Edit Suite: Shaping Performance through Editing

Watch a pair of fine movie actors together (say, Morgan Freeman and Dustin
Hoffman in Outbreak) and you’ll notice that their scenes are sometimes
presented in relatively few shots. Instead of cutting quickly from angle
to angle, the director and editor let the pros carry the drama by the strength
of their acting while the camera unobtrusively records their performances
without frequent edits.

Additionally, watch a couple of airheads chew the scenery and you may notice
a suspicious number of cuts. That’s because an adroit editor, supplied with
multiple angles by a canny director, has actually built (or at least rescued)
the performances in the edit suite.

You can use exactly the same editing techniques to shape actors’ performances;
and unless you can afford Morgan Freeman, you’ll probably need to. We’ll
show you how to select an actor’s best work, enhance it with easy cutting
tricks, and actually create a better performance than the one originally
recorded. And if all else fails, we’ll show you how to perform damage control
on acting that may be most charitably described as underachieving.

What if you don’t shoot fiction programs with role-playing actors? Well,
you may make corporate or public service programs with on-camera spokespersons.
You may record interviews with family members. You may produce training
tapes in which people demonstrate things. In short, if you have people in
your videos in any capacity then you have performers whose contributions
can often be improved through discreet editing.

The Art of Selection

At its simplest, performance editing means selecting the actor’s best work
for presentation; and with a good performer, that’s all you have to do.
In casual family videos, the selection process means cutting out the goofs;
and that, in turn, requires shooting to edit.

Here’s an example of how it works. In a tape that you plan to send to Grandma
for her birthday, your daughter walks up to the camera holding a beautiful
cake with lit candles. "Here’s your cake Grandma," she says, "and
we’re pretending –whoops!– we’re pretending you’re here with us to blow
out the candles."

The whoops! happened when she almost dropped the cake before recovering
and finishing her line. Knowing that you’ll want to remove that goof when
you edit, you move in and capture a big closeup of the cake. The final version:

1. FULL SHOT:"Here’s your cake, Grandma."

2. CLOSEUP: The cake.

3. FULL SHOT: "We’re pretending you’re here with us to blow out the

That saving closeup is called a cutaway (or in this case, an "insert,"
if you want to be picky). By substituting it for the messed-up middle of
the master shot, you invisibly lose the mistake.

At the amateur/prosumer level, you may improve actors’ work by recording
repeated takes of a shot until the performance meets your standards.

Frequently the first half of one take is the best while the second half
of another take is preferred. How can you invisibly suture together two
different versions of the same continuous shot? Here again the answer is
cutaway shots or angles of other performers in the scene. Whether cutting
out goofs or synthesizing performances from multiple takes, the moral is:
deal with problems while shooting by getting the coverage you’ll
need later when you edit.

Setting the Pace

You can also use cutting to adjust the timing of performances, especially
when multiple actors are involved. Again, the key is to get more than one
angle of every part of the scene. (In the discussion that follows, imagine
that the word beat represents about half a second of screen time.)

Suppose the master shot goes like this:

SHE: (beat, beat, beat) Want some ice cream?

HE: (beat, beat, beat) What flavor?

SHE: (beat, beat) Chocolate. (beat, beat, beat) I think.

HE: (beat, beat) Okay.

As all too often happens, these long pauses are just actors trying to make
their lines more significant or memorable or just plain convincing. If you
have single shots as well as the master, it’s easy to snap things up, like

1. TWO SHOT: Want some ice cream?

2. HIS CU: What flavor?

3. HER CU: Chocolate,

4. HIS CU: (He smiles as she continues off-camera) I think.

5. TWO SHOT: Okay.

By cutting to the actors immediately before their lines begin, you can discard
the portentous pauses invisibly. In this example, you speed up the entire
scene. In other cases you can do the same thing selectively, say, with just
one self-important actor or even with individual lines.

You can also slow a performance down by practicing the opposite trick of
allowing extra lead room. For example, suppose our scene continues:

6. HE CU: So you love chocolate too! Will you marry me?

7. SHE CU: (beat, beat, beat, beat, beat) Yes.

As recorded, the actress paused expressionlessly before replying, allowing
the editor broad latitude in cutting the shot. By re-timing her one-word
answer, we can deliver quite different implications. In version one she
has been waiting and praying for this offer:

6. HE CU: So you love chocolate too! Will you marry me?

7. SHE CU: (instantly) Yes.

In version two, she appears to make up her mind right before our eyes:

6. HE CU: So you love chocolate too! Will you marry me?

7. SHE CU: (beat, beat) Yes.

In version three, she thinks long and hard before accepting with possible

6. HE CU: So you love chocolate too! Will you marry me?

7. SHE CU: (beat, beat, beat, beat, beat) Yes.

In this example, the editor is actually adding to the original performance
by prompting the audience to imagine different things that seem be going
through the character’s mind (but really aren’t).

Gilding the Lily

Another way to add to a performance is by juxtaposing images. The idea is
to allow the audience to infer meaning from the combination of images that
isn’t apparent from the single shots.

To illustrate, imagine a closeup of a young man staring into space as if
thinking. Exactly what he’s thinking can be radically changed by the shot
that comes next:

–Thinking man + sweet old lady = mother love.

–Thinking man + the Stars and Strips waving = patriotism.

–Thinking man + cash in a bank vault = felonious intent.

–Thinking man + 1000 cars in a lot = where the heck did I park?

Though this technique can be very effective, it can also appear old fashioned
and heavy-handed. You can often achieve the same results more subtly by
juxtaposing image and sound.

One way to do this is through what’s called a split edit, in which the sound
from one shot is heard during part or all of a quite different shot. To
illustrate, let’s return to our ice cream lovers.

First the straight cut version:

6. HIS CU: So you love chocolate too! Will you marry me?

7. HER CU: Yes.

In the next version, the important thing is her reaction, so we cut to her
while he is still speaking:

6. HIS CU: So you love chocolate too!

7. HER CU: (He continues, off screen) Will you marry me? (Her
face softens as he pops the question;
) Yes.

And in yet a third version, the important thing is his worry and suspense
as he waits for her answer:

6. HIS CU: So you love chocolate too! Will you marry me? (He waits anxiously
for her reply. After a long pause, she says, off screen
) Yes. (He
breaks into a delighted grin

Once again, the same shots can yield different emotional effects by the
way the editor juxtaposes picture and sound.

Another way to reinforce picture with completely different sound is through
narration; for instance:

VIDEO: A small boy walking down an empty grade school hallway.

AUDIO: (Adult male voice, off screen) That 100 feet to the principal’s
office was the longest, loneliest walk in my life.

The actor may be quite emotionless, but the juxtaposed audio turns him into
one scared little boy.

Tilting the Playing Field

There are many times when one person is more important to your story than
another, but the performances as recorded are about equally as interesting.
Here too, you can adjust the performance strengths in the edit suite.

One unobtrusive way to do this is by image size. Suppose we’ve shot both
waist shots and closeups of our talent for the great chocolate proposal
scene. If the two characters are equally important, then they will receive
about equal numbers of wide and closeup angles.

But if you want to tip the balance of interest toward the woman, simply
cut back and forth between her closeup and his medium shot. Though they
get equal screen time, she will engage the audience more completely because
her image is larger.

Another way to intensify her performance is by giving her more screen time
than her partner. It’s hard to demonstrate with our extremely brief sample
script, but in a sequence, say, five minutes long, keeping her on screen
just three minutes to his two would intensify her effect on the audience
at his expense.

To sum up, this whole discussion shows that shaping performances doesn’t
stop when the shooting ends. Some of the most effective directing takes
place in the edit suite.
The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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