Scenes with cliffhangers, cuts between characters, dramatic perspective changes and heart-wrenchingly still frames are all used to push and pull emotion out of an audience. This craft is brought to cinema, TV and advertising through the post production process of editing, moulded by seasoned editors who use their keen eyes to shape the way a story unfolds.
One of these craftsmen is film editor, director, writer and sound designer Walter Murch who has a 50-year career which spans movies which shaped cinema as we know it today. With many Oscar-winning pictures under his belt, he shares his expertise in his book ‘In the blink of an eye: A perspective on film editing’ where he explains his experience on what makes for a good edit and how to cut in a way that resonates with an audience.
Breaking things down, Walter mentions the ‘Rule of Six’ which includes the elements that are key to building a story in the editing process. The first one of which is ‘Emotion’, followed by ‘Story’, ‘Rhythm’, ‘Eye Trace’, ‘Two Dimension Place of Screen’ and ‘Three Dimensional Space’. Focusing on emotion, he says, “Telling the emotion of the story is the single most important part when it comes to editing,” and with this in mind, we wanted to ask editors how they approach the editing process when it comes to conveying the emotion behind a story.
Finding a Balance
Speaking to editors, it became clear that the main thing to keep in mind is that there isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ process and that each piece of work requires a unique perspective to shine. Joe Wilby, an editor at Marshall Street Editors says, “In commercials, each job is different and there is no set magical formula for finding the right balance of all your elements. Personally, I tackle each new job with an open mind and a flexible approach.”
“One ultimate truth I think we can all agree on though is there aren't many things more emotional than a wedding,” says Joe when reflecting on his cut for the TV series ‘Married at First Sight’. Elaborating on the series, he says, “There's a couple about to get married. They're on an ‘emotional journey’. They're excited, nervous and happy. The vicar is pointing out reasons why they might not want to get married at first sight. And the two respond, emotionally, to the unflattering things he is saying about them. But then they repeatedly brush it off and get all excited again. They're just in a hurry to get married. There is quite a bit of split-screening going on to get the right bits of performance to make it a mini-emotional rollercoaster.”
Camp Lucky’s editor Sai Selvarajan finds that there’s a philosophy at play during his process, as he says, “Editing is alchemy and emotion is gold.” Further elaborating on this thought, the balance he achieves is channeled from his gut feelings of when, where and what to cut. “Much like alchemy, you have speculative philosophy at play as you edit. Which is a fancier way of saying: ‘trust your instincts and everything that brought you to this decision of when/where/what to cut’. To me, that instant is where you can go from good to great. As far as the need for fast cuts to keep attention spans satiated - I’d say it’s another challenge accepted in a long line of challenges. Emotion is something that can be activated quickly - some of the best emotions happen in the blink of an eye.”
Sai goes on to mention a campaign for Better Help which has recently stuck with him for its ability to deliver strong emotions in a short period of time. Mentioning that he’s seen it more than a handful of times, it still moves him every time. “Within the first five seconds, I’m hooked. This guy delivers a line, and then there’s a pregnant pause, but those first five seconds are dripping with emotion.”
The Subject Matter
Part of crafting in the right way to capture emotion also depends on the subject matter that the audience is presented with and tenthree’s editor Stephen Dunne touches on this in his response to the process, “The word emotion or emotive is often used in our industry to describe a melancholic piece of work, but the emotion in film can be triggered in many different forms. For a sports or car commercial, the emotion may be to employ excitement or desire for the viewer. If it’s a commercial with a serious subject matter, the technique will often be to provoke the audience's response by either shocking or unsettling them out of the stereotypical sales-based advertising template and even bringing a tear to the viewer's eyes… The goal with every project is to make the viewer connect and feel something, no matter how small or simple, whether it be a laugh, a cry or even just a smirk.”
Having started out in long form, Marybeth Benivegna, senior editor at Pilot Content, explains how it’s important to know the medium. “Working with promos and trailers you have a lot less time to tell a story so how you rely on emotion is a bit different. Not only do you need the audience to feel something, but you have to grab the audience, keep their attention and leave them with something like excitement, happiness or intrigue that will stick with them after the spot.”
She continues, “I use emotion to keep audiences engaged, a lull in a promo will just lose that short attention span you’re already fighting for. I like to create a rhythmic surprise where we’re not necessarily carrying a single emotion through the spot, but pivoting to something the audience doesn’t expect and hopefully takes viewers on an unanticipated, yet memorable journey.”
Humanising a Story
“To be human is to have emotions,” says Cut+Run’s editor and founder Steve Gandolfi, as he considers how a good storyteller will tap into feelings which lie beneath the surface. “Understanding what the director and creative team want to deliver emotionally is the start of the creative process. Our job as editors is to take that intention, set the mood, and deliver the story.” This can be found in the tiny ‘salt and pepper’ moments, the powerful shots that hold the most emotion, but it’s all about finding the combination which elicits the most powerful reactions. “The cocktail of ingredients that tug at heartstrings, electrify us, or make audiences laugh is not about editing choices alone, but also music and sound design that work together to deliver the experience,” he says - and this is often something unexpected and new.
Crispin Struthers, editor at Final Cut makes sure he also keeps an eye out for the moments which ultimately make or break the story on screen. "I look for performances that grab me. I don't think about it too much. Either I find it believable, or I don't. If it feels genuine, and if it feels compelling, I throw it in. I used to feel terrified of being called out for using the 'wrong' take, but experience has taught me to rely on my instincts. Picking the takes that draw me in and feel authentic hasn’t gotten me fired yet."
He goes on to explain how emotion is something that everyone is able to pick up on: "We are all hard-wired to read emotion in each other's faces. We all know real when we see it. I’ve learned to trust what I know from living life. I fight to protect these performances throughout the process. If something feels fake, I don't use it. I'll cut around it or restructure it if I have to. I don't want a single moment to take you out of what you are watching. If every reading of a line feels forced, I'll propose losing the line or minimizing it in some way."
Crispin also says, "I wish more clients didn't play it so safe," explaining one of his frustrations. "Too often they want to sandpaper the edge off of everything; to make sure everyone is always smiling. I believe audiences would embrace a more varied and genuine range of emotions in commercials. I’ve found that the work I’m proudest of happens when I collaborate with clients who aren’t afraid to take risks. That’s the work that resonates emotionally."
In agreement with this is Work Editoral’s editor Ben Jordan, who hones in on the importance of storytelling through the edit. “I cannot stress enough the importance of emotion in film editing. The art of storytelling lies in the ability to connect with the audience on an emotional level. A film that fails to evoke an emotional response is destined to be forgettable.”
In his approach, Ben takes the time to study each character’s motivations and this helps him create an impactful narrative. “Every cut is thoughtfully placed, every transition carefully considered. I strive to create an emotional arc that takes the audience on a journey, engaging them in the story and transporting them to a different world.”
DEFINITION 6's senior creative editor Charlie Eisenhardt continues to explain why it's necessary to connect with the audience. "At any given moment, our attention is split between apps on our phones, emails, and text messages from friends or family. Experts say we are more distracted than at any time in our history… Oddly, entertainment strives for our attention, too! As an editor, I am often tasked with taking esoteric ideas and conveying them in attention-grabbing ways. Sometimes, you get lucky with well-shot media, and other times, it’s great writing that carries the emotion of a piece. In either case, the common denominator is emotional impact. And when we think of our favourite movies, TV shows, or songs, we inevitably reflect on how those things make us feel."
He continues, "Viewing creative projects not as products but as vehicles to connect an audience to their emotional subject is important. Because if we are successful in that connection, then we have the audience’s attention and that is the biggest compliment for any creative! In our distracting, fast-paced world, viewers will always remember how they felt when they saw something they connected with."
Keeping on Beat with Rhythm
Of course, a key to creating the perfect emotional arc is knowing who you’re speaking to. With platforms such as TikTok and Instagram Reels making short-form media come to the forefront of consumer attention in the last few years, there is more of a contrast with longer content, namely the opportunity to hold an audience’s attention for longer. But Work Editorial’s Ben also reflects on the challenges that come with the way in which media is consumed, “The balance between fast cuts and emotional resonance is a delicate one. The reality is that attention spans are shrinking, and viewers are less patient than ever. It requires skill and experience to know when to cut quickly and when to linger on a moment.”
He continues, “As a seasoned editor, I am well-versed in the language of film, understanding how timing, pacing, and rhythm can affect the emotional impact of a scene. My edits are a reflection of my commitment to storytelling.”
On the same wavelength is The Quarry’s editor Sam Jones who agrees with Murch as he says, “When it comes to filmmaking, emotion is everything.” He also touches on finding the right shots to create emotion and the power of holding a beat a second longer and the impact that has on the audience. “By using these moments strategically and even juxtaposing them with faster-paced cuts, it's still possible to create an emotional arc that resonates.”
He also adds, “The timing of each shot and the overall flow of the edit can greatly impact the emotional force of the piece. A slower pace can create introspection, while a faster pace can build tension and excitement. Balancing these elements with the project's ambitions is crucial. Sound design is also essential in evoking emotion. The right music, sound effects, and even silence can greatly enhance the emotional impact. Attention to detail when selecting and ordering shots is paramount, as it's the emotional connection created that can set the piece apart and make it truly impactful.”
The pace and rhythm of cuts also seem to be a recurring theme with The Editors’ editor Lily Davis, who says, “Sensitivity is behind every decision I make in the editing room.” Trusting the gut feeling she gets when she’s crafting a piece she continues, “Having sensitivity not only to the delicacy of performance and expression but to the natural rhythm within the material. Then sensing whether to let it guide the cut or manipulate it. These instincts come from putting yourself in the audience’s shoes, as evoking feelings in your audience is the purpose of the edit process.”
Contrary to the accepted belief that attention spans are reducing, Lily believes that the wider range of content available is making people appreciate the craft even more and allowing for more moments to create something special. “In some ways I see audiences shifting. We are especially so well-versed in film language. However, I believe we continue to be moved by emotion, humour, and the beauty of movement. There isn’t necessarily a demand for speed these days, it’s more a demand for engagement, and that can be achieved through a range of filmmaking tools.”
“Call me a hopeless romantic but I believe emotion is always what audiences crave, and therefore remains at the heart of edit craft. Which is why I love it so."