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July 17, 2013

After the movie is shot, we can begin to assemble it

“Even if I improve a film 1 percent, that’s important to me,” Sam Pollard

We’ve written the script, storyboarded the film, planned it, budgeted it, raised money (though not as much as we’d hoped), and now we shot the picture for Dara Says.

Recently, someone congratulated us for finishing the film.   “Congratulations on finishing the film.” Only, it hasn’t been finished yet.  It’s now time to assemble it.  We can still make the film better, with an excellent editor like Sam Pollard on board.  (No, we don’t have him, but we can dream, can’t we?)

Rosie and Beccy looking at a computer

Rosie de Sousa, producer, and Beccy O’Regan, Script Supervisor, consider a shot for Dara Says.

In assembling the film, we can take advice from all the greats.  Here’s an excerpt from Sam Pollard’s talk at Berkley (at University of California), as recorded by  Lou Fancher for the Oakland Tribune.

“An editor is like a jazz musician,” [Sam Pollard] suggested, “nimble, improvisational, and attune to juxtapositions.” But the editor is also a storyteller, with a command of narrative arc and character development.

Then Berkeley Students asked how Sam Pollard worked with directors.

“When I was young, feisty and combative, I would scream at directors and say, ‘You’re ruining my film,'” [Pollard] recalled. “There were a few times I put my foot down and ended up with it in my mouth. I’ve learned to calm down.”

But even with 40 years of experience, from Style Wars to Spike Lee’s films, Pollard’s experience is only a fraction of film editing history.

Pollard has been influenced by classics such as Citizen Kane, and still sees great editing in contemporary films like a bathroom fight in the Bourne series.   But even before Kane, editing was taken seriously by great directors.

“Editing the film just as important as directing,” said Cecil B De Mille.

“Contrary to popular opinion, the cutting of a picture ranks very close to the actual directing and filming of the scenes in point of labor and difficulties to be overcome.”

That was what Cecil B De Mille said, after completing almost forty megahits, or “nearly uniformly successful photodramas.”

De Mille shot each scene at least three times, from multiple angles. So, he’d probably have at least 15 choices for a single clip of film. That is, if he’d use that shot at all. He’d also shoot alternative scenes. That’s a lot of footage to look through in post production.

Even after editing, De Mille’s rough cut for “Forbidden Fruit” was 11 reels long. He felt that he needed to shorten that to seven reels. The eleven reels included all the “incidents” in the story. He had to find a way to abbreviate those incidents, or perhaps even discard some completely.

According to the Washington Herald “This work was done entirely by Cecil De Mille, ably assisted by his genius of the cutting room, Ann Bauchens. Together, these veterans of film cutting ran the print of ‘Forbidden Fruit’ over and over again.”

We have a lot to work forward to now, editing Dara Says, going through the footage again and again to decide what to use. I’m not sure if we’ll use the same methods and De Mille, but we can always learn from them.

De Mille called in the writer to the cutting room, when it came to things like the titles (or dialogue). Those were the days of silent cinema, so the subtitles were the dialogue.

“Where matters pertaining to the subtitles were under discussion, Jeanie McPhearson, author of the scenario, was called into consultation.”

So, there you have it. A writer in the editing room, in Hollywood. And, now with Dara Says, we are continuing that tradition. I tried to avoid it at first, but I’m in the editing room.

Bit by bit, the film was reduced. How did De Mille choose what to leave out? “Incidents that did not seem absolutely essential to the smooth running of the story were lifted out bodily; scenes that as filmed were longer than necessary were reduced in size. Wherever the action threatened to drag it was speeded by by the shortening of scenes.”

So, in other words, they had three techniques, reduction, elimination, and pacing. But couldn’t all this have been taken care of at the script stage? Wouldn’t a tight script ensure a tight shoot, and a small level of scenes to choose from?

Well, perhaps. But, with almost every film I’ve ever enjoyed, I’ve seen at least one “deleted scene” at one time or another. Something they shot and decided to lose at the editing stage.

I believe it was John Ford who said he’d shoot an event in three ways, because he wouldn’t know ahead of time which was going to work.

But beyond that, your cast and crew can bring additional meaning to a shot. Something that was said with a line or two can be replaced by a glare or a grimace. Yes, this can often happen in the script stage, but when the script describes a character, and the actor understands, that understanding can be translated into new options.

When you edit your own film, you\’ll understand. De Mille’s idea of putting a limit will help the film along.

De Mille wasn’t the only one to recognize the importance of editing. The Evening Herald of Albuquerque New Mexico said that “In fact, no matter how capable the actors may be, how proficient the director, or how good the story, the merit of all will be for naught if the scene assembly is draggy, or the subtitles unnatural or stilted.”

And which editors were capable of making sure that all was not for naught (or for nothing), or that the good work continued? Among them were writers, like Harold Chandlee and William B. Laub, who started on short stories for magazines and writing screenplays.

Again, a writer in the editing room, and it often worked a charm.

Of course, not all editors were writers.  In addition to De Mille, famous and profitable filmmaker David Wark Griffith spent “weeks” editing a film, “studying it heartily and carefully” according to a film fan in the New York Sun.

This was in defence of the cinema in general, where a writer wrote to a critic that “You find certain films that you heartily praise. That is proof that you realize that the silent drama has merit.” And editing was how they earned that praise.

Okay, all that on editing the classics, what about editing films today?

Some will say that films aren’t made as they used to be, that people have shorter attention spans.  One way of measuring attention spans is in the length of a cut, or how long the camera appears to stay in one place.

John holding a sheet of paper in front of a computer screen

John Renton doings a quality control check with the sound; choosing the best takes with the aid of a page from the script.

Now, some people like long cuts, saying it harkens back to the old days when actors could remember more than one line at a time and could hold an audience’s attention.  Film editing books will illustrate how some films gradually had more cuts, until it was about average for a Spielberg film to have a cut every 2 seconds or so.  Though some academics like to count cuts in full length movies, it takes too long.  So, they usually only compare a couple of films at a time.

Recently, Wired Magazine watched the cuts in a large number of movie trailers.  How many cuts do they have per minute?  How is that changing?  Apparently, film cutting is gradually getting more rapid, although the all time record is still “Dr Strangelove” from the 1960s.

Wired Magazine concludes that technology makes rapid cutting easier, and thus more likely.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that many of the great editors don’t use all the latest technology.  Sam Pollard, for instance, when asked about his Internet presence, answered “Sorry, I don’t have one.”  Like the greats of the old days, he edits to cut things down, not to see how many clips he can fit into a second.  But he seems to think rapid cutting can work in cases like the Bourne films, as long as it works it’s good.

Dara Says has a small Internet presence.  We may not be editing it online, but use the wisdom and techniques of the greats who made and continue to make the classics while we take advantage of the tools of the present.

Coming up next:  “The mysterious cowardice of the movie industry to even protect itself, has been one of its besetting sins from the beginning…”

The Washington Herald. (Washington, D.C.), 13 Feb. 1921.

The Sun. (New York [N.Y.]), 07 June 1914.

The Evening Herald. (Albuquerque, N.M.), 25 June 1922.