Last weekend, editor, author, and educator Norman Hollyn died unexpectedly while lecturing in Japan. He was a thoughtful and accomplished filmmaker; his first book, The Film Editing Room Handbook, is considered a must-read for aspiring editors; and he was a remarkable mentor who had a far-reaching impact on his students, both at USC’s prestigious School of Cinematic Arts and in his lectures and workshops around the world. He will be sorely missed by the many filmmakers who depended on his guidance and friendship, including many of his former students here at Lunacy Productions.

To honor Norm’s legacy as an educator, this week’s Lunacy Productions Blog will share five great lessons from his second book, The Lean Forward Moment.

In The Lean Forward Moment, Norm covers all aspects of filmmaking: writing, producing, VFX, sound design, etc. He explains how each step in the process is another chance to craft a strong story that will resonate with the audience. He believes the key is

…to understand your story so well that you can identify moments of change. This will give you the insight to determine how best to use filmmaking tools to create them on screen … I prefer to call them Lean Forward Moments because the purpose of them is to get the audience to lean forward … and pay more attention.


1. The Editing Rule of Threes

Before he dives into the specifics of finding and accentuating those Lean Forward Moments, Norm explains his Rule of Threes. Not to be confused with the writer’s “Rule of Threes,” or the “Rule of Thirds” framing technique used by visual artists, Norm’s Rule of Threes is a specific take on, and expansion of, the basic concept of the Kuleshov effect.

The rule can be stated as follows: The impact of a shot, scene, or sequence depends on the shot, scene, or sequence that came before it. That shot, scene, or sequence will also directly affect the shot, scene, or sequence that comes after it.

Basically, no shot/scene/sequence exists in a vacuum, and it is important to consider this context when deciding how to assemble your film to best serve your story.


2. Finding the Lean Forward Moment

In order to find your Lean Forward Moments, you must ask three questions of each scene:

  • Whose scene is it?
  • How does that character change during the scene?
  • Where, exactly, does that change occur?

What is the impact of that realization for us, as filmmakers? Very simply, it means that we need to create some sort of filmic change at that moment in the scene in order to help the audience feel our story arc. It is my belief that the most effective stories are told when the audience is affected viscerally, when they feel something rather than intellectually receive the information by being told it. And the RULE OF THREES helps us realize that the best way to get an audience to feel something is to make some sort of change. Good filmmaking is all about crafting change.


3. Making Intentional Choices

Norm shares a variety of insights into the development and pre-production process, and also the often stressful and fraught production period, before tackling his area of greatest expertise: editing. His first observation is that while improvisation, spontaneity, and happy accidents often occur during the shooting of a movie, that’s not the case when the film is being cut.

In editing, nothing ends up in the final cut by accident. Editing is a very careful and detail-oriented craft: Every decision made is a conscious one, such as which takes to use, which frames to edit on, and which lines of dialogue to drop or rearrange.

The challenge, when the editor receives the footage, is to sort through all of it and edit the material into a cut that tells the story that everyone else has been striving for. The editor has many tools to create the best storytelling experience—shot choice, editing pace, actor performance, sound, music, and contrast. Which ones he or she chooses to use is a matter of artistry. But to determine where to use those tools—that requires knowing the story they want to tell.


4. Importance of Shot Choice

Norm goes into detail about many of the tools at an editor’s disposal when crafting a scene, such as shot choice, determining which shots to use (wide, medium, close-up, etc.) when cutting a dialogue scene.

The first close shot [of a scene] is important. If the RULE OF THREES is about changing things, surely one big change is going from a shot in which you can’t really see people and their eyes into one in which you can. That cut impacts the audience’s feelings about the character who is shown in that close shot and helps guide them to what is important in the overall scene.

The person who gets the first close-up gets the audience’s attention and is, usually, the focus of the scene analysis.


5. Editing is Ubiquitous

It helps to have a well-rounded understanding of filmmaking, regardless of what role you have on a particular project. But an understanding of editing theory is critical, as it can be applied throughout the filmmaking process.

Many people falsely assume that the editing process begins once the shooting is over … However, the real value of editing starts during the preparation and writing of the film. Eventually the filmmakers will use all of the techniques that we’ve discussed here to help shape each individual scene and to define those moments of change, so the audience can delve deep into the experience that he or she wants them to have. Knowing a scene might be shaped in the editing room will help the filmmaker to make intelligent choices on the set, in pre-production, and in the writing.


This is just a small sample of the insight contained in The Lean Forward Moment. Norm covers every aspect of the creative and collaborative process in clear, easy to understand language. And the book is replete with real examples and illustrations, both from projects he worked on and from classic films he admires, such as The Godfather and The Matrix. That’s why it made our Lunacy recommended reading list last year.

While we will miss our mentor and friend, we hope that Norman’s teachings will continue to inspire filmmakers for generations to come.


* Lunacy Productions receives no compensation from sales of Norm Hollyn's books. 

Got a story about an mentor who influenced you? Share it in the comments below!