Knowing Your Audience (Film Editing)

The sharp-eyed reader may have noticed an occasional reference to the viewer or the audience. If he is especially discerning, he may have reached the conclusion that I regard the viewer as something more than a passive observer. He would be quite correct.

We have often heard or read some artist proclaiming proudly, if somewhat arrogantly, "I create only for myself." Overlooking its possible sour grapes aspect, this statement usually emanates from an artist who has not, at least not yet, caught the public fancy.

I am acquainted with no honest artist who does not want an audience, who doesn’t pray for an audience, and who isn’t bitterly unhappy if he can’t attract one. Whether one is preaching, teaching, "illuminating," or just entertaining, an audience, especially a paying audience, means acceptance, and acceptance, in one form or another, is an innate desire in every human being. But beyond this, from a purely practical point of view, creating for oneself alone is a luxury no filmmaker can afford—unless he has the wealth of a Howard Hughes.

This does not mean that the filmmaker must pander to his audience. On the contrary, the creator must always "do his thing," but he must make it appealing. The ability to appeal, whatever the subject matter, separates the successful creator from the artistic failure.

Aside from the satisfaction of being heard, there is an important technical aspect to the creator-viewer relationship. The viewer is an observer, but he is also a reactor, and just as the filmmaker must understand the player’s potential multiplicity of reactions, so must he understand those of his audience. Audiences are not fickle, but our knowledge of them is often incomplete. An artist who does not adequately read his audience can lose it as quickly as he once gained it.

It is essential to understand that there is more than one type of audience, and although an audience as a unit is curiously monolithic, one monolith may differ from another. A youthful audience, for instance, will accept information or entertainment in the areas of humor, sex, suspense, and social attitudes which an older audience might view with distaste. Further differences will be found between rural and urban viewers, between residents of the "bible belt" and those on the two coasts, between people of the deep south and the far north, and of course, between audiences of different social strata or cultures.*

Once an editor arrives at a good understanding of his audience, he can start learning how to use it. For instance, you are cutting a scene for a laugh—but what sort of laugh? There are many kinds of laughs, and an understanding of them is obligatory. If the most you can expect is a chuckle, you do not time your scene or play reactions for a guffaw. If you are letting out the stops in a sentimental scene, at what point does emotion become maudlin or sentiment turn into mawkishness?

The editor will find that previews offer him the best opportunities to study audiences. Previews are useful not only in the recutting and editing of a film—objective attention to audience reaction enables the perceptive editor to develop techniques for strengthening viewer participation in the film as a whole.

Once more I must stress the importance of objectivity. Many a film has suffered because of wishful thinking. Reluctance to properly evaluate or even admit an unfavorable reaction has often precluded constructive reediting. Occasionally, an unforeseen reaction can be so completely negative that no remedial action can save the film, but in most instances corrective measures can be taken. These may involve a full or partial elimination of the objectionable material, a decisive change in editing, or a rewriting and reshooting of some or all of the offending scene or sequence. But the customary first course is an attempt at reediting—and quite often, if the scene’s shortcomings are examined with complete objectivity, such attempts are successful.

One of the most important (but unhappily, most ignored) lessons to be learned from audience analysis is the value of silence. Very early in my editorial period I discovered that viewers are more attentive to silent sequences than they are to dialogue scenes.* This seemingly illogical phenomenon came as a complete surprise. I had assumed that the presence of dialogue would obligate the viewer to listen, whereas silence, which removed that obligation, would allow him freedom to indulge in occasional comments. Not so. When the screen talked, so did the viewer—when the screen was silent (except for possible underscoring), so was the audience.

Later, the development of recorders enabled me to tape preview reactions. The tapes generally confirmed my earlier findings. Even in substandard films, silent scenes commanded attention—as the cliche has it, "you could hear a pin drop"— while dialogue brought diminishing attention and occasional viewer repartee.

The silent sequence is most often seen in suspense films, whether they be mysteries, private eye or police versions, in horror stories, which cover a wide field today, in action films, also ranging broadly from gangster fare to Westerns, and in docudramas, seen almost exclusively on television.

Chase sequences, like fights, are always choreographed, either by the director or by his stunt coordinator. A knowledgeable director will plan his setups or angles to show every move or series of moves as he visualizes them. There will be few protection setups, and the cutter’s job will consist mainly of finding the best action matches for stringing the cuts together. Later editing may require deletions of portions of the action, which can be easily accommodated by cutting to the "kitchen stove," in most instances a shot of one or more concerned onlookers.

An inexpert or insecure director will cover himself with an excess of material. This places the responsibility for careful selection on the shoulders of the editor—a responsibility most cutters welcome even though the time and labor involved are multiplied by a large factor.

Chases usually feature a number of exit-entrance cuts, e.g., a car will exit one scene to be immediately picked up at the start of another which once more brings the car toward the camera or shows it moving off into the distance. Furthermore, chases almost always involve more than one participant, and many of the cuts are merely alternating shots of the pursuer and the pursued. * But when a series of two or more cuts of one of the principals is called for, the technique recommended for exit-entrance cuts should be applied. For instance, a car hurtles toward and past the camera. The next cut is a close shot of the driver, shot from inside the car. Here the windshield in the first cut assumes the role of the face and eyes in the earlier exit-entrance cuts. As the car’s windshield moves halfway off the screen, the cut to the vehicle’s interior will be completely unnoticeable. To the viewer it will seem that the camera simply passed through the windshield into a close shot of the driver. Try it. It works every time.

The cutaway from the interior will probably be made on the driver’s look, or reaction, much like the average "look off" cut. If, on the other hand, a series of full shots is cut in sequence, the applicable cutting technique is similar to one used in editing sequences of suspense.

In a suspense sequence the most important ingredient, by far, is mood. Only rarely is character or plot development a consideration. The characters have usually been adequately developed and the basis for the suspense has been introduced. The stalking or hovering menace, whether human, animal, or extraterrestrial, is known to the viewer, if not always to the screen character. The cutter’s obligation is to establish a mood which will convey the subdued terror or suspense to the audience.

The special technical aspects of suspense-invoking setups, lighting, and the use of lenses are, of course, the director’s responsibility, but the juxtaposition of the cuts to obtain the greatest possible audience involvement is the responsibility of the editor.

What must be understood here is that it is the viewer who must be caught up in the mood. Showing a frightened actor will be of purely academic interest if the viewer himself does not feel the menace of the scene. If the viewer is to empathize with the character on the screen, he must be emotionally involved, even if that character is not yet fully aware of his predicament. Otherwise, the viewer may consider the character somewhat foolish when he finally reacts with fear to a stimulus which he, the viewer, has not yet accepted.

Fortunately, the cutter has a wide field of reference on which to base his cutting conception. Every person has, not infrequently, felt terror. The sound of following footsteps on a dark and deserted street at night has triggered a sudden flood of fear in all of us as children (and even as adults). The heart-stopping sense of an unwelcome presence in a darkened house as we enter it late at night is a universal experience. And para-psychological fears lie shallowly buried in the subconscious minds of even the most cynical unbelievers.

This potential for arousing the viewer’s own emotional responses makes the suspense sequence the most sure-fire attention grabber in films. The cutter needs only to intelligently select and properly align the most effective shots or set up the most effective sound effects, most effectively timed, to have the audience reacting at his will. A shot of an empty street whose cleverly contrived shadows conceal hiding places for unnamed menaces or a suddenly billowing curtain in the absence of the slightest breath of wind can raise the hackles on all but the most insensitive necks.

Sound, whether direct or offbeat, can be most important. In one of Val Lewton’s suspense films (possibly Cat People), a potential victim of an escaped black panther walks nervously through a cemetery. (The setting is obvious but effective.) Suddenly, there is a sharp roar, and an immediate audience reaction to the probable presence of the man-eater. Without pause, the sound turns into the harsh grinding noise of an automobile self-starter. Relief gives rise to nervous laughter, but the suspense, the certainty that the next such moment will be decisive, continues to grow. This incidental deception ! renders the panther’s real attack, which occurs a short time later, even more terrifying.

The trick is to never let go—to pile effect on effect, to continually enhance the mood, to maintain peak viewer attention. A shot must be long enough to deliver its desired effect—it must never last so long that the viewer can start to analyze the components which make it work, not even for a brief instant. And it should never be repeated. No clever magician repeats an illusion at the same performance; neither should the film editor. A truly effective setup loses at least some of its punch the second time around. (This holds true for all shots, not only in scenes of suspense.) Just as "milking a gag" weakens a comedy scene, so repeating a clever shot weakens its total effectiveness.

As in other instances of arbitrary cutting, the selection, arrangement, and timing of the cuts constitute a "judgment call." They depend on the cutter’s instinct and skill. The "feeling" for the viewer’s attention span is all-important. Although, when cutting for suspense, reaction cuts are usually longer than normal to allow for the buildup and penetration of fear and/or terror, these cuts should stop just short of the point at which the viewer might become aware that he is being manipulated. Then, leaving the viewer at the height of his interest, each cut should be followed by another which will continue and, ideally, increase that interest.

It is, of course, essential that the cuts be aligned in optimum order. Since buildup is extremely vital, a close analysis of each cut must be made. An effective introductory cut may be of little use toward the climax of the sequence; a cut which may be useful in the buildup may produce a letdown at the denouement.

With this in mind, all the cuts should be lined up, analyzed repeatedly, and realigned where necessary, over and over again, until the cutter is completely satisfied that he has arrived at the best possible sequence of cuts. Only then should they be spliced together.

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