Paper Cuts- “Order In Chaos”

March 7, 2022

Many books have been written about editing and many of them have been written by editors. Maybe this is because editing is the essence of filmmaking and paradoxically also the least-understood creative force in motion pictures. It’s also because editors are storytellers who by delineation not only have a way with pictures but often also with words. Niels Pagh Andersen is a Danish film editor with many international credits who most definitely is a great storyteller in pictures and words when you read his book Order in Chaos: Storytelling and Editing inDocumentary Film.

The book is a great read for anybody interested in the process of film editing. It is divided into two parts where thefirst half is about editing in general and the second about specific documentaries Andersen has edited in his distinguished career. Notably these include The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence with director Joshua Oppenheimer, and Human Flow for Ai Weiwei. As a veteran film editor myself I was amazed how my process of editing mimicked what Andersen described in the first 90 pages of the book. Starting as a very successful feature film editor with many prestigious awards to his name he evolved into editing documentaries that also earned critical acclaim and many awards.

He describes this journey as: “One could say that I learned to play my instrument on feature films, but with documentaries, I found my voice as an editor.”

For anybody who needs to understand what film editing is, anybody who needs to learn how to become an editor and
any editor who needs the reaffirmation of their work method, the first part is an indispensable handbook in the complex process of editing a film. Andersen writes philosophically that editing is a search for harmony where “two basic human feelings drive a filmic experience forward – we hope for the best but fear the worst.”

He continues, “The ‘Happy Ending’ wasn’t invented in Hollywood – but our eternal yearning for harmony is a part of being human and filmmaking requires intellect and feelings; the head and the gut; intuition and analysis. Good films are created by theinteraction  between these two dimensions.”

Although these statements seem pretty lofty, the tone of these chapters is down to earth and it becomes clear why Andersen is also a highly-regarded teacher and educator in Scandinavian film schools. For him, teaching is not a one-way street. He learns from his students how to make the complex world of editing simpler and accessible. Those young minds also introduce him to new ways of storytelling that otherwise would have a hard time getting into the sometimes solitary caverns of the edit suite.

In the second part of the book, Andersen gives us a peek into the different kind of challenges he faced in editing eight of his documentaries. He states, “When editing documentary films, it’s not just about finding balance in a story written two years before, you have to actively search through reality to find the story.” That search for reality manifests itself in each project in a different way and consequently requires different kinds of solutions that may not seem obvious at first.

The solutions often reveal themselves through a sometimes painful process of throwing out previously successful work methods. The first rough cut often presents a crisis where “the dream of the film meets reality.” Andersen suggests that the reality might well be the chaotic illusion of a rough cut to which the editor needs to bring order. Andersen highlights the different ways that this notion of order was worked through in eight documentaries he edited. Each solution was completely different and unexpected  in that almost never is it based on reason but rather originates in one’s gut feelings and instinct. Relying on intuition when you edit is an acquired talent based on years of experience, where you can abandon rules only after you have mastered them.

An interesting and unique feature of the book is that at the end of all chapters dedicated to a specific film Niels editedthere are links provided that direct you to online introductions, and interviews the author assembled to write the book.

The films he writes about might not be as familiar to the non-Danish film enthusiasts and not readily available in the usual film libraries so he provides on line links where the films can be rented or purchased. Reading about these films in his book will definitely create a desire to check out what his editorial challenges were for this projects and how he solved them.

Order in Chaos could benefit every film student because it explains the complexities, challenges, satisfaction and fun of editing motion pictures in general regardless of the genre or format. For editors it is the affirmation of what we already know, highlighted with examples of some great documentaries by an expertly talented colleague.
– EDGAR BURCKSEN, AC

 

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