Selected Takes: Three Editing Lessons from Tom Rolf

Tom Rolf worked through the transition from analog editing to digital editing and managed to do it without skipping a beat. It proves that a good editor is a good editor, no matter what era.

Vincent LoBrutto's 'Selected Takes: Film Editors on Editing'

Welcome back to our blog series inspired by “Selected Takes: Film Editors on Editing” by Vincent LoBrutto. In this series, we’ll be sharing editing lessons from some of the most legendary editors of the 20th century. Next up is editor Tom Rolf. You can read our first entry with Anne V. Coates here.

Editor Tom Rolf was a man who knew himself and what he wanted. In a way, he oozed confidence. Even in interviews on YouTube, he shamelessly admits he has a certain amount of ego.

We’ll dive into this confidence a bit more, but it’s also a great way to introduce him as a filmmaker. It’s probably why he became such a legend, having cut films like Taxi Driver, The Right Stuff, and dozens more. He had way about him, which always came through in the edit. 

LoBrutto’s interview with Tom is a bit headier than some others. But, we think it makes for some great takeaways for modern-day editors. Tom worked through the transition from analog editing to digital editing and managed to do it without skipping a beat. It proves that a good editor is a good editor, no matter what era.

Here are three editing lessons from Oscar-winning editor Tom Rolf. 

It Takes Ego to Be an Editor

Of course, there’s a fine line to walk here. Razor-thin. But, in order to truly be a good editor, you need to be able to stand up for yourself. That takes some confidence, especially when you’re working with a director who’s bringing their ego to the table.

“It’s imposing my choice over yours, having the arrogance to say this is better than that,” Tom Rolf says. “It’s being a critic.”

Ultimately, it’s the editor’s job to defend the film—maybe even from the director who’s working on the film. That takes guts. But, if you have true confidence, you can also admit to your mistakes and be flexible in the edit. Being able to admit you’re wrong is one of the clearest signs of self-confidence. And diplomacy in filmmaking is a hot commodity for any production.

“You have to have an ego, but you can’t have too much. You have to be able to stand up for your taste and opinion,” he added later. “You’ve got to be a pretty good diplomat. You can’t take things personally. If someone criticizes an area of the film or a certain cut, you can’t take it that you necessarily did something wrong. You saw it differently than they did. You’ve got to roll with the punches.”

There’s Always Another Way

Tom presents a few clever editing tricks throughout his interview. But, we think this story is a perfect way to show the ingenuity of a great filmmaker. During the post-production of Director Adrian Lyne’s 9 ½ Weeks, the film was testing very poorly with audiences. People simply didn’t like either of the lead characters, played by Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger. So, Tom went back to the dailies.

“I went through every piece of film available looking for any facial expression on the two principals that could in any way soften their character,” Tom says. “I made Mickey a bit more human by using material after the director yelled ‘Cut,’ when he would smile in a kind of relief that the scene was over. I would use that smile.”

Filmmaking sometimes is a game of millimeters. By finding even the smallest changes, you can redirect the entire course of a film. An editor has a huge opportunity with their magic-making, the ability to stay within budget.

“By massaging and manipulating it a little, I think we got the characters to be as appealing as they could be without going back and shooting anything,” Tom added.

If you want to build a career in the editing field, start with solving problems and saving money. It may not be the first thing that pops into your head as an editor, but they’ll never forget you for it.  

Don’t Hide Behind Polish

While he had confidence and ego, there’s assuredly one thing Tom valued above himself—the final product. And that even means he’d be willing to look like a failure if the film eventually benefited for it. So, when he’d show the first cut to directors, he’d intentionally leave out any sort of additional effects. 

“I try to make it as polished as I can, but I’m not one of those editors who likes to pre-mix a lot of music and sound effects, to try and sell what I’ve done by making it look too polished,” Tom says. “That’s not the way I was taught and that’s not the way I like to do it.”

This process doesn’t just make flaws more apparent, though. Tom believed that a solid edit could stand on its own. It could give people the emotional takeaways they needed for a scene to work. By showing the barest-bones version of a film, they could react more viscerally to the edit and worry about enhancing it with effects later.

“I think there’s danger in putting all that music and extra sound because you camouflage what may be a very big problem in the story,” Tom says. “It if works with the bare bones, it’s going to work that much better with all of the extra stuff in it.”

Wrapping Up

All of this talk about confidence isn’t to say that Tom was arrogant. Confidence and arrogance are two different things. In fact, he was known in the film industry for being a very likable and agreeable editor. Maybe it’s because had the confidence to speak up for himself as an editor.

As we wrap things up, maybe that’s the most important thing to take away from this editing icon. As soon as you respect yourself and your work, you’ll be able to truly become an editor.

“I’m still learning and I’ll change my mind tomorrow about something,” Tom says. “To learn the mechanics is nothing; to have the confidence to do what you feel is right and just cut, that takes a few years. You go through the stage of “What if I’m wrong?” and that’s a big fear for somebody when you’re dealing with an audience of millions. It’s when you become confident enough to accept who you are, that’s how long it takes to be an editor.”

Vincent LoBrutto’s book is a wealth of information for editors and filmmakers of any kind. Stay tuned as we share more editing lessons, like this one from editor Tom Rolf. We also recommend picking up a copy for yourself as a reference. Either way, it’ll serve as a great companion piece as we dive even further in.