You sit there in the edit bay tearing your hair out and wishing you had a voodoo doll that you could shish kabob with rusty nails.
A voodoo doll of who? Of the dadblasted, addlepated nincompoop director who failed to shoot the footage you need to edit a good show. Admittedly, that director may well have been (ahem) you, but we’ll tactfully assume it was somebody else.
But instead of a retaliatory juju doll, pretend you have a time machine to travel back from the edit suite to the production location in order to help that talented if inexperienced director get the footage you need for editing.
With that in mind, we’ll survey some of the most common ways in which directors fail to anticipate editing and show how you and your time machine could have prevented those failures and delivered footage that’s a pleasure to cut.
Got ’em Covered?
Many of these directorial goof-ups involve coverage: the seemingly simple process of recording enough footage–and footage of the right kind for smooth transitions between shots. Before shooting it’s helpful to organize your scenes with a numbering system of some kind.
The most typical coverage error is simply forgetting to shoot essential material. Take the example in Figure 1, for instance.
Shot 1. TWO SHOT: A dressed up Mr. and Mrs. Knowitall opening the inside of their front hall door. SHE: Got the tickets? HE: (huffily) Of course I do; you think I can’t remember anything?
Shot 2. CLOSEUP: The tickets lying on a table in the hall.
Shot 3. TWO SHOT: Couple opening the door and leaving.
Since the closeup is an insert, it’s S.O.P. to pick it up after shooting all the main shots, but in this case, shooting ran late and the director forgot to shoot the insert. Now you have to edit the scene without the crucial shot highlighting the forgotten tickets.
What can you do? Nothing, except rely on a later sequence when they get to the concert and he can’t find the tickets. That’ll deliver the information, but the dramatic punch will be missing. If you had that time machine, you could zip back to remind the director to get the insert shot.
(In the real world, you still have an option: go shoot a pair of tickets on a table surface. Doesn’t matter that it’s not at the same time in the same front hall with the two actors. All that appears on screen is a wood surface with two tickets lying on it.)
Another problem is editing footage that’s like a T-shirt three sizes too small: it covers the essential minimum, but juuust barely. Suppose an earlier shot shows Mr. Knowitall putting the tickets on the table. In the first frame he enters the shot and in the last frame he exits. This leaves no extra head or tail footage of the empty hall.
That means you can’t control scene timing by leaving the screen empty for a moment before he enters. If the previous shot had shown him leaving his upstairs bedroom, the abrupt start of the hall shot makes him appear to have teleported downstairs. You wish you could go back and tell the director to give you some front-end empty hallway to suggest a lapse of time for the trip downstairs.
While you’re back in time there, remind the director to roll the camera at least five full seconds before the action begins and five after it ends; ten seconds each is even better. Without that discretionary footage to use in adjusting cut points, you’re not editing; you’re merely splicing.
A related error is failure to overlap action. In Figure 1, Shot 1 ends with the couple opening the door and leaving. Imagine that Shot 3 picks them up on their front porch, closing the door behind them.
Often, an inexperienced director will shoot the actors opening the door from inside in Shot 1 and then cut outside to Shot 3 with the couple in the already open door.
You’ll have a much easier job matching action if Shot 1 carries them all the way out and the door closes behind them. Then start Shot 2 with the closed door before they open it from the other side.
Matching action from shot to shot can be a mysterious process. You can try three different edit points in two perfectly repeated shots. Often, one edit will look great, a second just so-so, and a third won’t work at all. As you gain experience editing, you’ll find times when you want to purposely repeat or omit a part of the action across the cut (in a way that’s invisible to the audience) for even more control over rhythm and pacing. Remember, if the director does not overlap action from one setup to the next, you’re stuck with whatever edit point you’re given.
Even with generous overlap between the end of one shot and the start of another, you still don’t have enough coverage for truly flexible editing. For that you need to have each piece of action fully recorded in multiple angles.
In the previous example, you have just enough coverage to get the Knowitalls out the door. But suppose you traveled back to ask the director to repeat the interior scene twice with separate closeups of Mr. Knowitall and his wife. Figure 3 shows just one of many possible ways to enrich the scene by using closeups as well as the two-shot.
In addition to offering variety, multiple angles can act as cutaways: opportunities to hide mistakes, adjust timing, and choose among different takes of each shot.
To begin with, notice that the closeups in Shots 2 and 3 of Figure 3 exclude one of the actors. That gives you, a golden opportunity to lay in any dialogue you choose for the offscreen person. Notice that Mr. Knowitall is not on camera when he says, "you think I can’t remember anything?"
Suppose the actor originally added a long, boring pause before that line. If he were on-screen, you couldn’t cut it out. Or suppose it took him six takes before he stopped flubbing his line. His voiceover in Figure 3 lets you lay in take six of the line, when he finally got it right.
But if his reaction is too important to leave off-screen, the multiple angles in Figure 4 offer a different solution. This version seems better in two ways. First, the audience can focus entirely on Mrs. Knowitall’s reaction. Secondly, it intensifies Mr. Knowitall’s annoyance because the audience can see him as they hear him.
What the audience doesn’t know, however, is that you inserted Mrs. Knowitall’s closeup reaction to interrupt his speech so that you could use the first part of take one and the second part of take six.
Directors and Direction
Experienced directors may cover all the action and shoot multiple angles, but even seasoned pros have problems with screen direction.
Here’s a lightning recap: Mr. and Mrs. Knowitall are more or less facing each other as they talk. On the set, an imaginary line sometimes called the action line runs across them. Shoot every different angle from the same side of that action line and each actor will always face the same side of the screen. In Figures 1 through 4, notice that Mr. Knowitall always faces screen left and Mrs. K faces right.
Look at Figure 6. In the last shot, the camera has somehow wandered across the invisible action line and Mr. Knowitall suddenly faces the wrong way (even though the actor didn’t switch sides). Hey, the sky isn’t falling because of the switch, but the action just doesn’t look as smooth.
So what can you do now? Remember that pickup insert of the tickets you made to fix an earlier goof? Simply lay it in just before the reversed shot, as in Figure 7. This will distract the audience enough so that they probably won’t notice that Knowitall suddenly swaps screen directions.
There’s a double moral here: first, as a good editor, you can pull ingenious tricks out of your hat to compensate for inadequate footage, and second, you’re not a miracle worker.
Since, you probably direct (and shoot) the program before you cut it, you have to think like an editor while you’re shooting. Editing decisions have to be made long before you sit down in the edit suite.