Tony Zhou AMA

Just a brilliant AMA with Tony Zhou, famous for his Every Frame a Painting video essay series.

Hi Tony,

I'm trying to understand better the differences that editing makes in film versus the actual directing. 

Could you give any specific examples of films/scenes that you thought were bad, but COULD have been good with better editing? And explain what you'd do differently?


[–]tonyszhou[S] 74 points 20 days ago 

Sam O'Steen once said that the only movies that were "saved" in the editing suite were also ruined there in the first place. I kinda agree with that.

There are some crazy shoulda-been-masterpieces like The Lady from Shanghai where you can see the moment some studio boss said "This movie's too weird. Cut that out!" In these movies, those lost scenes are like phantom limbs. You intrinsically feel something should be there, but they aren't.

As for bad, my big famous example would be the second-to-last scene from Psycho, where the psychiatrist explains everything. It's a product of its time, and it requires a character to tell the audience what's going on. There's a similar moment in Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island where one character whips out a chalkboard to explain the movie to somebody else. On the one hand, I get why that scene's there. On the other hand, I'm curious as to what the movie would be like if you removed that scene.

When asked how he comes up with the ideas for his video essays, Zhou writes:

As for how to notice this stuff I totally recommend (in rough order):

1) Take a class on script analysis. Learn how a director breaks down a script. Then get your hands on a movie script, pick a scene, guess how the director would shoot it, then watch the actual way he/she shot it.

2) Bring a film into Final Cut or Premiere or Avid, and just watch it backwards and forwards, muted and unmuted, B&W, color. Watch for camera placement, movement, everything. After you do this for a while, you won't need to bring the movie into Premiere, you can just do it on the fly.

3) If you've seen the film before, watch it with an audience and kinda watch them. Their "on-the-fly" reaction to the film will teach you more than many critics. When do they lean in? When do they cross their arms? When do they laugh? Is it at the same place you laughed?

My first editing instructor told me to watch things played in reverse as well. Removing the distraction of following a linear plot can bring formal elements to the foreground.

Such a fantastic AMA...just one more:

I think this is a huge problem in filmmaking today too: the myth of the perfect first feature.

I am going to (at some point) make a video essay called "Everybody Used to Suck" comprised entirely of footage from everyone's earliest directorial work.

Scorsese's first feature was actually called Bring On the Dancing Girls and it bombed so bad at NYFF that he didn't do anything for a few years, before repurposing it into Who's That Knocking. Tarantino never finished his first feature, My Best Friend's Birthday. Kubrick hated Fear and Desire so much he destroyed every copy. The list goes on and on, but the myth of the "first feature" is exactly that: a myth. Everybody used to suck, it's just that everybody also hides their earliest work from the public.

If you've never watched one of Zhou's video essays, you can start with any of them, but I suggest his latest on Jackie Chan and the art of action comedy. Chan is so underrated in so many ways, and Zhou takes a highlighter to each of them.