Back in June 2020, the online educational platform MZed added a new course to its list: The Art & Technique of Film Editing, by Academy Award winning editor Tom Cross (read our initial coverage here). And, as an editor myself, I got immediately interested in taking this course. Here are my thoughts on it.
Unlike other online educational platforms, MZed is specifically aimed at filmmakers. So, in my view, this sets them apart in the sense that all of their content has been curated following this purpose.
Mzed Course Focused on Storytelling
If you do a quick search online, you’ll find that there are tons of video editing courses, but most of them focus on learning how to operate a certain video editing platform. Online courses that address video/film editing from a storytelling perspective are a bit harder to find, though. That’s why I think The Art & Technique of Film Editing by Tom Cross stands out as one of the few online courses out there, for editors who already know the technical aspects of operating an NLE, but are more interested in improving their storytelling skills.
About Tom Cross ACE and the Course
The course is hosted by Hollywood film editor Tom Cross ACE. His editing credits include: “Whiplash” (Academy Award/BAFTA Award for Best Editing, 2015), “La La Land” (Academy Award Nominee for best editing, 2016), “First Man” (BAFTA Nominee for Best Editing, 2019), among many others. The course is 8 hours and 14 minutes long, and it’s divided into 45 modules. The content was taken from a masterclass Tom Cross gave in Beijing in 2019.
I have conceptually divided the course into two parts (it’s not divided like this in the website). In the first part of the course, Tom talks about different aspects of his workflow within a Hollywood work environment, together with other humane and personal aspects of his work. In the second part, he shows in-depth deconstructions of scenes from his most important movies.
What makes this course special in my view is that it’s focused on and from the perspective of a Hollywood top-class editor, so it gives us a unique insight into the Major Leagues of cinema, where these elite editors play.
I won’t dive into all of the 45 lessons of the course, instead, I will summarize the content within a few topics that – from my point of view – are worth highlighting, and hopefully this will give you a broad idea as to what you can expect.
Part 1 – The Editing Workflow
Throughout the first modules of the course, Tom Cross takes an in-depth approach into his editing workflow. He talks about how he sets up his editing room to meet both, his needs and the director’s. When directors finish shooting, they come to the editing room exhausted, drained from the work on set.
So, things like controlling the ambient light, choosing a room with or without windows, giving the director a comfortable seat and a proper screen for him/her to watch the cuts, etc., can really help to create a better working environment. Tom also describes the different roles of the editorial crew, and how they collaborate with other departments – such as the Camera, VFX, Sound, and Script Supervising departments.
Know Your Footage
The importance of looking at ALL the footage – no matter how long it is – is something that cannot be overstated. It’s the editor’s responsibility to know every frame that was shot, so you can confidently look into the filmmaker’s and producer’s eyes and say, “You don’t have that shot… I know, because I looked at everything”, or say, “We can solve this problem, because I remember seeing something useful”. Tom describes different methods he uses to organize the footage in a thorough way, so that he can swiftly access any piece of visual content with just a few clicks whenever needed.
He uses a vast array of tools, such as labels, locators and markers with little notes, shot lists, versions of the script in various formats, he even has every scene of the movie be printed on little cards on the wall, so he can step back and get a visual layout of the whole movie structure at a glance. He gives, what I think are, highly valuable tips to streamline the search process and help the editor’s brain remember everything, so that when the director or the producer asks for a particular shot, you can find it right away.
Tom says assistant editors play a key role in helping the editor with all these time-consuming, but essential, tasks. Bottom line is: the time you spend on organizing your footage at the early stages of a project is an investment that will save you blood, sweat and tears, later down the road.
The Relationship with the Director
This topic will rise many times throughout the course: how to build a good relationship with your director. Tom describes his process with director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land, First Man) and how they have developed a trust for one another after years of collaboration. No matter how challenging a project may look, part of the editor’s work is to have a constructive, positive attitude towards the work of the director, and help him/her move the film forward.
In terms of agreeing or disagreeing with the director, Tom says that “a movie is a director’s medium”. You can defend your ideas as an editor – and it’s very healthy that you do so – but you must leave your ego aside, and only stand by your ideas as long as they serve to execute the director’s vision. Always keep in mind: it’s the director’s story, not yours. And at the end of the day, it’s not about you, and it’s certainly not about your editing, it’s about how to help the director tell the story he or she is trying to tell.
Part 2 – The Art of Storytelling
In the second part of the course, Tom addresses all the ins and outs (no pun intended) of the art of film editing. You will learn about editing styles –which Tom illustrates with excerpts from many of his all-time favorite films – as well as the different tools an editor has to modify an image (such as the use of flops, reframes, speed changes, etc.) and how to use them purposefully, plus the use of visible vs. invisible editing, among other topics. And last but certainly not least: Tom takes us through an in-depth deconstruction of his most important feature film projects.
Learn From the Masters
Editing is a powerful tool, and the best way to learn how to use this power is to go to the great editing masters that founded cinema and shaped its language. One of my favorite modules is the one about Tom’s biggest influences. In this Module, Tom uses scenes from classic films like Battleship Potemkin, The French Connection, Lawrence of Arabia, Raging Bull, etc., to illustrate how these master editors used narrative tools, such as rhythm, pace, parallel montage, juxtaposition and contrast to convey emotions and ideas to the audience.
Editing is a way of manipulating time. By showing what is arguably the most famous time-cut in film history (with 2001: A Space Odyssey, edited by Ray Lovejoy) Tom explains how two shots that are put together create a juxtaposition that’s so powerful, it can create a million-year time ellipsis with just one simple cut, conveying the idea of the Evolution of Mankind in a simple yet profound, poetic way.
Another example is a scene from Raging Bull, edited by Thelma Schoonmaker, where Tom Cross explains how an editor can use contrast to create an emotional response in the audience, by placing a quiet scene of two characters talking next to a violent boxing match scene. We, as an audience, feel the blow, we feel that violence after the quiet talk, and that’s the point. The editing style of Raging Bull was a big reference when Tom was working on his Academy Award winning “Whiplash”.
Seeing and Being Seen: The Power of the Eyes
Who are the characters? What are their motivations? Whose eyes are we seeing the world through? Tom asks himself these questions in order to have a better understanding of the characters in a movie, so he can use editing to manipulate how the audience feels about them. One thing he does when editing a scene is to play it back with the sound completely muted. So he’ll have a sequence play pictorially, with no sound at all, just the images. Tom says that by using this technique, he can look for things that tell his story through pictures.
The eyes and the gaze of a character play a key role in letting the audience know what’s going on in a scene. So, Instead of hearing a character say, “Oh no, there’s a gun”, he’d rather cut from a close up of that character seeing that gun, to a close up of the gun. The eyes of a character have an immense power, and when used strategically, they can make the audience feel directly connected to a character’s experience and emotion.
Deconstructing Scenes: A Deep Dive into Tom Cross’ Editing Process
In the last 20 modules, Tom will walk you through how he edited different scenes from his most important movies. From Academy Award winner Whiplash, to Hostiles, La la Land and finally First Man, you will be given detailed information about Tom’s editing process that is worth gold.
By using concepts like contrast, pace, rhythm, speed, and montage, Tom explains how to build tension, develop the story and convey emotional shifts in the characters. He will also give various examples of scenes that didn’t work as they were intended to in the original script, and how thinking outside of the box allowed him to overcome these problems and get a better cut.
Sound is as equally important -or maybe even more important- than the image. Tom uses the opening scene from First Man to illustrate how important sound design is as the emotional carrier in a film. Instead of using a traditional opening, the director Damien Chazelle went for a less conventional approach. He decided to start the movie with only the sound of an engine. A sound that is so strange and powerful, that it would immediately draw the audience’s attention. Then, after a few seconds of black, they’d introduce the main character.
You don’t see who the character is, nor where he is, since the whole scene was dimly lit (actually, in order to enhance this effect, they darkened the shots in the editing even more). Then they used a mix of engine sounds and some animals sounds to recreate what over time starts to become apparent to the audience: the main character is Neil Armstrong, who is struggling to control an aircraft of some sort. The result has a great impact: the audience is introduced to the main character in a very mysterious and fragmented way.
Tom also explains that in First Man, they wanted to give the movie a “cinema verité” style. They wanted to make the audience feel as if they’re watching archival footage from NASA. And so they deliberately decided not to use wide shots to show the spacecraft from the outside floating in space, but instead they used a lot of close-ups and subjective points of view, and mostly hand held, no tripods or rigs
All in all, I’ll just say that these last 20 modules are the nuts and bolts of the whole course, and I enjoyed them a lot – and learned a lot – while watching.
The MZed UI – What I Liked/Disliked
What I liked about the MZed UI is that every module has a transcript that will highlight every sentence as you playback the video, so if you need to find a piece of information, you just click on the written phrase and it will take you to that point in the video. This also gives you the possibility to read the module instead of watching it. Also, there’s a “Notes” tab, which allows you to take notes with timestamps along the module. And, every module has English CC to help you follow along.
What I disliked: every module starts with a 15-second intro with music, so you’re gonna have to watch this intro every time a new module starts. Several modules are less than 2 or 3 minutes long, so you’ll be interrupted by this intro more often than you’d desire. This was so annoying that I wished the course wasn’t divided into so many modules. You cannot skip this intro by clicking a button either -like you would on Netflix, for instance-, so you’ll have to stand up and reach your keyboard to do it manually (if you watch the videos comfortably leaned back on your chair, like I did).
It is clear that Tom Cross is not only a great editor, he is also a great teacher. He has a very straightforward way of explaining things, and he always has a humble yet well funded explanation on how he approaches editing. He has a true passion for both editing and teaching, so I think MZed has chosen him with good criteria.
Different editors work differently, and the workflow of a Hollywood feature film editor is worlds apart from that of a YouTube editor like me. However, I find myself implementing many of the tips and techniques I learned from Tom Cross’s course in my every day work.
With 8+ hours of content, I think this course is packed with tons of knowledge that can spark the interest of beginner and experienced editors alike. Whether it is for you or not, it’s something you’ll have to determine. I can only say I definitely see an improvement in my storytelling skills after taking it. Practice makes perfect though, so no matter what course you choose to sign up for, just keep editing!
Price and Availability
The Tom Cross / MZed editing course is available now for downloading. The course itself is $249 as a one-time-purchase, but since it’s Black Friday, it sells for 50% off ($124.50). MZed also offers a subscription called MZed Pro, which grants you access to each and every course available for $299 ($199 for Black Friday) for a full year. But, and this is important for the course dicussed here, the regular subscription does not include this premium course. For this, MZed offers a Pro Premium bundle for $399 (Black Friday: $300): If you choose to subscribe to MZed Pro Premium, you’ll get the Tom Cross course as a lifetime purchase plus access to all current and future regular courses, as long as you are a subscriber. Over time, these premium courses will be added to the roster of regular content, too.
Are you looking to improve your editing skills? Did you take this course already? If so, what do you think about it? Do you know of other editing courses out there that are focused on storytelling? Let us know in the comments below!