What can copyeditors learn from Hollywood?

Star Wars buffs will love this video essay, but so too will anyone with an interest in editing of any form: How Star Wars was saved in the edit.

While editing a feature film is clearly a different proposition to editing a written document, there are some fundamental similarities. In each instance, the editor is trying to remove everything that isn’t necessary and detracts from the message that is to be conveyed. In the case of Star Wars, this meant ‘rebuilding a bloated first act; cutting tonnes of unnecessary material; create clarity, tension and drama in places that had none; and restructure scenes and entire sequences to propel the story forward’.

It turns out the editing team of Richard Chew, Paul Hirsh and Marcia Lucas deserve a lot of the credit (well, they did win an Oscar) for turning a potential disaster into the blockbuster that kicked off a franchise that has since spawned nearly a dozen films at last count (not to mention the gazillions in associated merchandise).

The video cites numerous changes made in the editing suite to address problems with the script and what was subsequently filmed (I highly recommend watching the whole video for yourself).

When you see the opening sequences as Lucas originally filmed them – our introduction to the main characters of the film – it’s frankly a mess. The initial space battle and capture of Princess Leia’s ship is intercut with scenes of Luke Skywalker repairing some electronic device, watching the battle through binoculars, and engaging in excruciatingly clichéd small talk about how he’d love to become a fighter pilot but his aunt and uncle need him on the farm.

The editors cut these scenes and kept only the ones that drive the narrative, which they then reordered to build rising tension. As the narrator says, ‘the editor is responsible for controlling the flow of information, how one scene should lead into the next based on what the audience knows up to that point’. Replace ‘scene’ and ‘audience’ with ‘paragraph’ and ‘reader’ and you have a pretty good job description for a copyeditor.

Not all the changes the editors made were as dramatic as the restructuring of the opening sequence. As the video shows, there were many smaller changes that nevertheless added up to a better movie. In one scene, the order of shots was reversed so that rather than seeing the two droids emerging from behind a door after their pursuers have left, we now see them hiding behind the door first so there’s some tension when the storm troopers come knocking.

And in the original version of the scene where Luke and Obi-Wan discuss the force and muck around with lightsabers, they had actually already witnessed the hologram of Leia pleading for assistance. Thankfully, the editors realised this might have made our heroes seem a little callous, so they changed the order to minimise the delay between the princess begging for their help and the decision to mount a rescue.

Clearly George Lucas placed a lot of trust in his editors, and as director he was presumably happy with their work and these changes to the film (although apparently he did add the odd scene back in). Editing in all forms is usually a collaborative exercise, with the goal of creating the best end product possible, whether it is a text or a trilogy of sci-fi trilogies.

May the force be with you.

Image credit: Untalented Guy Colored via photopin (license)

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