If You Can’t Make It Smooth, Make It Right (Film Editing)

So far we have discussed "smooth" cutting techniques-matches in movement, exit-entrance cuts, "lookoff" cutaways, reaction timing, and the use of properly timed anticipation in dialogue interchanges. However, even a superficial examination of almost any film will reveal a number of cuts which do not fall into any of these categories. They appear to be made arbitrarily and are seen, as a rule, in visual sequences such as fights, chases, contests, or scenes of suspense, in montage sequences, or in dialogue scenes which offer no thought transitions or opportunity for "mulling over" and where no essentially new information is being presented.* Such scenes, or sequences, are usually developments of established plot lines, goals, or characterizations, and their purpose is to move the story toward some minor or major resolution or climax.

This aspect of cutting, more than any other, tests the cutter’s instinct for proper pace and timing. If his cuts are too quick, or choppy, the viewer may be confused or irritated; if they are too long, the film lags, along with the viewer’s interest. Each sequence of this kind presents its own special hurdles—rarely do they repeat themselves exactly—but a generalized discussion is possible through the use of hypothetical examples.

Let us examine the opposite of the precisely timed dialogue scene of substance, say, an argument between two characters in which maximum pace is desired. The basis for the conflict has been established earlier in the film, and additional information would be redundant; attack, defense, and counterattack follow each other at breakneck speed. Since the dialogue carries most of the dramatic burden and individual reactions are hardly subtle, many such scenes are filmed in master shots or, if broad movement over a considerable amount of space is called for, in a series of connecting master shots. However, let us assume that the sequence is lengthy and a point is reached where intercutting of swiftly paced close-ups will accentuate the verbal battle.

When the close-ups are shot, the mixer and the cutter will invariably request that the dialogue in each close-up be recorded "cleanly," i.e., without overlaps. Most directors will accede to this request. Overlaps would make proper cutting extremely difficult (although not impossible) and would "fix" the timing beyond the cutter’s power to manipulate.

Cutting such a sequence entails a certain amount of labor, but few creative problems. The easiest, and best, approach is to use the picture as the guide.

An aside: With the exception of certain musical sequences, the cutter should work primarily with the picture in practically all situations. Even in dialogue scenes it is the image of the speaker, the listener, or the reactor which is important. The images change, interrelate, grow, or diminish; the sound track is, in a sense, an accompaniment, a continuous flow (even though its intensity and perspective may vary) much like the musical theme that underscores a sequence. The listener’s hearing is continuous—his viewing is not—and the cutter’s greatest efforts are always involved with the image.

This is not meant to imply that the creative possibilities of sound should be overlooked, although, aside from the compulsory dialogue and sound effects, they usually are. One of the weaknesses of modem film is that the creative use of sound has been ignored by filmmakers even more than the creative use of images.

Back to the argument: The cutter or director will break down his sequence diagrammatically.However, now he will pay little attention to reactions. Instead, he will run the first close-up, say, of character A, up to the point at which he wants character B to interrupt. At this point, he cuts to B, allowing only the few "empty" frames to precede the start of the dialogue.*

In order to avoid cutting into A’s line, two tracks will be set up, track a and track b, and these will carry the lines of A and B, respectively. This enables the cutter to run A’s line to its completion on track a, while B’s interruption rims simultaneously on track b. Player B ‘s line, in turn, will continue in full on track b, even when A eventually cuts in on B. A’s second line will, of course, be placed on track a, as will all of his following lines.

When the sequence is cut to the editor’s satisfaction, he will get a ‘ ‘temporary dub," combining tracks a and b into one master track which takes its place in the work print. Tracks a and b are set aside for possible later recutting and as a guide for the final dubbing of the film.

There are minor variations of this technique for cutting rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue, but the one outlined here is probably the simplest, most accurate, and by far the least messy. It will also, with a little additional effort, accommodate additional interruptions from additional speakers on additional tracks.

The cutting of a physical battle, whether in the ring or in an alley, presents few new problems, especially if its setups have been well planned by the director. Normally, a fight has to be choreographed, much as a dance number would be. Anyone who has watched professional bouts on television understands how much "dead" time there is in most such contests. Many fights will feature no more than two or three solid blows in an entire 3-minute round. Even well-regarded pugilists have often saved their maximum efforts for the last 15 or 20 seconds of each round in the belief that a furious finish will make the greatest impression on the judges.

This should not be too difficult to understand. Unless he is a slugger who prides himself on his quick knockout (and there are few of these, especially in the lighter classes), the fighter must pace himself for a long battle. On frequent occasions he will rest during the "action," clinch while he catches his breath or move out of range while ostensibly exhibiting his "fancy" footwork. Although real, this does not make for a good film fight. Here the viewer wants constant action which can be clearly seen, and that means that the action must be carefully planned. In truth, unplanned action can lead to accidents and injuries which may delay shooting.

Fortunately, actors can rest between shots, most of which last no more than a few seconds. However, when a number of these short cuts are strung together to make a full round, the participants will appear to be the superfighters the viewer wants to see.

So in the great majority of film fights, each cut is planned and used to show a particular blow or combination of blows in a specific action routine. The planning, of course, is always done before the shooting, ^d the cutter’s job usually consists of lining up the takes in their proper sequence, selecting the best angles for each separate bit of the routine, and then cutting them together by using the "action match" technique-there is always an overabundance of matching action to cut on. But if, for some reason, the director has overlooked the required action overlap, a cutaway to one of the "corners," the referee, or (less desirable) someone in the crowd can serve as the "kitchen stove."

Unless the cutter uses a shot of someone fully involved in the drama, a cutaway to an audience shot is not, as a rule, a wise move. The principle involved here is identical to that discovered in cutting early musicals. It is this: The viewer does not care to be told what his reaction should be by being shown a model reaction of our own choice. (The viewer is constantly manipulated, to be sure, but not in so brash a manner.) Once a "number" is under way, the viewer is the audience, and a cut to the filmed audience can be distracting, especially if the viewer’s reaction and the filmed reaction do not coincide. Only if the filmed reaction is important to the plot (for instance, its approval of a "new" or substitute performer) is such a cut properly in order.

The same holds true for a staged fight. Only if the crowd reaction is an essential element in the story is it of any real value. Otherwise, it is wiser to let the viewer react to the fight and accept it as a real experience, exactly as one hopes he will with any and every other kind of sequence in a well-made film.

A street fight should also be carefully planned, for much the same, although more extreme, reasons. Although the dramatization of such a battle can be directorially very different from the more formal prize fight, the planning and the cutting follow the same pattern.

Since few, if any, blows, kicks, and so forth, of any weight actually land in a film fight, a few cutting tricks can help to manufacture "reality." Not all actors can "time" or "take" a punch properly. Let us say that in a full shot the puncher misses the intended target, his opponent’s chin, by an unacceptable margin. On top of that, the receiver’s reaction is a shade too late. If just as the first, in the full shot, should meet the chin we cut to a close-up of the "punchee" and see his head snap back as we hear a loud, dubbed-in, smack of the fist, the illusion of a solid hit can be made to seem very real indeed. In cutting such a sequence, I have often found myself wincing at such a blow, even though I knew that no actual physical contact had been made. Practically all film fights are a succession of such cutters’ tricks—examples of the magic of screen illusion at its most convincing, if not necessarily at its best.

It is wise to withhold judgment on the effectiveness of such sequences until temporary sound effects are incorporated. The sound of the punches can make a world of difference in their appearance and believability, and although cutting in temporary sound effects demands a good deal of additional time and labor, it more than pays for itself at the eventual editorial runnings.

A first cut always has a great deal missing, especially in the area of sound effects and musical scoring. It is unfortunately a fact of the business that many directors and producers, despite their claims to the contrary, cannot truly judge a rough cut on its ultimate merits. But it is difficult for even the most experienced filmmakers to accurately visualize the film as it will look and sound after all the experts—the sound effects creators and cutters, the composers, the musicians, the rerecording and dubbing mixers, and the film timers—have had their turns at the film.

As an editor, I found it much easier to "sell" the directors, the producers, and the executives if I did as much temporary "cosmetic" work as I could possibly manage. It must always be kept in mind that they too have bouts of insecurity. Key sound effects and "library" music can markedly increase a film’s dramatic, suspenseful, or romantic effects. As a matter of practical fact, the inclusion of temporary music is useful in another most important way.

David Racksin, that fine film composer, relates a typical tale of woe. "I have been told, ‘We want to underscore this scene with a rendition of The Marseillaise,’ but by the time the scene came out of the cutting room, I could only play the anthem’s first two bars—if I rushed them." Racksin’s experience is not too uncommon, nor does such snipping always benefit the film,

It is important to remember that a properly scored musical background has a very important effect—it serves to increase the apparent pace of most sequences. Therefore, if the cutter is moderately certain that a particular sequence will eventually carry a musical background, he must edit his film accordingly. This means he will probably opt for a pace slower than the one he expects the sequence will ultimately achieve. If he cuts the film to its maximum pace without music, it will probably seem hurried after the music is added. So he must keep this "otical" illusion in mind and resist the "itchiness" if the sequence, in its "rough" version, seems a touch lethargic. This is one more instance of the creative importance of an editor’s instinct for timing.

Next post:

Previous post: