I couldn’t sleep last night. Well, I slept until 1:58am, then got up and started the day. After making an exceptionally stong pot of coffee, I scanned the tv channels and stumbled upon a documentary about movie editing called, The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Editing.

Walter Murch, editor of the movies The Godfather, American Graffiti, and Apocalypse Now, talked about the art of editing, and said each movie shot gives the brain time to come to terms with what’s shown, and to understand the whats and whys of seeing it. The brain stops only when the next shot is shown, then the process begins again, as if completing a mental puzzle. Murch said movies provide “sensory completeness” and good editing creates a “powerful fusion” of sound and image.

I agree. That’s a luxury that we still image makers don’t have. The best we can do with our editing is to present a strong series of images that helps the viewer experience the work as we intended. Still, the viewing of still images is done on the viewer’s clock, not ours, and if in a traditional gallery exhibition, not always in the preferred sequence.

Gallery goers often start with an image that draws them in, regardless if displayed at the entrance or on the opposite wall. Some viewers prefer to be random in their viewings to avoid the group migration effect. It’s easy to feel the urge to move along with the group, even when you are not ready, or not feeling OK to continue alone when the flock of strangers you’re randomly with isn’t moving. What is a group of strangers be called anyway? A strangling? Or is that a certain type of murder, but not of crows? Moving on…

Viewing still images is a personal experience, even in a group. Short of sequencing our images and projecting them, we can’t manipulate the emotions of a mass of viewers as effectively as movie editors can. We edit our work to display a desired sequence of images, either to tell a story or to show our work in the most effective visual arrangement.

Movie makers must get an incredible sense of job satisfaction when a group of people cry or laugh or recoil in terror as a simultaneous response to what they see on the screen. The director and actors get most of the credit – and maybe rightfully so – but have the editor do a so-so job with even the best director directing the best actors, and see how impotent the final product is! Editing isn’t just the pacing of the story; editing is the story in its final form.

Writers may have the best of both worlds when it comes to editing and the reader’s response to it. A well-edited story dictates the pace and carries the reader, but the reader maintains the freedom to re-read or dwell on parts of a story more effectively than movie lovers can’t, even with the ability to replay, pause, and replay scenes. Readers don’t interrupt the flow. They just jump back to another part of the flow and pick it up there.

Yet the writer rarely if ever gets to witness a reader’s personal experience the way other visual artists do. Yes, I said other visual artists. To me, writing is perhaps the most effective visual art. Words can paint life-long images in a reader’s imagination. These mental images are based on the writer’s description and storyline, but they are more personal and more impactful than anything another’s interpretation can create on-screen. 

I think movie editors and writers are often robbed of seeing the personal experience of the fan. They can get fan mail and hear comments, but it is a rare and great blessing when still-image artists witness someone getting lost in their images to such a degree that the moving on of their group or the passage of time goes unnoticed.

I will always remember a simple exchange between two women at my first ever exhibition at a local gallery (I may have even mentioned it in an earlier post). I mingled anonymously among the local art lovers and listened to their comments, and noticed two elderly ladies standing in front of one of my prints.

I stood a respectable distance behind them. They leaned into each other, heads touching, and pointed at and discussed their favorite aspects of my print of thousand-year-old trees in California’s Bristlecone Pine Forest. At the time, I needed the affirmation, because I needed to know, not that I had made something “pretty,” but that I had made something worthy of the viewer’s time. It was the first time in my artistic life that I had visual proof that I had found a voice in art.

Now, those two ladies could say bad things about an image of mine, and I’d probably find it at least as interesting. That’s not because I don’t care what people think about my work, but because making a pretty pictures is not the challenge I accept. There’s little risk there. Making art is about going beyond the compliment.

Whatever your art is, learn to care more about your editing. Consider it part of the creative process. Editing is ultimately not about taking out what doesn’t belong. It’s about leaving in what matters most.