Terry Rawlings and the alchemy of editing

A BAFTA event highlighted editor Terry Rawlings' work on such films as Alien and Blade Runner. We take a look at a unique industry talent...

The bowels of the Nostromo meander seemingly without end. Brett, the vessel’s monosyllabic engineer, is searching the dimly-lit corridors and echoing atriums for Jones, a missing tabby cat. But here among the pipes and dank, dangling chains, a much larger and deadlier predator lurks. We haven’t seen it yet, and Brett’s currently unaware of it, but we can sense that it’s waiting here somewhere in the shadows.

This, of course, is Alien, Ridley Scott’s seminal outer space nightmare. The scene sketched out above is an example of why the film has endured: it’s cut to a tense, prowling rhythm, uncannily – and appropriately – like a deadly creature waiting to strike.

One of the key elements in achieving that predatory rhythm was Terry Rawlings, the film editor who was nominated for a BAFTA for his work on Alien – one of five such British Academy nominations over his long career.

At a special BAFTA tribute event on the 7th December, that Alien sequence was one of several key moments from Rawlings’ body of work, hand-picked to exemplify his uncanny sense of pace and timing. It was a richly deserved award for a talented editor, whose contribution to cinema is all too easily overlooked. 

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As editor Stuart Baird put it,”He’s one of the many contributors to film who’s really hardly known by the general public, or even by the press, judging by the few mentions he gets in newspapers. But his contributions to films have always been considerable.”

Assistant sound mixer Ray Merrin fondly recalled that, during the delicate process of assembling Ridley Scott’s footage, the famously demanding director was called away, leaving Rawlings and Merrin to cut the scene in which Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) searches for Jones more-or-less on their own. When Scott returned and saw what they’d assembled, he was so impressed that he barely changed it.

“While mixing Alien, director Ridley Scott had to attend an important meeting,” Merrin recalled. “So we had great fun creating suspense with Jonesy the cat in the chain scene. Terry was full of great ideas as usual, and when Ridley came in the next day, he absolutely loved the tension, and never changed a single frame – which was saying something from Ridley…”

Some editors may have been tempted to cut Brett’s ill-fated search for Jones down to the bone; the audience does, after all, know what’s coming next. Instead, Rawlings goes in the other direction: he lets the search play out, allowing the suspense to build to an almost unbearable crescendo, until HR Giger’s horrible Star Beast finally slides into view to snatch Parker away. 

Rawlings’ career began in the 1960s, where he worked as the sound editor on such classics as Ken Russell’s Women In Love, The Devils and Tommy. Rawlings also created the formidable wall of sound for another Russell film: Lisztomania, the first movie with a Dolby Stereo soundtrack.

In his feature debut, Ridley Scott hired Rawlings to work on The Duellists, where he delighted in using the clink of champagne glasses to replicate the sound of clashing swords. Scott rightly concluded that Rawlings’ talents with sound could also be applied to vision, and the director asked Rawlings to step in as editor on his first studio film, Alien.

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Rawlings would collaborate again with Scott on his next two features: the seminal Blade Runner and the sumptuous fantasy, Legend. On the former, Rawlings assembled something magical from a troubled production, marrying together Douglas Trumbull’s effects work with Scott’s footage to create a tangible and even frightening future Los Angeles.

The editor’s other varied work was also celebrated at BAFTA, from Oscar-winning dramas (Hugh Hudson’s Chariots Of Fire) to action films (film editor-turned director Stuart Baird’s US Marshals) to musicals (Yentl, Phantom Of The Opera). Among the numerous fellow filmmakers who paid tribute to Rawlings, one of the most interesting was David Fincher.

In the early 90s, Fincher made the jump from commercials and music videos to feature films with Alien 3, a sequel which became infamous for its fraught production. To this day, Fincher remains so unhappy with the experience that he usually refuses to talk about it in interviews, but he made one exception here. That he didn’t actually say the words ‘Alien 3’ is probably significant, but his brief tribute to Rawlings’ work on the film was particularly apt:

“The best editors are alchemists,” Fincher said in a pre-recorded message. “They’re equal parts poet and blacksmith. They can forge something – they make pieces go together that should never work. They can take footage that was intended for one thing, and use it to illuminate a whole new idea in a sequence that you maybe never conceived. Then, on top of that, if they’re really, really special, they have a way of becoming your best friend. I was very fortunate on my first movie to work with Terry. To this day it’s an extremely happy memory.” 

“Alchemy” is probably the right word for Rawlings’ skill. From the thousands of feet of footage left over from the average shoot, there are dozens of ways of cutting them together. For the most part, an editor’s work is invisible: it’s only when a cut jars or feels ill-timed that we even notice an editor’s hand at all.

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Rawlings’ BAFTA tribute was a reminder of how vital a good editor is: the job requires a storyteller’s ability to understand the subtext of one image and how it should flow to the next; a composer’s feel for timing and tempo, and an artist’s feel for matching the scale of one object for another.

Rawlings brought all these things to his editing work, from Michael Winner’s horror The Sentinel to his last film, Joel Schumacher’s Phantom Of The Opera. Some of his most powerful editing appeared in his collaborations with visual directors; the opening sequence from Blade Runner, for example, is an awe-inspiring tour de force of other-worldly cityscapes and Vangelis’ electronic soundtrack.

For more than 40 years, Terry Rawlings was a key member of the film industry, and without him, some of the greatest movies ever made would have looked entirely different. BAFTA’s tribute threw a deserving spotlight on a great British talent.