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Organizing Source Clips

It's a terrible thing to continually have to interrupt your creative flow because you can't find the clip you know will work really well. The best way to make your workflow fluid is to get your source clips into a manageable order. By doing so, you also refamiliarize yourself with the source material. As you watch it, you begin to formulate a strategy for editorial. Some projects have very little source material and don't really call for a lot of organization, but projects of any length really benefit from it. Think of editors who work with thousands of source clips! The last feature-length project I worked on had about 3,500 individual takes of about 1,000 different setups. Looking for specific takes without organization would have been a waste of time.

Take a look at Figure 4.3. It's the source footage you are about to edit. It doesn't look like too much to sort through, right? It's deceiving, though. The audio clips have some strange names, for one thing. These names are those used by the recording facility where the audio was recorded. They were not captured from tape. They were created as digital files and were sent to editorial with the names and audio formats they were recorded under. So they came to the editor with odd names created by someone else. The three large video files have pretty nondescriptive names (other than the time-code hour that is tied to them), and they contain many shots and more than one take of those setups. Sorting through nearly an hour of footage cut into only three different picture clips would be a huge waste of time.

Figure 4.3. The open Browser window.

As in the case of this tutorial, if you didn't shoot the source footage, you had one look at the source material when you captured the footage or viewed the footage once for this tutorial, but I'll wager that although you noted many of the shots in your memory, you can't remember exactly which clip they are in right now. It's time to subclip them and organize them into bins that contain either the scenes they belong to or a category for the type of element they are. The same can be said for the audio files. We will begin to do this in this chapter's workshop.

Editing Aesthetics

No two films are exactly alike, but all of them have similarities. Everyone grows up watching motion pictures, and we've become accustomed to certain conventions used in the language of film. Hopefully, we get so wrapped up in watching a film that we don't notice how we are manipulated by the filmmaker. The moment an editor misuses this language, we lose interest, or, just as bad, we get confused and lose track of the story.

What are aesthetics, and how do they apply to the art of motion pictures? The dictionary defines this term as follows:

  1. The branch of philosophy dealing with the study of values such as the beautiful and the sublime

  2. The study of the rules and principles of art

  3. A particular idea of what is beautiful or artistic

  4. How something looks, especially when considered in terms of how pleasing it is

Every filmmaker strives to create art, but what is art? Back to the dictionary:

  1. The creation of beautiful or thought-provoking works, such as in painting, music, or writing

  2. Beautiful or thought-provoking works produced through creative activity

  3. A branch or category of art, especially one of the visual arts

  4. The skill and technique involved in producing visual representations

  5. Creation by human endeavor rather than by nature

  6. The techniques used by someone in a particular field, or the use of those techniques

  7. The skill or ability to do something well

  8. The ability to achieve things by deceitful or cunning methods

Enough of Webster. As a filmmaking storyteller, it's your job to use all these definitions of aesthetics. We'll use these definitions and show, at least with this particular project, how they apply. Hopefully you'll keep these tenents in mind when you edit your next project.

The first of my “live and die” rules of editing aesthetics is that storytelling is paramount. If a writer creates the story on paper, it's the director who does the first “transfer” of the story to motion pictures. The editor does the last rewrite of the story using pictures and sound instead of verbs and nouns.

What keeps us involved in a good story? A good story keeps our attention; isn't so familiar a story that the outcome is never in doubt; keeps us entertained, possibly by telling an older story in a fresh way; and keeps our minds on the subject at hand, not boring us with unimportant details. There are lots of different views of editorial technique, and there are many different styles, but one that everyone can agree on is that a setting must be established first.

Usually, when you tell a well-constructed story, you don't start with what happened until you establish where, when, and in what climate or atmosphere it takes place. This sets a mood. It prepares the viewers for an emotional reaction you are trying to get them to feel, so that as the story is told, they identify with your characters. Hopefully your viewers will get so emotionally involved with the characters that they feel fear or joy, just as the characters do. When telling a story with pictures, this is called an establishing shot (or group of shots). Let your viewers know where and under what conditions the story begins. When telling stories that jump from place to place, it's often a good idea to use at least one shot that tells the viewers where you've taken them so that they are emotionally set up to participate.

Another thing to think about with a group of establishing shots is that each one should build on the next. Each shot should tell the viewers a little more about the setting of your story or scene. “The Midnight Sun” takes place in an incredibly cold place, and it involves death, struggle, and promises made and kept. It sounds sort of sad, lonely, serious, and tragic. Actually, this movie is a comedy! Like a great joke, this movie needs to be set up so that the viewer thinks we are going in one direction when in fact we end up in quite another.

An editor's job is to get the audience to participate emotionally with the story. That's what keeps them involved and entertained. If you present them with an edit that misuses the language of motion pictures or that makes the audience aware that they are being emotionally manipulated, you lose them. They get bored; they turn off the movie or go to the snack bar. In artistic and even financial terms, this loss of interest spells disaster. If the audience loses interest in your TV spot, you don't sell product. If they lose interest in your instructional video or documentary film, they don't learn, and they don't become productive with new knowledge. When they don't get involved with your story, they don't recommend your movie to another potential moviegoer.

When editing a narrative film like “The Midnight Sun,” another important technique to employ is what I call “organic editing.” These motivated edits feel natural to the viewer because they are much like what the viewers would be motivated to look at if they were watching the scene in real life. The actors usually establish a rhythm for a scene; this can be enhanced by the editor's edit decisions. As you edit a story, you'll find that the story contains a beat, just as if it were a piece of music. Actually, there is a rhythm to everything in life. We like rhythm. It reminds us of the most comforting time of our existence—the time when all we had to do all day was listen to our mother's heartbeat. Each of us has an internal clock as well. Its tempo differs from person to person. Your edit decisions sometimes reflect your personality. Some folks talk really fast, and others don't. But when you include a beat between speeches, for example, that character's own rhythm should be reflected in the amount of time you choose to use as a beat between lines. A character's rhythm also reveals itself in the speed between different actions he or she performs.

Think of your own heartbeat and what happens to it when you're scared (or feeling any emotion, actually). A chase scene might excite you enough to make your heart start racing. Reflecting this, you might choose to show cuts of shorter and shorter duration to reflect the emotions onscreen. Put yourself in these emotional moments, and your own personality will begin to show through the edit decisions you make. When you get excited, the edits come faster, and when you relax, they slow down, but only within the context of the story at any given time. Don't show a single frame the audience doesn't need to see, and do show all the frames they must see to understand the story each shot has to tell. After it has been told, get off the shot. Don't bore the audience with redundancies or information that doesn't have much to do with the story being told. Just because it's a pretty shot doesn't mean it adds to the story.

To perform an edit that keeps the viewer involved, start by organizing what the director has shot. If you can't find a certain shot (or worse, you aren't even aware of it), you can't use it effectively when you get to where it should be in your sequence. Just breaking long clips into smaller bites also helps familiarize you with the footage, and that leads to better edit decisions. You don't want any of the footage to be “out of sight, out of mind.”

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