Film Editing

[Filmmaking A to Z by Vic Alexander]

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(This is an excerpt from my book on filmmaking.)

One of my film teachers once introduced the topic of editing as "just a fancy name for cutting!" I actually prefer the designation "Editing." Because cutting implies that the director has already rendered the film completely finished and that all the cutter has to do is remove the slates and splice the scenes together according to the sequence in the screenplay. If only editing were that simple!

Someday, when you've made enough films, and you do one that comes out just the way you envisioned it, maybe then you can cut it that simply. In fact, like John Ford, you might assign it to an editor and go on shooting another movie! Dream on....

But until then, and this is the exciting part of being a film maker, you've got to see your film through the editing stage. Here's were you'll learn how to direct, because everything that you've done right will be confirmed as it cuts and everything that you've done poorly will become a lesson for next time, but only if you can fix it in editing, otherwise you have to go back to do pick-ups!

Editing is the process by which you take what was accomplished by everyone in the production stage, bits and pieces of action, dialogue and background, shot all out of sequence, hopefully with a unity of vision and according to the intent of the script, and transform it into a movie that works as entertainment for the audience.

Your initial task in editing the movie, is to have all the picture and sound tracks synched up (pronounced "sinked up".)

By the end of the production period, you'll have all your picture takes printed and your quarter inch (1/4 ") sound transferred to 35mm mag (magnetic film, usually called single stripe -- incidentally that comes as two stripes, the narrower stripe is only a balancing stripe that balances the other stripe so that the mag rides evenly over the rollers and registers flat against the sound head during recording and play back.)

You line up each shot in the synchronizer or editing machine by the slate at the point where the frame showing the "clapper" stick (on the picture roll) comes in full contact with the slate, together with the middle part of the sound mag track as you pass it by the sound head (on the sound roll,) at which point you take a "China Marker" (grease pencil -- I prefer red or yellow, but you can use white if you like) and you make "Xs" in the middle of the frames.

Draw vertical lines around the four sprocket holes (35mm film only) that set off each of the frames of picture and sound (on the base side of the sound, so the grease from the pencil doesn't smear the sound heads as you work -- you can use a sharpie here to avoid this problem.)

On one feature that I edited, the Director, on his first film, was sitting beside me as I synched up the first shot. He exclaimed, "Oh, that's why we were doing those damn slates!" He was serious!

All the film has to be synchronized this way, shot by shot, and at the end you have the rolls clearly numbered and placed on racks for easy identification and access during editing.

If you're using an editorial crew, assuming you have a budget over $250,000, then you should mount the scenes into thousand foot (1000') rolls and have everything edge-coded with ink numbers that conform and match between picture and sound tracks (there are a few places in Hollywood that specialize in this, or rent a coding machine for a week and do it yourself if you can't find a place in the city where you're working that can do it.)

The coding will help you re-align the picture and sound tracks if your editors are working separately with picture and sound during certain phases or if you accidentally lose sync with picture or sound tracks. You have markings on film to work with anyway, but the coding makes the job easier.

Now you're ready to commence editing.

You start editing your movie with picture and dialogue first.

You put an Academy Head Leader at the beginning, before the first shot (the ones with numbers that count down before a movie begins?-- you've seen them also as part of music videos; those videographers think that the leader is an interesting shot all by itself!) Put a one inch white tape at the beginning of each reel you build, and mark it: "Reel No. 1, Heads," and put down the name of the show on it.

Open up your script and splice on the first shot of scene one (Scene 1,) the take that the director approved by yelling, "Cut! Print!"

The script will tell you which is the first scene, it will tell you that it's a long shot of the football field, for example. The people are on their feet cheering, the helmets crash on the field and the crowd goes wild as the pass is thrown and caught.

The script calls for a cut to your pass receiver, the hero of your movie, running in full medium shot toward camera (and that's what you should have on your editing screen.)

You cut from the moment after the pass has been caught and your hero has broken loose and is running toward the goal line. You cut to the point of the second shot, the medium view, where he's at a good matching point to the long shot. That means, the ball is under the right arm and the stride looks perfect or close to it, just like the long shot..

This is fast action, so it's easier to get away with a less than perfect match. You're eyeballing the corresponding frames now! At the frame where one shot ends and the next frame where the other shot begins, that's where the match has to be perfect or close to it.

But remember the rhythm of the two shots has to be maintained also, because the frames may match, but something is still a little weird -- there's a strange or unnatural transition, you got to be sharp here!

The whole running posture and speed has to match, especially since most likely you're using a "stock shot" of a pro football game (you didn't have a $25,000,000 budget on this one,) so you're matching the player's number and uniform and you're using a close medium shot, isolating your player from the others (low angle, or you're using a few players (extras) chasing him and blocking for him in a medium shot, cheating away from the crowd.) Your shot is of course photographed with the same type of light, with a look and texture matching the stock shot.

If the stock shot was from an old game shot in 16mm, you should've preferably shot the medium shot in 16mm as well, so that you'd have a closer match when you blow it up to 35mm.

And the medium shot would, in this example, cut back to the original stock shot as the player goes for a touchdown and, let's say kneels down in the end zone. How long you stay with the medium shot, which was a production shot, depends on how long you could sustain the believability that this was the same player and the stock shot was the real thing (ironically, in filmmaking, the real thing is actually what you shot!)

You then can resume, with a cut to a close-up of your player kneeling down in the same position as the stock shot, maybe crossing himself. You cut to another stock shot of the crowd reaction to a touchdown, or you can use a small audience in an empty stadium to cheer, perhaps with some actors relevant to the story, and limit yourself to a close angle that cheats the fact that your shot is staged.

Finally, you conclude the scene with your player at the final moment of what the whole significance of the scene was supposed to convey. If crossing himself and muttering a prayer of some kind, then you can freeze frame or not and go on with a cut to the next scene (Scene 2,) of the deck of a transport ship and the continuation with the Vietnam War example I've described earlier in another web page.

Each scene has a number, noted on the slate. The first shot, usually the master, carries only a number. All the subsequent shots carry the number of the scene and a letter, for example you may have cut the above scene like this, "Scene 1, take 1" (stock shot,) "Scene 1A, take 7" (medium shot,) "Scene 1, take 1" (stock shot resumed,) "Scene 1B, take 3" (close-up,) "Scene 1Y, take 2" (staged shot, medium,) and finally, "Scene 1B, take 5" another close-up shot.

Okay, congratulations, you've cut your first sequence! You go back and review it. If it plays well, then you go on. You may want to tighten it a bit, a frame here, a frame there. Scrutinize it. Cut a scene as well as you can the first time, you may not get another chance to fine tune it, especially if you're on low budget. And you don't want to take any flak for it on first viewing by the Producer or Director of the film. It's also good discipline, it'll pay dividends later, you'll see.

You'll notice that you had picture continuously throughout the scene, but you didn't have sound everywhere, specifically with the stock shot. That's how stock shots are sold, silent. But your Director was on the ball and he had the sound person record sound when the staged crowd cheered, so you lay in your specially recorded cheering section, perhaps they even mentioned the name of your hero, "Come on, Joey!" or whatever, and now you can lay in this sound where the script requires.

If your Director was really good, he'll have ordered the sound person to find you and re-record some sound from a real football game, from a TV game or a home video tape (all crowds sound about the same, there are no copyright problems here!) And now you'd have the luxury of completing the sound of your scene!

Traditionally, on studio pictures, the sound of the crowd falls under the Sound Effects department, and you'll have half a dozen sound editors recording and re-recording the sound until it sounds more real than the real thing! (You're saying, "How could that be, what are you talking about?"

I tell you, when there is $1,500,000 in your editorial budget, you'll find a way. "What's that guy yelling at?" (in the stock shot.) "He's ordering a hot dog! Well, let's go out and record the line, and don't forget the foley, I mean the hot dog vendor passes five feet before the camera!" "Right on, brother!"

Another assistant editor, a greenhorn, says, "We can use another section of the stock shot." (Where there's no hot dog business.) "Shshshhhh!" Everyone ignores him. "No, this part of the shot is more interesting!"

That's why at the Academy Awards ceremony when a film wins an editing Oscar, twenty people march on stage! And each one gets an Oscar, too! What a fabulous business!

Don't knock it, you might get there yourself; but for now, nose to the grindstone, buster, cut that crowd noise into the sound track. Don't procrastinate. It's okay if later you'll have to separate it out and put it in the Sound Effects Roll, it'll be easier then.

Now, you go on and edit the entire movie, roll by roll. You build up each roll to about nine hundred and fifty feet (950') long, that's a little over ten and a half minutes running time (35mm film runs 90 ft per minute, 16mm runs 36 ft per minute.)

The reason why you make the rolls close to a thousand feet is because everything from the sound editing, mixing and lab printers are set up for thousand foot reels.

Eventually, reel one and two are combined into one reel for theatrical exhibition of 35mm release prints. Every two subsequent reels are combined like this. So when they say a show is a "five reeler," they mean that it's somewhere from eight thousand to ten thousand feet, or an hour and a half to one hour and fifty minutes approximately.

These are good running times, because most of the time, if your film goes theatrical, you'll get three screenings out of every (weekday) evening at the cinema. Your film will play, say at 6 PM, 8 PM and 10 PM. The theater crew need some minutes between shows to clean up the popcorn and paper cups!

If your film is longer than that, say two hours or more, then you'll end up with only two screenings for the night.

You'll end up grossing 33% more if your film is around ninety minutes! And on weekend matinees you'll also get a few more screenings.

That's why you should work with scripts that run about a hundred to a hundred and twenty pages. With the rule of thumb of one minute per page, which is what most scripts using the standard format end up being, you'll have a few scenes that you might want to trim down or possibly cut out if they don't work.

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