Editing In The 21st Century

4 12 2007

Alex, over at Editing Organizized, quotes Walter Murch from the book The Conversations:

When you’re putting a scene together, the three key things you are deciding, over and over again, are: What shot shall I use? Where shall I begin it? Where shall I end it? An average film may have a thousand edits in it, so: three thousand decisions. But if you can answer those questions in the most interesting, complex, musical, dramatic way, the your film will be alive as it can be.

For me, the most rhythmically important decision of the three is the last: Where do you end the shot? You and it at the exact moment in which it has revealed everything that it’s going to reveal, in its fullness, without being over-ripe. If you end the shot too soon, you have the equivalent of youth cut off in its bloom. Its potential is unrealised. If you hold a shot too long, things tend to putrefy.

This is only the third part of what I’ve always said in my Intermediate Editing class. The three guidelines that I use to determine when I end a shot are:

  1. When there is something that I want the audience to see that is in another shot.
  2. When there is something that I don’t want the audience to see that is in the shot they’re watching.
  3. When the shot stops giving the audience any new information.

That last is, of course, highly subjective but is the crux of what Murch is talking about. Even in the 1920s, when there was much less cutting than there is today, edits were made when the shot started to get stale. That meant that directors had to get good at staging if they wanted to keep the audience involved.

I once was working with Arthur Penn (on the film FOUR FRIENDS) and he was staging a scene where an audience of high school kids was supposed to stand up and start singing “Hit The Road Jack.” Rather than shoot tons of coverage for the scene, he set up a tiny dolly in (from the stage that the kids were sitting in front of) to push in on the students moving towards the stage. What amazed me was how that slight move extended the interest of the shot for many seconds.

In this age of quick cutting, I don’t want to say that that sort of staging is a lost art.

But it’s getting to be a lost art.

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2 responses

4 12 2007

If you want to see some staging and good old-fashioned blocking, check out Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future. There are many long takes in that movie. Instead of the recent industry trend of announcing single take scenes by using showy steadycam shots, he rehearses and blocks the scenes with the actors so that the shot never gets stale, the information keeps coming, and we don’t see anything that isn’t required to illustrate the scene goal.

4 12 2007

Wow, you are absolutely right. I had forgotten about that film’s use of blocking.

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