The Musical Nature of Film Editing with Charles Carter

Here’s a very old film exercise that will go a long way toward illustrating a point that we’re going to make in just a little bit. Open a new tab in your browser and pull up a clip from any movie, literally any movie you can think of.

It would probably be a bit better to pull up a scene from a more recent movie, but we won’t be too picky about it.

Don’t click away quite yet, though. As you watch the clip, this is what we’d like you to do: clap your hands every time you notice an edit. Each time the shot changes, clap once. When it changes again, clap again.

Depending on the genre of the movie, when it was made, and who did the editing, you could find yourself clapping quite a bit or only clapping every so often.

If you chose a movie with a strong musical element such as a full performance, you also might be clapping along to the beat of the song.

We hope you’ve picked up on our point here: editing and music and rhythm share a very strong connection. It’s definitely not a one-to-one connection. If a professional exclusively made cuts based on a precise, consistent BPM, it probably wouldn’t serve the story very well.

But this connection is still important, and it’s one that doesn’t get talked about a whole lot.

Enter Charles Carter, a professional editor based in Los Angeles who has been working on some truly exciting work, including the award-winning standout short film Single, released earlier this year as part of the SXSW film festival and soon after on Amazon Prime.

Carter also edited the short films The History of Monsters, Luce, Count, and My War, many of which have received praise at film festivals all around the world.

Perhaps most relevant to our discussion, Carter is an editor through-and-through, but he also has a certain understanding of music that he has found to be very useful in his editing work.

“My knowledge of music has also been invaluable in helping me shape sequences where image and music are essential in telling the story non-verbally. This was the case in the short film ‘Luce’ where the combination of image and music created a meaning beyond what was written in the script.”

As Carter deftly points out here, editing is what needs to make all the disparate elements of a film work together in a way that supports the story.

Carter will stay with us as we do a bit of investigating into this relationship between editing and the nature of music.

Pacing

Whether in composition or in film, pacing is what helps dictate the tone of the piece, and it can also go a long way toward keeping the audience engaged in that piece.

For example, a very dramatic scene probably shouldn’t feel “fast,” just as a tender love ballad probably isn’t going to have a high tempo.

Carter explained that when editing a short film in particular, there can be a special challenge in working out the pacing during the editing process. While the scenes and performances themselves help to suggest a certain pacing, the editor needs to be very aware of how small changes in pacing can affect the viewing experience. 

In fact, Carter referred to aspects of the emotional content of a film as a kind of energy that needs to be managed:

“The particular challenge of a short film is that you have to establish the story and the characters within a short timespan and then you have to resolve it. It’s a difficult balancing act as short films can sometimes drag if you don’t get the right rhythm and pace and it’s imperative that you find the necessary dramatic energy.”

Losing sight of the pacing, and of that ‘dramatic energy’ can spell disaster for a film, especially a short film since it will have far less time to hook the viewer.

The musicality of editing

Now we’ve come to the heart of the matter: what it’s like to actually engage in the editing process, especially when applying certain principles that can be gleaned from music itself.

There’s so much that could be said on the subject, but when we got into the topic with Carter, we tried to focus on the musicality of editing as well as how that process incorporates music and sound design.

Here’s the core of what Carter had to say:

“Editing has a musicality in the way you put images together and how you use sound to craft the world you are creating, and it has a similar feeling to putting music together. Music should support the emotion in a scene and not be the emotion. Finding the rhythm and pace within a scene or a film as a whole is sticking to the story you want to tell and trusting your instinct, wherever it may take you.”

As music guys here at Vents, we think it’s fair to make yet another comparison to music here, specifically with regards to balance.

With any project, it’s very important to keep tabs on the prominence of each element at any given moment in the work.

If you’re mixing a 3-minute pop song, for example, certain elements of that song (most likely the vocals, the melody line, and the rhythm section) would need to be louder than the others. Harmonies and additional flourishes would probably be much lower in the mix.

Yes, these decisions are very much about trends and standards in the genre, but they’re also about making this piece of music exactly what you want it to be.

If we apply this to what Carter said about the musicality of editing, we can see a similar need for balance.

In one scene, it might be more important to showcase the performances and nothing else, holding on longer takes and using very little score music, if any.

In another scene, there might be no dialogue at all, leaving room for more music or just allowing for more quick cutting between shots.

Depending on what you want a specific film to feel like, it will have its own sense of balance that you need to strike. 

Working on musical content

We’ve talked a lot about this connection between music and editing, but what about the times when an editor is working on a project that’s very explicitly musical in nature?

The easiest examples would be movie-musicals and music videos. It seems like there might be a temptation to simply match the rhythm of the music at all times.

But if you watch just a handful of music videos, new and old, it’s easy to see that this technique definitely doesn’t get used all the time.

So in that case, how do editors working on musical content decide where to make their cuts? What’s the driving force?

Well, Carter recently worked on a music video and he shared with Vents how the experience challenged him to match the mood and tone of the song rather than using the underlying rhythm of the song as a crutch.

“I cut a music video, ‘Hella Cool,’ with an awesome team for Lilianna Wilde. It was an interesting idea based on the isolation people were experiencing due to Covid. Because it was shot during lockdown, we had to think outside the box in the edit to create a constantly evolving music video that would be engaging.”

This gives us a pretty interesting lesson that applies to creative work well beyond editing, too: don’t take the easy answers as the only answers.

If you can find a way to do the work justice, use whatever means are necessary to accomplish that goal.

Rhythm and cuts

We’d like to close by expanding on that challenge of dealing with musical elements directly in editing, this time by looking at a feature film that includes a whole lot of in-universe music and musical performances. 

Carter has a special appreciation for the work that editor Tom Cross did on the critically acclaimed film Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle.

For those who might have missed this one, it’s a movie all about a talented drumming student who constantly butts heads with his instructor in more and more intense ways.

This creates an interesting contrast between performance moments of generally upbeat music and more dramatic scenes.

Carter feels Cross distinguishes these two types of moments perfectly.

“The drum playing scenes have a rhythm that by their very nature gets under your skin. It becomes an externalization of the character’s emotions. It’s a brilliant metaphor for conflict. In those scenes Cross punctuates it with jump cuts, short shots, and rapid-fire editing, which gives it a stylized feel that is perfect for the story at those points.”

With or without an understanding of music, editing always presents unique challenges, and our discussion with Carter has certainly brought to light just how intricate and touchy those challenges can be.

Rhythm is important, and so is pacing, but many editing decisions can come down to intuition and skill.

by Giorgio Chang

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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