The Invisible Cut: How Editors Make Movie Magic by Bobbie O’Steen (book review).

After examining how to think like a professional director in another review this month, understanding the purpose of a film editor is long over-due some scrutiny. Even directors say that their film can succeed or not depending on the skill of their editors in splicing the film together, hopefully with enough coverage that they’ve directed to ensure it can be put together. No wonder they like to keep the same ones. Bobbie O’Steen’s book ‘The Invisible Cut: How Editors Make Movie Magic’ explains how it is skill of feeling more than any set rules, although she covers both areas here. When you hear how the editors have to work towards bringing a film into a set running time, then loosing seconds here and there throughout each scene soon adds up. Knowing what to cut and not jar the viewer is therefore an essential part of their work and being familiar with all the footage taken.


O’Steen points out that her father was a film editor, as was her late husband and herself so there is a pedigree talking here, especially when she says which films. She is also happy to point out that there are a lot of women editors in the film industry in which is really a collaborative process. Editing is a job of rhythm and decision-making.

Understanding how a film story is put together can be useful for a prose writer as some get carried away giving every last detail rather than knowing when to leave gaps and let the reader fill them in. The glossary at the back of the book could be useful for comicbook artists and maybe writers for describing the action when creating their stories.

Although the films are from the general genres but if you’re of the right generation, a film buff or simply paid attention to the television you would surely have seen these. When you consider that Bobbie O’Steen’s father, Carl Lerner, edited ‘Twelve Angry Men’ which is essentially a bottle film set in a large room, it would have been daunting for anyone but watching how the direction was controlled to give emotional mood is quite a teaching moment.

I’m glad she included one of Hitchcock’s films, this being ‘Rear Window’ as the rotund director did not leave more than a couple minutes spare footage getting all the material he needed by having his films so fully storyboarded before he started. I do wonder if Hitch was alive today that he wouldn’t have given the storyboard to other directors to film which he thought of as the boring bit. No one ever followed his technique and the most editors had to do was a couple trims for pace which must have been a quick job.

O’Steen’s late husband, Sam, was editor of ‘Chinatown’ for which there are two scenes examined. Interestingly, she points out there were a lot of inconsistencies with Faye Dunaway’s performance and needed a lot of tidying up. Keep an eye on her hair if you watch the film again as one of the pointers. Thinking objectively where some actors vary their performance for each take, I do wonder if this is a minefield for each editor to untangle or does the director give them notes.

The oddest thing after reading this book was watching a film and studying how it was edited together in terms of cutting from actor to actor and centring on the action. What that means is something must have rubbed off in my understanding the technique. I suspect anyone with aspirations to being a film or TV editor in whatever country is going to find this book invaluable in learning the feel for the basics. That’s a cut.

GF Willmetts

December 2014

(pub: Michael Wiese Productions. 349 page enlarged paperback. Price: $26.95 (US), £ (UK). ISBN: 978-1-932907-53-7)

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