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Take One - Editing

So here we are, sat at our editing bench with all our raw footage laid out before us. Months of hard work have led to this critical moment when all our efforts have resulted in a few camera tapes here in front of us.

All the material needed to complete our film is “in the can”, with the exception perhaps of a few pick-ups.

As many of you will realise, pick-ups are the odd missing bits and pieces which were not shot with all the rest of the film, for example an establishing shot, a close up of a sign, a clock or something similar.

Usually, these missing odds and ends have not been forgotten, it is simply a matter of expediency to miss them out at the time of the shoot and return to them at your leisure when the film reaches the editing stage. Most of these shots can easily be obtained by the cameraman, (yourself?) several weeks later.

In the days when I filmed on celluloid, I would be encircled by perhaps a dozen 50ft reels of Super 8 film in their little yellow envelopes. These would be cut into short strips of very curly film which had to be spliced together onto a plastic reel.

My early efforts (in 1968) were created with a newly innovative design of cement joiner called the “Chemo Splicer” made by Eumig. This created a join somewhat akin to the jaws of a shark as a huge zig-zag flashed onto the screen as it passed through the gate. An invisible join it was not! This made me paranoid in these early days of editing and led to me going to extraordinary lengths to shoot in sequence to avoid making cuts wherever possible. From such beginnings, I eventually moved on to using tape joins. These were a big improvement as they could be almost invisible.

My first film actually made on video was “Deception” made in 1994. It was shot on Hi-8 and crudely edited using the pause control on our domestic VCR, which fortunately was then one of the second or third generation of video cassette recorders and offered a fairly clean edit. Music was added by re-recording to another VHS tape on a borrowed machine, which gave me a 3rd generation VHS master!

As this was the year that I joined the IAC, this was my first video to be shown at a movie festival (Buxton at “Movie 1995).

Progressing through editing from Hi-8 to an S-VHS machine then between two S-VHS machines, I arrived at the present set up of computer based (non-linear) editing. The possibilities here are amazing and make our equipment of only a few years ago seem positively primitive by comparison.

Essentially though, the process is the same, technology has merely improved the methods of achieving it.

Recently, I had a phone call from a lady who was enquiring about a video she wanted me to shoot. As it turned out, she was not at all technically minded and asked me what was involved. When I mentioned “editing” there was a pause as she said:

“Editing? What's that?” Then a brief pause before she continued, “You mean cutting things out?”

I explained that yes, basically, this is what editing is.

She continued: “Oh no, I don't want anything cutting out!”

I thought that I had created an idea in her mind that I was to remove vital material and she would somehow be denied important footage, which I was for some reason intending to withhold.

The rest of this story is an interesting tale, but is irrelevant to the point that I am making, which is the apparent contradiction that by the removal of something, we can actually be adding to it.

It is in some ways similar to a visit to the Dentist to have a tooth extracted.

Something is removed, which makes everything else better!

And in a sense, this is the way that many people think about editing. To some of you reading this, no doubt editing is a painful process and a chore to be endured as a necessary evil, which comes after the fun bit (the filming) is over.

However, I do not share this view. I believe editing is the point at which the film can be made (or ruined) and of all the stages involved in the production of our film, this is perhaps the most vital and creative time. Here our raw material, like a piece of coal, will be polished into a diamond (hopefully!).

The hardest part for all amateurs is to be objective when editing our own footage. After all, we have probably been living with our project for several months by this point and our “baby” is very precious to us. An interesting or amusing incident or anecdote could lay behind each scene, making it seem more important to us than it really is. Such behind-the-scenes goings on can influence our judgement when deciding on where the cutting point should come and the shot can be held on screen for too long. Any of this, of course will be unknown by our future audience who can then easily become bored.

Probably every one of us has watched our final edits and thought to ourselves that no further cuts can be possible. That is, until we have watched our film a few more times with an audience and now suddenly there seems to be “dead” spots where everything slows to a crawl. Editing is perhaps the hardest lesson to be learnt by the first time film maker and in my view this is all rooted in the judgement which only time, practice and the making of many movies can deliver. Even then, pacing and structure can often be an incredibly hard call.

A perfect example was one of my few documentaries:


Briefly, the background to this was that I had become quite involved with the local theatre, in the sense that I was videoing their plays and some of the actors were appearing in Phase 4 films. I suggested that it might be a good to film a play from it's first read-through until the final production. This idea was taken up, but I was a bit dismayed to find out that the one the theatre had chosen was an outdoor production of Richard III. Nevertheless, Carol and I went to auditions and rehearsals, which began in March that year and went on until the final production in July. In all, I ended up with around 20 hours of footage. Unlike a scripted film, which will have a set structure and therefore a restricted running time, this one was open-ended.

I began sorting through the tapes. Editing can basically be described as a process of sorting, selecting and discarding, where we are choosing what we perceive to be our best material. An additional problem with this type of “fly-on-the-wall approach, was that my method of telling the story could only be determined after the shoot, which is the complete opposite to what is usual.

I began by loading all the usable material into the computer, which had to be done in sections as I only had a 13GB hard drive at the time, and it couldn't hold it all.

I waded through 14 ninety-minute tapes, capturing anything that had potential, including interviews with cast members, which were to be used to inform the audience what was going on. (I had decided not to include a commentary.)

I did a very rough edit and then trimmed this down. This first cut ran for an hour, which meant that around 19 hours had been discarded from the video we had shot. This was the version which the actors involved in the play were given.

Realising that this was still far too long for a general audience, I worked on it again, trimming and deleting shots and slowly reducing the running time. Version two ran for 30 minutes, which represented a cutting ratio of about 40 –1. This was supposedly the final version and was saved to S-VHS, which offered the best quality available to me at that time.

Repeated viewings left me feeling that it was still too long and as the competition season was coming up, I started again. As everything had been deleted from the computer and my edited copy was S–VHS, I returned to the original tapes and started again from scratch.

After many hours, version three was finished and despite the fact that my editing felt ruthless, the running time was 25 minutes. This was still a touch long, but my feelings were that it couldn't be shortened any further and still tell it's story.

The film was entered into “Movie 2001” and received a Gold Seal. However, at it's showing at the festival, I had the overwhelming impression that it dragged terribly. It is a film that is something of an enigma, as it needs time to show the stages that the play went through, but to do this makes the film too long.

I still have all the master tapes and sometime may return for yet another go at it as I feel that a much better film is in there somewhere.

At a recent movie competition that we attended, the audience were often heard to murmur comments that the films, though mostly good, were too long. I had to agree. (This is one of the most common criticisms that judges make about amateur films.) Although our films are much shorter than professional ones, it is more to do with the pace of the film than actual running time. Remember though, that as we strive to achieve maximum impact with our potential audience, we must realise that each group of people will react differently. This is most obvious in comedy when we require an actual physical response. In many ways, the best we can hope for is that we succeed more than we fail.

In the next issue we will continue with editing and return to a film maker's curse: continuity.

- By Ken Wilson (first published in FVM)

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Page updated on 11 October 2011
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