we will be studying him for the first semester), never have I stopped, rewound, and rewatched so many scenes because the editing is so effortless, so surprising while at the same instant so obvious, that I can admit that I know less about editing than before I began watching him.

Editing is when you change camera angles and how you do it.

And David Lean knew just how to do it.

The repetition of the dissolve contrasting harshly with the outlandish train whistle in the station never lost its emotional impact as two almost lover dance around their flirtatious and doomed friendship.

The constant cutting on sound as Oliver is shipped from home to attic to roof to street, violently thrusts the viewer into the boy’s perspective, while paralleling his own shock and confusion as he discovers himself in so many new and strange nooks and crannies in London.

The subtle long shots in Lawrence of Arabia that, in their grand scale and epic openness, betray the quiet, angry intimacy of a man who wrestles with himself as much as he does his environment; in not cutting, the world and the pain manifest themselves more believably.

Film is a dramatized reality and it is the director’s job to make it appear real… an audience should not be conscious of technique.

– David Lean

But how did David Lean know how to direct his film with editing in mind? How did he know what sound to use, when there should be silence, when there should be a pan or a tilt, a dolly in or out, a dissolve, a smash? How? How does an artist know when to do the “right” thing?

Well, David Lean began as an editor before he was a director.

He worked hard. Honed his craft. Matured as an artist. And, dare I say, seemingly, effortlessly, left his mark in the world of cinema.

I mean, we are studying him in my film making class, after all.

So what was his great advice for editing?

“I don’t know how to edit. I do know how to feel.”

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