The recent death of Anne V. Coates stirred up memories of what is generally considered the most famous movie cut in film history.
Coates, 92, accomplished many things in her career, including winning five Oscars. But it was that single cut made in "Lawrence of Arabia" (for which she claimed one of her Oscars) that her fellow film editors are still taking about.
The film was a beast to edit, to put it mildly. Director David Lean had shot more than 33 miles of film. It was Coates' job to shape it all into a cohesive movie, a task that ended up including a match cut that many have described as one of the most influential scene transitions ever.
A match cut is the term for when an image changes without a dissolve or a slow fade. It's typically used between two scenes that are thematically linked but that are often set in different places and/or times.
"When something happens with the forcefulness that a match cut has, it tells us that this is important," said Sean Fennessey, editor in chief of the Ringer and host of the film podcast "The Big Picture."
Released in 1962, "Lawrence of Arabia" is based on the life of T.E. Lawrence, a British military officer who gained fame during World War I after he was sent to Arabia and became a liaison to the Arab forces during the Arab Revolt, sometimes even leading military strikes against the Ottoman forces. The movie follows his rise from a low-level but ambitious young officer to the towering figure who would be known as Lawrence of Arabia.
The match cut for which Coates received so much praise tells this entire story, in a way.
The scene begins in Cairo with Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) about to embark to the Arabian desert, where the destiny that will transform him and much of the modern world awaits. Mr. Dryden (Claude Raines), head of the Arab Bureau, has just enlisted Lawrence to serve as a liaison. He warns the young man that the desert is not always kind.
"Lawrence, only two kinds of creatures get fun in the desert: Bedouins and gods, and you're neither. Take it from me, for ordinary men, it's a burning, fiery furnace," Dryden says.
"No, Dryden, it's going to be fun," Lawrence responds, as he strikes a match and lights Dryden's cigarette.
"It is recognized that you have a funny sense of fun," Dryden says, after blowing out a plume of smoke.
The camera then zooms in on Lawrence's face as he stares at the flame still burning on the tip of the match. Silence stretches for several seconds, broken only by Lawrence's breath as he blows it out.
Immediately, the scene changes to the burning orange sun rising over the seemingly endless desert — where much of the rest of the film unfolds.
"It makes the jump from the small story of Lawrence, a small bureaucrat, to the mythic Lawrence of Arabia," said Michael Jablow, head of the editing discipline at the AFI Conservatory. "It's not just that it's a good cut, but that it was brilliant storytelling."
The scenes' contrasts make the cut so powerful, according to Jablow.
"It's a combination of extremes: the combination of this extreme close-up of the flame on the match to the sun coming up over the horizon, which jumped from the extreme micro to the extreme macro," he said. "I can't remember anyone else who had quite done something like that before."
Coates downplayed the groundbreaking aspect of the cut. In Justin Chang's 2012 book "FilmCraft: Editing," she says that she was in a hurry to finish a rough cut of the movie to show to studio executives.
The script called for a dissolve, in which one scene fades into another. Today, that can be done quickly with editing software. At the time, though, editors had to create the effect by hand, ordering extra negatives of the film and overlaying them on each other to create a double exposure. Under a tight deadline, she didn't have time for that, she said. She planned to go back and finish the dissolve later.
"David and I both thought, 'Wow, that's really interesting,' " she told Chang of the first time she saw the hard cut. "If I had been working digitally, I would never have seen those two shots cut together like that.
"I like to think we would have gotten the idea anyway," Coates added. "But another director would not necessarily have seen it or liked it. Luckily, David and I thought alike."