Film Editor as Designer
“The editor, on the other hand, should try to see only what’s on the screen, as the audience will. Only in this way can the images be freed from the context of their creation. By focusing on the screen, the editor will, hopefully, use the moments that should be used, even if they were shot under duress, and reject moments that should be rejected, even though they cost a terrible amount of money and pain…you are the ombudsman for the audience.”
Walter Murch, in In The Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing
Murch, the editor on films like The English Patient, Apocalypse Now, and The Godfather, Parts II and III, describes the editor’s role in ways similar to how I view the role of an interaction or user experience designer. Many of the principles of film editing that he presents in his book have analogues in interaction design theory and methods.
For example, he advises editors to do the most with the least number of cuts. The editor is paid for his ability to know when not to cut, just as much for his ability to make the cut. A direct line can be drawn to the old design standby of “less is more.”
The quote above provides a more intriguing example. Murch charcterises the film editor as “ombudsman for the audience,” a position that is perhaps counter to others who were closer to the actual production of the film (the director, for example). This description recalls a kind of user-centeredness that has obviously been a popular thread in design. It suggests a search for a level of objectivity in the creation of the film.
The idea of objectivity is interesting in the context of both film and design. I think that when some people look at the methods and theories of user-centered designers, or read Murch’s description of the film editor’s work, they might think that their efforts will drain the process of creativity. I disagree with this and believe that design research methods are about inspiration just as much they are about validation.
Murch’s description of the relationship between editor and director addresses this in a nice way. He sets the pair up as dreamer and listener. The dreamer describes a dream and the listener listens. The dreamer has difficulty describing his dream and what he gives is only a seed or shadow of it. It is then the responsibility of the listener to elaborate on the dream, suggesting alternatives that may be obviously wrong. But in doing so, the dreamer is prompted to correct the listener which enables him to put forth more detail of his dream. Often the director is the dreamer and the editor the listener, but sometimes it is the other way around. The point is that both roles, that of creator and that of editor/interpreter, are important for a creative process. Design research simply provides another point of view that can act as editor or interpreter to the more visionary impulses of the designer.