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!  

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