The Guilds: American Cinema Editors
When Jean-Luc Godard pronounced, “Cinema is truth at 24 frames a second, and every cut is a lie,” he couldn’t possibly have imagined the tools 21st-century editors would have for bending reality. Thanks to relatively new digital tricks, editors now have more control than ever in altering what the camera captures.
Audiences recognize a fair amount of it, such as greenscreen effects that place actors in imaginary environments. But the degree to which editors can — and do — manipulate the footage might surprise them. Even without making a traditional splice between clips, tech-savvy Avid experts can connect separate pieces of footage, fabricate entire shots and digitally replace body parts from other takes.
“I don’t even think most editors are attuned to the fact that other editors are doing this,” says Bryan Singer collaborator John Ottman, an admitted “continuity nut” who no longer has to worry when adjacent shots don’t match perfectly.
For example, in a back-and-forth office scene between Tom Wilkinson and Tom Cruise from “Valyrie,” Wilkinson’s hand was all over the place — waving a cigarette in the air, on the desk, out of frame entirely. Rather than cutting around it, Ottman simply asked the vfx team to erase the offending arm and superimpose it on the desk, lifting the replacement limb from another shot. “It completely frees the editor to use a take where the performance is terrific but it would have been dumped because of an egregious continuity problem,” he says.
Timing is another consideration. In the past, if editors wanted to tighten a dialogue scene, they could remove pauses or entire lines by cutting between the two characters. Now, they can do it within the shot itself — a technique David Fincher’s editing duo, Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, perfected on “Zodiac.” The film was running long, but it had been shot on digital. “There’s no film scanning, so to split a performance for the right side of the frame against a performance on the left side is a very easy and practical thing to do,” Baxter says.
As long as the camera is locked down, the editors can create an entirely new take, combining the best performance from each actor. Or, as Baxter and Wall discovered on the “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” they can change the dynamic entirely.
During the latenight tea scenes between Brad Pitt and Tilda Swinton, they used split screens in virtually every shot. “In normal life, there’s this natural pace of a second or two for a pause between sentences,” Wall explains. “When those gaps were there, Benjamin became more of a ‘touched’ character, but when you tighten him up, you saw how eager and alive he was.”
Instead of being forced to cut away from the two-shot to over-the-shoulder coverage, the “Button” duo could simply speed up the footage slightly between lines — a process that literally involves accelerating the frame rate.
“I find that immensely useful, because you can begin to change the meaning of something,” agrees “Slumdog Millionaire” editor Chris Dickens, who regularly employs split screens and speed ramps to fine-tune actors’ performances.
“The crucial thing is getting the timing right,” he adds. “Say you want to do a jump cut in a shot and there’s nothing really to hide it. You can grab someone walking through-frame from another take and just insert the body moving through, and that would hide the cut. Then the effects people just chase that through-frame.” These days, using relatively simple visual effects solutions, editors can save their directors the trouble of reshoots. “You can stop an actor from blinking or make them blink,” Dickens continues, explaining how he fixed such a moment in “Slumdog” by matting the section around an actor’s eyes and padding in an earlier frame.
Other editors cite examples in which they turned a speaking scene into an establishing shot by sealing an actor’s lips or salvaged a take that might otherwise have been ruined by head-replacing an extra who looked directly into camera. “In the past, you would junk some slates because of these things,” Dickens says.
“I try to stick with the integrity of the performance,” insists “The Dark Knight” editor Lee Smith. “I find if you really look through that footage, you can usually fix that problem.” But Smith doesn’t think twice about using digital cleanup during less-intimate moments.
In the car-park fight sequence, for example, “It’s very hard to get a take where each of those moves is pitch-perfect, so we did use some digital helpers to extend a cape flap.” By artificially using Batman’s cape to black out the frame, Smith could hide a jump cut, and audiences would never suspect they weren’t watching the same shot.
Such tricks definitely impact action editing, says Christopher Rouse, who won an Oscar for “The Bourne Ultimatum” last year. “In one fight scene, just after Matt Damon slams (the character) Desh with the book, he throws this last haymaker punch. It was a side angle, and you could see him pull short, so I asked visual effects to connect the punch,” he says. “In the old days, you might have cut away and put a big sound over it, but now you can actually see it.”
The same goes for car crashes and other impacts that don’t actually collide in-frame: An editor can split the screen and adjust the sync so the stunt looks like a nearer miss.
“The Matrix” editor Zach Staenberg, another Academy honoree, got to test the extremes of modern editing technology in “Speed Racer.” “In classical filmmaking, when the movie was shot, you might play with the color, but essentially that was it, and you edited that material,” he says. “Now, that process continues all the way through post. What comes out of the camera in a movie shot primarily on greenscreen is just an element for the shot, and you can adjust that however you need.”
In the case of “Speed Racer,” Staenberg and co-editor Roger Barton worked on the Avid Adrenaline system, which allowed them to composite on the fly. Because everything had been captured digitally, they could change the size or position of characters, seamlessly connect separate takes and mix elements shot on different lenses to create a truly impressionistic experience.
In virtually all these examples, the editors created a placeholder effect in the Avid, then passed the footage off to a vfx shop to polish. “Slumdog” and “Valkyrie” included nearly 200 such cosmetic fixes — invisible tweaks audiences wouldn’t even recognize as vfx shots.
“The trick with all this stuff is to keep it in balance,” Staenberg warns. “There’s an impulse to fix everything, but movies can start to feel overworked as a result of all this potential technology.”
What: 59th American Cinema Editors (ACE) Awards
Where: Beverly Hilton, BevHills
Golden Eddie Filmmaker of the Year: Richard Donner
Career Achievement: Sidney M. Katz
Career Achievement: Arthur Schmidt