Susan Korda - We’ll Fix It In The Edit!?
updated: November 1, 2010
“We’ll Fix It in the Edit!?“ – Editor Susan Korda on the power of film editing. Berlinale Talent Campus, February 16, 2005
How many of you are editors? Writers? Directors? Producers? I think producers should know more and more about editing so that they know if someone is pulling your leg, especially with the new technology. For future reference, I used to say, find a techie, make friends for life. Now I say find three techies and make friends for life. In the realm of editing at least with the amount of technology that is coming up and that is changing and the tools and the quickness of the tools. And for producers especially just because people sell you packages and they have to interrelate the tools that are offered to us. And the sound person or a postproduction house, they get certain equipment and they are going to want to sell that equipment to you and it is your responsibility to know if it actually works in the chain of events. From the set to the final print, if you are going to go into print. But that is just a little aside there. That doesn’t have anything to do with how to fix things in the edit except that you have the right tools that you need there.
"EDITING IS LIKE PLAYING WITH DOLLS"
Ok. I want to give a little overview of what an editor is expected to do. And I have a great quote from Peter Franck, who cut THE VERDICT by Sydney Lumet, I don’t know if any of you know this film. I love what he writes here.
He says: “The picture editor is responsible for the film being a success.“ Period. No matter what it takes. Sure, he can hide behind the director and the writer and the producer but the mandate is simple, he is just supposed to make it work. And if it was shot wrong he is still supposed to make it work. If it was misconceived, he is still supposed to make it work. And if it was miswritten, yep, he is still supposed to fix it too.
So, one cannot, as an editor, afford to look at material and condemn it. Because you are never going to be able to find the magical in it. What I do, I play, and if you can get into a kind of playing head. I mean, imagine, you get paid good money just to play. For those of us who play with dolls that is to me what editing is. It is material and I get to imbue it with my imagination and read out of it what is there. And this goes across the board. Whether it is experimental, documentary, or narrative.
THE TENDENCY TO CUT FOR LOGIC
But what we tend to do when we start out, when we start cutting, is we start to cut for logic. There is no play involved. A person crosses this space, person’s hand onto doorknob, cut to close up. How many people spent those seven hours trying to get that Match Cut?
Well, it is a fallacy. You will very rarely find a Match Cut. In comedy, depending on the action, but you will see it tends to be drawn out, repeated from one shot to the other, the action. Or it is ellipsed. It is eclipsed. The action between the actual hand going out and the doorknob being touched is condensed, the time is condensed.
But the tendency that we have, is that we actually want to cut for logic. Or what I call cutting for physics. Which is non emotional, and is not in any way what editing is about. Film by nature is an emotional medium. That is why all those moving shots work. Because it is visceral. We feel it in our body so much. So the idea then is to understand what is been given to us by an actor, or if we are doing a documentary, by verite scene. What is the theme for us?
Anyone here an actor? You want to see how you are going to be misused in the editing room? I heard once that Dustin Hoffman has it in his contract that he sits in the editing room when his scenes are cut, because he really understands the power of editing.
So, that tendency to cut for logic is something that sometimes happens in storytelling with writers when they start out. The hardest thing to do in all films is to come up with an organic expositional scene. I have found very often in short films, whether they are student short films or later on, that the end scene works very well as a beginning scene. And I have analysed that and wondered why. Well, when I think about it, I think why that happens is because at that point the writer is not so concentrating on doing a set up in telling us who the people are, and what has evolved has become an organic portrayal of the character, the conflict and the themes. Just to name three. I love the principles of three.
So, by the end of the film, you have such a dynamic thing happening, that you’re not plotting through a set up. And to quote E.M. Forster, what is the difference between plot and story? Story being emotional and plot that we are going through periods. E.M. Forster says: “The difference between plot and story is, the queen is dead, the king is dead, is plot. The queen is dead, the king died of a broken heart, that is story.“ So it is that emotional line. Again, it is just the emotional line.
THE LACK OF COVERAGE
So I am going to start off by showing a clip from BONNIE AND CLYDE. Now, BONNIE AND CLYDE is a fascinating story. It was actually at one point with Truffaut and Godard and it had a ménage-à-trois in there. It ended up with Warren Beatty, Warren read it up to page 27 and called Newman I think, the writer at that time, and said: “I want to do it“. And Newman asked: “What page are you on?? He said: “27“. “Call me after page 48.“ So he called him after page 48 and he said it’s ok, we’ll do it anyway. They didn’t do the ménage. This was Warren Beatty’s first producer excursion and they brought it to Arthur C. Penn. Penn had done MICKEY ONE and he had done THE MIRACLE WORKER. I don’t know if anyone here has seen either one of those. THE MIRACLE WORKER he had directed on the stage, an amazing tour de force. He was a theatre director. And his aesthetic, what he came up with, was long choreographed shots and these great performances. But it didn’t work. Truly, one of the things that is most difficult in an editing room situation, is the lack of coverage obviously, but also, when it works but it doesn’t work.
ANNIE HALL is a good example of that, too. Woody Allen was a skitwriter. So he kept going back into various different mechanations of his imagination. In one of them he was actually with Sartre, under the Nazis, being tortured, Sartre was not giving up any information and Woody Allen was but only through a hand puppet. So they cut this film together. It was not about the relationship between him and Diane Keaton. In fact the German title of the film, DER STADTNEUROTIKER is much more what that original film was about.
ANNIE HALL DIDN’T HOLD TOGETHER AS A FILM
But it didn’t work. I mean all the skits worked, and it was funny, but it didn’t hold together as a film, as a filmic experience that brought depth. It was like an hour and a half variety show focussing on Woody Allen. And it was the editor Ralph Rosenblum who suggested to follow that one line. That everything connects back up to, not his neurosis, his existential dilemma, but his relationship with this woman.
So in BONNIE AND CLYDE, going back there, we have these wonderful choreographed shots and nothing to cut to, and they work but they don’t work. Before I actually go there I am just going to set up one of the things that I use as criteria, because there is not that much time. Does everyone know Walter Murch’s Six Points?
WALTER MURCH’S SIX POINTS
Ok. Well welcome to Walter Murch’s Six Points that we cut for. When Walter Murch gave us this I think there was a collective sigh heard around the world from all editors. It is like, ahh, someone understands, I am not alone. And it is something that you will not get lost if you use this. This is a touchstone.
EMOTION,... ...which is also considered performance, or you could say truth. For you writers it is very hard for you to cut your material because you do love your lines. And they are beautiful. But if they are not said truthfully and if the performance does not hold up, get rid of it. Get rid of it and at least see if it is going to work or not.
PLOT It is a story. David Mamet says, “just give them enough not to get confused“. Everything does not have to be set up first. And you know what, a little bit of confusion is not bad, as we see all the time in thrillers and detective films. I am still trying to figure out THE MALTESE FALCON. I can’t figure that one out.
RHYTHM It is amazing what magic can be done with change of rhythm. It can also be, I don’t know if you liked CHICAGO, I didn’t because I found it was pushing rhythm too much to the foreground. I was being taken into the form and I didn’t have any relationship to the substance of the story, which I guess was the point because there was no substance to the story. And it works. I mean it made a fortune.
EYE-TRACE,... ...which can also be called eye-line. Where the eye is going. Or what is generally called 180. But it’s not just 180, or crossing the line, right.
THE 2-DIMENSIONAL SPACE... ...is simply composition of the frame and...
3-DIMENSIONAL SPACE... ...is if you shoot here in a medium shot, and here in a medium wide shot, you are jumping space and it could throw you off.
But these are the six things that you cut for, that basically cover everything. What Walter then did, which is truly the brilliance in this, is that he gave them percentage points. So, for emotion was 51%, which obviously means that all the other five do not add up, then 23% (plot), 10% (rhythm), 7% (eye-trace), 5% (2-dimensional space) and 4%(3-dimensional space).
NOTHING ADDS UP TO THE EMOTION
So this means that none of the rest add up to the emotion, the truth that will come through performance. In the case of documentary, if you have somebody on camera saying something and your whole being is telling you, they are lying, your audience is going to feel the same thing. And that is a beautiful thing to work with. Are they lying, are they not lying? Nobody even has to ask the question, but for me as an editor, it is an every person audience. So what you are feeling, what you are picking up on, is true. Can you use it, is the thread strong enough to hold a whole weave of subtext that you will be then be cutting for, I don’t know. But take it seriously. Always have a notepad next to you.
I am a filmmaker, editor, teacher? for me it is all one ball of wax. So, whatever is coming into my head could be fruitful, it is my whole creativity there. I am not going to check and wait to see if it is okay for somebody else that I think? I mean I am paid to do that. So any music that comes into my head? You are very often asked as an editor what music you think is appropriate for the piece. So whether it is music, whether it is an old joke, anything that comes up. Because if there is a possibility of bringing another layer of experience to this film that is not necessarily thought of consciously but keeps on repeating itself in the material through the performance, through phrasing, through rhythms on the set, it is for us as the editor to catch that in our net and to create a net with it.
A CHARACTER BEING BORED DOES NOT HAVE TO BORE THE AUDIENCE
So, lets look at BONNIE AND CLYDE. We will look at it twice, the title sequence into the first scene and then look at it again.
[The clip is screened.]
What is Bonnie’s feeling here? Boredom. So what is the nature of boredom? A character being bored does not have to bore the audience. Because we are the emotional truth. What is the emotional truth about boredom? I mean at least the one that Faye Dunaway gives us. It is up and down, right. Like, I could do this, or what about that. That is what she is giving us. And that is what she gave us in very long takes. Did you notice anything about the editing in the first shots? Jump Cuts? When she stands up. When she hits the bedstead. Jack Warner, who was then head of Warner Brothers, when he saw this film I think he said: It is the worst piece of editing shit he had seen. I think that is a direct quote.
It took them six months to cut the film, which was a long time at that point to cut a film and they came up with a theory of the cut of the film of course after they finished cutting the film. And there are many scenes you can look at. Let’s take the juxtaposed scenes. Let’s say that they had played it out the way it was shot. She hits the ground and they start walking together. I mean, there you have a rhythm problem happening. So let us say they laid this out, in what we usually do, which is called assemble a cut. They are feeling a lot of inertia. Her boredom is not necessarily carrying over. When we look at it a second time there is a sound going on in the background, it is a pump. It is the ‘30s, it is Texas, there are oil fields. So it is just this pump, but this also helps supports their boredom. It is not a ticking clock or something, it is just this pump going.
ESTABLISHING A NARRATIVE SPACE
There is also a POV before you meet Clyde, there is Bonnie’s POV of Clyde looking at the car. Now there are any number of ways to cut a scene but the film is called BONNIE AND CLYDE, not just “Bonnie“, so you are not waiting for Bonnie to go to the window to see Clyde, because that is a whole different other emotional connection that you are having there. It becomes too much about the one character. It is not Bonnie’s story and then she meets Clyde. So it is cutting to a POV shot without substantiating it, in other words saying whose POV it is, is a way of establishing a narrative space. You are stepping out of the narrative space. If you really look at it, when Clyde is coming away from the car, there are some awkward cuts in there. And one of the reasons that we get crazy when we are cutting is that we get so precise.
And there are editing room gods. I really do feel that. A lot of kismet goes on in the discovery in the editing room, so one of the things I used to do when I was on the Steenbeck was to just throw it out of sync by twelve frames. Which is something I still do sometimes in the digital realm. Because if I am getting too precise, if I am getting too controlling over a moment, there is something I am not taking in because I am getting tunnel vision.
NO JUDGEMENTS – FEELINGS!
And editing tends to take you there. We have all felt that, right? So we are cutting for logic but we need to be a little bit generous with the material. That is why I say stay away from judging it harshly. It is not judgement that we use, it is feelings that we use. So we just have to be receptive. For me a film is like a child. If you don’t like that your child got born with blue eyes, you wanted brown eyes, and now you are going to neglect it? It is a beautiful chemistry, and it is a journey of discovery and so it is not going to cut together like butter and things but if you are open you really discover things.
So, what Dede Allen discovered was how to go in to what was essentially happening with this character. So, when she gets that one look from him of recognition, this back and forth, I call that just cracking open of the moment, just allowing, you have got footage, how often do you cut back and forth? Again, if we are showing? By the way, I don’t like to use the word showing because that distances it. If you get into the mental kind of head, of what are we experiencing? Because the audience is experiencing this for the first time. So what are you experiencing? That will lead you in a more emotional direction as opposed to trying to show. And if your director wants to show something it is your job to make it emotionally binding. They buried that film. It was the French at Cannes that made that film into the classic that it did become.
THE SHARK IN JAWS
I am going to show you another clip. JAWS notoriously was still being written whilst they were shooting. I don’t have the numbers but they had like 20 days of rain in a 35 day shoot or something like that. They had two electrical mechanical sharks that didn’t work. And so what they decided to do in the editing room, Werner Fields, who was known as ‘mother-cutter’ suggested that they not show the shark until the very end. So, what is fascinating in JAWS is that the shark has a personality, the shark has an intelligence, indeed sometimes I think that shark has a sense of humour, morbid as it might be. And that was all achieved in the first two acts of the film before you see the shark. So the cutting was very essential for that. The other thing is that, as you know, John Williams did the music, it is very driving. What I want to show you is a scene where that actually got intercut.
We are going to look at a series of scenes, from the time that the sheriff starts looking into this book on sharks until after these two locals, who we don’t even have their names, they try to go out and capture the shark with the Sunday roast, on a hook.
THE EDITOR IS THE MAGICIAN
Then I want to look at it again without the sound. Because a lot of the photography is actually not that dynamic. It really isn’t. I mean, and this is one of the wonderful things about editing, is that it is truly magic. If we broke up who does what, the writer is god, the director is a sexy person on set also known as the general perhaps, and the editor is the magician. Because we play with time, we play with space, we play with the emotions, and we create things that are not there, using the elements that are possible to use. And this is classic Hollywood so you are talking about a score and you are talking about some sound effects that now actually sound a little cheesy but at the time obviously created the mega hit of its day. Until STAR WARS came out this was the biggest box-office grossing film.
[The clip is screened.]
So, there was a beach incident before. That level shot in the water is an iconographic shot in the film that was already set up and established at the very beginning of the film as the shark’s point of view. So cutting to that shot now might seem quite as threatening but in the collective experience up until this moment in the film that is very very threatening. The other aspect that makes it very threatening of course is the music which might feel like it is pushing you. This is the shark’s cue. His music piece, which is what we call a cue. That means he is there, that means he is hungry.
Now, in analysing the scene, and we will start from the top again, when Roy Scheider is sitting there, and his wife comes in, you don’t know what he is responding to. I mean you know that he has a book in front of him, and obviously he is very tense, but it is not like you have seen all these pictures that you are later seeing. But indeed that was the way it was written. That you see the pictures, and you have his response, and she has her response, it is not so terrible that the boys are in the boat until she sees the book. And so if you imagine this is all laid out in the editing room and you have this scene and then you have, because it is dusk, the guys fishing, with no intercutting inbetween. Because you will see the background behind Roy Scheider’s head is daylight opposed to dusk, so we are intercutting between daylight and dusk and it is a build up to his emotional reaction when she walks in. But they moved it. Why did they move it?
Well, because if you really look at that trying to catch the shark scene, it really is not dynamic. And if you play it out all in one, the set up to the end, it is going to really be heavy. It is mis-sized for what its intention is. Which is drawing further community in, having somewhat a sense of humour. And which is also one of the things that can get Spielberg into trouble. Spielberg is a master at serious tone with lilts of humour. One of the things, and this is just an observation, but a lot of the problems with a lot of independent films is the focus on one tone without variation can be deadening to storytelling.
Because humanity has different ? even, you know, something where you have threats, there are feelings of humour, there are feelings of love, there are feelings of longing and there is a kid who is going to be crying and who just wants that candy kind of thing. And Spielberg is definitely a master of that but it is for every director to find what tones that they want to play with. But what is helpful for an editor is to work on a piece that does have variations on tone and that you can actually weave with.
BRINGING BACK PERSPECTIVE ON YOUR WORK
Very often music creates that. So back to that scene, the scene doesn’t afford a lot. What it does allow us to do is experience the shark again and the intelligence of this shark, and the fact that the shark is fucking with these people. I mean, all of a sudden that little dock coming up, it’s like, you didn’t have me anyway. It’s like I took your roast, I played with you and now I am going. And then you have those characters, all that dialogue by the way is post written and post dub. None of that is said. Whatever was written was not said. And, I am not sure if you saw it here, but there was lip-flapping there, I mean it doesn’t even match. Doesn’t matter. Because, again if we analyse it, it is not going to work but in the overall experience that we step back to analyse as people with the craft, that is what we are going for.
That is what we constantly need to do, which is something I will get to later. It is very important to do test screenings even though it is extremely painful. But they are very helpful in bringing back perspective on your work.
LOGIC IS NOT EXISTENT
So let’s go again. Just listen out for when the cue comes in, things that you would think need to be continuous. When they are on the boat, coming in there is a dissolve, you see them through a net, then you are hearing whistling, then they are throwing the chain onto the dock and you still hear the whistling as if it is continuous. This is something that people think, oh, that’s not logical. Do we care about logic? Where is logic according to Walter Murch? It is non-existent. So that is like an element that will create a sense of continuity, where your images can jump.
Cutting back to BONNIE AND CLYDE, Bonny can grab the dress, and in the next shot have the dress on her and yet she has gone two steps out that door. And she is in a rush right? I mean we haven’t stopped to see her put on the dress. And there is a whole debate about how often do you need to see somebody crossing space? But I don’t have an example of that, and it’s not really important right now.
IS IT WORKING ON THE FEELING OF THE THREAT?
So we are going to look at it again. And at the end I am going to ask the sound master to turn down the sound so that we can just look at the images. And there is also an ellipse at the end, when he makes it up the dock, the next shot is a wide shot from a side angle and they are at the other end of the dock. In other words, in that cut there is not enough time that they would make it to the other end of the dock. So what I am trying to reiterate here is that whenever you are sitting in an editing room saying this doesn’t make sense because they never could have made it there, maybe that is not the right thought.
The thought should be is it working on the feeling of the threat? We are with the shark, going after these guys, the guys are feeling relief and the shark has the last word. Which is one of Werner Fields, and obviously Spielberg wasn’t clueless, you know, I wouldn’t want anyone to think that in any way, that any of the directors don’t know what they are bringing. And they are bringing great intention and great heart. But it is for us to be able to translate that for material, that doesn’t always have it, or only has traces of it.
So let’s go again.
Ok. [Interrupting film clip] We cut to “can we go home“. We cut to the book. Why not to his face? I mean, there is not just one way of doing it. But every transition is very powerful, so keep in mind what you are cutting to and what the purpose is of the sequence of these sequences is to feel the threat. If we just stood in there on the dock with the two guys waiting around, without that intercut, and that is an intercut that was found in the editing room, we would not feel threatened by the shark. But we are seeing that mangled leg and we are seeing those guys and then we are seeing somebody whose legs are the one thing that are dangling at the end of that scene. Underneath all the humour, underneath the stupidity or whatever you want to look at these characters are doing or the general threat, there is a specific threat that this guy in the water is going to get mangled. So, cutting to the shark, and then the music comes up, because this is what the threat is in the film. The threat and the thread is the shark.
By the way, when the guy who gets eaten at the end, Quinn, whatever his name is, when he is introduced by Spielberg, and this is playing off of the different themes, this is again what makes Spielberg a master or a master in this film. He introduces him by, his nails go down, it is a meeting of the community, what they are going to do with the beaches, he drags his nails across a board and then you see him from afar and he starts to talk.
And what is typical in most monologues in a film is that you usually have a drift in, or a sneak in, or somebody is moving about because it is not locked, unless of course it is a specific style that one is going for. But in this case the camera actually swims in. The main character is being introduced and the camera is finding him the way the shark finds people and indicating later on, totally subliminally, that this guy is going to be eaten at the end. He is playing with it. The camera is actually swimming in at the guy who will be eaten at the end.
So again, there is a consideration, why cut to the picture of the shark? Because this is what we want to be grounded in.
Now we will look at the rest of this without the sound just to have a sense how un-dynamic these shots are. They basically had a stinker scene on their hands and they didn’t know what to do with it but they knew they needed it because in deciding it this was very important for the sense of threat and presence of the shark.
[The clip is screened.]
So, it is not like it is bad photography, but you see the rhythms are off, a little bit, how it turns and then when it is going behind him in that wide shot, it is kind of slow. Are you not sitting there going they should have made that a little faster? Also when they cut and they go, hey there it is, it is going across the screen, not away. That is not a POV shot. Do we care? No! Because it is working with rhythms. Also when she is cutting back to the dock, with the feet coming up, do you notice that every shot she is cutting to the water level is rising? Because there is a natural arc in that. It is not the same shot. You want to think maybe in terms of arcs. How are you building this?
WHAT WORKS, WORKS
I try not to call it the rules of three because I only have one rule. Truffaut says that every filmmaker, once they start making films, they lose the ability to love all films because they judge all the films by the rules that they have in making films. So they judge others through their own process. I am fortunate enough to have a process. And being in the editing room a lot. And teaching. In that for me the only rule is what works, works. It doesn’t necessarily lead to great aesthetic control of things, but at least it allows a lot of versatility in finding things in material. And then the playing. And this works you know. And the more I work, the more I know that.
Unless I try it, and by the way that is why god gave us digital, so that we can try. You know, before in film we had to conceptualise and you used to really mess with director’s heads. “Yeah, we can do that change, it will take three days and then if it doesn’t work it will take another three days to put it all back together again. Are you sure? Because I don’t think it is going to work. But you know, you are the director?“ But now, that is definitely what we have digital for.
So, I would like to go over some stuff on process and then if we do have time there is a before and after on a short film that a student brought to me a couple of years ago and she ended up winning a DGA Award for the film, amongst other accolades.
It has beautiful production values, the story was a little weak, the characters were great, and there were wonderful scenes. This film suffered, and a lot of films can have this, from wonderful complete scenes that didn’t have any membrane, or story membrane, or thematic membrane, holding these scenes together and making it dynamic.
IT IS IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND HOW SCARY THIS JOB IS
So I will just go over a couple of things you can use, a couple of things about process. By the way, I think it is good for all editors to cut their own stuff, go out and just decide to do something. Because I think it is really important to understand how scary it is. It is just scary. And a director is just going to be sitting there and trying to deal with their? unless they love the process there is a lot of pain, there is a lot of self-mutilation practically in the process because they didn’t get what they wanted to. Spielberg practically had a nervous breakdown on this.
So for directors who do not like the editing room try to stay out of it. Because you could end up being a destructive force if all you are looking at is what is not working and you are sitting there poking at your wounds. And you are not realising that somebody is sitting there next to you who really is trying to do their best to help you get a vision out there. So by pointing to what is not working is not helpful. So starting up is slow, right. It just takes time. You want to take notes. You do want to log everything.
Anybody here coming from documentary? You log everything. You transcribe everything. You don’t necessarily use everything. Some people start pre-cutting. How many of you put your stuff into your computers after action has been called, with slate-out? Because there is a lot that happens, there is a lot of truthfulness, it is amazing. What happens between slate out and action called. I mean there can also be conversation that is not necessary but an actor is truly in a specific, vulnerable space that actually might be to your benefit.
BLINKING INDICATES A DIFFERENT THOUGHT/
When you are casting, by the way, this is just something that is helpful for directors to keep in mind. Supposedly I heard from a producer that the agents in Hollywood are now suggesting to a lot of actors that they get laser surgery because they blink a lot with their contact lenses. And blinking, and this comes from Walter Murch’s “In The Blink Of An Eye“, having cut Gene Hackman in various things, he noticed that Hackman would blink. And the blinking indicated for him a different thought, a different moment. And there is this weird alchemy that happens, that even if you lengthen a close up of somebody but they blink at the end of it, even though the shot is longer it feels shorter because actually what you are having in there is two emotional moments. You are having the moment before the blink and you are having the moment after the blink, so you actually need a little more for the second thought.
An editor cannot do a lot around a blinking actor, so if you love somebody’s performance you want to see if you can stop their blinking. All different countries, all different cultures, all different trainings, there are some amazing natural talents, one of them being the girl in MARIA FULL OF GRACE. She was a recently discovered 22 year old Columbian actress and now she is nominated for an Academy Award in acting.
ALLOW YOURSELF TO DAYDREAM
Ok. So process starts up slow, you log everything, you digitise what you need and finding music takes time. You want to have it all on hand there, everything that you have.
There is something else that I love. Young editors never feel they are doing enough. They feel they need to suffer. Some older editors feel that way too. It is like unless they have put in a 16 hour day with no sleep they are not doing enough. And some directors feel the same. It is slow. Films need to cook at times. I don’t think it is necessary to sit there and, again, suffer. I think what is necessary is to play. I am totally not into the suffering artist thing, or the suffering editor thing. You just sit there and you allow yourself to daydream, you can get up and take walks and stuff like that. So we discover.
TRY THE DIAMETRICALLY OPPOSED
Think diametrically opposed. If you are insisting that this has to work like this right over here in these two shots or this moment and why is it not working, well think what is the diametrically opposed thing to do? Maybe it is not concentrating on being there. For instance, being with a character, you don’t have to be constantly on the character. If you cut away you actually will be rediscovering that person in that emotional space when you cut back to them. So, depending on the performance, if it is a piano teacher, for example, where Michael Haneke did an incredible job.
In the moment she is being raped and he just holds on her, for a very long and powerful time. Which is a beautiful choice. But there is a combination of things here to think about as well. One of them is the intensity of the action that is being taken against our character. Second of course, and which may be primary, is truly her performance of what she gives out. And the third as far as an editor, which is interesting, is that a shot has a life to it and then it will have a denouement to it. It will have almost a little death. And then it can be reawakened. This is a choice. It is more a directorial choice in a way than an editor’s choice, but it might be something ? I mean it is the opposite for instance of what we see in the beginning of BONNIE AND CLYDE, in the cutting. Because BONNIE AND CLYDE had that as well.
It has choreography but the shot has the same ups and downs as the performer, as Faye Dunaway’s experience in that moment. But they needed to cut it tighter in order to get to the belly of that shot. In Hubert’s performance, he could have cut in between and could have cut back, but that wasn’t his style, and I think that is basically it. It wasn’t necessary. So you can hold on, a shot will at one point kind of distance itself, pull itself away and then nail you. On the other hand, in documentary, the tendency is very often to hold on a shot until the end when the thing happens. So you are wading through a lot of, let’s say an interview, someone is being interviewed, and you are hearing and you’re hearing and you’re hearing and you are going why am I listening to this? And then, oh, because of that statement at the end. That is not very good storytelling.
With Hubert you are in this emotional pain with her, you cannot be and he will not release you from. Sitting with an interview waiting and waiting, that is not the same kind of, it is not emotional. It is kind of just waiting there. Who has done that? I mean we have all done it in first assemblies, you know hold on something until that oh but I like that moment at the end. Its like, okay, well earn that moment at the end. Do some cutting in between.
So we discover solutions for that kind of stuff and we have to be honest with what we are perceiving, or what somebody else might be perceiving.
I have here a Donn Cambern quote. He cut EASY RIDER and THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, and he says in order to be successful you have to care and take risks. You don’t impose onto a film certain techniques. That is not style. Or to paraphrase Eisenstein, you don’t tell the material what it is, it tells you what it is. So, there is a real humility that is necessary in the editing room as well. So, technique is a thing I think we all know about but I will just go over it. Elliptical cutting obviously you saw here a couple of times. Just to be reminded about it.
CUTTING TOO TIGHT
One of the things about that intercut scene from JAWS is there was too much denouement. If there is too much completion sometimes it is just that, there is too much completion in a scene, meaning the energy has gone up and is coming back down. When BONNIE AND CLYDE were walking, it is a wonderful flirt about who is who. She sees who he is and she has called him in that Texan kind of way and he is just holding steady. But he lets her know with one zing that he sees her for who she is. And then the dance continues again, it goes up again. Which is very much the power of actors’ interchanges.
So, there is not letting too much conclusion happening in a scene or at the end of a shot. I think the tendency in young editors is to cut too tight. So if you know that you cut too tight then that is not one of your bag-o-tricks. By the way, that is one thing that very much happens. When we are showing and not feeling we are cutting tight and we are not allowing moments to breathe. So if something is there but it is not there, you are not feeling it, again Dustin Hoffman is in that editing room because he loves his emotions. And he gets paid very good money to put them out there. So he wants to feel all his emotions that he actually generated and we need to right size it in the film.
You know that famous story about him and Sir Laurence Olivier in MARATHON MAN. He comes in haggard and sleepless and Olivier says: “What are you doing?, and he goes, “well, you know, I am not supposed to have had any sleep in this scene“. And Olivier looked at him and goes: “Did you ever try acting??
YOU HAVE GOT TO MOVE THROUGH CLICHÉ
Music tends to take us to a different emotional level. One that connects not the characters so much together as much as what is happening on the screen and the audience. So it is this kind of arc that is happening.
So when people don’t like music, I mean people have come up with aesthetic rules, which I find interesting but it is like, why? If they are willing to explore that is great. But it is like the cliché. I don’t want to write that because that is cliché. You have got to move through cliché. You have got to give yourself the cliché. You have got to embrace it and get to the other side to discover what is there. And if you can actually create this, like a car heading towards the wall, that is you to the audience and that is a cliché. You take them to that wall and you’re like, aha the cliché, but then you veer, that is a great experience. But you have to find what that is. So some people may feel they don’t like music. But anything from sound effects – sound-effects can work as music.
SEVEN is a wonderful example of a film that its whole sound track is musical. So I would say play. Find the music that is appropriate because it allows you a different subtextual space to be in, to communicate in. That is also then very helpful when you cut it out. These are just things to play with when something is not working. But mostly what you have to ask yourself, or one of the things you should ask yourself, is what is the scene emotionally about? When you can answer that. You don’t answer it and then do it. You might be swimming in the scene and going, aha, this is not about him wanting her, this is about her wanting him. And then you realise. And just a flip of sometimes of a shot and it is like a third dimension ends up coming up.
THE THREE-TIERED WAY OF PERCEPTION
And I am in a very abstract space now so I am just going to go to one of my principles of three. There is a principle of three of set up, of how an audience perceives. Because sometimes you will ‘show something’ and you go why doesn’t the audience get it? Well, the audience doesn’t get it because there is actually a three-tiered way of perception. The first time something is mentioned it is a foundation. The second time, the audience has an actual awareness of that moment, of that thought, of that intention of a character. But the third time they bring their understanding to it, so at that point they are not just experiencing it as information, they are actually getting emotionally invested in it. It’s just a thought to keep in mind. Again it is an abstract approach.
It is a little touchstone as I say to analyse a scene. Why is it not working? I also use the phrase cracking it open. You know more than your audience will know, how do you put yourself in that space? How do you step back? I mean, that is a whole other thing too but one of the things to look at when something is not working is am I giving too much information and emotion at the same time? Do I need to take one step first, which is she has just come home and she is expecting to see her father, and then that the father is dead.
THINKING IN EMOTIONAL ARCS
You know how many times you have cut a film where you have similar scenes? There is just the same scenes over and over, there is nothing more happening to it. This was what was happening with Spielberg. The shark has attacked on the beach, and now he is taking us to a couple of goons, local yokels, who are going to fish for a shark with a Sunday roast, and this is not heightening what has happened before, this is not bringing any further tension to the storytelling. So he needed to heighten the danger again. So that is the thing in terms of thinking in emotional arcs. And that is what I also put in with the principles of three.
If you have three scenes or three moments, and talking in the elements of editing this is not just about a scene or piece of dialogue, this could be a music cue, this could be repeating a rhythm. It is very abstract in a way, you are working with elements that you make dramatic, that are not necessarily inherently dramatic but you build. Are you building this? Now I will go back to more concrete stuff!
CUT AWAY AND CUT BACK
Here we have three dots. It is also the principle of cutaways. If you cut away to one shot like they do in television news broadcasts it always looks like you are just cutting away in order to cut back because they don’t want to do a Jump Cut, because for some reason that tradition is not yet in television news. So they cut away and cut back. It feels really cheesy. It is like show and tell stuff. You can show him sitting there looking at a book that you don’t know what he is looking at and then being scared. So his performance is giving us what he is seeing, but only later do we see what he sees. Had they cut it that we see the book and he looks at it and then she comes in that is a little show and tell. That is too much happening at once. It is not using the best that you can. By leaving something away you are much more in that specific moment and then you can go back.
Now that is not the way it was written but that is how they ended up cutting it like that. So one cut away, going back to that, looks like a cutaway, but if you force yourself to use three shots, or two shots where one shot changes because it pans or it tilts, you are forcing yourself to make an arc. Think at this point of documentaries so that we are not in too abstract a space. You are in somebody’s living room, somebody is talking, you are cutting away to show them in their regular life, or they are getting in a car, we don’t know where they are going. That is setting something up, it is setting up an expectation. So using this principle of three you will be forcing yourself to come up with visual metaphor for what is being said underneath. Obviously it depends on what is being said, you want to show them when they are going to work in the morning they are going to work, or when they are going to work in the morning and they talk about being at work but you show them getting them ready for bed. But then at the end of their statement they are talking about being exhausted and going to bed. There are all different ways, for example, showing the picture before ending up with the conclusion of where they are heading towards. That is another thing for the bag-o-tricks.
VERY GOOD EDITING IS LIKE VERY GOOD SEX
Cutting to form. Alain Berliner is a master of form. He makes drama through form and rhythm. He is a true artist in what he does. My experience with him has been wonderful and greatly informative to me. But not many people can do it and it is a wonderful exploration to try to do. But if you are very concentrated on form and not content and you don’t want to address things on the emotional plane, you need to really look at how your form is informing us emotionally. There is an emotionality to the material and are you bringing it to the fore or are you suppressing it, are you creating expectations that you are not fulfilling?
And this is one of my favourite metaphors about editing which I will share with you now. To me, very good editing is like very good sex. You create an expectation in your audience that you do not know that they have, as you might do with your partner, and you fulfil it. So if you create expectations without fulfilling them this is not good sex and it is not good editing. Now don’t go thinking am I good sexually or not because I don’t think that is what this is about. This is about are you aware that you are creating expectations in your audience.
Alain Berliner made NOBODY’S BUSINESS, and INTIMATE STRANGER.
So now we will look at this short film.
These are scenes. They are not building. She didn’t have that much plot. She took a boy off the street, she is sick, there is some talk of hospital. I don’t know who is in denial when I look at this. Is she in denial or is the kid in denial? Because he goes from awareness to not-awareness to awareness to not-awareness, to empathy to being totally cut off. So when I looked at this it was about clearing things out. The other thing was, instead of needing to establish who is sick or not, or how he came to her, there is too much information in the beginning voice-over. Too much expositional information. This is something that comes from Michael Rabiger who started out at the BBC as an editor, who went on to make his own films and now runs the film school in Chicago. He has written several books, amongst them ‘Developing Story Ideas‘, which is a lovely short book. His question was why are Americans not coming up with good stories any more? See, we do talk about it where I come from.
LOOK AT WHAT YOU HAVE
One of the things you can do is you can look at what is going on with the character, what is being revealed. In the voice-over, too much was being revealed. As well as character you have location. These are just approaches of things to look at. The object, such as in MALTESE FALCON, they are all talking about who has the maltese falcon, where it is, how much is it worth etc. The situation, action. These are all interrelated, usually with character. And the theme. Now theme for me, this is how to find the emotionality, or what is driving the story. Theme is one of the hardest things to get on. It is kind of mercurial, it is evolving, it is kind of its own beast.
But there was a simple theme here, in this film, that I needed to address. I felt that the kid, Tomo, fixes things and he wants to fix the woman, Miss Sophie. So, to establish that early and to get that as a foundation to his movement, and then to just clear away what was confusing. What confused me when I watched this was that this kid is not consistent. He is aware, he is not aware, he is aware?and the director was like, well kids are like that. Well yes, kids are like that but we are there moment to moment and we expect that his unawareness becomes awareness. Or that his unawareness becomes awareness but then there is another awareness that he doesn’t have that we don’t even have, that surprises us. That would be another form of telling the story if that was in there.
So cleaning up what is emotionally confusing. Then, speaking with the director, what turned out was that she loved Tomo. Miss Sophie was secondary to her, and one of the things that was necessary was to create the truthful line of Miss Sophie’s internal life. Now, no one wrote it. What was written was that she was sick and in denial about it, she gets confronted as you will see, but the internal life was not written. It was created through the actress, with some help from the director, who was really not focussed on that. That woman was more of an icon for her rather than a fully-fledged character. So as an editor what I needed to do is to create as much in this internal world as possible. An arc of her own internal world, that was there through performance and was there through some of the writing, and obviously what was shot.
I was speaking to a friend of mine about this lecture, Fix It In The Edit, and she said, “well, one of the only ways you can fix it in the edit is if you have got material to fix in the edit.“ The necessity of going out and shooting enough coverage and knowing what you want.
DON’T THINK TOO MUCH
So, now we will go onto the completed version with sound design etc. But as an editor consultant I sit and look at a lot of stuff that looks like that (unfinished, raw) and my job is not to be a passive observer but to be actively involved in what is going on here, and using my first impressions. Again, taking notes, when you were looking at material, the first impression of any material you only have once. There is only one time you will have a first impression.
It is important to have a notepad with you when you are having that first impression so you can note what those impressions are. Do not commit things to memory. Because you are using up mental space that could be freed for playing. You don’t want to clog your mind with useless information of details that you do not need in your mind. You just need it on a piece of paper to remember it at one point, to jog your memory. Free up the space so that you can be in a state of discovery. So, first impressions, that is another thing for your bag-o-tricks. And that is for everybody. For writers and directors.
Don’t think too much, try to experience it. And understand that if you are then making a conclusion about what is working or not, really understand if you are doing a logical thing, which in our case is not good, or an emotional thing, like I get it.
The truth inherent in film, whether it is a documentary or a performance film, is that, you are going along and it is all fine and then all of a sudden it’s like the membrane of truth starts pulling away from what is being shown to you. And you are either not caring any more, as an audience member, you are bored, something. And I really think it is because of that moment to moment truth that somehow is getting misplaced by something. Or distracted. That could be in chase scenes.
For example in ALIEN RESURRECTED, when Sigourney Weaver falls into that vat of molten metal, there is a chase scene in the labyrinth. And Fincher comes from music videos. Murch does say that you cut in this order at all times and it is true that emotionality is up there, but if you have a chase scene happening, and you are not feeling the space that you are being chased in, and I sit back thinking why don’t I care, it is because I don’t have a sense of the physical space. Sometimes just hearing a clanking sound in the background can re-establish a good chase scene that is totally confusing but somehow works, has 179 cuts to it in about 2 minutes.
THE CONVERSATION’S END
THE CONVERSATION. Gene Hackman playing a spy, an eavesdropper. This was a film, which, when they were in production, Coppola got greenlighted for THE GODFATHER after a really hard negotiation. So he left set with 15 pages of script not written. For those of you who know THE CONVERSATION, how many of you were told: “Not a dream sequence, that is so cliché...“ The whole film ends as a dream sequence! Why? Because they didn’t have coverage, they had so much material in that park whilst they are being spied upon.
What happened is he is alone in the editing room and he had to come up with an end. They had certain elements of it but they didn’t have all of it. So you don’t know. It is a total mystery. That film hangs on a creepy longing and a deep betrayal, because he is deeply betrayed, but it is ghostly. You don’t know if he is insane actually. I know that he created that ending. They had nothing to hook it onto. They had no transitional scenes establishing or giving you any understanding. So, when you have that it is not like, oh, I am just going to tack that on. He has to give that whole sense of ominousness. It is creepy, you don’t know where certain things are coming from, there is a mysterious ominous hand at work controlling this man’s life or affecting this man’s life, and others.
So that had to be established early on. So if you look at the film, look at it with that in mind. That was a definite fix in the editing room. But this is like all films.
THEME IS NOT IN YOUR FACE
HEIGHTS, a film which was supposed to be here but didn’t make it to the Berlinale for technical reasons, I know the editor and I said: “Great first scene?. And she said: “You mean scene 23?“ So she started the first scene with scene 23! Why? Because they had to establish the theme early. And that is the nice thing about theme. Because theme is not in your face. If you are looking for it, it will be in your face. And the more sophisticated we will get as viewers, for example we are not throwing ourselves under seats when the trains come rushing at us from the screen, the audience perception will change. But for now, where we are now, is that people like to be on for the emotional ride.
Now I am going to give you something. This is for documentary editors, this is for writers, this is also for if you are developing a documentary. This comes from Michael Rabiger and comes from his proposal writing, from ‘Directing The Documentary‘. This is how to get to theme when you are developing, this is how to get a director to focus on their themes, and in a way how to find you ultimate and penultimate scenes in the film itself.
In my life I believe ? (fill in the blank)?
I will show this by making a film on ? (fill in the blank)?
The main conflict will be between ? (fill in the blank)? and ? (fill in the blank)?
Ultimately I want the audience to feel ? (fill in the blank)? and understand ? (fill in the blank)?
I am making a film on how my dog Reb is saving me from a broken heart:
In my life I believe ? (in unconditional love)?
I will show this by making a film on ? (how my dog tries to find me a partner for life)?
The main conflict will be between ? (the main character, Susie Korda, being suicidal)? and ? (a dog trying to show her good and happy times)?
Ultimately I want the audience to feel ? (only a dog can give you unconditional love)? but understand ? (that even the unworthy are worthy of it)?
Ok. So what are you seeing in your head? I am seeing a main character, me, who does not change, who does not see. Just in those words, I am unworthy therefore I am not even seeing what this dog is sacrificing. Aha, so that means there must be a scene of sacrifice.
So if I have a director in the editing room with documentary, if you can get your themes, and you can do three or five of these. Let’s see, I can change it again. If I start ‘in my life I believe ? (that even the unworthy are worthy of love)?’ I am raising the bar myself. I am not going to end that saying unconditional love, I am moving onto something else.
But what I am trying to do is develop and hear my themes, to develop images and see if those images. Now if someone is working with material they have already shot, they might see what they need to go out and still shoot, which is very often what happens in documentary. It is very simple to sit down with somebody and do an interview, believe it or not. Interviews are the easy stuff. What is not easy is coming up with a visual metaphor, what is not easy is nesting yourself in with the character and getting their life as real on camera. You know, it is easy getting them walking through space but what you are looking for are the metaphors.
So I wanted to give this to you because I hand it to anybody. You’ll just be having coffee with me and I will go, you know what you should have in your life ‘I believe’ because I think everybody should have it.
LESS IS MORE
So, with that I would like to return to what happened to Miss Sophie. Again, I focussed on the theme that I found to be inherent in the material.
The theme of the broken bike. Working with the concept of arcs. At the beginning, then in the montage they play with it and then it gets broken. So at least it has a consistency. They worked on it, they played on it, and then it is broken. And that is the object that addresses the theme.
Less is more. And one of the problems that we do when we begin to be filmmakers is that we want to get everything in there, and it is actually not good to get everything in there. The film would have been great had there not been a voice-over at the end. In a way he is too practical in what he is saying. The strength of the image alone and the music allows us to imbue that moment with what we carry in us. And in a way that is what storytelling is and that is why I constantly talk about weaving. We create weaves that at any point in your life you will see a film over again and the weave that is created, it is the story it is the emotionality, but you invest what your experience in life is up until that point into that story. That is the playing, that is the sex. Those are the spaces. We have got to trust the filmic elements themselves. Less is more. And there are different kinds of stories. In this case we did not need to hear from Tomo.
YOU ARE LOOKING FOR THE EMOTIONAL LINE
I think most importantly is how cutting away from somebody to another person and back creates so much more dimension. How working on a theme, pulling a theme up and letting it have an arc. The bicycle is fine and the bicycle totally disappears. But we have experienced in the first three beats of the film this bicycle as a metaphor and as an object that is used, that the characters focussed on.
Every editor will approach something differently. And there is no one way of doing it. But this was trying to communicate in a brief period of time what you can actually go into an editing room having your bag-o-tricks.
But in a deeper way, what it is, what you are doing is not just overlapping sound and things like that, is that you are looking for the emotional line, and you are looking for the breaks in your emotional line, and then asking yourself why.
So, we understand the emotional line through Walter Murch. We go from emotion to plot, this is what we cut for. And then principles of three, and Mr Rabiger’s list. So you go, what is not consistent now, does the character have an arc? Just think in terms of arc. Is the location necessary, not necessary? Your character is usually defined by their actions. You know that from writing.
Something I suggest for most people when they enter the editing room. In order to transition into the editing room for those directors who have a hard time with it, write out everything that you hate about yourself, about the actors, whatever went wrong, just write it, just vent. And put it aside. And that happened then. Because now is a different part of discovery in the editing room. So they are not burdened. Because on of the things is that directors are burdened with the weather, it started raining that time, and then that happened? the images are not imbued with what they are imbued with, they are imbued with their memory of it.
So that was it for Fix It In The Edit.
If you start analysing films you will see how illogical they are in choices. In Se7en what I love when they walk into ‘Gluttony’, Morgan Freeman comes in, you are inside the house and there is a tape, a ‘do not cross the line’ police tape, in the inside of the house. Why, on the inside of the house? Because he liked the setup of the shot. Because he liked the knife going in, which is an object, part of Morgan Freeman’s character.
It is a wonderful film if you want to look at creating a universe. Se7en is about a serial killer that comes up in an intentionally obscured town. It looks familiar but you cannot place it. It is raining all the time. In this universe is the serial killer and the more you get close to the serial killer, not only the way he kills but when they get into his apartment, his writings, his meticulousness, his planning, his sadism.
I walked out of this film with my ex-husband and he said I don’t want to live in a world where my daughter can see that. People were very disturbed by it. Why? Because they identified with the killer. And they didn’t know why. And you identify with the killer and don’t know why because the whole film is set up to create a universe that has no form and has no distinction and the only one who is bringing it form and logic, and something to hold on to is that fucking killer with his seven deadly sins. And it is disturbing. Because also clever. We don’t like sadists and we don’t like brutes, but we do like clever. We can’t help but admire clever, even if we don’t agree with it. So they are messing with you. So how do they do it? They do it by creating this ambiguous American universe, keeping you unsure.
It is raining the same time it is sunny out, and they actually cue the sun at one point on the way to ‘Sloth’. The sun breaks through when he says ‘Jesus, what was his name?’. Not only on the shot on Brad Pitt in the front but on the shot of Morgan Freeman in the back of the car. This is intentional. You know it is intentional when it is over two cuts. They storyboarded everything. They created that subtextual plane, and that is the true art of the cinema is what you use in the tercary. Some great DPs bring it, production designers. That brings in the dimension to story, and to theme. The cutting just reflected that. The cutting just helps support that. But the director was very aware of that and used it brilliantly, really brilliantly.
By the way, I didn’t see this film and immediately think of analysing it. I also walked out of that film disturbed and it took months if not years to realise and to hear people saying the same things over and over. I was listening to what the audience response was and that made me think, so how did they do it?
I will end on this. When you do cut, do feedback screenings. If you show somebody, or a group of people, material, no matter how well versed they are. I mean they say never show anybody a rough cut. But you do. You level out the sound, you try to create uniformity, certainly in the sound, so that people aren’t thrown off. You show a group of people some material and after an hour they are cutting their own films on your own material. All of a sudden they are coming up with, well I would do this and I would do that and why didn’t you.
For editors who are helping to conduct feedback screenings, and I hate feedback screenings, I avoided them for years because it is emotionally distressing and you are getting all this different kind of information. And usually when people start talking about what is not working in a film and they say, well you know at point D this and this and this. And as an editor you know that it actually is at B that it went wrong. You will find that in writing. A writer friend of mine said at one point, she re-wrote her script and her husband said I really like the changes you made in Act 3, now it works. All the changes were in Act 1 that she had made. So again, it is very mercurial.
So, how do you do it? At a feedback screening I ask four questions. One. What did you like? Two: What didn’t you like? Three: Where were you bored? Four: Where were you confused?
These last two questions are the most important. You will find some directors wanting to know did you like this character, did you not like that character? And directors should have their questions answered.
Most important is never have the audience ask the director. Avoid as long as possible having the audience directing a question to the director. Have them formulate it as a statement. Because what you are doing by having your audience make it a statement is you are getting their opinion. Well I thought this was going to happen, rather than why did that happen? Why, all of a sudden you have got to explain your film? Your film does not come with instructions and you are not going to be at every screening to explain things. No one is helping you by asking a question for clarification, they are only helping you by saying, I was confused here and I thought this was going to happen. Or, that was so unexpected and I wondered to myself why is this happening right now. So by avoiding putting yourself as a director, or for editors by avoiding your director getting defensive, you are not only allowing the director to have the real experience of an audience but you are allowing yourself to take note of where things are happening. That is where the real communication is happening. Eventually they are going to be asking the question anyway, something like, I just want to ask where you found the cast, can I ask that question?
But as far as the experience goes, try to really avoid it. It is the most helpful thing and it makes it less painful. Because it is not your job as the creators at that point to begin explaining what the work is. It is your job to take in what other people are experiencing.
So, that is the last tool in the bag-o-tricks that I can give you. Thank you very much.