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.