“The First Assembly ” 07/22/09
(The Editor’s Cut)
As you know, the editor usually accomplishes the first cut of a feature film while the director is still busy shooting—this process can be difficult—all alone in the trenches, cutting away, scene after scene, day after day, slowly building a narrative that you hope will play.
The ways to construct a first cut are numerous—based on experience, most editors follow their own course. Accordingly then, here’s a look at what I do.
The first step is looking at dailies with your director—it’s at this stage that you get an idea of what he/she expects and how it might be accomplished. For example, when I first started “The Silence of the Lambs” with Jonathan Demme, I asked him for some over-all direction—you know, something to key off. He replied,“ This a very sad story.”
I soon came to understand Jonathan’s meaning; this is not just a horror film, but also a film that explores aspects of our humanity—Hannibal Lechter’s included. His guidance was most helpful.
Next comes the actual cutting of scenes. (See Editorial Concepts “Scene Structure.” )
In this step, I’m never finished with a scene until it plays on every level—story, performance, and premise. There is no rough cutting here, each scene is as finely cut as possible, only then do I move on to the next one—but that’s not to say it won’t revisit it at a later date. Years ago, I had the good fortune to assist Alan Heim, a truly great master, on a Sidney Lumet film. While assembling the first cut, I said to Sidney “ I guess a rough cut can really help?” (This was my first feature film) He said, “Absolutely not, my dear. A rough cut is a total waste of time! Always fine cut every scene, it’s the only way to tell what you’ve really got.” I obviously listened to him.
Now with a few scenes joined together, I can begin to see if the narrative is working, and if I’ve accomplished a sense of place, rising conflict, and character development? This is admittedly a small insight at first, but at least the material is starting to speak to me. On a rare occasion, I’m given the final scene of the film early in the shoot, this is a definite plus, because once cut, I can now build the narrative toward that ending. It’s somewhat like sighting a target with the full knowledge you will hit the bulls-eye before you even shoot the arrow. After weeks of effort, the assembly is now almost together.
The filming is finished and the last scenes from the shoot are finally digitized. The director then takes some time off to recoup from the shoot and get ready for the cutting room—usually a couple of weeks. I then scramble to get the entire assembly together.
At this point, most of my time will be spent working on the beginning of the film and the ending too, but especially the beginning!
To be continued.
“Scene Structure” 06/02/09
The editor first receives dailies from the previous days shooting. These dailies usually represent a scene or two from somewhere in the film. As most of you know, feature films are rarely shot in sequence. Consequently, you end up editing most scenes out of their written script order. So, it’s extremely important that you know how each scene works for the story. Fortunately, we have a script that tells us where each scene goes, and what each scene is supposed to do—that’s most of the time, because action and dialogue often gets changed during the shoot.
Okay, now you have a lot of different shots with numerous takes for a scene, but they have no form—they’re just a bunch of shots that can be joined in many different ways. So, where do you start? You start by taking a thoughtful look at the elements that make up the scene you’re working on–hear are some considerations:
What’s the purpose of the scene?
Is the scene establishing a setting for the story?
Is the scene introducing a specific character?
Is the scene creating exposition about a character?
Is the scene showing conflict between characters?
What’s the function of the scene?
How does the scene move the story forward?
How does the scene produce story interest?
How does the scene support story premise?
How does the scene emotionally arch?
You might ask some of these questions before you start to edit a scene—but you may find many more depending on what the scene actually requires.
Here’s what I do.
First, I intensely study the shots for any given scene many times — until I know every line of dialogue, nuance of performance, and camera angle intimately. Then, I try to imagine the design of the scene. What will it look like? Will I start in close on a detail, or use an establishing shot to open? What will I use to end the scene? How does the scene connect with what comes before it and after it?
I usually do this toward the end of the day—and here’s the interesting part — I then go home, have a glass of wine or whatever, and actively try to forget all of it — in other words, I sleep on it.
The next day at work, I re-read the scene again, and what happens from here until the end of the edit is for me completely intuitive—by that I mean I proceed totally on a feeling level—trusting my emotional response to the material more than anything else. This is what legendary film editor Dede Allen means when she says, “Cut with your gut!” You have to learn to listen to your intuitive voice – it won’t fail you! By the way, it took me quite some time before I learned to trust my instincts—anyone can do this!
So, I know this sounds as though I don’t have any rules, but I really do—here are a few!
Always try to maintain eye contact between your characters.
Never cut across the angle axis
Always cut to an action (this is a big one)
Never split an action across a cut—it weakens the cut.
Make every shot count—omit needless shots.
Never cut out of a shot before the actor’s dialogue is finished (I’ve been known to break this rule)
Overlap only incoming dialogue.
Make every cut on a clean frame of action. (In or out)
Always cut to the other character when he/she is asked a question (I’ve been known to break this rule too)
Balance your shot sizes and learn to rhythm your cuts.
There are more rules—some I will relate to later. The main idea here is that each scene builds upon the next to become a foundation for the story, and each scene must work correctly to support the larger structure.
Some future topics will be:
Ebb and flow.
Rhythm and clarity.
The editor’s cut.
The director’s cut.
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