Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Uncut But Edited

In his book of interviews with Walter Murch, The Conversations, Michael Ondaatje notes Murch’s penchant for quoting French filmmaker Robert Bresson’s observation that a film is born three times: once when it is written, once again when it is shot and once more when it is edited. That’s a natural quote for an editor to carry in his back pocket, as it suggests the power of an editor in a potentially positive light. As movies are debated and celebrated, the contributions of editors are at best overlooked: glory-hungry directors never want to share the credit, and we in the audience have no good way of figuring out if an editor made a da Vinci out of a Pollack or just followed the paint-by-number conclusions dictated by the available footage. Yet when a film fails, editors – rightfully or wrongfully – are often cast as the scapegoat.

For all the directors with “final cut,” and despite those like Alfred Hitchcock who more or less edit in camera, it’s my hunch that editors’ contributions are drastically under-appreciated. That’s why I try to be mindful of the Bresson quote before I rush to canonize a director, and that’s why I found myself thinking of Murch and Bresson last weekend as I was enjoying my second viewing of Ratatouille, last year’s Pixar sensation, which common sense suggests is an exception to the three-lives rule.

Because animated pictures are extensively storyboarded and are entirely within the control of CGI artists (there are no “happy accidents” in digital moviemaking), an editor would seem of as little use on a Pixar “set” as a stuntman or prop master. Pixar artists would no sooner painstakingly render superfluous footage than an architect would add toilets to a room without plumbing. Or would they? Once all the digital cells are drawn, what is there to edit when it comes to an animated movie’s visual construction?

These were the questions running through my head Sunday night when I caught up on my blog reading and found that, just my luck, David Bordwell covered this very topic just a few weeks ago. It’s a fascinating and fast read and I highly recommend it. But before you leave this post for that one, a quick thought on Ratatouille:

One of the joys of the movie is that it embraces the opportunities provided by its digital format without ever becoming a movie about its technology. Last year many critics went ga-ga over the long, uncut tracking shot in Atonement showing the apocalyptic panorama of Dunkirk. But while that sequence is technically impressive, it achieves little emotionally beyond stimulating the cinematic hormones of movie geeks like me. So far as I can tell, the primary motivation for the scene’s design is to draw attention to its construction.

By contrast, Ratatouille avoids the temptation to go for ooo-ahhh technical flare for flare’s sake, because there’s no camera stunt work to be performed by a movie that isn’t captured by a camera. Ostensibly, an unbroken tracking shot is no greater an achievement for CGI artists than a series of alternate digital views “spliced together.” However, that doesn’t mean a tracking shot isn’t worth doing, or that it can’t have an astonishing effect.

Which brings us to the sequence in which Remy runs through a labyrinth of studs and pipes in his ascent from a sewer to the roof of a building overlooking Paris. The sequence isn’t an unbroken tracking shot, but it does provide views that would be difficult to pull off in a typical live-action shoot. We follow Remy behind a wall, scamper with him through rat-sized holes, pass through beams and floors and watch him race toward us within a pipe. These shots bring a tingle of excitement not for their technical expertise but for their ability to let us see the world through a rat’s eyes, which of course should be the goal.

Unlike films that dazzle just to dazzle, Ratatouille has its priorities straight. C’est fantastique!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi -

Thanks for a nice post on the role of the editor! Not often found in the blogosphere.

The scene with Remy and Linguini by the Seine, when Remy is almost thrown into the river has also got a great construction - from an editor's point of view.

Even if Pixar controls their pixel images with an iron hand, doesn't mean an editor such as Darren T. Holmes ("Ratatouille", "Iron Giant") isn't useful. I'm sure, for instance, he's much more involved during the making of a film than most editors (who is brought on when the film is either ready to be shot, or already shot.)

Thanks again for a good read!