Checkpoint: The Edit

Posted Monday, December 15, 2008, 11:31 AM

My mate Rob's short film, set in WWII, which I have talked about several times this year, from shoot through to visual effects, is nearing an important stage of completion.

About a month ago, he invited me and some of our mutual movie-related friends over to view an edit of his film, and to give suggestions on how to tidy it up. Editing was a daunting task for him: with five or six hours of footage; sometimes as many as ten or fifteen alternatives for some scenes; and ten minutes to fill. He was finding the task exhausting, and overwhelming, so after the viewing, and the suggestions we threw at him, he called me in to help him out with finishing the edit. I was more than happy to participate!

Rob uses Final Cut Pro on his Mac. I'm more familiar with Adobe's Premiere Pro for PC, but they are very similar in most respects, so though I wasn't at the keyboard doing the physical work, I knew what options were available to us. Rob's method of working was not too different to mine, we both are very familiar with movies and their styles, plus we were mostly on accord with what we wanted to achieve with each scene. When we didn't agree on anything, I deferred to the Director's choices, because I knew he definitely knew what he was doing, and when his ideas worked, they were better than mine anyway.

So, we sat down together and figured some things out. Firstly, what was wrong, and why. That was relatively easy. Rob's first try was apparently very choppy, with too many close-ups. His second edit, which was the one the group of us had viewed, went in the opposite direction, with too many long takes that were Wide. For a movie that has tension and some amount of action, slow pacing can be a killer. But for a movie with some interesting dramatic beats and an extended dialogue, fast cuts are not good.

So secondly, we needed to figure out how to fix it. Easier said than done, we decided to go in step by step, and address each scene from start to finish. Some editors claim starting from the beginning in chronological order is a bad idea, and perhaps that's true. But bollocks to them. We'll learn the mistakes our own way.

You have to pick and choose the right places to put each shot. Wide shots establish location, position of characters, physical points of view from off-screen characters, isolation and vulnerability. Close up shots increase tension, show emotive facial expressions, allow for reactions. Mid shots are normally a good in-between, where you can orientate characters, see hand gestures, introduce a third character, and are good to cut to when you've had too many close ups already.

What we discovered, as we worked through the movie scene by scene, is the power you can have to change and create. I really was thrilled by some of the tricks we managed to do. I was afraid we'd not be able to achieve some of the ideas we were going for, because there is often a risk a lack of the right angle or a bad camera motion or line reading can ruin an otherwise usable shot. But what we discovered was not only could we cheat some shots, because two locations looked very similar to each other so we could mix and match, but that because we are also visual effects artists, we could assemble several different elements from various places (still images, different scenes, Behind-The-Scenes footage on a lower resolution camera) and manufacture a whole new shot to suit our needs!

And this is the part that really astonished me, though I don't know why because I hear of how this goes on a lot when editing. If you need an emotional beat, but aren't sure about where to place it, it's an incredible thing to see how a single shot can make a difference. If you don't have it, you feel like it's missing. If you do have it, and put it too early, it ruins the flow of a scene. If you put it in the right place, it completely transforms a scene into magic. If you shorten it by just a couple of frames, it can feel flat. If you lengthen it by a few frames it can change the emotional tone of the whole moment.

It's amazing.

We finished the edit, but there are many effects shots to do to complete it. We also are going to go back in, in a few days, and look at it afresh, to tidy up some of the rough edges that inevitably will be there. Especially since the morning we began, we were kind of floundering a little, but by the end of last night we were on a roll, and that difference may have affected how the edit flows.

Exciting stuff, and a lot of fun. I would be very happy to sit in on an edit with my mate Rob any time.

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