Posts Tagged ‘editing’

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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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The “Karma Palace” Bar Scene Technique

November 26, 2012

There are lots of little skills that I’ve picked up over the years. One of which is unlikely to be taught at any film school because it’s not the accepted professional way of doing things. But it’s something that I find myself having to resort to again and again on low budget shoots.

Assembling a film is a giant jigsaw- if there are any pieces missing, the picture isn’t complete. Having said that, there’s only one correct way to assemble a jigsaw and a movie can be built in all manner of ways from whatever bits you have so I think the analogy isn’t altogether sound… Anyway, sometimes you have to know what your pieces are in order to make the picture. Because that way it doesn’t matter how or when you actually acquire them.

Yesterday I was shooting a comedy scene for a sketch show promo. Good little script, simple setup. Two parents sat in a restaurant with their 2yr old kid, some fast paced dialogue, reactions from the kid, few hours tops. Simple enough.

Only it wasn’t because we had a few problems…

We had the restaurant for a few hours but we had to be out before it opened at 11, no longer- not a major problem, but it did mean an early start. A friend had kindly provided his littl’un for the scene, but obviously, the longer we have him the more likely he’ll play up (the tyke, not my friend!) and bearing in mind that they say you shouldn’t work with kids or animals, there was always the chance he wouldn’t play ball at all. And one of the actors was coming in by train and because it was a Sunday, he wouldn’t be with us til 9.30.

So I planned to do the kid’s “reaction” shots first- just let the camera roll and see what looks and gestures we can get. After a few minutes of a level one grizzle-fest, we started to get some usable reactions, playing with a toy car etc. He even took his dummy out and made some noises (writing his own dialogue!) so what we got was ultimately very good.

Since we still had some time before our male lead arrived, my next plan was to shoot our leading lady’s close up. We could do that without the kid or our other actor and get someone (probably me) to read the lines. This is the sort of thing a film school wouldn’t teach or even consider a likely option. In professional eyes, if there are three artists in the scene then they should all be on set at the same time. Which is fine if you can pay for everyone’s inconvenience, pay actors, crew and locations and shoot whatever group coverage is your whim. It’s probably obvious, but I can’t do most, if not all, of that. So I have to think from the edit backwards rather than from the coverage forwards.

Then we had another problem- our leading man’s train is late. A lot. Which means by the time he gets here, we’ll be out of the location and packing my car with kit. So the shoot has to be abandoned and rescheduled for next week when we won’t have jr anymore and will just be shooting the two shots, his close-up and finding a way to get an opening dolly move in there without seeing the kid yet showing that he’s present. That last one will be the challenge taxing my brain for the next few days, but none of this would be possible without an understanding of the various jigsaw pieces and the way they go together to make up the scene.

I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not, but Emily (my AD) and I have got pretty good at shooting things this way over the years. Not that it’s our first method of going about things, but it’s always nice to have a plan Z when plans A through Y have gone tits up like a pornstar on a trampoline. I like to call it the “Karma Palace Bar Scene” technique after the student film I directed where we had to employ such a technique in order to get a scene finished- a scene with three characters and two extras in a bar that, due to scheduling problems, had to be shot in bits over four shooting days (the wide shot is the only one where they were all present at the same time). When you watch the scene you can’t tell unless you’re really looking for such clues.

I’ve had to employ this little cheat on roughly half of the productions I’ve been involved in. Each time it’s given me and Em a minor headache and confused the hell out of the actors, but each time it cuts together well enough that an audience is unaware of the trickery involved.

And after all, isn’t that what filmmaking is? A trick?

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The Lesson of Creative Coverage

September 9, 2012

Depending on where, how or if you learnt your film and video trade, the word “coverage” is either a mantra to be chanted at all times or a boring, uninspired term on a par with talking insurance premiums (no disrespect to anyone who works in the insurance trade, but by fuck is your world dull!). For those who are not au fait with filmmaking terminology- and why the hell are you reading this blog?- “coverage” is a way of shooting scenes that allows for choices in the edit. The standard “Hollywood” approach for a two character dialogue is the five shot master style- a wide master, two over-the-shoulder close-up reverses and two big close-up singles.

(If the previous terms meant nothing to you, you’re either a curious blog-reader lost in a strange area of interest or a maverick filmmaker who calls his shots whatever the fuck he wants to- and if the latter, I salute you because you’re likely going to get further in this game than me by being an arrogant wunderkind!) The five shot master style looks a little like this:

But while it gives you nice, easily-cuttable-between-each-other shots that “cover” the whole scene, coverage isn’t sexy. It’s like a Flemish bond in bricklaying- its the common foundation of the whole skillset but it’s not creative, exciting or flamboyant. It gets the job done.

For most directors and DoPs, it’s always more interesting to use creative masters such as dolly moves or motivated tracks and pans or add a variation to the standard formula with either handheld, focus pulling or push-in/pull-backs… Sadly though, these sorts of shots take time- particularly dolly shots- because of the extra set-up for the grip gear, the knock-on effect on lighting and sound and the level of rehearsal needed. A director on a budget with a tight schedule has to weigh up whether it’s worth doing a dramatic master and possibly having to ditch the standard singles etc or sticking with the safety of the coverage and running the risk of having something as cinematically exciting as a rich tea biscuit.

I suffer from this scenario all the time.

On every shoot in fact.

I always have a tight schedule and a low budget so I’m always torn between shooting something with creative merit that I can be proud of and shooting stuff that stands a chance of being edited properly. As is predictable, I try to achieve both and frequently wind up with a real mix of scenes. Some with dramatically motivated shots and compositions, some that cut together well and some that fail somewhat on both counts.

For instance on Jason’s Persona, as mentioned previously on this blog, we had 18 scenes to shoot in three days. Or, as it panned out due to actors’ and locations’ availability, 18 scenes in one whole and two half-days. Which meant that we wouldn’t have the time to shoot the standard minimum five setups per scene (the vast majority of them were two-handers). In order to cut down on our time, we stripped some scenes down to a single set of reverses- a close up or over-the-shoulder for each character. Which, while serviceable and allows for a little flexibility in editing for timing and pauses, lacks any variety or emphasis. So much so that since I’ve been editing it these last few weeks, I have started to regret some of those non-coverage decisions. The same thing happened with the previous story, Eliza’s Persona, although in that case it was usually a no-coverage crafted master shot affair.

A dolly shot set-up from Jason’s Persona

And so, I have come up with a couple of rules (that I will no doubt forget when I next arrive on set) that hopefully should give me more coverage options, regardless of how dull/cinematic my approach is.

1) Shoot an interesting opener. This could be an establishing shot of the location, a miscellaneous cutaway or an insert of something in the scene- like a glass on the table of a pub scene. All this saves you having to open the scene with the standard wide or a close up.

2) If you want to open with the wide or the close up, is there a way to move into it? So dolly in to the final framing, pan up from the book the character’s reading or focus pull from an informative piece of production design. it might take a little longer than a static shot, but it’ll be a bit more cinematic.

3) Shoot inserts and cutaways. If the characters’ blocking includes using props, shoot inserts of the props being picked up/used/put down etc. This can be used to add emphasis to those actions, cover dodgy edit points and line crossings or they can be used as openers or enders for the scene.

4) Over the Shoulders are a favourite pattern because they add depth to the frame- put a long-ish lens on there and it’ll look great- but they are a continuity problem if performances don’t match with the reverse. Hence close-ups in the classic coverage. If you can’t shoot anything else, get the close-ups. That’s where the drama is after all.

5) Don’t forget sound. Remember to get room tone and any natural sounds like chairs being pulled out, glasses being put down etc. If an annoying background sound is present on some takes- fridges, air-con…- make sure you get a track of that too.

The Persona shoots have been fast, condensed, cheap and full of scheduling obstacles- like filming different actors’ close-ups in a single scene at different times because of their availability or having to film day for night and night for day. By working on these shoots I’ve learnt a few lessons I might otherwise have missed (and that some of my fellow directors have not learnt at all). Whether these lessons will prove useful or detrimental is unclear, but the more varied experiences you have, the more likely you are to learn something that will later prove useful and possibly save a future project where it might otherwise fall apart around your ears

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The Reel McCoy

May 10, 2012

I’ve been cutting together my director’s reel recently. My old one is just that- old- and doesn’t quite represent my work now. It also doesn’t help that everything on that reel was from prior to 2010 and it looks like I’ve done jack shit recently if I leave that in circulation!

Most people in this industry need a showreel, it’s just the way the system works. You’re only as good as your last job (or two/three usually…) and your CV and showreel are the way to tell and show that respectively. Annoyingly, this also means that if you’re lucky enough to work frequently, you’re going to be re-editing the bloody thing every few months and updating your CV and profile on all the job websites into the bargain. Which is a major pain in the sphincter, to be honest. I tend to update my profile on FilmCrewPro after every job, my ShootingPeople and ProductionBase profile almost never, my CV after something good needs to go on it and my reel… well, this is the third incarnation since 2008 so not very frequently at all!

The hard thing about editing a new reel is choosing what to put on it and what to leave out. Reels should be short or else they drag the fuck on and not even a zen monk has the patience to watch through a reel that dares to be longer than 5 minutes! As a director, you want to show complete extracts from your films- characters, storytelling, style- rather than the montage of eye-candy a DoP can get away with. That means picking your extracts carefully since there will necessarily only be 3-4 of them on there. I’ve now got to that stage where I have several clips I can use that are representative of my abilities and style and I have to choose between them. It’s a far cry from my first “drama” reel which had very little directing on it and was padded out with my low-rent DoP credits instead. Or worse still, the reel I had when I left uni, which had a good range of excerpts but nothing consistent in area, tone or quality!

One of the stumbling blocks I encountered back then was not knowing how I should cut the reel together- should it just be a montage of quick shots to music pilfered from my CD collection? Should it be a selection of complete clips instead? Do I need explanatory inter-titles? Do I need any titles? A headshot? Music? And no-one really seemed to have a clear cut answer for me. You’d look online at other people’s showreels and they’d all be different- some cut together like a trailer for a movie made up of lots of movies, some a random mishmash of material that drags on and cuts back and forth with only Windows MovieMaker white-on-blue-grad text slugs to break it up… What approach is the most professional? What sort of thing is going to get you work?

Well, for all those looking for those answers when cutting their reels, I have decided to offer up my opinion. This opinion might be completely unshared by everyone else worthy of note and has no professional endorsements- it’s just my tuppence-worth- but if it helps, then great. So here are my thoughts in a handy, bullet-point list-y affair:

1) Reels should be short. That means 2-4 min tops. No exceptions. Directors and actors will probably be looking at nearer 4 min, everyone else (particularly those with a technical skill to highlight) will be nearer 2. Why directors and actors? Because their reels will necessarily need to show performances- something that can only be established with longer clips. Which brings me onto…

2) If you’re a director or actor, use clips that show performance/direction and tell something of a story. This means your clips are likely to be longer than 30sec. Quick close-ups and single line deliveries show very little skill from either party- only that you can frame a close up or remember one line of dialogue, which frankly any fuckwit can do. Engage your audience- that’s what your job is, so do it with the reel as well.

3) If you’re a technical bod- DoP, AC, sound, editor etc- you can get away with quick shots and audio clips cut to a soundtrack, like a montage of your best bits. A highlight reel if you like. This is because your skill and effect on an audience is in the detail and execution of your craft- something that doesn’t need protracted clips with actors saying lines and telling a story to be conveyed. If you’re an editor, this is a tough one because the reel can be a proof of your skill just as the clips in it can be. I suppose it depends on the sort of work you do- music videos probably need 20-30sec clips, fiction: short segments etc Which segues nicely into…

4) Pick the right type of work and be consistent. If you’re a camera operator, you could show that you can work on event videography, single camera drama, studio material and sports coverage but it’ll come across as a jack-of-all-trades affair. Better to hone in on a consistent message (say documentary/event/sports because they all concern following action as-it-happens) and show you can do it well.

5) For God’s sake, don’t mix roles. Don’t be a Director/DoP/Editor and have one reel to cover all three things. Make three separate reels for each discipline. The more hyphens or slashes you have in your role, the less skilled you appear because it looks like you’ve tried a bit of everything and are egotistical enough to believe you’re good at all of them!

8) Remember to have a title card at the beginning and end with your name, role and contact details. People often won’t watch through to the end (either out of boredom, time or hatred of your chosen soundtrack) so ensure they’re at the beginning as well as the end. And make sure the text you use is legible- none of this kooky font shit. If it looks like it would find it’s way onto a church fete newsletter, don’t use it. Pick something consistent and readable that fits the style of the reel.

9) If you have a music track on there, pick it carefully. Just because it’s your favourite song doesn’t mean it’ll work for your reel. Film scores are good if they’re not too iconic- the theme tune to Star Wars or Jurassic Park might be a great bit of music but it’ll look pretty wanky when dubbed to clips from low budget dramas. Also, bear in mind copyright issues- it’s unlikely to be a major problem because your reel isn’t for commercial use, but places like Youtube and Vimeo can block your video if copyright music is detected. Better to choose some free-to-use tracks or loops and avoid the issue entirely.

10) My preferred structure for a director’s/actor’s reel is to start with your name/role/headshot then have a very short montage of looks/style shots for 20 sec so an audience get a precis of what you’re all about. Then go into your clips- 30 sec to a minute each. Enough to engage your audience, show them the skills you want them to see and leave them wanting to see more of you. Have a lower thirds text box over the first few seconds saying the show’s name, production company and year and your role if necessary. Three or four of these should be enough then back to a headshot/contact details. I tend to add a couple of bullet points highlighting my USPs (unique selling points) as well before I end on the contact info.

Essentially, treat the showreel like an advert where you are the product you’re trying to sell. Don’t overdo it, just show your selling points, keep it concise and let them know where they can buy you from. If they’re interested, they’ll come to you.