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The Invisible Art

The Invisible Art

Unless you're a film professional or a serious fan, you may have never heard names like Walter Murch or Thelma Schoonmaker—even though they are editing geniuses without whose work films like The English Patient and Raging Bull would never have been possible. In the filmmaking industry, they are more than merely famous; they are superstars.

So why don't you know their names?

Perhaps it's because at its best, film editing is an invisible art. While the cinematographer shoots pretty pictures that catch your eye and movie stars' faces grab your attention (they'd better, considering how much they cost), the editor's job is to make her work completely invisible. Although some filmmakers, such as Oliver Stone and Jean-Luc Godard, have chosen a cinematic style that draws attention to the filmmaking process, if you work professionally as a film editor (or aspire to), you're usually trying as hard as you can to keep anyone from noticing your editing work. In fact, the better the editing, the harder it is to observe and explain.

It's All Film

I use the terms “film,” “video,” “program,” “show,” and “movie” more or less interchangeably. Even though most of the content you'll be working with probably originates on video and may end up being distributed on video, “film” is still widely accepted as the best way to refer to the media that combine moving images with sound. Thus, the term “filmmaking” refers to the art of creating projects in all those different media.

Thousands of film and video editors are at work every day, cutting TV programs, news reports, video games, corporate training videos, movies, commercials, and many other projects. And whether you know it or not, in many cases when you say to yourself, “Wow, that film was great!” it's the work of the editor that you're applauding.

CUTTING Another word for film editing. For many years, editing involved physically cutting pieces of film, scraping off some of the emulsion, applying special cement, and reassembling the pieces using a handy gadget called a splicing block. In this book, I will use the term generally to refer to any aspect of the editing process.

The Man Behind the Editing Machine

When I first became interested in filmmaking, I went to my local theater and watched Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now more than 20 times in a row. I went back every day, until the ticket taker started letting me in for free. I'm not sure if it was out of admiration or pity.

The reason I kept going back was that I was trying to deconstruct the film and figure out why it was so powerful—a difficult process, since films are designed precisely to defeat that kind of analysis. Every day I would sit there watching the screen, trying to catalogue the visual, aural, and story elements. And every day I got caught up in the film's seductive dramatic content and technique, and I would lose track of my analysis. Still, each day I got a little further into the film before I lost focus, until finally I could pretty much describe how the film was constructed, shot by shot.

Most people don't want to know how film works; they don't want anything to spoil the magic. Because deep down film is magic—which is part of what attracts some of us to learning how it works. Personally, I've always been drawn to things that seem impossible: I seek to understand the things that baffle me. So ever since my experience with Apocalypse Now, whenever a particular film really appeals to me, I go to see it again and again, until I can deconstruct it.

Becoming a Filmmaker

It wasn't long before I decided to try my hand at making movies myself, so in 1988 I enrolled in San Francisco State University. SFSU boasts a small, intensive film-production program that's highly respected in the filmmaking community. The focus is on film as a medium for artistic expression, rather than as a tool for entertainment or (God forbid) commerce.

Of course, if you're looking for a career in the real world of filmmaking, it's useful to know a particular skill set and excel at it. So I supplemented my artistic education at SFSU with an internship at a corporate video production house, where I honed my editing skills. I had also been writing screenplays for many years, and as I became more interested in directing, I looked for opportunities to work with actors as well.

Shortly after I graduated from film school, I produced, directed, and edited my first fiction film, Theatereality, but I kept working at the production house as an editor, assistant director, and video technician. Because I had taught myself basic computer skills, I became the company's computer expert as well.

Building Final Cut Pro

One thing led to another, and one day I woke up to find myself working at Adobe Systems, testing an early version of Adobe Premiere—one of the first digital desktop editing systems. Almost no one on the design team had any experience actually editing video; that was where I came in. Working closely with Randy Ubillos, the architect and lead engineer of Premiere, I reported bugs and helped design features for the forthcoming release.

When Randy resigned from Adobe to create a new division at Macromedia—one that would be responsible for building the ultimate next-generation tool for desktop video production—he invited me to join the team designing what would eventually become Final Cut Pro. Part of my job was heading a mini production studio within Macromedia where we could test the software on real-world projects.

The development of Final Cut Pro took nearly four years—far longer than had been expected—and in the meantime, Macromedia decided that a professional video-editing tool no longer fit the company's product strategy. In the summer of 1998, Apple took over the project and guided our focus squarely towards DV. Nine months later, Final Cut Pro version 1.0 was born.

DV The term “digital video” (in lowercase) refers to any video information that is stored digitally, but the acronym DV (in uppercase) refers to the latest digital technology for recording video images and the specific format it uses. That format may be further specified as MiniDV, DVCAM, or DVCPRO. Some variants include DV50 and DV100.

During its entire development, I was using the software at whatever prototype stage it was at to cut my shows. This allowed me to make recommendations about improving the workflow and how the features would hold up in the real world. The engineers could look over my shoulder and observe how the program worked on an actual project. Everyone agreed that this process was one reason Final Cut Pro became such a useful—and successful—application. Indeed, many other software projects of all types (including Adobe Premiere) have adopted this technique as part of their development cycle. Perhaps it's this, more than the specific features of Final Cut Pro, that constitutes my real legacy to the world of software development.

Once Final Cut Pro was out in the world, my job was to teach people how to use it. In addition to building the tutorial that shipped with the software and constructing the demos Apple used at trade shows and sales meetings, I taught Final Cut Pro to Apple sales teams, product reps, and demo artists.

Back to the World of Filmmaking

All this was fun, but it was taking me further and further away from filmmaking. Finally, in September 1999, I left Apple to get back to using the tools rather than building them. I didn't totally give up on teaching, though. In the last few years I've led classes on Final Cut Pro, digital video production, cinema as an online medium, and related topics for places like the American Film Institute, DV Creators, and San Francisco State University.

These days I'm able to devote more time and energy to creating digital video projects of my own. Before leaving Apple I cofounded a theater company called Bare Witness Productions (www.barewitness.com) that produces short films using improvisational techniques both in front of and behind the camera. We go to real locations and use wireless mics and tiny DV cameras to perform and record improvised dramatic scenes. Then we edit the pieces and post the results on our Web site.

My current project (in addition to this book) is Want, a feature film about the culture of consumption. We shot for 34 days over a three-month period using PAL DVCAM, and I am currently editing the film with Final Cut Pro 2.0. Want should be finished just about the same time this book is published, so if the film festival circuit likes us, you may be hearing more about this film.

I will be using examples and anecdotes from my recent real-life projects throughout this book to illustrate and elaborate on various editing techniques and concepts. I hope this real-world anchor will give these lessons an element of truth that will help turn dry concepts into practices and techniques that are alive and easy to remember.

Final Cut Pro and the Digital Revolution

The last few years have seen nothing less than a bona fide revolution in the world of filmmaking. This is due in large part to new technologies, particularly DV; digital editing systems like Final Cut Pro; FireWire; the Internet; and computers powerful enough to process the huge data files produced by multimedia applications without taking all day to do it.

FIREWIRE FireWire (or IEEE 1394) allows high-speed data transfer over inexpensive cables. FireWire is the technology that connects your DV tape deck to your computer and transmits video, audio, and timecode information all at once, and very quickly. Before FireWire, connecting a deck to a computer meant hooking up as many as six different cables and having a special interface on the computer to plug all those cables into.

What makes these technologies revolutionary is not so much their capability as their affordable price. Less than ten years ago, it would have cost at least $250,000 to set up a modest digital film production facility. Today, you can buy equipment and software that let you achieve the same professional production level for $25,000 or less.

All this is having a profound impact on our society—and it's far broader than simply making it possible to produce professional video on the cheap. Revolutionary technology is opening up the powerful medium of film to millions of people who had no previous access. This means we'll be hearing more voices—and that means new ways of shooting, editing, and thinking that will inevitably transform film in ways that are unimaginable today.

But the technology just gets you started. To become a successful film editor, you need to learn how to see the invisible art, how to understand and speak the secret visual language that editors use to build effective film sequences.

Language Class, Lesson One

Whether you call it film or video, the moving image is a universal language, one that the whole world understands but only a limited few have taken the time to learn to speak.

As an editor, the biggest part of your job is to learn to deconstruct and understand the components of film language. You need to be able to do it in your sleep. I must warn you here and now that this may have a significant and detrimental impact on your ability to actually enjoy popular culture. Rather than relaxing and letting the filmmakers take you for a pleasant ride, you'll find yourself obsessively analyzing the media you see. This can have a dire effect on your personal relationships as well. Nothing spoils a first date like a detailed dissertation on the continuity errors in the romantic comedy you're watching.

Learning the Language

You'll also need to understand the common terms and specialized vocabulary used in the world of film and video production, as well as some terms that are specific to computer use and software operation. As we go along, I'll provide boxed definitions of terms that are potentially confusing or obscure. Also, you'll find a glossary in the back of the book summarizing these terms.

Turn Off the Sound

Want to see how it works? Turn off the sound.

Get a copy of your favorite movie or television show, and watch it with the sound turned off. Without the distraction of dialogue, sound effects, or musical score, it's easier to pay close attention to the visual elements that make up a sequence. For instance, duration: How long are the shots? Are they consistent or inconsistent in length (long and short shots intermixed)?

SHOT Every time the camera frames a different angle or image of the events being filmed, the resulting video or film is a shot. The word also refers to different ways of framing the action, as in “close shot” and “long shot.

CUT A transition between shots in which the second image replaces the first image instantaneously.

Are the shots connected by cuts? Dissolves? Wipes? Other special visual effects?

DISSOLVE A transition between shots in which the first shot starts to fade out while the second image is fading in. In the middle of the dissolve, both shots are briefly superimposed.

WIPE A transition between shots in which the second image replaces the first image by taking some recognizable shape such as, for instance, an expanding circle or a moving diagonal line.

Watch the sequence again, still without sound. This time pay attention to the edit points in each shot—the precise moment when one shot ends and the following shot begins. What's happening before and after each edit point? How are the pictures on either side of the edit point connected? Is the connection visual? Spatial? Emotional?

Now go back and watch the show a third time—this time with the sound on. What are the elements that make up the soundtrack? Music? On-camera dialogue? Off-camera speech? Sound effects? Background noise or room tone?

ROOM TONE Unless you're in outer space, the environment around you has a characteristic sound. In a house it might be the soft hum of the refrigerator and the ticking of a clock. In a park it could be wind in the trees and a chattering squirrel. These sounds make up what filmmakers call room tone, an important consideration when recording and editing the soundtrack.

Listen to how the sound interacts with the visual elements, how it bridges transitions and complements or contrasts with the visual content. Pay attention to the edit points for the sound: Where does each sound element start and end? Compare the audio edit points to the visual edit points. Notice how much, or how little, the sound affects the visual content.

The more you learn how to deconstruct the media you watch, the better you'll get at creating media of your own. After trying this exercise a few times, you'll start to do this sort of deconstruction automatically as you watch, without having to roll the show back. And you'll discover that your visual vocabulary is growing fast, making you a more effective editor and filmmaker.

The Game Plan

Even if you don't plan to become a full-time video editor, or if producing video content is only a hobby or a small part of your current job, knowing the tools of this trade will benefit you in ways you may not realize. Consider that 15 years ago basic computer skills were widely seen as geeky esoterica; today they are a prerequisite for nearly any job. In just the same way, as technology continues to advance, video will become more and more commonplace in all types of communication. This book will teach you the basic editing concepts you'll need to prepare for that day.

We'll start by going over the basic elements of what film editing is all about. Then I'll move on to show you how to use Final Cut Pro like a pro. You'll learn to edit with skill and finesse and make the most of the program. Some of the techniques we'll explore are fairly basic, and some are quite advanced.

Final Cut Pro Not Required

Final Cut Pro is a powerful, versatile tool for sound editing, video editing, performing some kinds of special effects, and managing the post-production of film and video projects. And because it is my tool of choice, I will generally refer to it when I describe how to perform various editing operations.

POST-PRODUCTION Everything that happens after the film is shot, including editing, sound design, special effects, and so on. Also known as post.

However, this book is aimed at teaching you how to become a competent, professional editor, not just a technician who knows the ins and outs of Final Cut Pro. The editing strategies I'll describe don't depend on using Final Cut Pro. They should be equally useful no matter what editing system you're using, whether it's an Avid, an old-fashioned splicing block, or some hot new program neither you nor I have heard of yet. Sometimes, finding the best solution to a particular problem may require a tool other than Final Cut Pro. In such cases I'll show you how to integrate that tool with the rest of your workspace.

Now that you have some idea what this book is, let me tell you what it is not:

This book is not a comprehensive manual. Final Cut Pro 2.0 comes with a 1,400-page tome detailing every option of every feature. Lisa Brenneis's Final Cut Pro 2 for Macintosh: Visual QuickPro Guide, also published by Peachpit Press, is another great resource to help you learn how each tool and feature works.

Nor is this book intended for absolute beginners at digital video. I won't tell you how to install your software, nor what hardware you should buy, nor how to hook it up. You'll need a basic familiarity with Macintosh operating procedures, and it will be extremely helpful if you have access to a Final Cut Pro workstation in order to try out the techniques described herein.

More Than Making Marks on Paper

We are all media consumers. Virtually anyone living in today's technological culture sees thousands of hours of professionally produced video and film every year. Images are used to communicate information, entertain, educate, and persuade—sometimes all at the same time. But even with the latest technology at your fingertips, filmmaking is not a simple medium to master. Sure, the tools are getting cheaper and simpler to use, but it is still easy to tell the work of a professional from that of an amateur.

Merely having paper and pencil does not make someone a writer. Writing is more than making marks on paper. It's a craft that requires a deep understanding of language, principles, and techniques—all of which will vary widely depending on the intended result. Film editing is just the same. Sure, anyone with a couple of thousand dollars can buy a computer and a video-editing application like Final Cut Pro—but that doesn't mean he knows how to edit.

By the time you complete this book, you will have learned to recognize a wide variety of editing situations and know exactly how the pros handle them. (You don't have to follow the “rules,” of course, but at least you'll know which ones you're breaking.) And no matter what type of shows you'll be editing, the quality of your work will improve.

Not only will this book change the way you use your editing software, it will change the way you think about film.

Keystroke Names

Whenever I specify a single-letter keystroke (as in, “To bring up the dialog box, press ”) that letter will be printed in uppercase for readability. However, that doesn't mean you should type it in uppercase. In fact, I want you to hit that key without pressing . On the rare occasions that I'll ask you to type something in uppercase, I'll include followed by a hyphen, as in, “Press -.” (The hyphen means press both keys simultaneously.) Bottom line: Unless you see a , all letter keys should be typed lowercase.

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