This is the first video I made with @Sven Pape and his @This Guy Edits YouTube CHannel. It introduces the idea of 'Onscreen Drafting'. For more on this idea, see Chapter 12 of the second edition of my book 'Cutting Rhythms, Intuitive Film Editing' (Focal Press, 2016)
How can film analysis help filmmaking? Try analysing decisions rather than products.
The analysis of film usually starts with story, so too does the teaching of film. But is this the best place to start? The process of making a film is a process of making decisions. In a traditional process these decisions are made first about story, then script, then directorial 'vision' (how something will be realized on the screen) then production decisions flow from there, what the design will look like, where to place the camera, how to cut it together, what the aural dynamic will be in sound and music. Perhaps because this is usually the way it is made, it is also the way it is usually taught - we analyze the film first as a story and then everything else as a realization of that story onscreen. What this tells is what decisions were made, but it doesn't tell us why in any specific way. It leaves us with a lot of specific explanations but no operations or principles on which we can rely.
In the end what we will hear anyone who works on a film say about their decision making process is 'it depends on the story' when in actual fact most decisions depend much more immediately on the specifics of the decisions that have been made right before them. So perhaps looking at a film that way it is much more possible to extract guiding principles.
For example: an editor may say that their decisions depend on the story, but in fact they are making decisions about the flow of the movement of story based on decisions that have been made about the qualities of movement in the shots and performances. Stating it in this way allows us to ask: what are the principles of composing movement? And to hypothesize, for example, that if we have a lot of fast jerky movements in the shots these will trigger a speedy and percussive edit. If we have a lot of lyricism in the shooting we will likely have the same in the edit. We can then practice these two kinds of editing with two kinds of material. These kinds of hypothetical principles are much easier to teach than the more general 'it depends'.
Teaching filmmaking backwards may offer us a fresh perspective on a film as a series of decisions, because teaching it starting from story positions the film itself, the story' onscreen realisation, as a fait accompli, as something which had to be the way that it is and could not ever have been otherwise when, of course, nothing is further from the truth.
I propose that: if we teach it backwards, starting with sound and music, and ask ourselves, what is the sound and music doing and why, we will quickly see that it is responding to something in the edit - it is building on, realizing, counterpointing, the flow of image, emotion and story shaped in the editing process. We can then see it as a series of decisions made in relation to something specific in the editing. From there we can look at the edit and ask: what decisions were the sound and music a response to? We can look at cuts, at flows of scenes and sequences, of visuals and emotions and see how they create opportunities for any number of decisions to follow on from them.
Of course cuts are also responsive decisions themselves. The edits are only and always made in response to the shots. In fact this is one of the editor's core tasks: seeing what is really in the shots and structuring what is there into a significant form by shaping the flow of the actual movement. The director may still be seeing what they hoped would be in the shots, it is up to the editor to respond effectively to what is actually there, not what the director hoped or intended to have there. An editor's decision making takes the story and script into account, but is necessarily grounded on what is in the shots.
Now we come to something slightly harder, but not impossible to unpick in a film: what are the shots that triggered the editing decisions? Harder because, of course, we don't have access to the shots that are not in the film. But not impossible because we can break down a scene into its component parts and quickly see that a particular scene is composed of X number of close ups, or angles or shot sizes . We can see whether there is a master or not on the screen and we can begin to see, based on the material that is on the screen, what decisions the editor made and the material from which they sculpted those decisions.
Students and emerging filmmakers need to learn to make coherent, motivated decisions, and to make them with commitment and confidence. This takes practice. Practice in doing and practice in seeing it done.
Once we start to see shots, we begin to see decisions that have been made by cinematography and design, about light, about form, about pattern within the image and we can tell what prompted the pattern making of the editor. We can also begin to ask about the basis on which the cinematographer and designer were making decisions. Why did they put the light here, the furniture there, the stripes in the wallpaper, the close up on the lipstick? We are, of course, now in more familiar territory of asking about the directorial vision, but, having come at it backwards, we can see shots and design as a series of decisions that generate a response from editing and also are themselves a response to something which has been articulated, something that the director is often credited for as being the creator of: the mise en scene. But, in fact the director simply directs the creation of mise en scene as a decision making process on the part of his or her collaborators. The vision is what provides coherence to the collaborator's decisions, but it is not what makes the shots - it is the source of the cinematographer's and designer's decisions and it is also itself a series of decisions, a series of responses to script or story and, of course, to what is possible as opposed to what is ideal.
And finally, we come to story, coming at it this way is not intended to diminish it in anyway, but to see it as a source of decisions and as, itself, a series of decision - decisions of what to carve out from the world , to frame and shape into a causal chain the evokes a sense of significance.
The issue is that if we look at a film as a whole, we see it as something closed, but if we look at it as a process we can begin to see it as decisions, active choices to go one way and not another. And this, of course, it what students and new filmmaker need to learn to do: to make coherent, motivated decisions. To make them with commitment and confidence takes practice. Practice in doing and practice in seeing it done.
Making decisions can be hard, but so can anything that you don't have a lot of practice at. I propose that the point of a film school is to give people a chance to practice making decisions; to instruct in the frameworks that are useful for guiding decision making; and to generate articulation skills that can enhance decision making by giving it clarity and voice in collaboration.
And one of the ways I'd like to start doing this is by analyzing films as a series of decisions - decisions made from a cause and having an effect. So I'm going to start analyzing film backwards!
is dance who you are or what you do?
left to right: Jadzea Allen, Richard James Allen, Samuel Allen, Karen Pearlman in The Physical TV Company production of "...the dancer from the dance" (photo by Ehran Edwards, (c)2013 PhysicalTV
In 2007, on my 10th Anniversary of "quitting" dancing I had a dance research residency at Critical Path. My research questions was: "What's left? What is left in me, and what has left me?" The five days in the studio raised more questions, so I shared these with my dancing colleagues in Sydney, video-taping their responses.
In 2012 Critical Path gave us a curatorial residency to cut together the footage and create the Physical TV Company's production of a documentary & screendance called "...the dancer from the dance".
First public screening: 5pm Saturday 30 November at The Performance Space as part of the Director's Cuts series. (for tickets - http://bit.ly/18j4Mhy).
In this video Miranda Wheen responds to the question: "is dance who you are or what you do?"
In this post I mash up a quote from Walter Murch with a commonly heard expression in edit suites "you have to kill your babies" to see what light they might shed on each other.
In a special film made exclusively for screening at last year's Griffith University post production symposium, Walter Murch said: "Movies are much smarter than the people who make them". What I took him to be describing is something that I have often experienced myself, and heard other filmmakers talking about as that moment when, if you can quiet your ego and 'listen', your movie will tell you what it wants to be. This is a magic moment in the edit suite. But it is not mystically magic, it is sensibly so. It makes sense that a movie, which has had the contributing focus of so many forms of genius from artists in words, design, shooting, performing and directing can, at some point, when all of the egos are quiet, illuminate a pathway to synthesize all of these contributions into a whole and complete form. The movie takes the intelligence of all of the combined contributors and synthesizes it into one intelligent being. So of course they are smarter than any individual who makes them, they are the brains of all of them.
So why do the movies always want the directors to "kill their babies"? Well I have a theory, but first I'd better explain what is meant by "kill your babies".
When the magic is not coming together in the edit suite, one thing an editor may have to do is to get a director to let go of the shot that he or she loves the most. The one they blew way to much of the budget on. The one they missed their grandfather's 80th birthday for. The one they caught pneumonia standing in the rain perfecting. These shots that the director is hanging on to, that are probably the most beautiful shots, are the ones that don't really fit into the evolving whole. They block the synthesis, they just 'don't work'. These shots are called the director's 'babies', and they have to be got rid of from the cut to bring the whole together.
But it is not enough to say that something just "doesn't work". I want to know why. So here is my hypothesis:
When directors articulate a vision, they are opening it to interpretation by others. They are creating a space, by being brilliantly articulate about their intent, for others to be creative with their special skills in realising that intent. They are allowing others in, and creating the potential for the movie to become very, very smart, by creating the boundaries for creative contributions. And so the baby grows up with the genetic code of many, and becomes smarter than all of them. Except for that one special shot. The one special shot, the one the director loves the most and worked the hardest to get, is usually the one that he or she imagined right from the very beginning, the one that came to their minds before they opened up the idea to a collaborative process. As such, it is too singularly owned by them. It is their unadulterated vision. But that word has a negative connotation. Better to say it is their unsynthesized vision. The fragment of their idea that didn't have enough input from everyone else to take on the collective DNA. So it stays a baby, its doesn't mature and yield its singular nature to the whole. And when the rest of the movie grows wise enough, smarter than the people who made it, it demands that the editor yield the ax, and the unsynthesised vision shots, the baby shots, or the 'diva' shots you might say - be dropped from the cut.
This isn't really one question, it is three: what is rhythm made of in film editing? How is it shaped? And most importantly, what is it for? This 2 minute video contains the 26 word answer to all three questions, which is quicker than reading the first four chapters of Cutting Rhythms though maybe not quite as useful!
To paraphrase Woody Allen from the end of Annie Hall, an emotional exchange is like a shark – it has to keep moving forward or it dies. For an editor this means: you can’t repeat an emotional moment without killing it (you can sustain it but that’s another blog post!) This post is about cutting so that the emotion is always in motion.
To keep emotion in motion you have to keep the characters moving toward their objectives.
Here’s an example:
In this two hander the woman wants to go, and the man wants her to stay.
Objectives: Her objective is to get away, his objective is to keep her there.
What will each of them do to get what they want?
His Actions: To ask, to cajole, to demand, to plead, to beg
Her Actions: To dodge, to tease, to dismiss, to resist, to reject
Tip: You can see all of this going on in the way they speak - intonation, force, speed, and the movement of bodies – posture, gesture, movement energy. Watch and listen to the way they move and you are watching and listening to the movement of emotion.
He asks. Cut. She dodges. Cut back to him – what does he do when she dodges? He has a beat, he changes his action, asking didn’t work, so he tries cajoling, and so on.
Your job as an editor is to keep the emotions MOVING. If he asks, she dodges and he asks again (repeats), the scene dies. He asks, she dodges, he cajoles – now the scene is in motion he is changing because her actions have an effect on him. He makes another choice, she makes another choice, we cut the emotion moving between them escalating/diminishing, winning/losing, causing/effecting to keep the emotion in motion.
What do you do?
Don’t cut back to them just feeling something, like feeling sad because their action didn’t work (unless it is the end of the scene).
If a story that should be interesting is shaping up to be a bit boring, it is helpful to understand one of the key drivers behind an audience’s interest: Dramatic Questions.
A dramatic question is a question that implies an action and has something at stake.
What does this have to do with editing?
Usually it is the writer’s job to create these questions in a story, but sometimes an editor has to help them along. The editor is responsible for shaping the audience experience of dramatic questions - when they are raised and when they are resolved, how much emphasis is given to them.
Here are three tips for shaping and sustaining dramatic questions:
1. Make Sure You Know What Your Dramatic Questions Are
Talk to the writer and/or director and agree on the dramatic questions. Speak them out loud, even write them down and post them on your edit suite’s wall.
A dramatic question almost always starts with the word : ‘will’. Will someone do something, say something or get something.
For example: “Is Alex working well” is not a dramatic question. “Will Alex meet their deadline?” is a dramatic question because an action is implied (Alex meeting their deadline, or not) and something is at stake: success. If you know what your dramatic questions are then you can choose shots and shape sequences that follow the characters as they pursue their goals, and heighten our tension – our hope and fear – about what is at stake. If you don’t know what your dramatic questions are, it is easy to get distracted, and put in unnecessary stuff.
2. Don’t Answer Dramatic Questions Without Raising New Ones
(Unless it is the end of the story.) In order to keep us wondering what happens next we need to know what action is implied and what is at stake. If Alex meets their deadline and they live happily ever after it had better be the end of the movie. If Alex meets their deadline but is then offered a job overseas we have a new question: “Will Alex choose the risky new job or or success in the one they have?” Action implied? Choosing. Stakes? Career and success.
3. If Your Script Answers Questions Without Raising New Ones, Try Using Ellipsis.
If you have a scene in an office where the question is “Will Alex meet their deadline” and at the end of the scene they do. That’s fine, unless the next scene is one of them popping champagne, and there is no new question. Try cutting off the end of the bar scene so we don’t know the answer. That way, seeing the champagne pop is a revelation. You may even be able to insert other scenes in between, keep us wondering about Alex while you raise a new question in another part of the story. Then, when you answer your first question, you have a second one open and in play.
See Chapter 8 of Cutting Rhythms, Shaping the Film Edit (Focal Press, 2009) for more ideas about shaping and sustaining story tension through the rhythm of events.
Film maker, teacher, writer, and speaker about screen & performing arts, author of Cutting Rhythms (Focal Press) & a director of Physical TV Co.
Women Film Pioneers Project: 'After the Facts - These Edits are my thoughts' publication
RealTime Profile of Karen Pearlman's research
Rochford St Press/Sarah St Vincent Welch review of the trilogy of films about Soviet women editors
Magdalena Ball/Compulsive Reader Review of the Trilogy
'Edited By', Su Friedrich's invaluable compendium of women editors
RealTime screendance portal