In 2008 I wrote a post covering 12 Tips for Better Film Editing. I’ve been cutting a small indie feature over the past few weeks and it’s given me an opportunity to refocus on the art rather than the tools. Here are some additional tips that hopefully will make you a better editor.
1. Consider the continuity of actors in their positions on set. In many scenes, actors are blocked to walk to a part of the set, pick up some prop and deliver the dialogue. For example, an actor opens a car door and then has an exchange with another actor in the scene. In all too many productions, the continuity folks and the director don’t keep an eye on this. Sometimes the line is delivered before the door is opened – sometimes afterwards.
As an editor this may limit your options. Maybe the best delivery is on the master shot when the door is closed, but the best version of the medium shot is with the door open. You need to pay attention to these conditions and try to make them work. Either use only takes where items match – or use the best performances where continuity doesn’t match – but then figure out a way to cut around these errors so the audience doesn’t notice.
2. “Stammering” and forgetting dialogue. Actors all have little devices to help remember lines or to cover up when they forget a line of dialogue. Sometimes this takes the form of a hesitation, an “um” or an “ah”, a small stammer of a word or two, or the repeat of a phrase or a line. Your job as an editor is to help make the actor look believable as that character. As such, you need to be aware of these tricks and mistakes and take them out whenever necessary. Of course, sometimes they are an intended part of the acting, so make sure you don’t edit out the wrong thing. Removing these means covering the edit with a reaction or another angle, but this is all part of shaping a performance.
3. Expanding or contracting scene pacing. Editing has to do with pacing, but this is more then just setting a rhythm. Pacing has to do with adding tension or speed. Removing or reducing empty pauses in the dialogue between two characters – even overlapping lines – adds a sense of agitation or excitement. Inserting extra pauses between lines adds a sense of tension between the actors. Each long pause becomes slightly uncomfortable as would be the case in a painful conversation in real life.
4. Remove “shtick”. Often actors will be allowed to ad lib scenes or the director decides to inject some humor into a scene. Sometimes this works, but it typically comes across as overacting – especially when the film isn’t a comedy. Be judicious, but it’s often better to go with the understated performances, because they appear more genuine.
5. Motivation for actions. When an actor listens for something or looks in a certain direction, the audience needs a cause for motivation. This could be an off-camera sound, like a car horn honking, or it could be an insert shot of what the character sees. It’s important to try to find these shots or to ask that the director shoot them. In the case of sound, pull temporary sound effects to place into the edit.
6. Profanity. Often when actors are allowed to ad lib lines, they’ll toss in a few expletives for emphasis. Some folks see this as normal language and others as offensive. If you have an editorial choice, opt for the take without the profanity, unless that’s what the director specifically wants in the cut. If you can edit it out, do so. Sometimes, it’s possible to use the line, but cut it as a split-edit, so the expletive is delivered over a cutaway. In other words, you don’t see the actor actually delivering the word. This makes it easier to remove at some point in the future, should a “sanitized” version be required by the producers.
7. Intercutting parallel character action in a scene. A scene is often more interesting when you see what the rest of the actors are doing. As you review the takes, notice the performance each actor is bringing to the scene during the parts where he or she isn’t delivering the main dialogue lines. Try to incorporate some of these as reactions and cutaways to spice up a scene where appropriate.
In other cases a character must move from one part of the scene to another. If they are integral to the scene, it helps to include a few shots that let the audience know what is happening. For example, you don’t want a character to apparently pop into the foreground to suddenly deliver a line, when the last time the audience saw them was still inside a car at the beginning of a scene. You need to include a few shots, as the scene progresses, that clarifies to the audience that the character exited the car and started moving closer to camera. Then it’s natural when they deliver their line.
8. Intercutting transitional action. Sometimes scenes, as written, don’t transition well between each other when cut into a movie. For example, you might have two scenes back-to-back, in which each scene is a driving shot with a different set of characters talking to each other in a car. If Scene 1 ends and abruptly cuts to another similar scene in a car again, this won’t feel smooth. Instead, pay attention to transitional elements – for example, additional footage of driving or a POV from the car. These can be used to open time between the two scenes, just to give the audience a moment to breathe and make the mental switch.
Another technique in this situation could be to intercut the two driving scenes, so that sections of Scene 1 and Scene 2 are interleaved into a single scene going back and forth. Again, POV shots and general driving B-roll, plus some openness between the two situations, helps the audience make a seamless transition between these two disparate elements.
9. Use all the pieces. When you cut together a scene, don’t simply rely on the selected take as your best and only choice. Perhaps the “circle take” was only noted because it’s the only complete take where the actor got all the way through the scene with a moderately good performance. Possibly Take 1 had the best opening lines and another take the best middle and yet a different take had the strongest ending. As an editor, your job is to mold the scene by using all the elements at your disposal – in order to put on screen what the script writer and director intended. This includes reaction shots and cutaways to bridge the edits that are necessitated by such a patchwork of performances. Yes, it’s called editing, but in reality you are constructing, not merely removing.
10. Let your assistants cut. Unfortunately, I’ve rarely had the opportunity of working with assistant editors who were more than media loaders. On this recent project, I had a very sharp assistant who was also capable of editing. I wasn’t under a tight schedule and we were cutting as they were shooting, so the director was away on location. This provided an ideal opportunity to let my assistant cut a few scenes. I’d review and suggest tweaks, but the scenes were his. In the end, this will give your assistant a chance to grow, but better yet, it gives you as the editor an additional perspective as to how someone else sees that scene.
Click here for tips on editing two-camera dialogue scenes.
©2011 Oliver Peters