Archive for the ‘The Past’ Category

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My Love-Hate Relationship with Editing

August 17, 2013
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Couldn’t resist.

I have very mixed feelings towards editing. On the one hand, it’s the defining part of the filmmaking process and where the film actually becomes a film. On the other, it’s a massive ball-ache where you have to dredge through hours of footage, find ways to mask or fix continuity and sound issues and tread that fine line between systematic and creative approaches. And don’t get me started on NLEs and their buggy performance issues.

The strange thing is, my history with editing is pretty much my history with film and video production in general. Although I was innately a storyteller, I don’t know if I’d have taken to the craft of the moving image quite so readily were it not for the availability of consumer editing software.

When I started paddling in the pool of filmmaking, the first things I shot were fight scenes. It soon became obvious to me that the camera-sat-unmoving-on-a-table style of cinematography I was using was not only dull visually, but playing out the whole thing from this one angle made it doubly so. I realised I needed to shoot things from different angles and edit them together into a sequence. At this point I knew only what most people know about editing- that it’s just about “taking out the bad bits” (a definition so narrow, Victoria Beckham would have trouble walking down it). The only source of information I had on the subject was a copy of Jackie Chan: My Stunts on VHS and the brief sequence where he illustrates, amongst other shooting techniques, how continuity of motion was achieved with editing. This was “cutting on action”- one of the basic principles of continuity editing- and I had learnt it, even if I didn’t know the name, from a man who falls off things for a living.

(I couldn’t find the exact clip, but you get the idea…)

Since digital camcorders and consumer NLEs were new and I was shooting on Hi-8, my first attempts at editing were done between the camera and a VCR. Anyone old enough to have experimented with this method knows how much of a ball-ache it is to pause the recorder and frantically find the next bit of footage before coordinating the play/record button presses so things actually go to plan. I’m fairly certain that splicing on a moviola would be less stressful. Would I have chosen film as a career based on this experience? Doubtful. While it taught be how to plan a shoot and see something edited in my head before I shot it (both excellent and necessary skills that new filmmakers don’t always pick up right away), it was a real pain and just wasn’t as immediate a creative process as I’d have liked.

Needless to say, when I got the money together (courtesy of getting fired from my first full-time job and payroll accidentally paying me twice for the last month!) to buy a DV camera, a FireWire card for the PC and some editing software, things became much more malleable.

Urgh. Just urgh.

Urgh. Just urgh.

The first NLE I used was Pinnacle Studio (later called Ulead). It was a fairly simple drag and drop affair with clip boxes rather than a timeline and very limited sound options. But it enabled me to cut clips at a frame by frame level, assemble them into a sequence, add some music and shitty titles and create a digital file of my creation. It also allowed me to add a myriad of crappy transitions, but even then, naive as I was, I knew that starwipes were tools of the devil and stuck to straight cuts or dissolves if I wanted to transition from a scene. It was from using this less-than-impressive software that I learnt about the importance one frame can make to a cut- as Tarantino said in an interview it’s like the difference between a sour note and a sweet note in music. I also quickly realised by shooting these fight scenes that there were only certain places I could put the camera so things would edit smoothly. Person A needed to stay on one side of the screen and Person B on the other otherwise no one would know where the hell things were in relation to each other. Yep, the 180 degree rule. Again, from fight scenes. I realised if I wanted to shoot from the other side, I needed to either move the camera during the shot or cut to a direction-neutral shot in order for it to work. I also intuitively discovered cutaways and inserts by shooting these fight scenes, the former for bridging gaps in continuity and the latter for highlighting details. My education in editing had begun.

At this point, I still had no formal training. My interest was martial arts and kung fu movies and while the internet was definitely a thing and we had access to it, I was only interested in the martial arts fights amateur stunt teams were shooting and editing. So even though filmmaking was a topic of discussion on these sites, it was rarely beyond the concept of shooting angles and editing techniques.

Somewhere along the line, I decided that I wanted to study film and video production properly and enrolled in a course at the local college. Immediately, I felt out of my depth. Everyone else had done some kind of course before. They knew the terminology, they knew the process and they knew Final Cut Pro- which was the editing system of choice at Reading College. I struggled to keep up, desperately trying to internalise lecture notes, read up on things I didn’t understand and try stuff out with my friends on our next fight scene shoot.

Eventually, after about eight months, I quit.

I got a full time job which I hated. I saved some money. I started to get over my depression. And I got withdrawal symptoms from not doing any filmmaking.

Realising I might have made a mistake in quitting, I bought a new camcorder since the old one had died, my first Apple computer (the hernia-inducing eMac) and a copy of Final Cut Express. I shot a short action film with my friends and realised I had actually learnt things from the course. I had learnt more about shots and composition, about continuity and storytelling and I had learnt a bit about Final Cut Pro. This was the first real project I edited in Final Cut and the process was several magnitudes of difference from Pinnacle Studio. I had a timeline, I had a viewer and a canvas, I had bins and filters and colour correction and audio tools. I could do L and J cuts (again, something I figured out for myself rather than being taught it) and I could do admittedly crude slow motion- I think that might have been the holy grail for me!

FCP screengrab

But Final Cut was a bit of a beast. Like before, it took ages to capture my footage from tape, but this time I felt compelled to log it as I went, setting in and out points, naming scenes and shots. This was something I hated, but it did mean I was viewing my footage as I went looking for the good take (this was 2003- I only had an 80Gb hard drive and DV took up 1Gb per 13 mins so it paid to be frugal).

Somewhere along the line, editing stopped being fun. It became a slog. That necessary evil that has to be done so you can enjoy the fruits of your labour- like changing the bedclothes before you hump in it.

And I started to hate it. Mostly.

I still enjoyed the magic of making something work and seeing it how the audience would and I still enjoyed editing when I was in the zone at 2am, trying to get the narrative to flow. But like a panda in London Zoo, I was rarely in the mood and frankly, it all looked too much like hard work.

Van Damme couldn't believe just how long this render was going to be...

Van Damme couldn’t believe just how long this render was going to be…

When I re-enrolled at Reading College (now the diet coke university TVU), I found myself to be far more experienced than many of my classmates. This meant that I could help them with the things they found difficult, but it also meant that I had the time to expand and develop what was being taught rather than scrabbling to just keep up. I still hated editing for the most part but I also acknowledged that editing was where the film actually became a film. And I wound up doing a lot of editing myself because I was much more comfortable with Final Cut than some of the others but also because I frequently shot stuff with the edit in mind. And for someone who wasn’t me, this was often a problem.

Editors are both craftsmen and creatives. They’re like engineers, using a complex series of tools to assemble something else. But they’re also like collage or mosaic artists, taking tiny bits and putting them together to make more complicated, much better pieces of art. It’s a real straddler of a role and it relies on having a range of raw materials to work with. The problem is, I would frequently save time or energy on set by knowing how I wanted something edited and only shooting the material necessary to make that happen. So when the editor sat down to edit it, he found that the footage could only really be assembled one way, thus robbing him of his creative involvement, or worse still if he couldn’t see that end product and only saw insufficient footage to edit it how he wanted. On The Good, The Bad and The Undead, a movie I co-produced, DoP’d and somewhat visually directed, the editor frequently found I hadn’t shot the coverage he needed to assemble the scene. I’d shot enough to assemble it my way, as per my storyboards, but I’d left no room for leeway or his creative choices. And I didn’t exactly deal with the situation well either. When he pointed out I didn’t have enough coverage for the main fight scene in the flick and said it flat-out wouldn’t cut together, I took the footage, cut it and mixed it overnight into a pretty good fight scene just to cuntishly prove him wrong. This antagonism was probably one of the reasons why that film took ages to edit but it left me with this feeling that if I was going to shoot things this way, I needed to be the editor. Not for any sense of auteurism, but because I didn’t want to annoy and frustrate an editor.

So for every project I directed after that, I did the editing. Even Persona, where Don Allen the producer really wanted to get someone else in to edit, I insisted because I knew that at the pace we would be moving I was likely to cut corners (and I did) and for an editor, this would be a nightmare. Strangely though, I have grown to like shooting coverage more and more in the last few years- in the main because I don’t need to plan as much as I used to and I can pace things better and add to the performances in the edit if I have a reasonable level of coverage. And if a particular shot is definitely what I want to use, I will structure that coverage around it, making it integral to the scene, but giving myself (or another editor) some degree of flexibility.

Now we have a new generation of NLEs. Final Cut Pro X was hated by many professionals on its launch (I have to confess, I didn’t like it much either) but over the last year I’ve grown to like it, even as I find its new ways of doing simple things frustrating and liberating at the same time. One thing I have found though, is that I’m a faster editor with it. I used to be a slow, picky perfectionist with editing, but FCPX is very much a slam-it-together-and-see-what-sticks NLE and I’ve found this means I put together an assembly quicker and then spend my time tweaking and tidying it rather than plodding through it on Final Cut Classic. L and J cuts are actually easier, stuff doesn’t go out of sync as often when I’m in full-on tweak mode and thanks to the codec-agnostic engine and background render, the whole video format thing is something of a non-issue.

Given that the tools are somewhat improved, you might be surprised to learn I still have my love-hate thing with editing. I’ve mellowed somewhat and I like it a bit more because I’m better at it with the new tools, but it’s still Vicks in my Vaseline.

I’ve always thought that, as a director, when working on a project you end up making your film several times over- each draft of the script, each bit of concept art, the storyboards, the shooting script, your vision of the film in your head, every subsequent edit and revision… each is a new stab at telling the story. And I think a lot of my negativity towards editing is because by the time I’m sitting there with the timeline, the script, the continuity notes, a big bag of crisps and a 2 litre bottle of pepsi max and everything else in front of me (or next to someone else who’s going to do much of the donkey-work), I’ve already made the film several times and really can’t be fucked to do it all again.

But then that magic happens. That moment when a scene comes together and feels natural and effortless and… good… and suddenly you forget all the waiting and the procrastinating and the software bugs and the format issues and the swearing and the frustration and realise that you’ve made a film. And it works. And you keep going because you can’t wait to see how this thing unfolds in the next scene.

And by the time you stop because the screen is blurring and your eyes hurt like someone’s poured lemon juice in them, it’s 4.30 in the morning and you have work at half 8 and you really really should get some sleep…

…I’ll just finish this next scene… I’m in the zone…

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Lights, Camera and Lots and Lots of Action!

December 23, 2012
For a 30-something, this is a familiar nightmare...

For a 30-something, this is a familiar nightmare…

I grew up in the 80s and early 90s which means I’m part of the so-called “video generation.” As opposed to kids in the 70s who grew up with broadcasted TV as their proxy parent du jour, I had a VCR and lots of tv-recorded and pre-recorded tapes to wear out in it. And if there wasn’t something on broadcast-tv, taped-tv or shop-bought-tape to watch, there was always the rental option. It’s a wonder my eyesight is as good as it is…

Our local video rental store had a monthly subscription deal- rent what you like for as long as you like- and my dad, knowing a good deal when he saw one, signed up and rented anything and everything that video store had over the course of the next few years. As a result, I saw a huge range of movies during this time, but like most teenage boys, I grew up on a steady diet of action flicks. Arnie, Van Damme, Steven Seagal… If they kicked people, fired guns and blew shit up I probably watched it courtesy of Jumbo Video Rentals. When I started training in martial arts at the age of 14, I focused more on the kicky-punchy action movies- starting with the US efforts (where gun-toting heroes occasionally spin kicked a slow motion witty retort) all the way to the Hong Kong martial arts flicks (where somersault kicks are a recognised means of communication).

For me, these movies were a great source of inspiration for my martial arts training- from them I learnt spinning kicks, jump kicks, the kip up, some acrobatics and several styles of kung fu… but they were also the source of my interest and skill in filmmaking.

When I was 19 I borrowed my dad’s camcorder and started filming my friends and I training in martial arts. As kung fu film fans, it didn’t take long for these training sessions to evolve into fight choreography. Initially, the filmmaking side of things was retardedly simple- a single camera on a tripod (or other handy level surface), static wide shot, everything in the scene. And of course, while the choreography was fine and dandy, it didn’t work because the filmmaking part of the equation didn’t sell the techniques or push the story. So I started looking at action movies with an eye to picking up how to shoot and edit them (the mere idea of editing being something I’d never even thought about prior to this!).

Over the next couple of years, my friends and I shot a number of short films/fight scenes, often with a dumb, contrived almost-plot bookending things. But, daft though they were, these learning experiences were what taught me the basics (and in some cases, the not-so-basics) of filmmaking craft:

  • I learnt how to use and maintain the line of action and the 180 degree rule because in a fight scene losing track of who’s where can be disastrous.
  • I learnt about keeping a certain amount of visual difference between consecutive shots so that when you cut between them the compositions don’t jar.
  • I learnt the importance of cutting on action to preserve motion and continuity. I also learnt to use double cuts and overlapped cuts (where a few frames of the action is repeated in the second shot so your eye perceives the fast movement as smooth and continuous)- things that a lot of editors never pick up at all.
  • I learnt to use camera placement and composition to give strength, speed or power to a performance- things that are also used in dialogue scenes and visual sequences alike.
  • I learnt how to use slow motion- in particular, how to use it with standard and undercrank speed to create a strong effect.
  • I learnt about inserts, cutaways, overlapping audio, spot effects, the importance of music and how to create basic titles and graphics.
  • And I learnt to see the film in my head before I shot it because if you’re dealing with potentially injury-inducing takes you don’t want to waste time shooting stuff you’re not going to use.

It was only when I went to college and started to study this stuff properly that I learnt to use some of these techniques in a more normal filming situations like dialogue scenes, silent storytelling and ensemble sequences.

raid redemption 1

So why have I bought this up? Because I’ve been watching a lot of action movies recently- including such awesome soon-to-be-genre-classics as Indonesian fight flick The Raid: Redemption and big explosion-fests like The Expendables 2. I’ve also been re-watching all my 80s & 90s straight to video movies and John Woo bullet ballets. And they’ve reminded me how much I loved shooting action and how distinctive that sort of work is. Looking at my directing career now, if I had some quality action on my reel it would look great for my job prospects. A cool action film might also get me some recognition at festivals- necessary if I’m to land an agent. I know I can direct great drama and character pieces and with a skilled and enthusiastic crew produce something I can be proud of- all I need to do now is bring that same production value and skill to an action flick.

So that’s what I’m planning next year- a high quality short film with a distinctive style, witty characters, a cool story and lots of gun-toting, high-kicking, squibs and gun flares, slow-mo bullet ballet, balls-to-the-wall action sequences. On a budget of fuck-all.

Wish me luck!