cutting on the action

photography and film – facts, ideas, values

Film editing {2} – fiddling with the footage: learning and pondering


What is impressive is how a short experience of editing demonstrates what all editors write –  editing can happen before the cuts and joins, at the script and shooting stage.

Plenty of “Ah, yes” moments reading this essay, Film editing – a hidden art? by  Vinca Wiedemann for anyone who has set out to intelligently film something,  then begun to inexpertly stitch shots together with digital editing software in increasingly unlikely combinations, slowly beginning to recognise what they tell you anyway: that as soon as the point of a shot is established it is time to move on.  You may enjoy the langorous minutes of a particular shot you have lovingly filmed, but will anyone else? Who hasn’t watched a film/documentary and said,”Yes, yes, yes….I’ve got it”, when the camera seems to hold a scene or figure or face what seems too long?

Though I’m intrigued by the long takes of directors like Bela Tarr, they can be bloody irritating as well. I am struck sometimes by the similarity between extravagantly long takes and film installations in art exhibitions.

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Andy Coughlan in

Film editing: Tips and techniques for creating a compelling story

(There are 5 essay with the same title here, by different authors )

begins his essay by saying:

An old Hollywood adage has it that a film is created three times; when it’s written, when it’s shot and when it’s edited.

This isn’t entirely true. Ideally the three stages should be the work of refining a core theme or idea, the act of creation should be a single ongoing event. It’s only if you are presented with footage shot by a clueless director using a poorly conceived script that you might find yourself in the unenviable situation of creating something new.

This is even more helpful and, more to the point, recognisably true to anyone whose spend nay time fiddling with ‘footage’.

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Shooting a documentrary on a predetermined subject/theme – ad hoc, ex tempore – is not the same territory as a scripted film where the the script itself  is the beginning of the editing process. Editing can start at the shooting stage in documentary too, through such decisions as how much film to generate, how long to shoot individual actions, whether to stop shooting to wait for, or move to, another hopefully significant event,  the inclusion of zooms or rapid pans which are not destined for the final cut but used to delimit one sequence from another. All these sorts of things can determine, and limit, what can be edited later.

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The problem with editing one’s own material is that one becomes overly attached to what one has lovingly filmed, which partially resulted from the inability to stop filming for fear of losing something special!

If you are into long takes because you are attached to the idea of letting the viewers’ eyes and minds roam free within the material presented, it is really hard to drastically reduce timings and edit into subsets of shots.

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The more you read on film the more you learn that in general the idea is to edit in such a way as to establish the meaning intended and not go beyond. This is easier said than done:  when filming as things happen, many interesting things are recorded which you may later feel loath to break up into sub-shots/scenes or prune excessively.

I am struggling, for example, to edit a 1:44 minute video sequence which through watching again and again (and again and again…) shows, in a way I hadn’t recognised before, it tells a self-contained story in the entirety of uncut shot, but not if cut down to 15-30 secs. to make it more zippy.  The attempt at drastic cropping into about 5 shots totaling no more than 30 seconds has shown it is a self-contained three part drama( by what is clearly missing in the shortened version).  This does not mean I can cut to three nice short shots each representing the respective parts of the ‘drama’, and that’s it. (Some camera shake had to be cut, removing with it, in a few frames, some telling expressions I would have prefered to leave in, and zoom  excised which was built in to the shot to mark a cut for later editing.

Arriving at the latest cut, where the original is cut to 5 shots totalling less than half the original length, only came about  through trying  to make the whole scene as short as possible – which simpy demonstrated how everything interesting  in the original shot disappeared!  Now I am roughing out a total time of maybe 45 – 60 secs from the original 1:44 mins, which will remove redundancy but keep the  magic of the impromptu filming.

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A term like decoupage is something one should understand, partly because it illustrates one part of the journey early film makers took in  mastering  their art.  But also more nuts-and-boltsly because the examination of the word, right down to its etymology pinpointing this key issue of cutting and joining which can begin to take place in the mind of the script writer.

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The lost art of film editing by Jessica Winter Boston Globe, 13 August, 2006

Film Editing: History, Theory and Practice By Don Fairservice {GoogleBook}

wiki:film editing

The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960

By David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, Kristin Thompson

{GoogleBook}  The book is about 506 pages long. This extract stops about 360 (with the odd missing pages throughout) but there is enough there to make it worth reading.

The Rediscovery of editing in French cinema, 1930-1945 Colin Crisp

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January 22, 2009 - Posted by | Bela Tarr, film editing, film [its techniques]

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