PhD project

”Beyond Cut and Join" by Kersti Grunditz Brennan

Researcher: Kersti Grunditz Brennan

Beyond Cut and Join – Expanding the creative role of film editing in cinematic storytelling⁠ is a PhD project by Kersti Grunditz Brennan. Kersti is a PhD candidate in film and media.

Background

Decades of professional experience in film editing across multiple forms has repeatedly demonstrated how much of its potential is untapped in filmmaking, especially in relation to character creation, and how often editors’ skills, influence and authorial participation are misunderstood and undervalued.

Research questions

To address this problem this research asks:

  • Focusing on people and their relationships (in documentary, drama and experimental film) what can editing do to invite and enhance the viewer’s experiencing with, feeling for and thinking about a story’s characters?
     
  • What is a useful and challenging creative research process for investigating what editing does to invite and enhance layered experiences of characters in cinematic storytelling?
     
  • What expanded description of film editing can be articulated and explored with the intention of explicating it (for students) and further expanding understanding and practice (for practitioners)?

Methods

This research will be conducted through a series of creatively designed projects that place characters and relationships at their center and where film editing is explored through experimentation and analysis of its compositional role in various genres and formats. Method is developed through practice: using feminist approaches to content, dramaturgy and aesthetics to activate the viewer as co-creator; articulating creative strategies for shaping characters; sharing, refining and adding to editing vocabulary; developing collaborative structures and artistic methods that benefit creative processes in the edit room; complicating standard assignments of roles with insight into distribution of creative thinking and generation of ideas amongst professions, practices and contexts; pointing out what makes the editor’s handprint felt.

Aims

This project aims to:

1: Encourage filmmaking that activates the viewer’s relationship to the film’s characters and events by using editing that is in the forefront of the aesthetic; with extensive cutting and fractured narratives.

2: Challenge notions of authorship in cinema by using compositional strategies that favor physical & kinesthetic editing principles over psychology or narrative logic, elevating the status of editing.

3: Develop collaborative structures and creative methods that benefit story creation in the editing process.

Introduction to the research project  – Aug. 2021

This research builds on my more than twenty years working in the film industry across many genres, formats and platforms. I have directed several feature documentaries and art films and taken on other cinematic practices like cinematography, script writing and costume design. However, my professional identity is primarily shaped by my extensive experience in film editing.  My concerns with filmmaking generally start from the perspective of editing processes. Through the years I have witnessed how genius cults and the focus on single-author voices obscure the collaborative nature of filmmaking and hamper cinema’s potential for a diversity of perspectives.  These structures produce and re-enforce stereotypes, authoritarian gazes, and simplified narratives.  When I go to the movies, I want to actively engage with creating the cinematic story; I want to add to and experience with, not passively look at the people and events on the screen.  I agree with Eisenstein that editing should not aim to control the viewers’ psychology but offer possibilities for interpretation (Eisenstein, 1963). As a viewer I am therefore interested in films where the editing is in the forefront; both felt and visible through extensive cutting between multiple perspectives and through fractured narratives. 

As an editor (an often-invisible intersection of cinematic practices), my interest is in collaborative story creation that happens in the edit room. In my attempts to expand the application of editing centered aesthetics and methods for story creation to a wider range of films, I have often met resistance from collaborators and other stake holders like commissioning editors and distributors.  The resisters usually refer to previous bad experiences of similar attempts or to preconceived notions, but I also discern a lack of understanding of film editing. There are a couple of specific challenges that re-enforce this resistance to more editing centered aesthetics:  Extensive cutting can disorient the viewer to the point of not engaging with the film or disembody the subjects of the film into objects.  Fractured narratives can make the story emotionally distant, overly confusing, or cause it to collapse under the weight of its heavy-handed script construction. When it comes to shifting the story creation phase more into the edit room, there are many factors that shape the editing process and what story can be created in the editing room. Some factors like personalities, tastes, power structures, skills or lack of vocabulary can be difficult to address due to their implicit nature. Other factors like the filmed material, deadlines or other production conditions can be hard to affect by the time the editing starts.  In those cases, the creative options in the editing phase become limited. 

The bulk of my artistic work is film portraits – a reflection of my interest in human emotion and interaction. For most of my career I have grappled with who gets to be portrayed as complex characters and how that is achieved, from what perspectives they are portrayed and how the viewers’ perception of the characters can be left open to multifaceted interpretations. To narrow the scope of the research, I will focus on cinematic stories that center on people (characters) and relationships and the role that editing plays in shaping characters in both fiction and documentary

Research questions

  • Focusing on people and their relationships (in documentary, drama and experimental film) what can editing do to invite and enhance the audience’s experiencing with, feeling for and thinking about a story’s characters?
       
  • What is a useful and challenging creative research process for investigating what editing does to invite and enhance layered experiences of characters in cinematic storytelling?
     
  • What expanded description of film editing can be articulated and explored with the intention of explicating it (for students) and further expanding understanding and practice (for practitioners)?
     

Research method in relation to the research questions

I research through writing and editing from a feminist perspective; through pluralistic, personal, and embodied practices.

One of the starting points for modeling a useful and challenging creative research process for investigating what editing does to invite and enhance layered experiences of characters in cinematic storytelling is to consider cinematic storytelling as a cooperation of practices more than a collaboration of set professional roles. This stance is in part based on research on distributed cognition in the edit room (Pearlman, McKay, Sutton 2018), in part based on my previous practice I’ve identified a need to complicate the standard assignment of roles with insight into the distribution of creative thinking and generation of ideas amongst many professions, practices and contexts. The practices and professional roles may overlap, but distinguishing between what the practice of editing does in the whole of the film and what a particular editor does, reveals a need for different approaches to the different types of conditions at play when exploring editing, including conditions that reach beyond the editing room. The editing is affected by choices that went into creating the film material and those choices don’t necessarily fall within the professional responsibilities of the person hired to edit, even though the actual film material of course plays a big role in what can be done through editing. The editor is affected by the collaborative structure, which is another part of the combination of factors the will be highlighted when developing a method to explore editing. Editing and editor are not necessarily the same but meet in the edit room along with the material and whatever other filmmaking professionals are part of the editing process. Part of creating a method for exploring editing, is explicitly structuring who participates when, and the level of their co-creation (distributed cognition) in the editing process. The film material I edit in this research is also created collaboratively, allowing for a collaborative structure where I, with my skills in editing thinking, can take creative part in practices other than editing. Developing social contracts, codes of ethics, and communication strategies are essential parts of this research. By trying to describe my creative process and creative strategies when editing, I also look at how my contribution to the overall film and especially the character description, is affected by the combination of film material (the results of other cinematic practices; story, images, performances, etc.), the collaborative structures and their modes for communication, the artistic vision, project context, and my own personal experiences.  I define my contribution to the film as whatever personal traces or handprint I leave on the finished film and to what degree I can utilize and access my creativity and skills in the making of it.

In order to deepen conversations on editing choices with collaborators through the whole filmmaking process, there is need for a rich vocabulary on editing principles. Part of the method is to develop pedagogic models to introduce established vocabulary (Pearlman, 2016) in editing thinking to both collaborators, students and viewers and to refine and add to existing articulations of editing principles, dealing with the question of what expanded description of film editing can be articulated and explored.

The film material created in this research is connected to experiences that are mine and my collaborators. I am a woman and some of my life experiences are shared with a large (often silent) group of people but rarely dealt with in artwork I encounter. Most films feature a majority of men, have dualistic or patriarchal approaches to storytelling with a dominant slant towards neat resolutions and tidy storylines, and male experiences tend to be considered norm. None of which I recognize from my experiences as a woman and none of which fit a feminist search for multiplicity and interconnectedness. To explore editing that goes beyond linear psychological or narrative logic through stories with multiple perspectives, this project deals with subjects where I have a personal stake and therefore can navigate the complexity of charting ways to tell multifaceted, non-exploitive stories of  e.g. womb-related states of life and death rarely depicted in cinema. 

My thesis is that to both experience with, feel for and think about a character, the viewer needs to take an active role in co-creating the cinematic experience. To explore what editing can do to invite viewers into active engagement with the film and its characters beyond watching a tale from one particular perspective, I am interested in replacing psychology and narrative logic as the guide when creating paths through cuts between multiple perspectives and fractured narratives. To that end I am exploring compositional strategies that favor editing choices based on choreographic sensibilities like physical principles (mechanics of time, space, energy and gravity) and kinesthetic empathy (embodied experiences of other people’s movement).  The film material used for this exploration is created to accommodate an aesthetic of fragmentation and processes of reassembly that revolve around movement, bodies, and embodied experiences.  The film material needs to have a high shooting ratio, include characters and their relationships, have dramaturgical flexibility, and contain multiple storylines, locations, and characters. There must be potential connection points beyond the narrative; in image composition, stylization, colors, costumes, set design, and choreographed movement.

Another method for exploring kinesthetics as a compositional tool is the writing of memoir essays where the writing practice is close to the form, content and address of my editing practice. These essays are attempts to share my tastes, ethics, and biases as well as conditions and experiences that have shaped me. My thesis is that these factors leave traces through my editing. If they are known, they can be felt as my handprint on the film without showing a simplistic causal relationship between a particular edit and me as the editor.  The writing will touch on editing and sometimes individual film projects or processes but doesn’t seek to make direct references to or try to explain films that are part of the research practice.

I choose the personal writing in the shape of memoir essays for its authoritative approach to describing me as an editor. I am the only one who can say something with weight about what I bring to the process and how I react to the conditions of a project. I see this as a further manifestation of my feminist approach to research and art-making; inviting the personal as artistic and claiming the validity of feminist methodologies and ideas as I apply them to both writing and editing.

The research through writing takes on different forms. I will analyze editing problems from the past by writing case studies, unearthing reference points from a wide variety of projects to compare and contrast with my research material.  The research will be embedded and in dialogue with my teaching practice. The articulating of some of the refined physical principles for editing developed from the research will be further refined in the teaching and then re-applied to the research practice in a loop.  Sharing the research process with others while it is still under way is also part of the method. Reflections on insights gained from designing and giving workshops and research presentations as well as conversation with collaborators and participants will inform and alter the research methods going forward.

Aims

1: Encourage filmmaking that activates the viewer to experience with the film’s characters and events by editing that is in the forefront of the aesthetic; with extensive cutting and fractured narratives.

By creating films that focuses of telling stories created in the edit room with visible editing as the main tool, the research aims to pave the way for a wider use of editing centered aesthetics.  By showing the storytelling potential of using of kinesthetic (choreographic) tools when forming connected paths through a sprawl of multiple perspectives, the research aims to encourage resource allocation and trust in the editing process as a site where complex stories can be created.

By emphasizing strategies for ’experiential’ viewer co-creation, using the cuts as both breaks and portals, the research aims to provide alternatives to cinema as carrier of stereotypes and othering. 

2: Challenge notions of authorship in cinematic storytelling by using compositional strategies that favor physical & kinesthetic editing principles over psychological or narrative logic.

I seek to challenge the idea that the artistic vision needs to be carried by one distinct voice (the director). By demonstrating the editor’s impact and handprint in shaping multifaceted characters, I aim to elevate editing among the art practices that make up cinematic storytelling. Through the exposition of my particular cinematic handprint I aim to provide an example that speaks to individual contribution versus collaboration in filmmaking.  Favoring choreographic (physical and kinesthetic) principals and sensibilities in the editing is part of an aim to shift some creative (authorial) participation from script writing and directing to editing.

3: Develop collaborative structures and creative methods that benefit story creation that takes place in the editing process.

The research aims to demystify and share an expanded toolbox for the editing process by articulating and sharing the editing strategies I use when shaping characters.  By furthering understanding of these strategies and practices and making this vocabulary available to collaborative creative processes, learning situations or to communication of artistic visions, the research aims to open a range of creative possibilities through the whole film production.

Outcome

With this research I hope to make contributions to feminist discourses on authorship. The entire research framework has a feminist perspective – a cinematic “ecriture feminine” (Cixous 1976). Sprawling and disruptive to both established form and process – where the personal is the artistic and the agencies at play are interconnected. I see this research project (where I have the privilege of resources) as an opportunity to fill in some blanks in the melee of stories out there – blanks of what, blanks of with whom and blanks of how.

I seek to contribute to the professional field and the training of editors when it comes to the role of editing in shaping characters and how they are experienced by viewers.

By demonstrating the impact and handprint of the editor I want this research to raise awareness of the importance of diversity and representation in all cinematic artistic practices, not only the designated authors or people on screen.  

I hope to expand the discussions in the film industry on what risks are involved when striving for conformity and simplicity at the expense of multiplicity and diversity, whether it be dramaturgical ‘script-doctoring’, streamlined collective decision making or calls for ‘new’ but still individual voices.  I hope to infuse the debate with critical questions on what produces authoritarian and excluding film environments, and on the risks with subscribing to any single perspective. 

At the core of this research is a desire to disrupt hierarchies wherever they are. To provide alternatives to excluding and top-down structures in organizations, productions and narratives, in the film industry as well as in research environments and education. Editing epitomizes attention to detail and actualization of ideas and it is in the details and the doing that each creative voice is heard.  I would love this research to contribute to a culture where inclusion is not just a fancy word in a strategic plan but means that a multitude of voices are invited, allowed creative license and recognized in their own right.

Film and research project BLOD - a collaboration with Annika Boholm 

Film and research project LILI & NADIA

  • Short film (planned)

Essay collections

  • Personal memoir essays (in process)
  • Case studies (in process)

Educational textbook for film students - refined physical principles for editing developed from the research through my teaching practice. (planned)

Physical Editing - an advanced level course with models for applying choreographic tools to interpretation, composition and editing of film material without dialogue. (ongoing)

Academic papers/conference workshops

  • Creating character through editing - methods and articulations. (in process) (s)mash-up - a workshop on re-editing BLOD scenes. (Nov. 2020 & Apr. 20201)
  • Cooperation of practices, collaboration of people - rebuilding a film education curriculum from research findings and synthesized ideas on distributed cognition in editing practice. (planned)

References

Cixous, Hélène, Keith Cohen, and Paula Cohen. 1976. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1 (4): 875–93. 

Eisenstein, Sergei. 1963. Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. Edited by Jay Leyda. Dobson Books, Ltd. 2nd ed. London: Dobson Books, Ltd.

Pearlman, Karen, John MacKay, and John Sutton. 2018. “Creative Editing: Svilova and Vertov’s Distributed Cognition.” Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures of Central and Eastern Europe.

Pearlman, Karen. 2016. Cutting Rhythms: Intuitive Film Editing. 2nd ed. New York ; London: Focal Press. Focal Press.