It’s Saturday night, and you just rented a movie. The movie’s opening credits appear over a shot of a snow-covered forest in the Appalachians. The title fades up on the screen: Forever Lost. As the title fades, you see a long shot of a vacant mountain cabin, then a medium shot of a grizzled man approaching the building. In close-up, the man’s hand smashes the cabin window. Now inside, the starving man ransacks cupboards and drawers. Suddenly a low growl startles the man. The film cuts to a pack of wolves, standing in the cabin doorway.
Many people were involved in creating this scene, but ultimately the film’s editor shaped it into its final form. After hours of reviewing footage, it was the editor who assembled this one-minute segment. Although it appears to take place in the Appalachians during a winter afternoon, most of what the audience sees happened over several months, nowhere near those mountains.
The actor playing the starving man was on a Hollywood set sprinkled with fake snow. The establishing shot was recorded months earlier in northern California, not the Appalachians. The pack of wolves were actually trained pets, shot separately on a closed set. However, when you see the finished scene, all of the sounds and images work together as though the events took place in the same place at the same time.
Just as a professional editor can work magic with a collection of unrelated images and sounds, the same footage can spell disaster if the editor lacks knowledge of screen language. Whether it is the way two shots are cut together, the speed of a fade or an effect chosen for a transition, screen language moves a program from beginning to end. Though it can take many years to become an advanced editor, there are some methods that will help even the most inexperienced editor begin speaking the language of editing.
Maintain Screen Direction
As you edit together successive shots of any moving object (human or otherwise), make sure the subject always moves in the same direction onscreen from cut to cut. A car crossing the screen from right to left must be moving from right to left in the following shot. In Forever Lost, as the starving man runs from the wolves, he exits on the left side of the screen. Therefore, the next shot must begin with him entering from the right side of the screen. If he moves from left to right it will appear as if he is returning from where he came.
Maintain Sight Lines
Crossing sight lines in conversation scenes can jar the viewer by disrupting flow. Say our lost man stumbles upon another hapless camper. In a conversation sequence, the starving man on the right side of the screen speaks and looks toward the left. In the next shot the new camper must be on the left, addressing the right side of the screen. If not, it will look like both people are speaking to some unknown third person.
Move from Large to Small
A segment of Forever Lost begins with a bird’s-eye view of the mountain, dissolves to a long shot of a small section of the forest then cuts to a medium shot of the cabin. A medium closeup of the cabin door and then a closeup of the window follow. By progressively moving from a wide shot, providing lots of information to a closeup with tiny details, the editor is able to create interest by slowly bringing the viewer into the setting. Cutting from the medium shot to the closeup then back to the wide shot would only serve to confuse the viewer.
Continuity in video means that the wardrobe, talent and style remain continuous throughout the program. If the starving man has a muffler around his neck in the first shot of a sequence, he must be wearing it when the camera returns to him. This becomes especially true when editing sequences that were shot over many weeks or months. Changes in hair, make-up and clothing are all troublesome to continuity in the edit suite. Sometimes you have no choice but to edit a sequence that contains a continuity gaffe. If this is the case, cover the inconsistency the best you can with one of the editor’s best tools the cutaway.
Let’s say you need to edit an interior shot of the man leaving the cabin with an exterior of the same action. Since the shooting of scenes took place months apart, the actor’s hair is really tangled in the first shot and only a little uncombed in the second. What do you do? Use a cutaway. Between the two shots, insert a close-up of his hand fumbling with the doorknob. While this won’t fix the hair problem, it will distract the viewer’s attention for a moment. If the two shots were placed back to back, the change in hair would be more obvious to the viewer. To further conceal the continuity shift, select the widest exterior shot possible. As the camera pulls back, details are hidden.
Shot Length and Timing
By varying the amount of time in a shot, you can suggest thoughts or feelings. After saving the starving man, his rescuers question him as to the status of other survivors on the mountain. If you cut immediately to his reply, his instant no implies that he’s acting suspicious and trying to hide something. Give him a two-second pause and the audience now feels he’s considering his answer. Extend the pause to five seconds and you get an agony of indecision followed by a reluctant answer. The way you time the edit suggests the subject’s thought process.
The organization of visuals allows the editor, through juxtaposition, to create different moods and effects. In our Forever Lost example, by connecting the shot of the wolves with the shot of the man frozen in horror, the audience is able to mentally connect the two separate shots and conclude that the lost camper is reacting to the wild animals.
You can also juxtapose separate shots to suggest an action. In desperation, the starving man decides to sled down the mountain in hopes of reaching help. Mixing POV (point-of-view) shots of trees and snow flying past the lens with close-up shots of the man attempting to control his toboggan convinces the audience that he’s speeding down the slopes. But the actor is merely on a slab of wood surrounded by snow machines in the studio with the point-of-view shots created digitally on a desktop.
Matching action is the technique of seamlessly editing two shots so they suggest a continuation of one action. When the starving man broke into the cabin, he approached the door, broke the glass and entered. A matching action cut would consist of cutting the medium shot of his approach to the cabin just as he raises his hand to break the window. The next shot would be a closeup of his hand actually breaking the window. Cutting on the action creates the illusion of one smooth movement without drawing attention to the edit.
Wipes, fades and dissolves all say different things to the viewer. If you are looking to expand time, try a slow dissolve. A fade to or from black usually denotes the end of a sequence or story line. Wipes tell an audience that you are changing locations or thoughts. Obviously, in the electronic world, your choice of transitions is endless. Rules of thumb: use sparingly, be creative and make sure to select a transition that communicates the right message to your viewers.
Try it, You’ll Like it
Perfecting the tricks and techniques of editing can be a life-long process. The procedures we discussed here are some of the basics that professional editors use every day. If you incorporate them into your productions, we’re sure you’ll be pleased with the results.