Thursday, August 7, 2008

Cut Up: Editing as Sculpture

Whenever I talk to people about the making of my first film, The Way I See Things, I'm amazed at how they think movies come together. If a scene is done well they seem to generally assume it was filmed by multiple cameras from various angles simultaneously. It rarely occurs to them that on a small film like the ones I make there's often only one camera, practically no crew, seemingly insurmountable sound interference, and a dearth of good takes from which to choose.

Editing is the most interesting part of production to me, much more so than the actual shoot itself, which always feels like a disaster and a failure to me in the moment, no matter how good the dailies might end up looking later. Editing can be impossible, or feel that way. You very quickly start to understand why people film on sound stages, where everything but the performance can be controlled or at least regulated.

Planes pass in the middle of sentences, leaf blowers speak to each other throughout the neighborhood. The sun passes or the weather more drastically changes by the time you move on to close-ups which must be made to match the master shot. The broom closet you're shooting in allows one set-up, making close-ups a matter of artful fudging.

I enjoy the challenges imposed by these considerations, and appreciate the trade-off of serendipity in place of predictability, but the challenges are most challenging in the editing room, and that's truly where the film comes together. To truly appreciate any film you would need to have a grasp on how editing factors in.

You can literally make or break a performance through editing. You can make an actor more empathetic or less so by your choices, the ones you make and the ones available to you. I've done it. Say an actor can't remember his lines--ever--and he has long monologues through which his character is understood to be brilliant in a practically useless esoteric way. Say the actor can't get these lines right, even when they're read to him from off-camera.

Say you resort to having him put a book in front of his face so that he will appear to be reading, and dub in his lines later so that he can read them from the script, hoping to assemble this material in such a way as to suggest he is reading and talking at the same time. Say he starts to hate you for requiring the sort of professionalism out of him that typically goes without saying or detects how much you loathe him no matter how you try to conceal it in the name of finishing the thing.

What you might be left with is something very different from what you originally conceived. It might even seem counter-intuitive in almost every conceivable way. You study what you have for months, looking for the right juxtapositions. You can't create the actor's character as indicated in the script. You'll have to do it through more expressive means, more abstractly, with the imposition of a subtlety you hadn't anticipated.

Maybe you've heard of the experiment done with a man's face and various insert shots, an exercise meant to illustrate the power of suggestion through editorial inter-cutting. You put a knife after the shot of the man's expressionless mug and the audience perceives homicidal intent. You substitute a puppy, and it's sadness or affection. Throw in bread and it's extreme hunger on the man's mind.

There's truth in that example but the trick is figuring out what to put in: which expression and which insert, not to mention exactly where. The actor in question has given you tone more than technical precision, and more often than not he isn't the exclusive focus of the scene at hand, so not one shot but many must be considered if you intend to achieve any kind of persuasive harmony.

Acting is so sloppy, so random, and so difficult to modulate and get a proper sense of scale on. Editing has its own moments of unexpected serendipity, but it's much more of a science, however intuitive that might be. You can shave and refine with editing. With acting, at least in my experience, everything you do feels so much bigger or smaller than it will ultimately read. The camera conveys the space so much differently than you canpossibly experience it. Editing is hands on, very sculptural, whereas acting, no matter how technically proficient you might be, is much more liquid, a lot more free form.

People seem to believe that a scene, no matter how many cuts, proceeds with the pace of the original shoot, and that's rarely the case. Part of the editing challenge is to figure out what that pace should be. It's very rarely the pace of the scene as you filmed it. You inevitably cut to close-ups for punctuation, poetic and otherwise, and to either abbreviate or expand.

An actor didn't give you the pause you think a line needs. Or the actor with whom he was performing doesn't say the line very convincingly. You can make it more convincing, to some degree, by cutting to an apparently reflective pause, which might in truth simply be a shot of the actor staring off camera between takes, caught unaware. That's another thing about editing. You use whatever you have; whatever it takes.

Editing is so intentional and so integral a part of the filmmaking process, and yet very few people give it the kind of credit it warrants. Even people who understand how essential its contribution is are at a loss when pressed to say exactly how it works or what contribution a specific series of choices makes within an individual film. Editing awards seem weird to me, partly because of that ambiguity, but also because, more specifically, how can you possibly know how good an edit is unless you've seen the raw material?

A horrible movie can be made pretty good with an imaginative editor and a director who knows how to stay out of the way. An excellent script can be shot well and edited so poorly that the script seems to be the source of the problem. An actor can give you everything you need, and yet you don't know how to use it. Ultimately, it will register as the actor's fault, not yours. It's virtually impossible to give a good editor his due, but a better understanding of how he puts together a scene would go a long way.

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