Trying a Little Harder (Film Editing)

So far we have been considering action cuts made under perfect or nearly perfect conditions. But conditions are rarely perfect and not too often nearly perfect. A number of problems can raise their unattractive heads. Two scenes which ultimately will be cut together will often be shot on different days—sometimes weeks apart. Actors will have forgotten levels of intensity and the nature and speed of their movments.

For instance, in scenes shot for the exit-entrance cut, the actor may leave the first scene at a brisk pace and saunter into the next one, especially if the entrance scene has been filmed first. If an actor smokes a cigarette in the master shot, he will also smoke a cigarette in all the matching shots. However, only a superhuman memory could enable him to recall exactly how he raised the Marlboro to his lips, or when, how deeply he inhaled or how deliberately he exhaled, just when he lowered it to flick off some ashes, or just how long he paused before raising it to his lips once more.

Most actors do their best to maintain consistency, as do the director and the person especially responsible for helping the actor to match his wardrobe, his moves, and his demeanor, the script clerk. Unfortunately, the script clerk’s memory is not perfect either, and her notes are sometimes inadequate. Besides, many directors refuse to allow their actors to be burdened with excessive detail, an attitude which I endorse. An actor who is conscious of the mechanics of his performance will usually perform mechanically. Freedom, spontaneity, and "being" go out the window if the player is required to devote more effort to matching his movements or ‘ ‘hitting his marks" than he does to making the scene come alive.

All this, of course, has to do with shooting, but it ultimately has a great deal to do with cutting, and the editor who is willing to try a little harder can indirectly help the director to get better performances from his cast. Knowing how much is possible, I refuse to allow the script clerk to advise actors about their action matching unless they specifically request it When a conscientious script clerk objects, which often happens, my response is always, "We’ll fix it in the cutting room." And we always do, even if it takes some doing.

The "doing" is where many inexperienced or inexpert cut- #•> ters make serious mistakes. Confronted with a "bad" match at the preferred cutting point, they ignore the proper cut and search out a point at which the action matches. Now, the substitute cut may be technically perfect, yet completely undesirable, on at least two counts. First, it may still’ ‘jump" because it comes at an illogical and therefore unacceptable point in the r scene. Second, what is much more damaging, it may diminish the dramatic thrust of the scene for the same reason. This leads to:

Rule 6: Cut for proper values rather than for proper: "matches." 

If the dramatic demand at a particular moment in a scene ! dictates a cut from, say, a full shot (A) to a close shot (£), the . cut must be made, regardless of a bad action or position : match. The cut can be accomplished in a number of ways.

1. Ignore the mismatch. If the cut is dramatically correct, it is remarkable how often the bad match will be completely unnoticed by the viewer. The important thing here, as in so many areas of cutting, is to know where the viewer will be ; looking. The mismatch which the cutter sees so clearly on the Moviola is probably far from the viewer’s center of interest. If he is watching the actor’s eyes, a mismatch of an arm or hand will be ignored nine times out of ten. I have often been able to obtain a perfectly smooth change of scene even though the action in the two cuts varied widely.

In Mulder My Sweet, I was faced with a closely related problem, a decided variation in lighting. Early in the film, Dick Powell, as Phillip Marlowe, is confronted by a menacing Moose Mulloy, played by Mike Mazurki. The tense scene was staged in a sketchily lit office at night. The only light source was the offscreen street lighting, dominated by a flashing neon sign positioned just outside the office window. Its on-off frequency of about 4 to 5 seconds was quite noticeable on the player’s faces. The intermittent light effect was repeated, of course, in the "two-shot" and in the tight "over-shoulders." None of these key shots was played at exactly the same pace or with exactly the same sequence of movements. Although the light effect was started at the same point in each take, by the time the scenes had ended, the light effects were completely out of sync. Yet, a good deal of intercutting was dramatically imperative. Obviously, the on-off light effect created a problem.

I decided to "go for broke" and cut the sequence for its values, completely ignoring the light changes. I hoped for a miracle. It was not forthcoming. The lighting did not match. However, the scene played exactly as it should, and no one, then or since, has ever objected to the lighting anomaly. Over the years, this film, a prime example of film noire, has been frequently run for students. Not one has noticed the lighting mismatches, not even through several reruns. Only when they are specifically pointed out are they finally recognized. In short, the proper cut to the proper shot at the proper time is always the cut of choice.

2. If, for some valid reason, the required cut from A to B cannot be made, a cut into a close-up (B’) whose closeness omits the undesirable positioning or movement will often do the trick. If no such close-up has been shot, all is not yet lost. Here is a strategem that has saved quite a few difficult situations.

The close shot [B) can often be blown up into a close-up on the projection printer. The quality of the print may suffer a little, but only the cameraman will notice, and he will probably accede gracefully to the demands of the scene.

3. If all else fails, the cutter can always precede the desired cut to B by replacing the latter part of the cut A with a close shot of its main center of interest, whether it be the speaker in the scene or an observer. The cut from such a replacement close shot, or close-up, will avoid the bad match, and although it might be criticized as a bit "cutty," it will serve its dramatic purpose.

To sum up, there is only one optimum way to cut a film, and the editor must overturn every stone in his effort to find it. Basically, it means showing, at any particular moment, that scene, setup, move, or reaction which most effectively delivers its dramatic message. Compromises may be unavoidable, but they should never be accepted without a battle. It is good to remember that the obvious is not always the best, and if one keeps trying, the ultimate solution can be superior to the original intent. Most important of all, the film’s dramatic requirements should always take precedence over the mere aesthetics of editing.

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