February 1, 2013

Women and film editing

The percentage of women nominated for an Academy Award for Best Film Editing has declined from 21% in the 1930s to 15% during the last ten years.

This low percentage of women editors is a rather puzzling pattern.

I mean, is film heavy? (That's actually not a totally stupid question: a full reel of traditional 35 mm film is quite heavy, but I have no idea whether apprentice editors are expected to do any heavy lifting of complete reels, the way apprentice cinematographers have to climb ladders carrying heavy lights.)

Film editing is a highly respected if not well understood craft. Oscar voters assume that good movies are good in sizable degree because they are well edited:
Nominations for this award are closely correlated with the Academy Award for Best Picture. Since 1981, every film selected as Best Picture has also been nominated for the Film Editing Oscar, and about two thirds of the Best Picture winners have also won for Film Editing.

On the other hand, film editors are almost never singled out for achievement in an otherwise mediocre film, the way actors often are.

The two most honored editors currently working are Spielberg's editor Michael Kahn (eight nominations, three Oscars) and Scorsese's editor Thelma Schoonmaker (seven and three).

Schoonmaker's career is of interest. She edited a Scorsese student project in the 1960s and earned an Oscar nomination for editing the concert film Woodstock way back in 1970. But she couldn't get into the editor's union for a decade so she was blocked from working on Hollywood features throughout the 1970s. She finally got her union card (she thinks Al Pacino pulled some strings for her), and her first feature with Scorsese was 1980's Raging Bull, which would be high on anybody's list of superbly edited films.

She's edited only one movie since for anybody other than Scorsese, but has edited all of Scorsese's pictures. This may explain something about why Scorsese, who looked in the late 1970s to be headed toward the usual career of a director who burns brightly for just a few years, has made so many comebacks.

IMDB has some quotes from Schoonmaker on the gender question:
I think the women have a particular ability to work with strong directors. They can collaborate. Maybe there's less of an ego battle. 
I'm not a person who believes in the great difference between women and men as editors. But I do think that quality is key. We're very good at organizing and discipline and patience, and patience is 50 per cent of editing. You have to keep banging away at something until you get it to work. I think women are maybe better at that. 
People expect artists to be too normal, I think. I've been around enough of them now to see that they're very extraordinary human beings who behave differently than ordinary human beings. If they weren't as sensitive as they are they wouldn't be great artists. They are not the same as us. People should just learn to accept that.

Schoonmaker has long reminded me of Vera Nabokov, the classic example of the old, extremely unfashionable saying, "Behind every great man is a great woman." Vera put up with Vladimir's eccentricities, organized every aspect of his life, accompanied him to all of his lectures at Cornell, sitting in the first row to keep him on top of things, and even drove the nondriver on all of his butterfly-collecting expeditions across the West. Throughout decades of obscurity and economic deprivation, she remained convinced that her husband was a genius. Suddenly, in 1958 when he was 59-years-old, the whole world came to agree with her.

So, reading up on Schoonmaker on Wikipedia, I was struck by:
Schoonmaker was interested in a career in international diplomacy and began attending Cornell University in 1957, where she studied political science and the Russian language. (She attended classes taught by Vladimir Nabokov.)

In other words, Schoonmaker saw Vera Nabokov at every class.

P.S.  Another director-editor team was Quentin Tarantino and Sally Menke, who died hiking in Griffith Park on a 113 degree day in 2010. Thus, as Uncouth Reflections noted, Django Unchained was the first Tarantino movie not edited by Menke. Surely, she would have talked Tarantino out of including in the final release The Worst Scene Ever: you know, the long episode toward the end where Quentin shows up in Mississippi in 1858 talking in an inexplicable Australian accent, and looking so physically decayed he epitomizes Orwell's line that "At 50, everyone has the face he deserves." (Or in QT's case, at 49.)

58 comments:

Thursday said...

Next to the director, I'd place the editor above even the screenwriter in importance. How you actually put the film together is extremely important.

AllanF said...

"patience is 50 per cent of editing"

I've worked on editing a couple 4-8 minute shorts. Using computers and an expert at the controls, myself just giving directions. It's incredibly time consuming. Unless you've done it, I think one cannot imagine. We're talking 8-10 hours at the keyboard for 4-8 minutes. Two to three times that in advance going through the raw footage, taking notes, deciding which take to use, identifying where to put all the cuts, etc. Then you're sitting there at the computer watching the thing come together trying to decide where to make a cut with a 1/4 second or less precision.

The difference between the right cut and almost the right cut is the difference between lightning and lightning bugs.

Anonymous said...

Old editing was like knitting, so there was the idea that nimble-fingered women were ideal for the job.

But new editing is more about computer know-how, and so it's likely to favor nerds who are mostly male.

Anonymous said...

The problem with prizes like 'best editing' is they tend to favor the flashy over the subtle. Yes, RAGING BULL is superbly edited, and it's difficult not to notice.

But the editing of DAZED AND CONFUSED is no less remarkable, but fewer people take notice because it's 'invisible'.

Harry Baldwin said...

At 49, Tarantino also has the paunch he deserves. Yikes.

Brazilian said...

There is a famous black french women editor that works with Mathieu Kassovitz...

Anonymous said...

When are we gonna have best gaffer?

Marc B said...

Film reels are heavy, and when films were edited on a flatbed not so long ago, it was a grueling process not many women would find pleasant. I learned how to edit on a flatbed and shortly afterward migrated over to tape to tape linear editing. A lot more women edit professionally now that films are scanned into a digital intermediate and edited on a computer, but still not very many.

Anonymous said...

>inexplicable Australian accent.

The 19th century was more literate than us, but without TV. So people with odd accents and strange dialect kept popping up for no reason. And maybe Tarantino has enough good taste to read George Macdonald Fraser.

Anonymous said...

I think part of what you're seeing is that the advent of online editing (Final Draft, Avid, etc.) has made the basic process so much easier that a lot of male directors fool themselves into thinking they can use any old person or even do the job themselves. This is often a mistake. Robert Rodriguez edits his own movies and they're terribly edited.

Anonymous said...

Film is heavy, and the change from 35mm to 70mm stock resulted in fewer women editors (That is entirely made up)

Anonymous said...

How about best trailer?

Anonymous said...

How about best title sequence?

Anonymous said...

Sometimes its the battles you stay out of that define greatness. Way to not embarrass yourself with a full court press support of Hagel.

Steve Sailer said...

"Robert Rodriguez edits his own movies and they're terribly edited."

I remember watching Star Wars in the 1970s and thinking during the attack on the Death Star section that this is great editing.

One of the three credited editors was George Lucas's first wife, soon to be his ex-wife.

How much did Lucas benefit from having the woman who understood him best in the world editing Star Wars for him?

Anonymous said...

When are we gonna have best gaffer?

Never mind them, what about best best boy?

andres said...

The usual explanation is that women opted for jobs as editors since directing wasn't readily available for them. That's why during the classic Hollywood era you have a relatively high percentage of women editors. Nowadays that it is more easy for women to direct, being editors is not so interesting.

Steve Sailer said...

"Nowadays that it is more easy for women to direct, being editors is not so interesting."

Okay, women have gotten 2 of the last 90 or 100 Best Director nominations: I'm not sure if this trade-off is working out for women in film.

Bill said...

Well, Nabokov owes not only Vera, but Tolstoy's daughter for his fame. Leo Tolstoy's devoted youngest daughter Alexandra (who died in 1979) helped Nabokov get out of the USSR and into the US.

I think one of the reasons for the relative predominance of homosexuals in the Anglo arts and letters is that British and American women simply won't put up with artistic men.

Anonymous said...

"One of the three credited editors was George Lucas's first wife, soon to be his ex-wife.

How much did Lucas benefit from having the woman who understood him best in the world editing Star Wars for him?"

Marcia Lucas is pretty definitely the person who focused George Lucas, polished his good ideas and threw out the bad. Notice that all of her film credits are very, very good (including Taxi Driver and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore for Martin Scorcese) while Lucas' output fell off dramatically in 1983 after she left him for the stained glass guy who could actually get her pregnant (all of George's kids are adopted while she adopted one with him then gave birth to one with the dude she left him for.)

Steve Sailer said...

"Marcia Lucas is pretty definitely the person who focused George Lucas, polished his good ideas and threw out the bad."

It's almost as if men and women are good for each for other.

Anonymous said...

"You have to keep banging away at something until you get it to work. I think women are maybe better at that."

Ummm...no.

Mr. Anon said...

"Steve Sailer said...

How much did Lucas benefit from having the woman who understood him best in the world editing Star Wars for him?"

Given that he never made a good movie after "Star Wars", probably quite a bit.

Editing is pretty important in movies, third only to cinematography and writing. A good director is one who picks a good lensman, writer, and editor.

Seth said...

pretty sure orwell said "at 40 everyone has the face he deserves."

not 50

Auntie Analogue said...


My favorite editor is Ann V. Coates, whose work on 'Lawrence Of Arabia' transformed it into David Lean's masterpiece. Having begun his career in the snip shack whence his work got him noticed and advanced him into directing, Lean proved to have been a splendid editing mentor.

misty said...

."..whose work on 'Lawrence Of Arabia' transformed it..."

I can watch a Dickens miniseries in one night, a whole season of a weekly show in a day; but I still can't get through L of A. It must be all that damnable sand.

As Saileresque as this thread has become, I'd also like to note that Sailer's blog is sorely lacking his unique brand of cultural anthropological religio critique. Can't wait to see what nomination category you come up with next, fake Steve.

Guess I'll go make sand angels in the desert, now. If I get buried accidentally, don't dig me out.

Cheers

BigStraightPhil said...

There must be a real art to editing. Whenever I watched Oriental films in the past, this was always the element that they seemed to get wrong. Poor editing can utterly destroy the drama of a moment and make it laughable or surreal.

Perhaps I haven't seen enough of such films to discern a pattern, but I have noticed with the more recent Oriental films that the one name in the credits which is often Western is the editor.

Reg Cæsar said...

Editing is the sort of thing you only notice when it's botched. As Todd Rundgren explained it on a 1972 album, "This is the s-ound of b-aaad editediting."

Reg Cæsar said...

Another one who owed his success to a woman in the background was Dick Francis, whose wife was his uncredited co-author. He knew the track, but she knew the page.

Anonymous said...

What I remember most about 'Raging Bull' were the bizarre 'bull noises' (or whatever they were supposed to be), that accompanied De Niro in the fight scenes.
On subsequent later TV iwings of the film the bull noises seemingly vanished. I'm sure I didn't imagine them.

Anonymous said...

When speaking of female editors, don't forget about the great Dede Allen. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dede_allen

Marcia Lucas is pretty definitely the person who focused George Lucas, polished his good ideas and threw out the bad.

It's almost as if men and women are good for each for other.


Peter Bogdanovich and Bob Rafelson are two other 70s directors whose artistic output suffered massively when they lost their collaborator wives.

CJ said...

Susan E. Morse edited twenty consecutive Woody Allen movies from Manhattan in 1979 to Celebrity in 1998. She also was an assistant editor on Annie Hall and Interiors. She apparently was dropped as part of a general cost-cutting drive by Allen and his producer.

BTW, one more hater here who enjoys the physical degeneration of Tarantino. He doesn't have the appearance he deserves, however. He deserves worse.

Marlowe said...

I watched a 2 !/2 hour documentary about film editing on the BBC (produced by the Screen Guild I think) a few years ago and it made the interesting point that a lot of award winning acting performances have been constructed by the editors out of the footage (coverage) of different takes. (In other words, not a continuous piece of acting) Cutting can build a much sharper and stronger and more powerful or subtle 'acting performance'. So yes, the editor wins awards for both directors and actors.

astorian said...

So far, no one has mentioned the greatest female film editor of all time: Verna Fields.

The young George Lucas and the young Steven Spielberg owed a lot to her, because she edited "American Graffiti" and "Jaws," winning an Oscar for the latter.

Matt said...

Marcia Lucas is pretty much the definitive example of a great female editor. By all accounts the rough cut of Star Wars was unwatchable before she edited it.

There's a lot more to George Lucas' quality falloff than just her leaving, but it was likely the biggest single blow.

josh said...

a)I wouldve bet dollars to donuts that it was Abe Lincoln(the early pioneer of civil rights) who said the "face at 50" thing. Is there a feminists angle to that saying,given the vagaries of time on the fairer sex? b)I have got to see that Django scene you talked about--w/o having to see the movie. A cursory search on YouTube was unsuccesful,tho there are lots of scenes on there. Does anybody have an address where the scene can be,uhm,seen? c)Editing is a time consuming job that is very hard to do right. It should be expected that women will not be as good nor care as much about this profession as men.Why the drop? Maybe because of more competition and more credentialization required?

SF said...

Editing is all digital now. You need to be the type of nerd that quickly grasps the intricacies of your editing program. That might favor men, but in a school class, I couldn't see much difference in talent.

pat said...

I have been commenting on the importance of film editing here for the last few months. It's nice to see the world catch up.

I think my reverence for the editing process stemmed from a youthful incident.

I was taking a film class at SF State. In those days we did our editing with a razor blade. I was in the editing room editing up a storm on the moviola. We had all made two minute films. I was trying to produce a three minute film with snippets of unwanted footage I got from other students spliced in.

I was pouring over my little film frame by frame. I was hunched up, focused and serious as all hell. Then I notice the two guys at the next moviola were whipping through their footage at high speed and laughing like lunatics.

They were watching something with naked Mexicans and donkey.

I get a flashback to that day in the editing room every time I hear the term film editor.

Albertosaurus

candid_observer said...

If I can be indulged in a just-so story, the director/editor relationship seems to mimic the male/female courtship practice of the man confecting some amusing entertainment, and the woman appreciating, judging, and criticizing the product.

In humor as well, men tend to be the producers and women the appreciators of jokes.

Anonymous said...

http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm/2013/02/01/seeing-mexico-through-blood-tinted-glasses/

Anonymous said...

http://www.toddseavey.com/2013/01/unreliable-accounts-unlibertarian.html

Anonymous said...

http://www.c-spanarchives.org/program/ID/235034

Anonymous said...

c'mon, film, the golfcourse. how about some research showing republican statements through the 80s and 90s wishing and hoping to carry the hispanic and third world immigrant vote, set against the data on hispanic and immigrant voting patterns.

BrokenSymmetry said...

It's not just restricted to Hollywood. Tarkovsky's long-term film editor was Lyudmila Feiginova who worked on Andrei Rublev, Solaris, Stalker and The Mirror (talk about a body of work!). Women probably do have an advantage at this.

BrokenSymmetry said...

It's not just restricted to Hollywood. Tarkovsky's long-term film editor was Lyudmila Feiginova who worked on Andrei Rublev, Solaris, Stalker and The Mirror (talk about a body of work!). Women probably do have an advantage at this.

Marlowe said...

I was trying to produce a three minute film with snippets of unwanted footage I got from other students spliced in.

We almost had another Ed Wood:

"Why, if I had half a chance, I could make an entire movie using this stock footage. The story opens on these mysterious explosions. Nobody knows what's causing them, but it's upsetting all the buffalo. So, the military are called in to solve the mystery."

"You forgot the octopus."

"No, no, I'm saving that for my big underwater climax."


I was pouring over my little film frame by frame. I was hunched up, focused and serious as all hell. Then I notice the two guys at the next moviola were whipping through their footage at high speed and laughing like lunatics.

They were watching something with naked Mexicans and donkey.


Jay and Silent Bob go to film school.

"That guy's being awfully forward with that donkey."

Marlowe said...

What I remember most about 'Raging Bull' were the bizarre 'bull noises' (or whatever they were supposed to be), that accompanied De Niro in the fight scenes.
On subsequent later TV viewings of the film the bull noises seemingly vanished. I'm sure I didn't imagine them.


De Niro played the elephant in the David Lynch/Mel Brooks movie didn't he? He put a lot of weight on for the part.

Anonymous said...

Editing is probably the trickiest award since perhaps no facet of filmmaking is as dependent on other factors. Editor can only work on the material provided for him/her, and oftentimes, the director is the main editor. By determining what is shot and isn't shot, he is essentially editing in the process of shooting.
Also in many cases, at least where the director has anything like real power, the editor works under directorial supervision than works on his or her own. He or she takes orders.
Of course, the cinematographer also works closely with the director, but he generally has more means to shape the look of the overall material. Editing is part of the finishing process and is thus less 'creative' than other facets of filmmaking.

Perhaps, editing will be more like an art since digicam allows so much footage to be shot. When film was made with filmstock, scenes were prepared for more carefully--often storyboarded--so as not to waste film. And directors like Lean and Hitchcock pretty much edited the film as they directed. Actually, Hitchcock laid out how all the scenes would be before he got to directing.
But I can imagine editing was a big part of TREE OF LIFE, but no amount of editing could save that pile of poo.

I wonder about a film like the RUSSIAN ARK, something I've never been able to sit through.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0318034/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm#cast

Three editors are credited, but what did they edit? The entire film is one long take.

Anonymous said...

"Marcia Lucas is pretty definitely the person who focused George Lucas, polished his good ideas and threw out the bad. Notice that all of her film credits are very, very good (including Taxi Driver and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore for Martin Scorcese) while Lucas' output fell off dramatically in 1983 after she left him for the stained glass guy who could actually get her pregnant (all of George's kids are adopted while she adopted one with him then gave birth to one with the dude she left him for.)"

She was a henpecking bitch who drove him nuts. He wasted so much talent, energy, and money over the divorce.
Lucas's artistic decline had nothing to do with Marcia. He became defined by STAR WARS and stuck with it--or got stuck with it. But then, why let go of a golden goose? Lucas's real contribution to cinema was in technology with his Industrial Light and Magic, and he was no slouch or failure there.

Why did Lucas turn away from art? Blame the people. He made THX 1138, one of the greatest sci-fi films, yet it totally bombed. Even the counterculture people didn't much care for it. So, what was Lucas left to do but make stuff like STAR WARS?
I wonder though... he was slated to direct APOCALYPSE NOW but with the success of STAR WARS, he had other things in mind to create his own empire. But what if STAR WARS had only been a moderate success, and Lucas next made APOCALYPSE NOW and it became a big success? History of cinema might have been very different.

Anonymous said...

http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2013/01/04/article-0-16BE38EF000005DC-577_634x843.jpg

George Locos

David Davenport said...

Why did Lucas turn away from art? Blame the people. He made THX 1138, one of the greatest sci-fi films, yet it totally bombed. Even the counterculture people didn't much care for it. So, what was Lucas left to do but make stuff like STAR WARS?

Lucas made the box office success *American Graffiti* in between *THX1138* and *Star Wars*.

*American Graffiti*, released in the earlier 1970's, was one of the first flicks aimed at Baby Boomer nostalgia, with sound track tunes such as "Green Onions" from about 1962.

John Milius said in an interview that he gave fellow USC film school alumnus George L. the idea for *Graffiti*. ... Don't know if that's true.

Mr. Steve might do a Whatever happened to to John Milius? piece sometime.

Anonymous said...

I watched a 2 !1/2 hour documentary about film editing on the BBC (produced by the Screen Guild I think) a few years ago and it made the interesting point that a lot of award winning acting performances have been constructed by the editors out of the footage (coverage) of different takes. (In other words, not a continuous piece of acting) Cutting can build a much sharper and stronger and more powerful or subtle 'acting performance'. So yes, the editor wins awards for both directors and actors.

1)Stanley Kubrick spent a massive amount of time editing. Most scenes were shot over and over and over and from different angles and out of this vast body of material he would construct a film.

2)My dad was a radio journalist (BBC) he would spend hours slaving over raw tapes after interviews - in the days when tape was still edited with razor blades and cement.

This was to make interviewees whose every other utterance was the word 'er'or'um' sound like they were in fact articulate. I wonder sometimes if they even recognized themselves on the radio? I just thought it was normal as a kid, I realise now it really was a very skilled job. Scale that up to film editing (he has done that too) and its a serious task.

Anonymous said...

I'm just imagining George Locos Darth Mauling those Death stars.

Marlowe said...

This was to make interviewees whose every other utterance was the word 'er'or'um' sound like they were in fact articulate. I wonder sometimes if they even recognized themselves on the radio? I just thought it was normal as a kid, I realise now it really was a very skilled job. Scale that up to film editing (he has done that too) and its a serious task.

When you add in the fact of actor's dubbing over their original speech (with the assistance of sound engineers) one wonders he exactly who the award ought to go to.

Anonymous said...

Lucas's black girlfriend looks like Tiger Woods.

Anonymous said...

John Milius - Alternative Pagan Right

Anonymous said...

http://www.amren.com/news/2013/02/poll-highlights-swedes-immigration-concerns/

Want to know said...

Do you or anyone know of women editors who started out making home movies or videos before making it a career?