There’s a lot of talk about what makes a great story. Without a doubt, when it comes to cinematic storytelling, dialog speaks volumes into the overall narrative. Characters interact and reveal themselves on screen with what they say. The words on the script are only one part of the story. The editor controls the pace and arrangement of a character’s dialog, which means the editor has influence over what those words mean.
Dialog is a tricky element for the video editor. Interview footage is easy by comparison; the dialog from an interview is raw and the expectation is that the video editor will cut it up to make sense, to carry forward a thought or idea, to present the best expression to fit the video’s narrative.
Dialog, in a fictional narrative, carries with it a great deal of sensitivities. Scripts are poured over by screenwriters, who work hard to craft and shape dialog with great intentionality to expose a character’s personality and advance a story. Directors work hard to shape and shoot a scene filled with dialog, delivering the best visual expression of what was written. Actors tirelessly rehearse to deliver dialog with the utmost believability. When footage filled with dialog reaches the video editor’s desktop, it’s a piece of loaded content, interpreted by multiple people and crafted from their sweat and hard work. This puts an enormous responsibility on the shoulders of the editor. They need to remain true to the vision of all invested in the production and true to the narrative to advance the story.
When it comes to cinematic storytelling, dialog speaks volumes into the overall narrative.
The assumed responsibilities of editing dialog and the role of the editor to create a flowing, cohesive story can be a daunting task, especially for the video editor who isn’t used to working with scripted dialog. Here are a few things to keep in mind when editing dialog. Putting them to practice will help make editing easier.
Stay True to the Scene
When cutting dialog, there are often conflicting priorities. There is the script as it’s written, the director’s vision which is evident in the footage, and there is the intent of the scene. Sometimes these three things don’t line up quite the same way. A script should work as a script, but that doesn’t mean it translates perfectly to shot footage. For this reason, a director might stray from the script to emphasize a particular point. Likewise, a director’s vision might work as raw footage, but it doesn’t always carry over with the same intent when it’s cut together. An editor’s first priority is to stay true to the intended message of the scene. This takes into account the written script, the directorial decisions from shooting and what the editor sees on the screen. The best way to understand the true purpose of a scene is to look at it in context of the overall story.
It’s also important for the editor to understand they don’t work in isolation. A finished cinematic work is the result of collaboration. An editor needs to keep open communication with the director and screenwriter to understand the purpose of the dialog in their edit. Simply talking through dialog with the rest of the production team will help the editor keep perspective on the footage they are cutting.
Keep on Pace
One of the greatest superpowers a video editor wields is the ability to compress or expand time. A video editor controls a scene by how it’s paced. Captured footage is limited unto itself by the delivery of the talent on-screen and the real time display of action. The video editor can extend that pace by holding on a single shot before cutting to the next line or by adding in a reaction shot. They can speed things up by trimming clips and overlaying them on top of each other. Either way, the pace of dialog is not limited by the talents’ delivery.
Scene pacing should be dictated by the scene’s goal — what it’s trying to accomplish. A video editor needs to keep their audience in mind and know that the audience is trying to follow along. That means they may need to add in “pregnant” pauses to build tension and let the audience catch up. They can also bewilder the audience by crashing various lines of dialog into one another, forcing the audience to run along and only catch the pieces that stand out. Both techniques have their place in video editing, the key is in using them wisely.
Look Who’s Talking Now
The majority of dialog that takes places in any on-screen narrative is going to take place between two or more characters. It would seem natural for the editor to always use the camera shot of the person who is talking. The truth is, cutting dialog isn’t that simple. The flow of a conversation isn’t always centered on the person speaking, sometimes the true impact of what is being said is reflected in the response of the person who is listening. For this reason, shot selection should focus on the conversation and how it relates to the story, as opposed to who is delivering the dialog.
The camera should focus on the performer delivering dialog when the dialog is poignant and reveals something about the character, especially if it is a moment of growth for that character in the overall story arc.
When one character’s dialog is revealing about another character, or is expository in presenting new information to another character, it can be best to show that character’s reaction shot. It’s more telling to see a character’s reaction to new information while the audience hears the revelation of that information than it is to see and hear the delivery of dialog.
Dialog is primarily a relational attribute of a narrative. That is, it reveals how two or more characters relate. The use of dialog and the choices made by an editor regarding how to display the delivery and reception of dialog goes a long way in establishing character relationships. In this way, an editor can choose to show two characters together, in the same shot, while one delivers dialog. The two-shot can build intimacy or reveal a schism between two characters. Isolating a character in a shot, whether they are hearing another character’s dialog or delivering their own, reveals their relationship to and feelings about what is being said.
Talk It Out
Dialog introduces a unique dynamic to video. The assembled audio for the edit needs to follow a narrative thread that connects with and makes sense to the audience. The editor assumes the responsibility of not only telling a visual story, but telling an audible one as well. Part of the beauty of video is that it’s a collaborative art, one that is crafted through the efforts of many people. A video editor is best served by keeping an open dialog with writers, directors, and producers. If the editor does this, they’ll be able to catch the vision and keep the dialog aligned with the narrative’s intentions.
The editor is at the mercy of production, especially when dialog scenes call for more than one actor to talk at the same time. As a result, the footage that lands on the editor’s desk contains overlapping audio, with one actor’s dialog heard through another actor’s microphone. It’s enough of a trick to take separate shots and string them into one cohesive conversation that flows naturally, but at least with only one person talking there are natural breakpoints where an editor can place a cut. When dialog overlaps, there’s the likelihood there will be far fewer breakpoints for the editor to place a natural cut. There are a few workarounds the editor should know to help them in this situation.
The easiest solution is for the editor to use cutaway shots. Chances are there will be some break points in the audio, even if there isn’t in the visual continuity. A cutaway allows the editor to mask their edit between different takes. The first shot rolls, and while it’s audio track continues on, the video cuts away. Underneath the cutaway shot, the audio cuts to the second shot and when the timing is right, the second shot cuts in over the cutaway.
There’s a reason why seasoned directors record the room tone of every location. One of those reasons is to fill in silent holes that occur during the editing process. There are moments when cutting overlapping dialog that the editor can remove portions of an off-screen character’s dialog to isolate the dialog of the on-screen actor. This leaves a hollow dead spot in the audio track. The editor can mix the recorded room tone into the audio mix at this point to smooth over the deleted portions of the audio track.
Chris “Ace” Gates is a four-time Emmy Award-winning writer and video producer.