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.”

My Favorite Films

What makes a film great?

People have been trying to answer this question since cinema first appeared on the scene. Pun intended. When asked, “What are the greatest films of all time?” the list actually doesn’t vary that much.

Generally, you see these ten films, not necessarily in this exact order each time, but very little variation occurs.

1. Vertigo

2. Citizen Kane

3. The 7th Seal

4. 2001: A Space Odessy

5. The Passion of Joan of Arc

6. The Searchers

7. City Lights

8. The Godfather

9. Seven Samurai

10. 8 1/2

Or something to that affect.  Feel free to include or substitute Casablanca, In the Mood for Love, The Mirror, Apocalypse Now, Raider of the Lost Arc, It happened One Night, Wild Strawberries, The Bicycle Thieves, Rashomon, The General, Battleship Potemkin, Raging Bull, and a few other as you please. Why these films? Primarily because they changed the established visual medium forever: the structure of story altered, editing shifted, music evolved, the camera moved differently, the acting raised the bar, etc. With these films, the cinematic landscape of movies advanced boldly to new levels. pushing the craft towards unexpected territory.

However, the greatest films of all time are not always a filmmakers favorite film. Greatest and favorite are not the same, and many directors and filmmakers got into the game by a film that wouldn’t be considered “One of the Greats.”

Here is a list of my 10 Favorite Films with a brief blurb about why each one is on the list:

  1. Hamlet (1996) – Directed by Kenneth Branagh:

This is the perfect film. It’s one of the few films that I have no complaint with. From the acting to the costuming, score to editing, cinematography to production design, this film uses the filmmaking process to every advantage. Not enough praise can be given to this adaptation of Shakespeare’s best work.

2. The Lord of the Ring (2001-2003) – Directed by Peter Jackson

Epic. The word has almost no value in our modern society. However, this trilogy has no other apt description. The two dominant aspects of these films that strand out to me is the management and handling of of some odd dozens of characters and yet we understand the motives and intent of every single one of them, and the imagery. Cinema has the daunting task of having to provide images that become engrained into the culture and seared into the minds of the audience.

3. Ikiru (1952) – Akira Kurosawa

This is the first Kurosawa film that left me unable to move after the final scene. How do you present the story of a man who knows he will die; how do you explore that theme and not leave the audience bored; how do you discover the humanity in a character who doesn’t care for humanity? There is no other film that best deciphers man’s mortality than Ikiru.

4. Le Samourai (1956) – Jean-Pierre Melvile

When I discovered the Criterion Collection, this was the first film I bought mainly because of the cover: the title and the coolest man I had ever seen looking to the right, anticipating an unseen obstacle and planning his next move. This is Jef, a French hitman, and this is the coolest film I have ever seen. From the jazz score to the cat and mouse detective game, this film makes such a complex arthouse film look easy and simple.

5. Stalker (1979) – Andrei Tarkovsky

The most frustratingly philosophical film I have ever experienced. This actually might be my favorite film – I haven’t seen it enough. Only three times. Yet every time, the primary aspect that stands out is the movement of the camera. This is the best shot film I have ever seen – the camera movements emphasize the themes and questions the film explores. And there are no easy answers. Perhaps the reason I find this film so fascinating is that I discover more and more with each repeat viewing and not only am I made a better filmmaker for it, but a better person as well.

6. Pride and Prejudice (2005) – Joe Wright

I merely saw this film at the right time in my life to realize that every aspect of filmmaking has to work together to tell the story or else the film doesn’t work. Everything within the established film world has to make sense and follow the “world rules” presented in the film. This was the first film I understood that with. This film, every part of it, makes sense.

7. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) – Hayao Miyazaki

Miyazaki, possible the greatest animated film director of all time. He has not made a bad film. Not many in the industry can hold that torch. He produced classic after classic, but this one has always stuck with me. I think it’s because of the unexpected story and how its presented on screen. I remember finding myself (this still happens today) absorbed in the uniqueness of world, the quirkiness of the characters, the majesty of the art, and there’s a fire demon who likes bacon.

8. Heat (1995) – Michael Mann

The first time I saw this film was on VHS at Arlis Moon’s recording studio when I was in 8th grade while the band I was in (Too Few Forgotten) was recording our second EP. It was late and I was tired. But from the opening heist, I was hooked and awake. Not enough has been said about his film’s realistic portrayal of the honest criminal underworld and the corrupt police department. The coffee scene between Pacino and De Niro is the most intense conversation ever filmed – a perfect masterclass of the craft.

9. A Man for All Season (1966) – Fred Zinnemann

I hate “based on a true story” films. They bother me because film is essentially a lie – a fabrication. The actors are pretending, the script is ultimately the author’s interpretation of whatever they are writing about, editing doesn’t happen in real life. However, the story Sir Thomas Moore never succumbs to the inadequacy of the usual blandness and unnecessary exaggeration of these types of films. Still based on a true story, the grand story never feels forced or metallic; rather it is surprisingly warm and convicting, while being equally extravagant and intimate.

10. Sorcerer (1977) – William Friedkin

The sound. This film is the best example of how sound becomes its own character in the film world. Never has sound design and editing left me sweating – and the film is only PG! No music needed – no acting required – just the sounds of two truck’s being driven by four wicked men across roadless South America with unstable nitroglycerin in their trunks and every tire screech and twig snap and wind howl and wave splash and gun shot and labored breath to put us in their frame of frantic mind.


What about you? What are your favorite films and why? Let me know in the comments! Thanks for reading.

Why I Have My Kids Watch Hayao Miyazaki Films

The Bible can be a very difficult book to read. I believe this is why it is often misinterpreted, misunderstood, and misrepresented.

That is not to say that I have all the correct interpretations, understanding, or that I best represent what it teaches. I am still learning. But I have learned a lot. Some of my students think too much.

However, one of the most defining sections of the Old Testament is the History books, Joshua through Esther, in the Protestant Bible. These books are wonderfully scripted, expertly crafted, painfully detailed, and, above all, not at all western literature.

Yes. They are not western literature. This is eastern history telling. Middle-eastern history telling. That is why there are sections that sound like other Middle-eastern writings also from that time: they shared a same literary identity. This is no different than modern day literary styles and techniques: literature, though not necessarily the content of that literature, is a product of its time.

And the history books of the Old Testament are Middle-eastern historical literature.

So, what does this have to do with why I have my kids watch Hayao Miyazaki films?

Simple: they aren’t western literature either.

Hayao Miyazaki is a Japanese animator, often called the Disney of Japanese animation ( a title he abhors). He has made some of the greatest animated films of all time (yes, even compared to Disney). We study him in my filmmaking class (or will, depending on when you are reading this), especially how he uses plot to serve the characters and his depiction of evil (of any of his characters could be that).

For clarification, Japan is not Middle-east, it is far-east. Nevertheless, it still shares a great distinction of not being the west.

In my own life, I have fallen in love with Miyazaki’s imagery over and over again. From my first viewing of KiKi’s Delivery Service in my grandparents lake house to rewatching The Wind Rises in my own house with my wife (Ashlie), watching Miyazaki’s work has done something that not many other films have, at least for me:

They have helped me understand an  eastern form of story structure that is almost completely absent in the west, and by doing so, helped be better pick up the varying literary styles and shapes of the Historical Books of the Old Testament.

Disney is western visual literature; Miyazaki is eastern visual literature – the cinematic language used by both master is only distinct by how they format a story.

The Old Testament is not western; it is eastern.

This is why  I have my kids watch Hayao Miyazaki films, so that they will hopefully have a better understanding of how eastern story telling works.

I hope that ‘s what they get out of it.

I Finished My Screenplay

It is an odd sensation.

Over sixths month of planning.

Hundreds of hours of plotting, designing.

Countless ideas – most of which were rejected.

And here I am – I finished my first screenplay.

97 pages long. The first draft.

Now, I wait a few days, then com back to it and start editing.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to have an assumed accountability. Whether or not anyone actually reads this blog isn’t why I did this. I did it to have a whip behind my heels, spurring me onward to complete what I said I would do.

And I did it.

It’s an odd sensation.


I teach filmmaking Friday mornings at Augustine Christian Academy in Tulsa.

Last semester, we studied the films and filmmaking process of Alfred Hitchcock.

During the course,  the students participated in several assignments, where they had to write, film, and edit their scenes in the Hitchcockian vein. In class, it is easy to see the implementation of certain methods, grade them, and then explore how the outcome is a product of the method. If the outcome is bad, the method is bad. Change the method, change the outcome.

However, the best part of the classroom is that the worst criticism will come from the teacher. Sure, students can be condescending and belittling, but the affirmation or correction of a teacher is paramount to a student’s performance in the classroom.

It is a firm philosophy of mine that I’m not just relaying information to the students. Additionally, I’m not just teaching how to pass a test. I strive to teach my students practical life skills that will not only benefit them in the real world as well.

That’s why I’m really nervous to watch one of my students shoot a short film he wrote on his own; he’s put together the filmmaking crew; he auditioned the actors; he scouted location; he’s storyboarded the whole film; I’m really proud of him and this is why I’m nervous:

I’m watching my teaching  practiced outside of the classroom. In real life. I’m accountable for how this student now views the filmmaking process.

I hope I did a good job teaching.

By watching his process, I will be confronted with myself – and I’m curious to see how I look.


Personal Favorite Films of 2018

Each year during the Award Season, which inevitably leads us to the overhyped and over-puffed Oscars, which, let’s face it, is really just Hollywood celebrating itself (not a bad thing, but a thing to be considered), I reflect on what films are nominated and what films are ignored.

It’s always difficult to predict which films will be remembered years from now, but the immediacy that comes with critical observation offers me a moment to consider what films linger in my thoughts – their images, their textures, their tastes and sounds.

To be honest, it is still a mystery to me why certain films hover above and dwell deep in my conscious, like spectral, half remembered ghosts, while others dissipate the moment the theatre lights illuminate the darkness.

As a disclaimer, I do not watch films that contain nudity or sexual scenes. What films listed below that contain such content I viewed edited.

To be sure, few films linger, and even fewer shape me as a person. Nevertheless, here are my personal favorite films of 2018. The top three are in order – the rest are not.

  1. Baby Driver
  2. Phantom Thread
  3. Logan Lucky
  4. Blade Runner 2049 (edited)
  5. Logan
  6. Dunkirk
  7. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  8. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
  9. War for the Planet of the Apes
  10. Get Out

Best Documentary: Five Came Back. Netflix. Amazing.

I much prefer older movies. They are generally better and that is an objective fact. The best film I saw last year was Rebecca, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who directs circles around the any of this years releases.

I’m Writing a Screenplay

Film offers a cinematic moral landscape.

Every film is trying to convince of its truth.

The truth is not always easy to discover or discern, but every aspect of a film contributes to its message. From editing to costuming, cinematography to sound design, from directing to score – everything  contributes to the message of the film.

So, I have a story to tell – a truth I’d like to share, that I believe is worth sharing. Whether or not it gets made is another story.

Ultimately, there’s only one story: man in hole.

Ultimately, there’s only one question: can man get out?

Ultimately, there’s only one plot: if man can get out, how does it happen?

So, what truth would I like to share?

“You don’t live with what happens in your life; you live with what you tell yourself happens and how you respond.”

Is it worth telling? I guess we’ll see.