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Film editing and movie editing part 3

This the third part of ‘film editing and movie editng’ by ‘Michael Robert Johnson’.

Learn to understand actor’s eye-lines and the implications of “crossing the line”.

The basics of this are that if two people are talking to each other, one of them should be looking right-of-frame and the other left-of-frame so that it feels like they are looking at each other. If this is cut wrong – i.e. both characters are looking to the same side of the frame – from the audience’s point of view it will feel like they are stood shoulder-to-shoulder and talking to someone unseen on the other side of the room.

Try to think of it as though you, the audience, are standing directly between the characters as they talk, then take a step backwards so you are not impeding their vision of each other- their “eye-line”. Now, when they talk, it should feel like you are looking back and forth as the conversation progresses. If you now walked across this eye-line, you would have to turn 180 degrees to see the conversation properly, and it is this “crossing the line” that disorientates the audience.

Eye-lines can be a very complex business – if you have four or five actors in a scene you can sometimes have upwards of fifteen, maybe twenty eye-lines going on at one time. Just remember that on general, the audience need to feel like they are staying roughly in the same place as they watch the proceedings

- the more you throw them around, the less they will absorb because they are trying to work out who’s talking to whom instead of listening to what they are saying – sometimes the change is not as obvious as this, but on a sub-conscious level it feels wrong to the audience, throwing them.

When you are editing conversations, do not cut back and forth every time a character finishes speaking. Like real life, a good actor will begin reacting before the end of the lines, taking their cue from a particular word or thought process. It is these rhythms that should dictate the editing, not the dialogue.
Learn how to overlap dialogue, this is the invisible backbone of pacing a scene.

Though equally, don’t feel that you have to cut together a performance at exactly the same pace as it was delivered on set. The speed of different slates – often different takes – is different, and it’s up to you to decide what is the correct speed to carry the scene.

Remember, the disjointed job of film acting is to provide as good a performance on as many takes as possible; it is the director and editor’s job to take these pieces and construct a convincing performance which will complement all the other performances. As many actors fail to realise – THIS ISN’T THEATRE – the final performance is created in the editing room, not on the set.

If you want to look at different ways to edit an actor’s performances, here are a couple of good examples:

The first is the scene in “Heat” in the coffee shop when Pacino and DeNiro face each other. Michael Mann shot this entire sequence with two cameras – one on each actor – and just let the scene roll. Any given point you’re seeing the exact reaction to the line.

The second example is the scene in DeNiro’s living room in “Raging Bull” when he accuses Joe Pesci of sleeping with his wife. This scene was shot with a single camera, first on DeNiro, then on Pesci. The editor Thelma Schoonmaker then had to go through the miles of differing, improvised takes from both angles and construct a piece of drama that looks like it has taken place in real time.
The main difference – on a sub-conscious level for the audience – is that in “Heat” you feel as though you are simply watching – over-hearing – the exchange as it happens. With “Raging Bull”, you are placed much more inside the heads of the characters; the editing allows you, the audience, to see tiny nuances of mood and motivation that even the characters (and to an extent the actors) themselves do not see.

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Film editing and movie editing part 2

This the second part of ‘film editing and movie editing’ by ‘Michael Robert Johnson’.

Every single cut should in some way advance the film forwards. Bad editing has a lot of “to-ing and fro-ing” going on, turning conversations into tennis rallies and action into spirals. Good editing always has a purpose, there is always a reason for going to the next shot, a reason for holding it the length it is, then a reason for cutting out when it does.

Take a look at the final stand-off in “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly”, all those huge close-ups between Eastwood, Van Cleef and Wallach as they build up to the shoot-out. Not a shot is wasted in the whole sequence; there’s always a little twitch of the eye, some tiny thought process, that carries each shot – that’s where the tension comes from (when coupled with Morricone’s incredible score), this sense of something happening at every moment in a sequence of shots which is basically just a collection of eyes and hands. But on a big screen the effect is incredible.

Another example is at the end of “Sideways”, as Paul Giamatti watches Thomas Haden Church as he’s welcomed back into the bosom of his girlfriend’s family after momentous lying and cheating. The shot on Giamatti’s face is held for an incredible length of time by contemporary standards, but it works because the thought process holds. Every ignominy that has been visited on him during the previous week is present during that shot, and to cut it any earlier – for time concerns – would have destroyed it.

And remember the (second) cardinal rule – KILL YOUR BABIES.

It may be the greatest scene you have ever constructed, but if it doesn’t fit into the wider picture of the film – maybe the purpose of the scene reveals something that has already been set up, perhaps it creates an unwanted red herring for the audience, whatever – it must, must go.


And cut, cut, cut. If you can shave a few frames out, do it. There’s nothing worse than flabby editing (look at any TV movie). And remember to watch each cut of the film as an audience member, not as an editor. Would it work for you if you switched on the telly at one in the morning and started watching it?

If the answer is “yes”, then you’ve done your job. If the answer is “no” then it’s indulgent and you’re asking the audience to like it simply because you like it. Start re-cutting. Nobody’s giving you their time and money to watch good editing, they’re giving it to watch a good story.

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Film editing and movie editing part 1

This the first part of ‘film editing and movie editing’ by ‘Michael Robert Johnson’.

First and foremost, ORGANISE YOUR MATERIAL. This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how much difference it can make. You will become familiar with the material much quicker if you have it separated into different bins as opposed to everything in one huge bin.

Mark up your script accurately. Draw a line down through the portion of the script covered by each different slate; it’s also handy to make notes on which take contains the best bit for each slate.

Once you have done the first assembly, FORGET ABOUT THE SCRIPT. When the film is assembled from beginning to end, the script is now irrelevant – the end product is constructed from the shot material, not the written material. Don’t attempt to crowbar pieces of business into scenes just because the script dictates it – if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and it needs to come out.

The cardinal rule for editing is MAKE IT INVISIBLE.
Unless the style is particularly tricksy, the audience should never be aware of your cutting points.


Most editing – particularly action editing – is done on some sort of movement, which helps to disguise the cut. When a character turns to leave the room, for example, you can use the turn of the head to cut from one angle to the other.
But don’t feel bound by what seems to be the obvious movement. It is the motion itself that carries the eye across the edit, and quite often – if you are having trouble getting out of one shot and into the next – the slightest amount of movement in the same part of the frame will make the edit work.

Also, do not leave “dead frames” when you have action entering or leaving.
If a person is entering/leaving frame, always try to cut on the first/last frame of movement; even one extra “dead” frame can make the action seem stilted. An edit is working when it feels like a smooth curve as opposed to a jagged corner.

The exception to this rule is if you need a character to cross a certain amount of time or space off-screen, in which case you hold an extended amount of “dead” frames to make the point.

[Further to this, try to learn importance of the single frame. That may seem obvious if you’ve done a little bit of editing already, but if you’re just starting out, that single frame – that tiny one 24th of a second – can often be the difference between a cut looking horribly jagged and a cut looking totally seamless. Experiment.]

Learn the principle of the “mean sight-line”

At any given moment, there is a point on the screen at which the majority of the audience will be looking; most often it is in an actor’s eyes, but movement is also a key draw. This is very useful if you want to direct the audience to a particular area of the screen ahead of the cut, so their eyes are in the right place for information coming in on the other side of the edit.
By the same token, if you are cutting into an image where the audience will have to adjust their eye across the screen to the next area of interest, allow them the time to reposition. Bad editing often doesn’t take this into consideration, and by the time the audience has worked out where they should be looking, they have missed what they should be looking at.

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