Filmmakers / Screenwriters / Series: Prized Possesion

Sumitra Peries: A Splice of Life

Over the course of a long career in cinema, Sumitra Peries estimates she may have edited anywhere between 10 to 15 movies. These include films such as the groundbreaking ‘Gamperaliya’ (1964) which was directed by her husband, the iconic filmmaker Lester James Peries and ‘Gehenu Lamai’ (1978), the film that marked her own directorial debut. On ‘Gehenu Lamai ‘ Sumitra chose to be all things: screenwriter, director, producer and even editor. It was in the last role that she became intimately acquainted with the gadget known as the film splicer.

In the good old days: Sumitra and Lester at work with the splicer

“A splicer is what you used to join strips of film together,” Sumitra explains. Despite its menacing name, the instrument itself is an innocuous little thing and moreover one well on its way to extinction. As film makers go digital, magnetic splicers have been pushed to the margins.

For the viewer, it is near impossible to tell the difference between the old and the new technologies. The transition between frames has always been smooth – but there is a world of difference in the work involved. What once took hours is accomplished in minutes. Working with a splicer, an editor must be adept at cutting, scraping and joining. If she gets it wrong, the whole process must be repeated. It is demanding work and one must have both the mechanical skill and the artistry to accomplish it.

Looking back, it is this humble instrument, rather than say the camera itself that claims Sumitra’s loyalty because she believes the tone of a film can be decided by its editor. “Editing was, actually still is, the most important part of film making,” she believes. Sumitra visualises film making as a complicated, non-linear process – and editing as one of its most intuitive aspects. “There are 24 frames in a second, so if you cut four frames of every shot, the whole sequence might move at a different pace,” she says. “Editing in a way could be even considered a symphony… the rhythm of your cutting helps to communicate to an audience a particular emotion.” An insensitive editor could easily take away from an actor’s performance. “If you don’t keep the pauses, the silent depth, if you cut it dialogue to dialogue, you can lose all the nuances.”

It is possible perhaps, that the time consuming process of using a splicer itself imposed those gentler nuances onto each film and ensured that breathing room between the lines. But as our technological development has accelerated, so has the tempo of our films. Now, very different schools of thought lie behind modern approaches to editing. In Hollywood for instance, the pace is relentless. “They don’t have time to stand and stare, they don’t have time for that extra nuance,” says Sumitra ruefully.

She herself is part of the revolution. Since 2000, she has begun digitally editing films and documentaries. “The old processes have changed,” she says, conceding that much of it is for the better. The splicer, for instance, was much more “technologically cumbersome.” However, the tool hasn’t been completely disavowed yet. A few local film makers still prefer to work with the film’s negatives and whenever they do so, the splicer is taken out again. “So that little black object, with a little blade, is still used,” says Sumitra.

For her, however, there is no going back. The process of film making has changed fundamentally. Still, she continues to treasure her splicer. “The little museum piece on my table is a reminder of how it was…it’s a reminder of the progress of science, of technology. Looking at it is a constant reminder of things past and what one had to struggle through to achieve, which today we do with a click of a button.”

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on October 23, 2011 as part of our Prized Possession series. Words by Smriti Daniel.

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