The rhythm in editing is what makes music

Have you ever thought what makes music and image stick together? What makes us perceive it as if it was always there? I guess most people, although they know it isn’t true, they could be convinced that music was present on the live shooting set at some point or another of certain films.

Is it because our mind glues together all incidents that happen at the same time? Is this what makes it so believable? Technically speaking, yes. But some times it is just happens, sometimes it doesn’t and sometimes it is magical…

What makes it magical? Obviously a great music theme that speaks the emotion of the moment, the whole story, the character… we would all agree. But I want to talk about something more. I want to talk about the rare ability of some directors and editors to edit the film with a good rhythm.

The rhythm in a sequence is much more than the rhythm of the ‘cuts’ (when we go from one shot to another). It is the way the camera moves within the shot, the way the actor is told to move, the way he/she looks, the way the director frames his shot and how this changes in the sequence, and creates a sub-rhythm and so on. All these elements create a rhythmic pattern within the overall editing rhythm. And human mind is excellent in detecting patterns and associating them together. Every pattern has a meaning in the human mind, or at least it tries to give it a meaning, and the more solid patterns we have working in harmony, like a good mechanical Swiss clock, the stronger the sequence is engraved in audiences mind and soul.

This is an editor’s gift, and every composer’s dream. I have met editors with great sense of rhythm and others who couldn’t feel it even if you hit them with a stick. It is not something you can teach someone. Most people can follow a rhythm. Some fee it naturally, some have to try. If you have to try, it is almost certain that this is not going to be incorporated well in your work as an editor. It is not usual to ask from an editor to be musical, and maybe this should be part of every editor’s education. I try to teach it to my students when teaching to film schools, but it is not common ground yet. If a composer works with an editor that doesn’t have an inner sense of rhythm, it makes his work twice as difficult and it makes music feel unnatural most of the times. Do not get me wrong: I am not talking about a ‘music video type’ of editing. I talk about subtle rhythmical structures of the presence of all elements on screen. Most of the times we can not distinguish them when we watch a film, but when we work on a film, it is these structures that give the rhythm that the composer should use, either directly or as a counterpoint structure in his music and most of the times both ways.

So, it is not an exaggeration to say that the good editing creates the canvas for a great soundtrack to emerge in the composer’s mind. It takes a great composer to identify it, and create great music, of course. But if the rhythm isn’t there and the composer is faced with a chaotic editing, it takes a lot of effort to put structure to the whole sequence, and in some times it may be impossible to get to a great result altogether. Sometimes a sequence with a good structure and rhythm needs little or no music (depending also on the emotional state of it). But when we do write music for such a sequence… well… it creates unforgettable moments… this is what cinema is all about… the ever dancing patterns of image and sound that we instinctively feel, as our heart changes its beating rhythm to follow it, participating in this dance…