Edit Suite: Real is in the Eye of the Beholder

From time to time weve shown you how to create program elements in post production that couldnt be recorded during shooting because they werent there to record. In one example we had a performer get out of a truck that didnt exist. In another, we faked the arrival of an actor by helicopter. Strictly speaking, these tricks didnt create trucks or helicopters; they merely suggested their existence, using careful framing and sound effects, and let the audience do the creating.

The power of suggestion is one of an editors most versatile tools. To fully understand how to use this tool we need to go beyond specific truck or chopper effects to discover the principles that lie behind them, the principles of juxtaposing, layering, and timing. You can use each of these principles to add elements to programs; and when you can orchestrate all three at once you can get away with murder (in some fiction videos, literally).

For simplicity, lets say that juxtaposing means placing one thing after another. Layering means stacking one thing on top of another. Timing means deciding how long each thing stays on the screen (or audio track).



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To make sense out of what theyre seeing, viewers instinctively organize visuals by relating them to one another. If a very low angle of a toddler teetering on a window ledge is followed by a high angle of an adult looking upward in horror, the audience will mentally connect the content in the two separate shots and conclude that the adult is reacting to the babys plight.

Juxtaposition is commonly used to play tricks with space-to suggest that the baby is on a ledge "way up there" and the adult is "way down here." In the real world, the toddler may be a foot above the waiting arms of its mother, just out of frame below (see Figure 1). In fact the window ledge (chosen because its safe enough for the baby) may be miles from the main location; so the actor reacting to the child may not be able to see her at all.

You can also juxtapose separate shots to suggest an action. I once had to show an eight-year-old boy trying to drive a sports car in a high-speed chase. I had lots of footage of an adult driver (invisible behind the car windows) slamming the speedster through its paces on a mountain road. I also had shots of the boy behind the wheel, with the background framed to conceal the fact that the car wasnt moving. (The front end was up on jacks so he could easily turn the wheel.)

The editing trick was to match the action. When the actual chase footage showed the car swerving around an obstacle I cut in a closeup of the boy yanking the wheel left and then right again. When an obstruction loomed ahead, I dropped in an insert of his short legs straining to reach the brake pedal-and so-forth. The moral is that just intercutting the boy and the car would not have sold the gag. The juxtaposed shots worked because they suggested cause/effect relationships between the separate pieces.

Finally, you can juxtapose separate shots to suggest thought or feeling. Imagine a shot of a performer looking expressionlessly at a line of foods before him on a buffet table. Cut to a point-of-view shot as the camera pans across: carrot sticks…cucumber slices…celery stalks…sinful chocolate pie…crackers… then pans back to that pie and stops. Cut back to the performer and the audience knows exactly whats been running through his head.

Juxtaposing separate shots so that 1 + 2 = much more than 3 is a simple, powerful way to use the power of editing suggestion. The next step up is to use this technique on two or more program elements at a time. You could call this layering.


Where juxtaposing places elements at different points on the same track, layering places them at the same points on different tracks, so that the audience gets suggestions from sandwiches of multiple visuals, multiple sounds or combinations of both.

Want to put your 21st century actor in World War II? On the visual A track, lay historic footage of the carnage in the battle of Arnheim. On the B track, lay a closeup of your hero in a nerial helmet and tunic (shot on a chromakey backdrop). Then instruct your switcher or software to combine the two visuals, and add a black and white filter effect to make your soldier match the scene (see Figure 2). Voila! Your boy is in the middle of the war.

You can use a similar technique to show two actions that are happening simultaneously. As Romeo and Juliet prepare for their first big date, use a half wipe to show his primping at the same time as hers. Or show how Sturdley Gradegrind studied all night for the big exam while Muffy VanSoshe partied hearty instead.

Special effects can also be layered with straight visuals to suggest almost anything. Compositing is one obvious trick: layering a foreground subject with a completely separate background. Or you can reverse the process and layer foreground special effects, such as muzzle flashes or explosions over the main live action.

Finally, dont overlook the infinite suggestiveness of titles. Show a blank stucco wall and all youve gots a wall; but fade up a supered title and youve suggested a locale: The Casbah, Death Row, El Supremos Fortress.

Suggestion through layering may be even more effective when you stack up picture and sound. Audio is wonderful for implying things that are just outside the frame: elephants, aliens, ice cream trucks-you name it. The suggestion is even more powerful when audio and video reinforce each other. So if an off-camera elephant trumpets on the track, you should blow off somebodys on-screen toupee.

In fact, the more aural and visual layers youve got going, the richer the suggestion. In a student video Ive mentioned elsewhere, the production team put an actress in an open biplane by 1) tilting her closeup so she appeared to be diving, 2) waving an off-camera cardboard to make her scarf stream behind her, 3) compositing a blue sky behind her and 4) laying in the sound effect of a vintage airplane engine.

Another student team created heavy weapons purely by suggestion. Forbidden to videotape even toy guns on the school campus, they were forced to "fire" camcorder batteries as pistols and a horizontal tripod as a Gattling gun.

Working in digital post, they laid in gunshots for the pistols and whole salvos for the gun. For the piece de resistence, they animated brilliant flashes, superimposed them where their "weapons" muzzles would be (if they actually had any), and synced them to the sound effects. The result was a one-two punch: at first, the layered audio and video effects turned the props into very convincing weapons. When close shots revealed their true nature, the shock humor of video equipment employed as armament got a big laugh that turned potentially unhealthy violence into a harmless deception.


Yet a third student group once used some of these techniques to "show" a person jumping off the top of a high building and walking away unhurt. Shot A established a high balcony protected by a railing. Shot B was a reverse of the railing against blue sky (actually a twin railing on a safe first floor balcony). An actor jumped over the railing and dropped out of sight. In shot C he fell into the top of the frame, hit the ground, bounded upright, and strolled nonchalantly away.

Here the key "suggestor" was not the railing but the timing. The railing shot remained on screen for two full seconds after the actor had dropped out of frame and the landing shot started another two seconds before he fell into it. Those four seconds of empty screen suggested the distance he fell in the meantime.

In this case, timing was used to suggest things about space and time, but you can also use it to put a spin on performance. In an earlier column we used the example of a woman responding to the question, "will you marry me?"

If you cut right to her reply, her instant "yes" tells the audience shes been waiting hopefully for this question. Give her a two-second pause instead and the audience feels shes considering the proposal. Extend that pause to five seconds and you get an agony of indecision followed by a reluctant answer. All the actress did was to look noncommital for several seconds before speaking her line. Her thought process is suggested by the way you time the edit.

As you can see from all these recycled examples, this Edit Suite is a roundup-a summary-of many techniques weve visited before, techniques that depend on the power of suggestion. Even megabuck shows like Titanic rely a lot on suggestion; and the rest of us can transcend our laughable budgets by getting the audience to imagine what we cant afford to show.

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