May 10, 2009


I'm going to go back, way back, to the start of filmmaking and the guy who's theories redefined editing- Sergei Eisenstein.

Eisenstein was a Russian filmmaker who wrote and taught on something he called 'Montage'. He believed that by juxtaposing images he could create emotion in his viewers. For an example he shot a few seconds each of people looking at the camera. He then shot a few seconds of other things like food or children. When he would put an image of a woman with a picture of a child and ask the viewers what the woman was feeling, they said love. When he put the same image of the woman together with a picture of food, the viewers said the woman looked hungry.

Specifically I recall a scene in his film "Battleship Potemkin". There's a famous scene referred to as The Odessa Steps Sequence. In this sequence the people are showing their support for the sailors on the Potemkin and clash with soldiers on the Odessa Steps. A woman is shot, she falls, her baby stroller rolls down the steps. A woman looks on in horror, the soldiers march down the steps continuing to fire on the people. The stroller continues down the stairs. The baby cries. A man looks on in horror. The soldiers march. The stroller falls over. The woman again looks on in horror. A soldier raises his rifle butt end down and away from him. The woman's glasses are broken and there is blood on her face.

Just by placing those images in that sequence we know the story. We don't need to see the in between bits. We don't need to see the soldier's gun come down and strike the woman's face. We don't need to be told what the man and the woman are looking at. By placing the images in the order they are we can piece the story together ourselves. Especially important since this film was made in 1925 and is silent. If you'd like to see this sequence for yourself and see a list of films that have been inspired by it, check out the following You Tube link:

The reason why this is important is because it illustrates an important aspect
of editing. Simply that you don't need to show everything in order to get your point
across. The audience can fill in the blanks. In fact, they'll do it without even realizing
they're doing it.

March 7, 2009


I've been a little busy lately with some home improvement projects so haven't put up a new blog but tile layout problems actually got me to thinking about editing.  

A little background.  I'm redoing my half bath and have purchased some travertine marble for the floor.  Since travertine is a natural stone it means that no two pieces are the same.  In my case some of the tiles are pretty uniform with just some marbling and some have very strong veins of chocolate and caramel running through the predominant cream color.  There's also some big areas of smooth, translucent white.  I love these tiles with the special character but they wouldn't work without the more simple tiles.  This is where it relates back to editing.

We talked before about mixing together footage with camera movement or movement within the frame and why that should be mixed with some still shots.  This is a similar situation.  A shot with a lot going on or that is spectacularly shot (like my tiles that have plenty of character) needs to be placed with some simpler shots to make that beautiful one stand out.  I did this on my last film with one particular shot.

I had a scene that was a conversation between the two leads.  It took place just outside a door while they debate the pros and cons of entering the room.  I had originally planned it out in a fairly standard two shot plus over the shoulders from behind each actor to give me plenty of editing options.  Unfortunately our location backed out at the last minute and we had to scramble to find a new location.  This left us shooting in a very tight T shaped hallway and the over the shoulders just weren't going to work.  Plus the audio was very echoey in the tight space.  So we moved the guys out of the door alcove and put the camera in the bottom of the T.

My DP wanted to use the jib he had to do some move into the shot.  I was watching on the monitor while he tried to set it up.  He zoomed in really tight on the guys to focus, getting just their faces and shoulders, cutting off the backs of their heads and keeping us from seeing that they were in front of the door alcove rather than in it.  Also, the colors were so perfect and the shot so well framed that I told him to stop and leave the camera right there.   We did the entire scene with one camera setup and no cuts.  It's a short scene, 20 seconds maybe, and the actors brought in motion as they performed so we didn't need a camera move.  It was beautiful.  

I still think it's a lovely shot and I also like it because we had movement in nearly every other shot, including a long dolly in immediately following.  The stillness and length of the shot as well as it's wonderful framing is in stark contrast to the rest of the film and makes it stand out even more.  In fact, it worked so well that when we got to the final shot of the film where the actors again stop at a door (this time before they exit) we did it very similarly, not as tight but still and long with no cuts.  

I also find that home improvement projects help me when I'm stuck with an editing dilemma because thinking of something else frees my subconscious mind to solve my problems.  But that's probably a subject for another post. 

February 18, 2009

Use of Audio in Editing

Have you seen the Hulu commercial with Alec Baldwin?  Apparently, it premiered during the Super Bowl, which I didn't watch, but it's been on TV a lot since and every time it's on I'm struck by one particular part of that commercial.  

The storyline, in case you haven't seen the commercial, is that TV softens your brain but Hulu takes it to complete mush, making it more palatable for consumption by aliens of which Alec Baldwin is one.  While Alec is explaining how Hulu makes your brain easy to scoop out with a melon baller a man is watching "30 Rock" on  The man laughs at the Alec on his screen imitating Jimmie Walker.  Alec laughs.  The man laughs.  Alec laughs.  The man laughs.  Alec looks disgusted.  The man laughs.  Alec laughs.  This part of the commercial lasts 5, maybe 10 seconds.  It's very quick but the contrast between the two laughs, the rapid fire delivery and the part where Alec doesn't laugh when we're expecting it is genius.  I personally think this is what makes the commercial so successful.  

Check the commercial here to see what I'm talking about.

One of the ways that audio comes into play in this is in the contrast between the two laughs.  
The victim's laugh is soft, Alec's is more shotgun style.  Go ahead, try editing a sample of this 
using two laughs that are identical or nearly identical.  It won't work.  Not like this commercial 
works. It's these elements: contrast, confounding expectations, repetition, and rhythm that 
elevate this commercial above most of what you see on TV.

Keep in mind during your next editing project how sound can make or break it's success.

January 22, 2009

Editing Moving Footage

By 'moving' I don't mean emotion, but camera movement.  Editing footage with camera moves adds an additional level of difficulty, but it also adds a level of interest to your film/video.  Just so we're clear on the terminology here's what I learned in school about the different types of camera moves:

Dolly- Moving the camera on a track (wheelchair, skateboard, car, etc).  This can be left or right or in and out.  A dolly left means the camera moves from the camera operator's right to his/her left.  Dolly right is the opposite.  A dolly in means a move closer to the subject.  Dolly out, farther away.

Pan- The camera moves, but the tripod is stationary.  Like turning your head side to side.  Pan left means move the lens toward the left, since the camera pivots in this move on a center point, the back of the camera would be moved toward the operator's right.  Pan right means moving the lens to the right, revealing whatever is on the operator's right in the scene.

Tilt- Raising or lowering the camera lens while the body of the camera is attached to the tripod.  So, a tilt up would be pointing the camera toward the floor and raising the lens up.  Tilt down is the opposite.  A great way to reveal something above or below an actor since it mimics the movement of tilting your head up or down.

Zoom- Changing the focal length of the lens.  This actually distorts the image.  Zooming in (getting a closer view of the subject) squeezes the depth of field.  Combining a zoom with the opposite dolly move (zoom in & dolly out or zoom out & dolly in) creates that weird, horror movie effect you've seen where a subject seems to stay stationary within the frame while the location (usually a hallway) grows longer or more compressed.

There are also advanced moves that can be created with specialized equipment.  A jib gives you the ability to move the camera up and down while also moving right and left or in and out or any combination of the above since the camera sits on the end of an arm that's attached to a tripod.  It can also be placed on a dolly track for ridiculously complex camera moves.

So, now that that's out of the way, what about cutting together footage that includes various moves?  Well, be careful.  It's safest, but of course less interesting, to keep the camera still or mix still shots in between moves but proper cutting together of movement can really elevate the quality of your film.  Here are some general rules, just remember this one thing about rules- Yes, they are made to be broken, but only once you've learned/mastered them.

1. Don't mix different types of moves.  Going from a dolly left to a zoom in will leave your viewers utterly confused and disoriented.  If disorientation is what you're going for you can try it, but be careful because this is a pretty strict rule.

2. Movement in the same direction shows progress, movement in opposite directions shows confusion.  This includes movement within the frame as well as camera movement.  If your character is moving from point A to point B then they should always be moving in the same general direction, left to right for example.  If you have two characters chasing each other and missing each other (think a Marx Brothers movie with people going in and out of doors) then having movement in opposing directions heightens the chaos.

3. Limit zooms.  Okay, this is just my rule and probably something that most editors have little control over but I prefer to move the camera, because as mentioned above zooms distort.  Also, zoom lenses have really deep depth of field that makes your footage look like video instead of film.  Why?  Because traditionally movie cameras had fixed focal length lenses, zoom lenses came into popular usage with television.  We naturally associate a fixed length lens that has limited depth of field with film because it's what we're used to seeing.  In fact, the director of "Wall-e" shot sample footage with film lenses to show the computer programmers how a real camera behaves so that they could program their virtual cameras to behave the same.  Watch it and see if you can notice the difference.

I think it's time for some examples.  I mentioned that I recently edited a silent short for someone.  Well, it also included a lot of movement.  The short is called "Skatebored" and the story is that a guy is riding his skateboard but then walks off and leaves the board behind.  The skateboard becomes bored and escapes.  It roams up and down while it's owner searches for it.  They meet up and there's a showdown but the board escapes again.  Eventually, it returns to it's owner who's so happy he takes off on a long, fast ride.  

There's a lot of movement in the footage.  In some parts the skateboard is used as a camera dolly, which provides some great POV.  Sometimes the camera is still and the skateboard is all that's moving.  The movement is in all different directions.  I used that movement to advantage since the skateboard in this film is supposed to be playing and enjoying it's freedom.  I mixed it up which enhances the playfulness and sense of uninhibited freedom.  Once the music that's being composed just for this film is added, it should only increase that feeling, but it starts with the editing.

Here's the middle section of the film.  Thanks to Traci Van Wyk for the okay to use this footage.

See how the skateboard starts off escaping the car toward the left, but then the camera (still in the same general position) shows it rolling away?  Keeping the camera in the same spot, with the car still visible to the right, lets the viewer place the action in space.  Therefore, the viewer isn't confused by the fact that the skateboard first moves to the left and then away from them.  An important point, confusion is not what we're going for here.  Also, having the skateboard move away from the camera is another way of silently expressing escape. 

Once free, the skateboard can roam about in any direction it wants and the audience follows along because they understand that this anthropomorphized toy is having fun and fun means random movement.  When the board meets up with it's owner and they have a cowboy showdown we dolly from left to right on the board and then the boarder (you can tell it's not a pan because the angle of the camera to the subject doesn't change).  This one could have worked with the dollies going in opposite directions but I like the smoothness of the camera continuing to move right, it's almost like it was a 180 degree pan with the middle cut out.  I think it feels better because the movement doesn't stop and reverse direction, it just keeps going.  There's a fluidity to it that's nice.

So, from this very simple example, you can see how editing can tell a story using movement alone.  Experiment with this in your own projects. 

January 17, 2009

The Power of Editing

I'm working on some video content for another post but in the meantime I have an update to a prior blog.  I was listening to the Creative Screenwriting podcast with Grant Nieporte, screenwriter of "Seven Pounds".  He talks about the choice to put the ending scene at the beginning of the film, so I finally got the answer to the question I posed previously.

It seems that Grant wrote the screenplay that way, but it was debated right up to the end exactly how much of the scene would be shown at the opening of the film.  I still think they made the right choice and clearly, based on the interview, it was an editing choice.  This was in fact a case where during the editing the exact moment when a particular cut would be made was changing.  Just a few seconds earlier and instead of knowing what to expect and viewing the entire film with the knowledge of how it will end we would instead be wondering: "Who?"  

Just a few seconds can change the entire tone of a film.  This is the power of editing.  

January 4, 2009

Edit on Action

I've been watching some screener films that have been submitted to one of our local film festivals. It's not the first time I've assisted in selecting films for film festivals and I could probably write a book on things that independent filmmakers should avoid but today I'm just going to focus on one of them because it's an editing issue. And that issue is- when to cut.

When to cut is really the question facing every editor on every cut and it's not one that can be given a single pat answer, but there is one rule that applies to every cut. Always edit on action. I was watching a film submission that included a scene at a poetry reading. The lead character leaves quickly and as she does she pushes through two men standing near the exit. The editor cut back to the poet and then returned to show the two men watching the lead leave the room then turning towards each other and shrugging.

By the time the editor cut back to the two men, the lead had already left the scene so what we see is the two men staring at a closed door, then turning and shrugging. To make this edit flow better instead the cut should have been just as the men are turning to face each other, a moment before they shrug. Instead we are left with 2-3 seconds of them staring at a door. In editing terms 2-3 seconds is an eternity.

By cutting on action- the men turning to face each other- the shot becomes more visually interesting because something is actually happening (minor as that action may be). By cutting earlier we are left to wait and wonder what the purpose of the shot is and what's going to happen. We already saw the lead leave the scene so what are they staring at? Is she coming back? Is someone else coming in? What's happening in that dark corner that we can't see very well that is so fascinating to those men? And yes, a viewer can have all of those questions run through their mind in only 2-3 seconds.

I've tried to enlist a few friends to recreate this scene so I could demonstrate what I'm talking about but haven't had any success yet. Practice it with some of your own footage or watch a TV program or movie, one you can pause and rewind hopefully and see when the cuts occur. You'll see that this is standard- editors cut on action, while things are happening in the shot not while people are standing, staring off into space.

January 3, 2009

Time and It's Use in Storytelling

I want to talk a little bit more about the editor's role in story development.  It seems fairly obvious; after all everything in a movie, TV show, commercial or even home video is about the story that's being told and the edit is the final rewrite.  Since it is always about the story it's worth it to go into this in some detail.

This past Christmas Day I went to my local theater and saw "Seven Pounds" with Will Smith.  The structure of this film got me thinking about how structure supports and in this case, elevates, the story.  I don't want to give away any details.  I think this is a superb film, one of the best I've seen in years and I strongly urge you to go see it yourself.

"Seven Pounds" opens with the film's ending.  Before you start thinking I've just given something away- trust me when I say it will be obvious to any viewer that this scene is actually the end- and that's the point.  The fact that you know where the story is heading, that as you watch the film you have the inevitable conclusion in the back of your mind, gives even the smallest moment greater poignancy than if you didn't know.  The choice to start with the end is in fact what makes this a great film instead of an ordinary one- and this is a great film.  I don't know if this choice was made during the writing process, the production or the editing, because I couldn't locate a script online but for the purposes of this discussion, I don't think it matters.  

Lots of films have used time as a way to increase their impact- "Pulp Fiction", "Memento" and "Jackie Brown" (it's structure taken directly from Stanley Kubrick's "The Killers") all use time in different & uniquely effective ways.  "Pulp Fiction" jumps around from one story to another and back and forth in time- this structure keeps the viewer on his/her toes, you never know what's going to happen next.  "Memento" is famous for it's reverse timeline.  At it's heart, this is a mystery about a guy with short term memory problems, so telling the story in reverse chronology is a way to reveal the mystery.  Contrast this with "50 First Dates" where Drew Barrymore also suffers from short term memory problems but the story is told in standard chronology- because this works better for a comedy.  

As for "Jackie Brown" and it's godparent- "The Killers"- revealing the crime by cutting back and forth between the planning and execution as well as showing the clock adds tension that keeps you on edge.  "Bound" does a similar thing with cutting between the planning and execution of the caper, just without the clock.  In "Bound" this is used to compress time and create tension.  Corky (Gina Gershon) is telling how the caper will go down through voiceover while we watch her & Violet actually executing it.  At first it appears we're just being shown the plan, until it all goes wrong and we realize we've actually been watching the crime in progress and hearing about what should be happening while watching it go wrong.  This adds an extra layer of tension.  This also harkens back to "The Killers", just less obviously so than "Jackie Brown" because unlike those films there is no onscreen clock showing you that things are not happening when & how they should.  

What does this mean for you?  Simply that you need to consider how time can be your friend and that standard chronological time isn't always the best or only way.  This doesn't mean using flashbacks- flashbacks, as a general rule, should be used only sparingly because they pull your audience out of the emotional moment that they're in.  But time, when used to the story's advantage is different.  This is why the initial flash forward in "Seven Pounds" is so effective, it infuses every moment that follows.  As you watch the film you are constantly thinking back to that opening and it places you inside the mind of Will Smith's character and increases the emotional impact of all of his actions.  

December 28, 2008

Serve the Story

I was watching an episode of "Bones" the other night and noticed a quick cut to a close up of actor TJ Thyne.  The shot lasted only 2 seconds at most but it stood out because the quality of the video didn't match the shots that framed it.  This is a good lesson in one of the most important things to remember in editing- all choices must serve the scene and therefore, the story.

I can only guess about how this shot made it's way into an episode of "Bones" that hit the airwaves, but it would be an educated guess.  A TV production company needs to put an entire episode on the air every week so time is tight.  The director probably planned an excellent shot and maybe they got it or maybe they didn't.  For whatever reason the editor had to figure out how to make the scene work and the only way was to cut to a close up (not the most elegant solution in this particular instance) and the only close up they had was poorly lit and grainy.  Or with digital image manipulation being what it is these days, it was originally a wider shot and they blew it up, which is why it appears poorly lit and grainy.  The exact reasons aren't important.

I had a similar situation last year with a short film called "Crew".  I wasn't on set all day so I only heard about it from the actor.  He told me that the speech he had to give was being rewritten while it was being shot so he had trouble getting his lines right.  There were several takes.  I had to pick and choose parts from the multiple takes, from different angles, and try to piece them together in a way that made sense, wasn't loaded with jump cuts, made the actor look good and most importantly of all- would set up the big joke of the movie that followed the speech.

A scene needs to accomplish something and it's your job as an editor to make sure that it does.  In my case there was a joke.  THE JOKE.  The big reveal.  We had one angle for that line and I had to work my way back from that.  The shot prior to that had to work when placed before it.  And the shot before that.  And then the one before that.  And so on.  But it started with the delivery of the line "If we touch that shovel, the terrorists win."  That was the line.  It brought down the house at the screening.  The line's delivery had to be one continuous shot of the actor delivering it, anything else would destroy the impact.  Also, the cut before needed to be excellent.  If it was a sloppy edit or a jump cut the audience would be focusing on that and not paying attention to the joke and we wouldn't have had any laughs.  

There was only one shot of the line that preceded it that would cut in.  Unfortunately, the actor stumbled over that final line of his long speech.  I ran with it.  I cut that speech into tiny pieces and used some shots where he hesitates until finally he trips over his last few words and by then it appears as if he is just so overcome with emotion that he's having trouble getting his words out.  I actually think that enhanced the delivery of the joke and ended up making it better.

The actor didn't like it because he knew it was a flub.  If you're on set all day and see how hard it is to get a shot you might not want to cut it because you're emotionally attached to it (like this actor) but you have to sacrifice things for the sake of the story.  I tried to make the actor feel better by telling him that no one in the audience could tell, but that only worked to a point.  

If you're editing home videos and not the next Hollywood opus you may think this doesn't apply to you, but you should be telling a story with your home videos too.  That's a discussion for another post, though.

So, that's today's lesson:  Serve the story.  Even if it means sacrificing that great shot that the director loves.  Or that great line that the writer (and everyone there on the set) thinks is hilarious.  If it doesn't serve the story.  If it doesn't move the scene forward.  If it just plain feels out of place.  CUT IT!  

December 21, 2008


Just to give a little background into my qualifications for writing this blog and why you might want to read it-

I have a bachelor's degree in Communications Media, specializing in video production.  I was a producer of a successful and highly rated cable TV program in Rhode Island during the 90's.  I've won numerous awards for my productions and been published in the now defunct Video Toaster User magazine.  

Ultimately though, I'm a problem solver and I just know what looks good.  I'm also curious, so if I see something that looks great I try to analyze why and how I can repeat it.  

I use a Macintosh G5 desktop computer with Final Cut Studio 1 for my edit suite.  I've used other systems, that's just my system of choice.  If you're editing home videos with iMovie or  learning Premiere or Avid or any other system you should be able to adapt my suggestions because I'm going to try to avoid specifics of any program and instead focus on technique.  I'm happy to answer questions too and if I can't answer a software specific question, I'll try to point you toward a resource where you can find the answer.  

I tend to edit a lot using audio to key me into where to place cuts.  This caused a problem for me recently when editing a piece with audio to be added later (I'll talk about that in another post), but for that reason, I'll delve some into audio editing and tweaking.  I also love to play with special effects and often find that as the editor I'm expected to add credits to the piece, so I'll touch on those aspects too.  

I'm going to try to add audio and video samples to this blog as well.  I'm a newbie to using Blogger so if I have trouble at first, I hope you'll forgive me.  

Welcome to my blog.  I hope you find it useful.  Please post questions and suggestions as well as comments.  I wouldn't be a good editor if I didn't think I had lots more to learn.