The first time I watched a K-drama, something just felt different. Besides obvious stuff like the language and culture, there is something else, a difference in the rhythm of the shows. A rhythm that draws us into the everyday lives of the characters and leaves us refreshed afterwards.
This is partly because the K-drama style of film editing differs from that on the typical American television show. It’s arguably one of the most distinctive things about Korean shows, the thing that gives them that distinctive K-drama flavor.
But first, what is editing? If you haven’t been to film school, it can be hard to notice editing. This is because editing is often intentionally unobtrusive and subtle.
In the first days of film, there was no editing. A director simply turned on the camera and filmed things. That made for some pretty simple movies. Stuff like “Arrival of a Train”:
At its most basic, editing just strings together a series of scenes so that we have a story. Editing lets us focus on a particular character and follow their journey.
Simple editing is what turns “Arrival of a Train” into Edwin Porter’s classic 1903 “The Great Train Robbery.”
First, the robbers attack the telegraph operator. Then they attack the train. One scene follows another, and voila—plot!
This kind of editing moves the audience from location to location. It seems straightforward and easy. Just follow the story, right?
But it’s not that easy. If you’re filming a speeding train rushing towards a lady tied to the tracks, who do you focus the camera on? The villain steering the train? The screaming heroine? Or the hero on the white horse coming to save her?
If you focus on one character and one character only, that’s a different story than if you move back and forth between all the characters. And if you want to tell the story of how the villain, hero and heroine got into that situation, you have to somehow move between characters while keeping momentum.
So one big editing challenge is this: how do we move between characters when several things are happening at the same time? This is tricky and important for K-drama directors. K-dramas often contain a number of sub-plots that play out simultaneously. Think of the fugitive hero and his multiple pursuers in the thriller Two Weeks. Or the dual time frames in Signal.
If we can move back and forth between the stories, there is a big emotional pay-off when we finally see the stories intersect. But if the transitions are confusing, we’re confused.
Another kind of editing happens within a scene, stringing together a series of shots. Editing tells us which characters’ faces to look at, which actions to pay attention to. It even tells us what characters are thinking.
We move between shots with “cuts” and “transitions.” Editors have to get the transitions right, too. There are many ways to do this:
Why is this technical stuff important for understanding K-dramas? Because editing doesn’t just tell the story, it creates the entire “feel” of a piece. Editing establishes the characters’ emotions, and creates emotions in the audience.
On the most basic level, editing helps us suspend our disbelief and get lost in a visual world that is not our own.
Really outstanding editing can give us the feeling that we’re seeing something new, even if the story is as simple as boy-meets-girl. Director An Pan-Seok does this in Secret Love Affair and Heard it Through the Grapevine.
On the flip side, poor editing makes it hard to become absorbed in a story. If the rhythm of the editing is “off,” we find it difficult to forget that we’re watching something fake.
Who’s responsible for editing? It’s usually a team effort that includes directors and professional editors.
In the world of movies, great directors care a lot about the editing. Director James Cameron famously headed up the editing for Titanic himself (and won an Academy Award for it). Other directors choose editors who “get them,” and work closely with them through the years, like Martin Scorcese and Thelma Schoonmaker.
K-dramas are famously made in a hurry, and the editing reflects it. Compare Korean TV shows with the sophisticated, polished editing in Korean films.
K-drama directors don’t have much time to think about editing, because they’re busy shooting raw footage as fast as they can. The video editors back at the production companies thus also contribute a lot to the “feel” of a show. And they’re in a hurry too!
Given this rushed production process, K-dramas don’t necessarily merit the kind of minutely detailed shot-by-shot analysis we might give a film.
But K-drama editing styles do vary from show to show, and K-dramas in general have a distinctly different “feel” from American shows. To understand these variations, we have to talk about editing. How long are the shots? How often do we cut between shots? Between scenes?
Certain directors have a recognizable style. An Pan-Seok, who I mentioned earlier, creates a cinéma vérité feel that tempers his melodramatic plot lines. Director Lee Eung-Bok (Secret, Descendants of the Sun, Goblin) uses visual techniques to make his characters feel more emotionally deep, even when the screenplay doesn’t necessarily give him much to work with.
Other directors get a bit lost as they move between sub-plots and characters. I’ve already mentioned that early episodes of Defendant didn’t offer us a clear emotional narrative, despite offering a lot of raw emotions.
Yet whether we are looking at a great show like Secret Love Affair or a somewhat flawed show like Defendant we can see a common thread running through the Korean style of television. Compared to American television, Korean shows are edited to focus on emotion more than plot.
Editing is a key element of this difference: American television shows are based around short scenes and short takes. Korean shows use long scenes and long takes.
In fact, it’s possible that the reason I get bored watching American shows these days is because I don’t connect emotionally with the characters. Even when I want to like the characters, the editing moves too quickly for my feelings to develop.
Korean shows, with their slow pacing and long episodes, risk overstaying their welcome. (I adored early episodes of Goblin, but in the end there was just too much emotion, not enough plot.) But sometimes the slice-of-life style editing and long, sustained close-ups are what we need to feel emotionally invested.
American shows are structurally tight. They get their story across with the least possible number of scenes, the least possible lines of dialogue. But they risk being emotionally dead—“icily regular, splendidly null” (gratuitous Tennyson quote).
By comparison, Korean editing often leaves important plot points understated, for better or worse. Instead, K-dramas spend more time focusing on the characters’ facial expressions.
“Editing is all about the eyes,” says film editor Tony Zhao in a video well worth watching (below). Zhao focuses on film editing, not television, but the same principles apply to both.
What is most interesting to me is that Zhao’s key points about good editing are reminiscent of K-drama’s basic visual style.
Several of Zhao’s points could serve as descriptions of the way K-drama directors and editors approach their story-telling.
1. “Editing is all about the eyes.” K-drama directors, editors and audiences are watching for the look in a character’s eyes. In fact, fans of K-dramas sometimes talk about “that look in his eyes” as the highlight of an episode.
2. “Emotions take time.” Sometimes it takes a shot that lasts several seconds for us to see the full expression on an actor’s face. And sometimes a scene needs to linger on an emotion long enough for us to believe it. K-dramas notably spend a lot of time lingering on faces.
3. “It takes practice.” Film editing is a skill that pros learn over time. Lots of time. Zhao believes that the hardest material to edit is scenes of everyday life. Learning to convincingly portray the rhythm of daily life takes thousands of hours of editing practice.
Is it possible that Korean success with slice-of-life dramas is partly because editors and directors have so much practice?
The K-drama industry churns out hundreds of hours of video per year. This provides a lot of on-the-job training for overworked editors. The system is terrible for the health of editors (and everyone else in Korea’s overworked labor force). But it also means that the Korean television industry has a pool of people experienced in creating these difficult everyday rhythms.
Whether or not they like K-dramas, TV and film directors around the world could learn from them. Successful K-dramas can become insanely popular despite relatively familiar story-lines. Because when you edit for emotion, you get the audience to care. ♥
Coming soon: Part 2 will look at how you can learn to edit your own K-drama.