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Editing 4: Cutting Action, Comedy, Suspense
by Patrick Storck

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Not every film is comprised of constant dialogue from beginning to end. Actually very few films are pure dialogue. When you're cutting a movie together you're going to have those moments here and there where nobody is speaking, or what they're saying is secondary to the rest of the scene. Let's go over some of those, shall we?

First we have the action sequence. This is the type of scene that, as long as you have enough coverage, can be the most fun to edit. You're just putting together all of the fun and exciting parts, and they make for a more fun and exciting whole. Still, there is a little bit of work and thought to make the scene really rock.

The first thing you should do is figure out the logic. I'm not saying the scene itself has to be logical, but you do have to understand what the limits are to your reality. Are people going to move faster than actually possible? Will you be using slow motion? Can you see somebody jump, then let that explain how they got up on top of a building, or do you need to find the shots of them jumping onto a ladder and climbing? Define your reality and rules.

Next figure out the paths. What is the choreography you're trying to build? A car chase full of random speeding shots gets the point across, but if you can track the turns, jumps, lane changes, distance, and so forth you'll have a much more engaging chase. Keep the concept continuity from shot to shot.

Pick a song that fits the rhythm of the scene. You can pick a stock song that always works for you if you want. It's a temp track, purely for reference. When you're getting the real music together for the film just try and find or make something with a similar tempo. I have found that PUMP UP THE VOLUME by MARRS and CONNECTION by Elastica work pretty well. Cut to the beat of the song. Line impacts, explosion, or sudden motion up with the peaks in the waveform editor if you can.

If you're using quick cuts try not to let them look too different from the one next to it. Wide shot, then same angle but close, then still close but slightly different angle, that sort of thing. Otherwise it might feel like an action scene, but a lot of your audience will just wonder what the hell just happened. It's hard to process drastically different angles that quickly and rapidly.

Implied motion is a good way to keep things moving. In an action sequence you can cheat and shave off a few frames here and there to keep it moving. Actually it's preferred. Basically you want to lose a half second between cuts, maybe more. If you have a wide shot of somebody swinging a punch, you can end with their fist two feet from their opponent's face. Find a close up and skip those two feet. Measure the distance on your monitor between the fist and face in the wide shot. Drop a quarter to a third of that distance in monitor space on the close up. Our brains fill in the rest and the sequence moves much tighter.

There are a lot of ways to play with implied motion. Take a shot of somebody throwing something. Cut right as it would leave their hand. In the next shot start with the frame where the object first touches the receiver's hands. Play it a few times. Then try it with a few less frames on each side. Try with a few extra. Mix and match. Each will give a slightly different feeling, some that it was thrown faster, harder, softer, the distance may seem to vary. In none of them do you need to follow the full path of the thrown object.

For a suspense sequence you'll want to let moments breathe. Let shots play out. For your first cut let every shot play for longer than you're comfortable with, until you think it's a bad decision. Let characters react in silence for longer than normal. Make every shot end with a the feeling that you're waiting for the next shot, anticipating it. That's what suspense ultimate is.

Try as hard as you can to remember that you don't have music in place yet. This is another good place to get a real basic temp score put down. Something by John Carpenter or Goblin. Try not to pick a track with too much personality, though. It's a quiet moment, so the music you ultimately use will do the talking. If you let the temp track completely define the sequence, either your final music will contradict it, or the score will be noticeably influenced by it. Both are avoidable situations.

For humorous scenes, both in dialogue and physical comedy, try not to move too fast. Besides many films trying to race to the joke, it's just as valuable to let it sink in. One of the reasons the straight man is a staple of comedy is the reaction they give. A quiet and slow visible processing or a good double take gives the audience a chance to laugh, catch their breath, and be ready for hear the next gag. At the same time it provides narrative motion. We relate to the face, they are saying something we don't need to hear, but we expect the reaction to inform their next bit of dialogue. This is much better than just pausing the routine and waiting it out.

Something else to shoot for in comedy is long takes. The more footage you can get through without a cut the better. If you have an elaborate slapstick set piece, the part that will impress people is the chain of events unfolding not just before them, but the characters. A string of close ups removes us from feeling like we're there amid the chaos. The big and complicated shots may take longer to design, set up, frame, rehearse, and pull off in one take. I guarantee you they will play better every time.

Duration takes also play better for dialogue simply because of the chemistry. We want to watch not just the funny person, but their foil. Seeing somebody have to keep a straight face, wondering how they aren't laughing, has the same contagious quality as a stifled yawn. It just starts transferring and leaking out of everyone nearby. Sometimes you get ad libbing, facial reactions, and other bonus things in the shot than just a string of gags. The gags you can get laughs from once, but a depth to the humor is where rewatchability comes from.

For second unit shots, establishing shots, titles, and montages, you really just need to blend the advice on the editing of primary sequences. Find your tone then trust in it as you cut. In general I would say don't use two shots if you can use one, don't obsess over a frame or two until you've seen the whole sequence, and a sequence until you've seen the whole film. Trust your instincts until you feel happy with it. Always remember the music. Next time I'll cover some general theory on editing.

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Other Columns
Other columns by Patrick Storck:

That Should Be In a Movie

2010: A Year We Could Make Contact

Bad Movie Christmas

Suggested Reading

Thanks again!

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Patrick Storck
Patrick hails from Baltimore, MD, where playing by the rules is frowned upon. Only average things come from playing it safe.


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If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Patrick Storck by clicking here.


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