Realizing the purpose and method of effective editing requires delving into our perceptions of everyday living-the source for the way film language was instictively developed.
Any first-time judge at a short film or video competition quickly discovers some painful truths: Most productions establish their degree of success or failure in the first six shots or less; most are far too long; most made in video are excruciatingly so.
Even when camerawork, lighting, scenario, costumes, and acting attest to enormous and sincere effort, nonprofessional films and video generally move with the dexterity of an underinflated blimp. Festivalgoers blame the script, directing, or acting, but all could be vastly improved with better and more sophisticated editing.
Some of the origins of lackluster editing are obvious. Shooting’s more fun than assembling, so finished works often lack polish.
Then there’s the creator’s subjectivity. If you’ve ever politely endured the vacation video of friends, you know what I mean. It’s not the subject that’s inherently boring, but the excess of suffocating detail.
Even the most experienced filmmaker, fully aware of the trap, occasionally misjudges how the audience will respond. It’s tough to assess what sustains an unknown audience’s attention for a single shot, much less determine how long the whole film should take to explain itself. Patient professional mentors are thin on this ground, and family and friends are notoriously too critical or too kind.
What’s needed is a good practical theory. So I’m going to try to explain the purpose and method of editing by delving into our perceptions of everyday living-the source for the way film language was instinctively developed.
Editing is more than a long or short assembly of something preplanned. Its possibilities are far more radical.
Editing is really a second chance to direct the movie. You can, for instance, alter the rhythms of characters’ responses, alter how and therefore what they appear to be thinking.
You can restructure, lengthen, or drastically abbreviate the natural order of events, or invert cause and effect to increase the production’s dramatic effectiveness. The editor can indicate time, space, and even whole events by using a shorthand the audience unconsciously decompresses while watching.
These are all storytelling skills nonprofessionals routinely underutilize. Sophisticated editing can give a poorly shot movie an authoritative narrative style, or “voice.” Feature editors routinely save and upgrade material that’s clearly second-rate.
Because an editor’s work is virtually impossible to distinguish from the screenwriter’s or director’s, it’s difficult to envision its impact on finished films. The best work develops a compressed storytelling form modeled after the way the human mind sifts and organizes its perceptions.
This awareness may be shown through a single main character, as in Polanski’s Chinatown, or it may be omniscient, the observation of a detached storyteller, as in Kurosawa’s Ran.
At this level, we’re dealing with truly fascinating questions about how film language originates in habits of perception, memory, and storytelling as old as human life itself.
I can illustrate how film language follows the mechanisms of the human mind by taking you through some moments in my childhood at the end of World War II.
ou must imagine me at six, pedaling my bike out of our English village next to my sailor father. He’s big, on a very big bike, and I have to pedal my little bike very fast to keep up with him.
He’s taking me up to London Dock, to spend a day on his ship. Now we begin to coast down a hill without using our brakes, faster and faster, and I become frightened.
At the bottom there approaches a T junction, either way leading to our destination, the rural train station. My mother and I always take the right branch, but father takes the left. Unable to adapt, I freeze.
My bike goes straight on, leaping upwards over a grass verge and crashing through some shrubbery. I lie in silent shock holding my knee, all tangled up in my bike. There is nothing but the pain of my knee.
At first my father could not find me. When he does, his alarm turns to anger, because I did not reply to his calls.
Now we are mounting the ship’s gangplank. But my father turns back to help an old man struggling on the quayside with a water hydrant. My father springs forward into the sunlit billow of spray, wrestles with a handle, and the torrent stops.
The man thanks him profusely, and my hero father returns to me larger than ever.
In the actual bike ride there must have been a wealth of peripheral detail that’s unaccountably missing from my recollection-the appearance of the road for instance, the trees, the birdsong, the eventual train trip to London.
My memory has neatly and automatically edited out everything superfluous to the central, prevailing drama-the rising speed, my fear, the sudden need to deal with the unexpected, the crisis, my pain, my father’s anger, the image of him returning mythic from the torrent.
Look at the recollection for its structure and rhythm. It begins slowly, lyrically and evenly, and then accelerates into quickening images rising to a climax. Then there’s a long frozen moment, followed by the psychic turmoil of my father’s anger, then his godlike quelling of the torrent.
Though originally fed by a multitude of perceptions, my consciousness has retained only what has emotional significance. Furthermore, the imagery clusters around the pivotal moment where I lie transfixedwith my pain, already beginning to wonder, perhaps, why my body couldn’t steer the bike to follow my father.
Look closer and you’ll see a significant elision in the account, what we might call a jump-cut. One moment I’m wondering why I couldn’t adapt to the unexpected, and the next I’m ascending towards the romance of my father’s ship.
In actuality there must have been more journey, a conversation in the train, perhaps an apology by my father-but afterwards I “saw” none of this. My memory rejected these actions as trivial. The resulting account brings the before and after into hard juxtaposition, reducing and distorting objective reality to reflect my inner, subjective experience.
If you carefully go over one of your own memories-anything of emotional significance will do-I think you’ll be struck by three things. First, the memory is overpoweringly visual, and therefore cinematic; second, it possesses dreamlike compression. and intensity; and third, it carries a powerfully personal significance.
Your power of recall, good story-teller that it is, filters out everything less than relevant and leaves behind a montage of essence. Recall doesn’t even require “writing” time, for it can replay an edited version of events immediately after they’ve happened. The surviving sights and sounds epitomize both the episode and its underlying meaning.
Where do the discarded materials, the memory’s outtakes, go? Even with recollections of long ago you can still guess what’s missing between the cardinal moments. Indeed a fuller version may lie buried; for when people explore meaning on the analyst’s couch they often recall forgotten memories.
Perhaps nothing is forgotten after all.
Movies mimic the mind’s subjective recall process by reducing complex events to a succession of key moments.
A man’s journey home from a foreign battlefield may consist only of some walking, some riding in a truck, a plane taking off, and a complete scene of reunion with his family at an airport. Here time and detail are radically condensed and screen time reapportioned to reflect the returning soldier’s emotional reality.
The same shorthand can be applied to space. On the screen we may see a room and its contents only as fragments: a cluttered kitchen table, dusty window, bifocals left on a greasy Bible. Automatically we begin to fill in the rest of the room, imagining the person who lives there. Afterwards we may even swear the whole room was shown in the film.
From a few clues on the screen we customarily fill in what’s missing, then wait to see if our speculations are correct. This creates anticipation, a vital component of storytelling.
Supple editing works near the edge of our abilities, and like a well-composed crossword makes the task neither too hard nor too easy, just enjoyable.
This allusive shorthand also speeds the narrative by cutting out unnecessary and pedestrian linkages. The sure sign of a badly edited film or video is endless shots of walking, entering, leaving, and driving that do nothing for the mood or story.
Just as every event of significance becomes subjectively compacted and heightened by those who see or experience it, so too do these retold moments characterize the teller.
As any good trial lawyer knows, the way events are recalled and narrated reveals much about a witness’s character and state of mind. These variables portray not only the events but the idiosyncrasies of the beholder.
More subtly, this works with film and video as well. An audience sharing a filmmaker’s stream of consciousness journeys through a contrived progression of factual and emotional realizations. This can make viewing a powerful and unifying experience, particularly when it causes the audience to actively imagine rather than passively identify with an admirable character.
My childhood story illustrates how one notices what one feels. Anybody sharing my stream of consciousness experiences to some extent what it was to be me. In narrative art, this kind of evocation is called point of view. It is a psychological location, not merelyjust the physical position implied by the point of view or eyeline shot.
A film or video should be preplanned masterfully around clear narrative and emotional priorities. Very few actually are.
Random elements enter even when the videomaker closely shoots a good script. Human incompetency and mechanical failures afflict even the most professional of productions.
There are also uncontrollables like natural lighting and weather conditions; actors’ nuances of speech and movement; the vagaries of children, animals, and drunks; as well as good and bad luck with background action. All contribute to unpredictable results that must somehow be repaired in the cutting room.
In documentaries that depend upon the spontaneity of real life and real people, this serendipity is even more pronounced. The documentary editor has rightly been called “the second director.” All good films undergo significant development in the cutting room from what emerged during shooting.
Less Is More
The rule for film and videomakers-particularly editors-is “less is more.” A finely-calculated minimum on the screen invites the audience to participate in, and therefore co-create, the story.
Graphic art, literature, and especially poetry have long harnessed the power of this functional minimalism. But the infant art of film, lumbered with the camera’s tendency to spew a surfeit of banal reality, is still struggling to rise above objective realism into the more interesting world of individual imagination and feelings.
Movies that do this successfully, like Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Lynch’s Blue Velvet, endure in one’s memory because they stimulate powerful degree of imagination.
Editing is largely subtraction, the removal of everything that doesn’t serve a strictly narrative or provocative purpose. This functionalism is as true for news coverage, documentaries, wedding videos, and sports events as it is for imaginative fiction works.
By removing what isn’t strictly necessary, the editor injects a sequence of images and sounds with a tension that challenges us to locate their underlying significance. The suspense so evident in the mystery film really exists in all good storytelling that sets us problems to solve. This is no different from the way we privately struggle with the mysteries in our most deeply felt living.
On-screen there is not only a puzzle to be solved (what does each image, each detail, each movement, each glance really mean?) but we enter a new state of mind while unravelling it. To be here, to notice these things, implies being someone else rather than watching as oneself. This, incidentally, is why film and video scripts are written in the present tense while literature, a more contemplative medium, is largely written using the past tense.
In both factual and fictional forms, it’s the editor who searches out the rhythms and juxtapositions that help impose the harmony of order and meaning upon the raw materials.
As an editor works towards an optimal version of a movie, the version more and more gains the inevitability and authenticity of real life. This, the “art that conceals art,” is what makes a film, or a portion of one, work so effortlessly.
See it in your own videomaking. A number of practical editing tips can help you tighten up, smooth out, and improve the overall look of your productions.
Always use action-match cuts to link shots containing the same action. For instance, if you want to cut from close to long shots of a man in his office, make the cut on the movement as he rises from his chair.
For most action-match cuts, let the new action just become apparent before cutting to the new angle, with three or four extra frames on the incoming shot. The action should overlap this way because the eye doesn’t register the first few frames of any new composition.
Always try to make movement flow from one shot to another. For instance, cut from a boy skateboarding, camera left to right, to a train going left to right. A series of pictures without movement at their junctures will give that clunky photomontage look, and a series of shots with ill-assorted screen directions will look worse.
Movement flowing from shot to shot becomes like a ballet. For good examples, examine the firefight scenes in Oliver Stone’s Platoon.
When preparing to edit, especially with borrowed or unfamiliar material, classify the shots by screen direction to take advantage of movement flow. You can increase the impression of flow by laying sound effects, music, or dialogue across cuts, rather than changing both picture and sound at the cutting point. The latter often draws unwelcome attention to the contrived nature of film/video.
Also, think in terms of camera movement (pans, tilts, tracking shots) and make it all flow into subject-active imagery. A camera panning left to right creates a subject sliding right to left across screen, and may cut nicely with a dog running right to left.
Incorporating movement into your camerawork and editing produces sequences that need less cuts and look more like life itself.
Each shot has a natural on-screen duration within which the audience grasps its subject and meaning.
A shot with complicated action, complicated composition, or busy camera movement needs more time on the screen, while a familiar and static clock-face needs less. Put them together, and they feel rhythmically “right” to the viewer even though each is of vastly different duration.
By increasing the rhythm of action and cuts, you can intensify your audience’s attention at a point of dramatic climax, though eventually you’ll need to relax this expectation and slow the tempo.
Most sound, particularly speech and music, has rhythm you can tap. Use these rhythms to help determine the best edit points. Within every sentence there are variations in pitch and loudness through which the speaker signals key ideas. The most forcefully delivered syllables in “operative words” make excellent points to bring in each new image.
Avoid cutting from one angle to another at the dead point between sentences; it usually draws attention to the cut instead of burying it. In fact the most obvious places to edit-between sentences and between ideas-are usually bumpiest to the eye.
Sometimes, of course, this is dramatically effective. Closely examining a film of mostly dialogue scenes, like Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf will reveal how many ways an editor can place cutaway’s and reaction shots.
Always hearing the obvious sound for each image is inherently unchallenging for an audience.
Try disconnecting sound and picture in sync scenes and instead run pictures that counterpoint the sound. During a wedding you might keep the ceremony soundtrack going but intercut a picture sequence of the frantic rush to get everyone dressed and into the church on time. Return to sync dialogue for the important vows.
Another counterpoint device can create irony or doubt, if an elderly woman talks about how happy her childhood was, but you intercut childhood photos that show her less than happy, there’s an interesting contradiction for the spectator to reconcile. The audience will probably reflect on how we often jettison unpleasant memories, idealizing the past. Consider other ways counterpointing can set up an imaginative challenge: a ringing phone played over a derelict apartment building; gentle Bach music against shots of Nazi extermination camps. See the PBS Voices and Visions series on American poets for an infinite number of interesting contrapuntal devices, some of which fail by creating sensory overload.
Cutaways, reaction shots, and cut-ins help bridge together shots that wouldn’t otherwise blend well. They also use subjective attention to make us experience what characters notice and think. Try to motivate these cuts with eyeline shifts or dialogue references. The shot will then look organic to the scene rather than implanted by a manipulative storyteller.
Many scenes are improved by entering late and leaving early-especially true of scripted material, which is almost invariably overwritten. Likewise, documentary realism can be tortuous if you don’t find an agile way of plucking from each scene only what has meaning. See Broomfield & Churchill’s Soldier Girls.
Many scene transitions will become more spritely through bolder cutting. You need not show a man leaving his office, go to the garage and check out his car before driving him onto the freeway. Simply cut from him rising from his desk to him at the wheel.
Likewise cut from a woman turning down the TV to a shot of her in the kitchen drinking a glass of milk. A walk from one room to another not only adds nothing useful, it slows the story. Nicholas Roeg’s films are full of excellent transitions.
Avoid fades, dissolves, and other fancy optical effects. They too hold up the flow of the story and draw attention to technique. You can make a neat sound transition by placing a sound dissolve over a cut between scenes, or by playing it over a temporary cut to black.
Whatever your production’s about, whatever storytelling mode you adopt, use the least complicated solution for each problem. The simplest is usually the most effective.
If, for instance, you’ve taped a dramatic scene in long shot, medium shot, and complementary over-shoulder shots, and you’ve further provided reaction shots, cut-ins, and cutaways, then you’ve directed a scene with commendably full coverage. But edit the scene with the simplest combination of shots to fulfill the scene’s dramatic thrust. Using more of your coverage for its own sake will only produce a scene that’s pointlessly busy.
Always show a fine cut to a select audience and grill them afterwards on what they noticed, saw, and felt. Pick audience members who know nothing about your project, who will be candid and articulate. Listen hard, and never explain your intentions.
Make necessary changes to the cut and convene another showing with a new trial audience. Be aware that you can’t please everyone, and that your work must ultimately please yourself.
Michael Rabiger teaches filmmaking at Columbia College in Chicago, and is author of Directing and Directing the Documentary (Focal Press).