Building a Scene

The first thing any film student learns about being an editor is that a film is not put together simply the way the editor thinks it should be. The editor is there as the right hand of the director working in service to the story.

Often a film editor will start out cutting while the film is still being shot. The director is on set or location and is focused on getting the script captured. Meanwhile, the editor is trying to “keep up to camera” and build the scenes in accordance with the script as footage is received. Although it is often said that the final edit is the last rewrite of any film, this first edited version is intended to be a faithful representation of the script as it was shot. It’s not up to the editor’s discretion to drop, change, or re-arrange scenes that don’t appear to work. At least not at this stage of the process.

Any good editor is going to do the best job they can to “sell” their cut to the director by refining the edits and often adding basic sound design and temp music. The intent is to make the story flow as smoothly as possible. Whether you call this a first assembly or the editor’s cut, this first version is usually based on script notes, possibly augmented by the director’s initial feedback during downtime from filming. Depending on the director, the editor might have broad license to use different takes or assemble alternate versions. Some directors will later go over the cut in micro detail, while others only focus on the broad strokes, leaving a lot of the editor’s cut intact.

Anatomy of a scene

Many editors make it their practice not to be on the set. Unfortunately the days of a crew watching “dailies” with the director are largely gone. Thus the editor misses seeing the initial reaction a director has to the material that has been filmed. This means that the editor’s first input will be the information written on the script and notes from the script supervisor. It’s important to understand that information.

A scene can be a complex dialogue interaction with multiple actors that may cover several pages. Or, it can be a simple transition shot to bridge two other scenes. While scenes are generally shot in multiple angles that are edited together, there are also scenes done as a single, unedited shot, called “oners.” A oner can be a complex, choreographed SteadiCam shot or it can be a simple static shot, like a conversation between a driver and passenger only recorded as a two-shot though the windshield. There are even films that are captured and edited as if they were a continuous oner, such as 1917 and Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). In fact, these films were cleverly built with seamless edits. However, individual component scenes certainly were actual oners.

The lined script

Scripts are printed as one-sided pages. When placed in a binder, you’ll have the printed text on the right and a blank facing page on the left (the backside of the previous script page). The script supervisor will physically or electronically (ScriptE) draw lines through the typed, script side of a page. These lines are labelled and represent each set-up and/or angle used to film the scene. Specific takes and notes will be written onto the left facing page.

Script scenes are numbered and systems vary around the world along with variations made by individual script supervisors. For US crews, it’s common to number angles and takes alphanumerically according to their scene numbers. A “master shot” will usually be a wide shot that covers the entire length of the scene. So for scene 48, the master shot will be labelled 48 or sometimes 48-ws, if it’s a wide shot. The scene/take number will also appear on the slate. The supervisor will draw a vertical line through the scene from the start to the end of the capture. Straight segments of the line indicate the person speaking is on camera. Wiggly or zig-zag segments indicate that portion of the scene will be on a different angle.

After the master, the director will run the scene again with different camera set-ups. Maybe it’s a tighter angle or a close-up of an individual actor in the scene. These are numbered with a letter suffix, such as 48A, 48B, and so on. A close-up might also be listed as 48A-cu, for example. Lengthy scenes can be tough to get down all at once without mistakes. So the director may film “pick-ups” – portions of a scene, often starting in the middle. Or there may be a need to record an alternate version of the scene. Pick-ups would be labelled 48-PU and an alternate would be A48. Sometimes a director will record an action multiple times in a row without stopping camera or re-slating. This might be the case when the director is trying to get a variety of actions from an actor handling a prop. Such set-ups would be labelled as a “series” (e.g. 48F-Ser).

On the left facing page, the script supervisor will keep track of these angles and note the various takes for each – 48-1, 48-2, 48-3, 48A-1, 48A-2, etc. They will also add notes and comments. For example, if a prop didn’t work or the actor missed an important line. And, of course, the take that the director really liked will be circled and is known as the “circle take.” In the days of physical film editing, only circle takes were printed from the negative to work print for the editors to use. With modern digital editing, everything is usually loaded in the editing system. The combination of drawn, lined set-ups with straight and zig-zag line segments together with circle takes provides the editor with a theoretical schematic of how a scene might be cut together.

The myth of the circle take

A circle take indicates a take that the director preferred. However, this is often based on the script supervisor’s observation of the director’s reaction to the performance. The director may or may not actually have indicated that’s the one and only take to use. Often a circle take is simply a good performance take, where actors and camera all hit their marks, and nothing was missed. In reality, an earlier take might have been better for the beginning of the scene, but the actors didn’t make it all the way through.

There are typically three scenarios for how a director will direct the actors in a scene. A) The scene has already been rehearsed and actions defined, so the acting doesn’t change much from take to take. The director is merely tweaking nuance out of the actors to get the best possible performance. B) The director has the actors ramp up their intensity with each take. Early takes may have a more subtle performance while later takes feature more exaggerated speech and mannerisms. C) The director wants a different type of performance with each take. Maybe sarcastic or humorous for a few, but aggressive and angry for others.

Depending on the director’s style, a circle take can be a good indication of what the editor should use – or it can be completely meaningless. In scenario A, it will be pretty easy to figure out the best performances and usually circle takes and other notes are a good guide. Scenario B is tougher to judge, especially in the early days of a production. The level of intensity should be consistent for a character throughout the film. Once you’ve seen a few days of dailies you’ll have a better idea of how characters should act in a given scene or situation. It’s mainly a challenge of getting the calibration right. Scenario C is toughest. Without actually cutting some scenes together and then getting solid, direct feedback from the director, the editor is flying blind in this situation.

Let’s edit the scene

NLEs offer tools to aid the editor in scene construction. If you use Avid Media Composer, then you can avail yourself of script-based editing. This lets you organize script bins that mimic a lined script. The ScriptSync option removes some of the manual preparation by phonetically aligning ingested media to lines of dialogue. Apple Final Cut Pro editors can also use keywords to simulate dialogue lines.

A common method going back to film editing is the organization of “KEM rolls.” These are string-outs of selected takes placed back-to-back, which enables fast comparisons of different performances. In the digital world this means assembling a sequence of best takes and then using that sequence as the source for your scene edit. Adobe Premiere Pro and Media Composer are the two main NLEs that facilitate easy sequence-to-sequence editing.

The first step before you make any edit is to review all of the dailies for the scene. The circle takes are important, but other takes may also be good for portions of the scene. The director may not have picked circle takes for the other set-ups – 48A, 48B, etc. If that case, you need to make that selection yourself.

You can create custom columns in a Media Composer bin. Create one custom column to rank your selections. An “X” in that column is for a good take. “XX” for one that can also be considered. Add your own notes in another custom column. Now you can use Media Composer’s Custom Sift command to show/hide clips based on these entries. If you only want to see the best takes displayed in the bin, then sift for anything with an X or XX in that first custom column. All other clips will be temporarily hidden. This is a similar function to showing Favorites in a Final Cut Pro Event. At this point you can either build a KEM Roll (selects) first or just start editing the scene.

Cutting a scene together is a bit like playing chess or checkers. Continuity of actors’ positions, props, and dialogue lines often determines whether a certain construct works. If an actor ad libs the lines, you may have a lengthy scene in which certain bits of dialogue are in a different order or even completely different words from one take to the next. If you pick Take 5 for the master shot, this can block your use of some other set-ups, simply because the order of the dialogue doesn’t match. Good editing can usually overcome these issues, but it limits your options and may result in a scene that’s overly cutty.

Under ideal conditions, the lines are always said the same way and in the right order, props are always handled the same way at the same times, and actors are in their correct positions at the same points in the dialogue. Those scenes are a dream to cut. When they aren’t, that’s when an editor earns his or her pay.

When I cut a scene, I’ve reviewed the footage and made my selections. My first pass is to build the scene according to what’s in my head. Once I’ve done that I go back through and evaluate the cut. Would a different take be better on this line? Should I go to a close-up here? How about interspersing a few reaction shots? After that round, the last pass is for refinement. Tighten the edits, trim for J-cuts and L-cuts, and balance out audio levels. I now have a scene that’s ready to show to the director and hopefully put into the ongoing assembly of the film. I know the scene will likely change when I start working one-on-one with the director, but it’s a solid starting point that should reflect the intent and text of the script.

Happy editing!

©2021 Oliver Peters

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