Whether you’re working on film or some sort of digital media, the artistic parameters are the same. A film editor actually glues bits of celluloid together with sticky tape, and a video editor presses buttons. The mechanical aspects of the processes are very different, but the choice of shots and just where when and how to join them is a real art.
You can learn an awful lot by watching a good editor at work or by learning to edit yourself. It’s not just coincidence that so many of the world’s top film directors began as editor’s assistants, fetching the coffee, synching up rushes, and finding the shots in the trim bin.
The editing stage is one of the most exciting parts of the production process. It’s where your epic takes on a real shape, not just a sequence of vague thoughts in your head or sketchy matchstick men on your storyboard. There are two aspects; the mechanics and the aesthetics. This will tell you nothing at all about the mechanics! And the aesthetics are very simple:
Art should conceal art; each and every cut should be quite invisible
But how do you make your cuts invisible? Like any other part of the production process, preparation is the key to editing. Never, ever, go into the editing room without a very good idea of what you intend to see at the end of the day. You did your storyboard, of course, and shot very closely to it, but there are always a few extras, a few disappointments, a few changes, so you’ll have to incorporate them.
The shot list
Look through your rushes closely. If there wasn’t a PA on location, now is the time to do the shot list. It’s a record of each shot, usually in the order they were recorded. There are all sorts of layouts – there’s an example of one here.
Most things should be self-explanatory. A/B means ‘as before’ – in other words the same shot again. H/H stands for ‘hand held’. In some circumstances, for example at the top of a small tower you’re excused not using a tripod. But please don’t let it become a habit. The 1449 at the top of the time column is the card number. (Hopefully it won’t be recycled until the cut is fairly sure.
When you’ve made your shot list, or checked it through and added any comments, make an editing shot list, sometimes known as a cutting order. Again, layouts differ depending on the kind of production, but they all do the same job; guide the editor whilst giving him or her the freedom to be creative. Here’s an example list.
Doing a proper cutting order has other advantages part from forcing you to organise your thoughts about the shape of the programme clearly. You’ll be one step ahead of the editor and ready with information as and when he needs it. Don’t underestimate the importance of maintaining your credibility with all the people on your team. You’re the leader and if they don’t have faith in you, you’re lost. And if you prefer, or need, to go away and let the editor create in peace, he’s got your notes for a guide.
Some directors prefer to work looking over the editor’s shoulder; others like to leave the chap copious notes and go off and begin setting up the next shoot. It’s largely a matter of personal preference. Most experienced editors like to be left alone and try out things; a newer person might appreciate a director’s presence.
Whatever, ideally the director and editor should look through the rushes togeher. Some people do this on two machines at the same time, often at double speed; others prefer to spend more time on it and point out various details, chat about the location, etc. Again it’s largely a matter of personal choice; if you’re working with someone new spend more time with him or her than you might if it’s a weekly turnaround piece and you’ve used the same editor for years.
Will it cut or not?
Even if you’re doing a very simple sequence with two shots, say a MS of a presenter and a CU of the sculpture he’s talking about, there are quite a few things to consider. You’ve got the master and the cutaway with sync sound, of course, so that the presenter’s rhythm in each shot is the same.
One thing you’ll find out fairly quickly is a very useful rule –
Always cut on action if you can
That’s why the director made the presenter point to the detail on the sculpture. Now you can make use of that movement to disguise any slight continuity problem by cutting just before the finger arrives or at least while it’s still blurred – it’s still on the move in both shots.
And a small addendum to that rule – always cut ahead in time, never back. What I mean is that if his finger has four inches to go before it stops in the master shot, it should have only two inches to go in the close-up. That’s a very rough and ready approximation (a rule of thumb, maybe!) , but it works. The reason is that by the time the eye has taken in the cut, a few frames have elapsed, and your brain expects the hand to have moved further. Try it the ‘logical ‘way – cut to the second shot when the hand has exactly the same distance to move. If it looks OK you’re too close to your work. Go and do something else for a few minutes then look at the edit again. Chances are, though, that it looks odd straight away.
Most people wouldn’t consciously notice; a few would, but most would just be slightly distracted. They wouldn’t know why, but a whole series of distractions adds up to ‘I wonder what’s on channel seventy-three…’.
Anyway, back to the sculpture story. You’ve managed to get the cut to the close-up to work well, now it’s time to work on the cut back to the master. Try a rehearsal using the point where the hand leaves the detail. If you’re very lucky it’ll work fine, but if the action wasn’t quite the same length in both shots, it’ll jump – you’ll have to cut before the hand moves or after, whichever works best.
There are so many variables and ifs ands and buts, but keep on trying things until it works.
Some of it you can sort out in your head. If the close-up action was faster than the master (it often is as it’s a repeat), the hand will leave frame a little early on the close up. So let it go; cut a second or so later so that in the master the hand is at rest. You’ll be on the close-up for a little longer than planned, but the viewer might quite like that to fully take in whatever it was the presenter was saying about the thing.
And so on and so on. Try it and see. Too many changes on film can be a problem; with video and non-linear systems, you can experiment forever. Well, until the first cut is due. You soon learn that you needn’t bother including a ‘meeting’ shot of interviewer and interviewee, for instance. (Except when… – television and film making are littered with exceptions to the rules).
There’s no substitute for experience
Like all television and film making, you really start to learn when you get your hands on – notes like this are really only a guide. Editing is very much a hands-on thing, so I hope you’ve tried out a few things here and there. It’s a very satisfying part of the production process and one where you can learn an awful lot about the craft.
There are many many editors’ tricks and cheats. When they’re cutting pictures to music, for instance, many experienced editors cut one or two frames before the beat – just long enough for the picture to register in the viewer’s mind. The cut then appears to be on the beat.
Ever hear of a bus wipe? No, it isn’t a cloth used to clean double-deckers. Or even a tennis coach. It’s just a piece of foreground action that sweeps across the frame obscuring it for a few moments. It’s natural in the context of the location (I hope), so the viewer won’t be confused. Cut to the next shot in the middle of the sweep, though, andt he cut will be invisible – something for which you’re always aiming.
Become a Time Master
Imagine a sequence where the policeman takes a phone call, shouts to a colleague, grabs his coat, goes out of the office, gets in the lift, arrives in the basement car park, opens the car door, gets in, puts on his safety belt, starts the engine, puts the thing into gear and…
Well, how cheeky can you be? If the end of the telephone call is, “Just hold on, I’ll be right there”, you could cut straight to the ignition key being turned, or to the outside of the police station with the car coming into shot, or almost any one of a hundred ‘time savers’.
Even if you want to show somebody getting in a car, then driving off, you can cut from a long shot of him opening the door and getting in straight to the hand on the ignition key.
Of course, you don’t always want to speed up every bit of the plot; some things should appear slower than they would be in real life – others need a big leap in time. The plot will dictate what is relevant (and stylish) and what is not.
Always split it if you can
By ‘Split’ I mean that a good editor will try to edit sound and picture at slightly different points if he can. Working with a single camera channel, any two consecutive shots are shot at different times and often places and there’ll be a discrepancy of light, ambient sound, mood, etc. But you’re trying to make the viewer believe that the two were just different views of the same occasion, so any ‘covering of the gaps’ you can do will help.
Take a common situation – an interview. Imagine an edit from a shot of an interviewee finishing an answer to one of the interviewer asking a question. In all probability he’s actually asking an empty chair as the interviewee went home half an hour ago! If you cut sound and vision at the same time there’s quite likely to be at least a small jump.
You can hide a lot of the jump by cutting the picture half a second or so after the sound. And it seems doubly right, because the picture change is happening at about the time an observer in the room would be looking from one person to the other – in response to hearing the new voice cut in. The edit has been motivated.
Cutting back to the interviewee is almost always done in the opposite manner; the picture is cut before the sound. It might only be a second; it might be much longer – it all depends on the phrasing of the question. Consider a question like; “Well you say your time in the army was quite normal for a soldier from the ranks, but you were actually court-martialled fourteen times in the first two years. Can you really claim that as any sort of normality?”
Surely any editor, any director, would cut to the interviewee no later than on the words “first two years”. You need to see the reaction in his eyes when his dread secret is revealed.
That’s an extreme example, but there’s nearly always a very well-defined point for cutting back to the interviewee or indeed for cutting any two shots together. Always go back to first principles and think carefully where you would be looking if you were a third (or whatever) person in the room. In the case of the interview, you’d probably be looking at the interviewer soon after he started speaking (unless the previous answer was extremely emotional), and you’d look to the interviewee as soon as it was obvious where the question was heading – somewhere about the point I indicated.
Do with the Camera as you would with the Eye
You can nearly always work out the right point to cut by this simple principle – ask yourself; “Where would I be looking if I were right there in the room with them?” If you don’t get any sort of satisfactory answer it probably means there’s no real cutting point, so don’t cut!
Watch out for that wonderful thing MOTIVATION. Each and every cut must be motivated. Thinking about the interview still; if the question is a short supplementary one, there’s probably no need to cut to the interviewer at all – he isn’t communicating much in visual terms, just verbally, and you can hear him with your eyes shut. You’re likely to get much more from the interviewee by watching him.
One problem you’re not likely to find when cutting an interview is that of cutting too far – by which I mean from a very very long shot to a big close-up. Watch out for very large changes of shot size. If you cut from a long shot of a crowded art gallery to one of a big close-up of someone talking, you’re likely to confuse the viewer. He doesn’t know where or how the person fits into the room – he’s disoriented and when that happens he starts wondering to himself, following his own thought processes not your carefully reasoned argument.
Sometimes, or course, the large change of shot size is done and done well, but, like crossing the line, or breaking any of the other rules of picture grammar it’s only done right when you know it shouldn’t be done at all!
In the art gallery example, you might get away with the cut if the person in the close shot was wearing yellow, was framed so he was on one of the intersecting thirds of the long shot and you cut just after everyone turned to look at him because he’d produced a gun!
That was a very obvious example, but it followed the rules of all good cutting. Just think to yourself. “Here I am and I’m looking at X – when, if ever, would I look at Y?”
Whether X is a walrus and Y a cherry cake or X a sports car and Y a Reebok, if the cut seems natural there, do it there. If it seems natural to you, it should seem natural to the viewer, and his brain will be anticipating it and it will be invisible. Art concealing art – the essence of good editing.
A by-the-way: You can use bus wipes and all sorts of visual devices to set the mood of the piece. Imagine a scene involving a salesman and a customer (your main lead in this drama). There’s a row about the price of a whatever. It ends with the customer sweeping out of the shop vowing never to do business there again.
Next comes a long shot of the store with the customer exiting and looking left and right as if baffled about where to go for his alternative whatever. He’s in an indecisive mood and you want to indicate that visually. So you’ve shot from the far side of the road – you get lots of buses, lorries, cars, even trishaws foreground. Sometimes your hero will be a blur of defocussed lorry for a second or two. Result – the shot feels confused’ along with the hero.
Sound can be used in a similar way. Consider a scene round a camp fire. Its after dinner and mugs of coffee are passed round. Talk turns to how a friend of one of the group swindled someone out of over a hundred thousand dollars by preying on his vanity and ignorance. Unbeknown to three of them the fourth member of that group is the victim. He doesn’t want to admit to being vain and ignorant, so can’t voice his antagonism direct. He throws his coffee dregs on the fire. There’s an enormous hiss and crackle, and you cut to a close-up of him stony faced. Tells the story?
While I’m thinking about sound, a small preach about music. It’s a very powerful weapon, but you must use it wisely otherwise you might blow your foot off! There are broadly speaking two kinds of music used in television programmes:
- The good stuff you’re meant to hear and even hum along with. Used for opening titles, closing credits, sequences of pretty pictures with no commentary. Often well-known pieces, but some made to measure, especially the title music.
- The rest – pieces you aren’t moved to hum along because you can’t really hear them! I don’t mean second rate stuff, these are often very clever pieces. But they are there to set a mood, to supplement and complement the sequence without drawing attention to themselves. It would be a waste of time writing the best commentary in the world and running it alongside Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. But a carefully chosen mood piece can augment the pictures without drawing attention away from the rest of the sound track or the visuals.
Don’t confuse the two and you should be fine. But don’t think you’ve got to slap music on everything. If you’ve got good effects tracks it’s probably best to use music sparingly, and let it have more effect because it offers a little audio light and shade.
The other thing to consider about music is that the end is nearly always more important than the start. If the piece of music is just the right length, then fine – if not, please make sure that the end comes at just the right point. It’s easier for a viewer to tune into music that eases in from somewhere, than to cope with it fading for no apparent reason.
There’s a lot more to be said about editing. Obviously. The mechanics, you can learn in a day or seven. But enough for now. There’s no substitute for practice – so go ahead and cut something.
And read a good book on the subject. As far as I’m concerned, the very best work on the subject is In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch. It’s still available from Amazon, and it’s a wonderful read.