Thursday, August 15, 2013

You Join Lives When You Edit

Common perception about a film editor’s job is that he is the person who makes the cuts. A director captures a good deal of unnecessary information in the camera at the time of the shoot, and later the editor chooses the correct ones among them, gives director’s vision a guidance, trims the extra material off and sculpts the final film out of a box.

How far is that true? An editor definitely cuts bits and pieces of the recorded material from time to time. But, that is not the major purpose of his job. Instead, he joins chunks of action, shots as we call them in cinematic parlance, and creates a scene out of that process so that the shot-changes are hidden. He takes the emotion out of the scene according to the director’s vision and makes it the most effective it can be.

The editor is a director in disguise. He directs the film, but on the table. He does not shoot. Most of the time he never surfaces on the shooting floor even. But, he is the first viewer of the shot material, known as the footage or rush. He recreates the film with the screenplay in hand, from the basic material, to tell the story. He takes up the role of the film’s first critic too.

We talk about a film’s internal rhythm that develops in time. More than the actual director of the film, the editor creates that rhythm. It is difficult to describe that rhythm in words. But, as lay audience we know when successive shots get shorter in duration the scene paces up. Such accelerated mood becomes a creative tool at the time of suspense or chase. Thrillers regularly use such fast cuts so that the story moves on from one character , or object, or place, to another, leaving little or no time for the audience to concentrate on the details in the frame. It creates a mood of rapidness, an emotion of tension.

Shots tend to become longer when it is time to reflect, to introspect. Sometimes, the scene demands a very slow moving camera and character and the frame just stays where it is, for minutes. Filmmakers such as Theo Angelopoulos make good use of such stasis in time. A brilliant example was where the little girl was molested inside the truck at the end of Angelopoulos’ Landscape in the Mist (1988). We, as sympathetic audience, want the camera to move, to recede further away, or to come closer, so that we can get rid of tension and guilt. But, the camera does not move. It stays where it was, at a distance from the truck, where a crime is happening. It is an editor’s choice to take a scene like that. It does not matter if the director has actually decided the shot. It is an editor’s mind which is at work here.

In some ways, an editor’s mind works like a musician’s. The editor creates tempos throughout the film that hold and affect the tension at particular points in the story being projected on screen. The ups and downs in the story act like ups and downs of the musical notes which, just like a film, operate in time. Probably, keeping this in mind, Satyajit Ray, in answering an interviewer on how he makes a film, said “Musically!”

So, how it all started? There was no editor, and no need for editing, when movies were born. Camera started and stopped only once throughout the entire life of a flick. Each scene was a shot itself, and that made the whole movie. Duration of such movies was limited to the capacity of film magazine which would hold not more than 100 ft at that time. More than 100 ft, and the film would get prone to tearing, thanks to the stress produced by intermittent motion. That problem was solved later, by the introduction of Latham loop.

However, the problem with such one shot-one scene-one film set up is that you, as a filmmaker, can not change point-of-view without changing the camera position in the shot. In the initial days, camera dollies were very primitive and jerky. Also, it was always not possible to change the camera position in running without damaging the aesthetic flow of the story.

All such films looked like recorded plays. In fact, most of them were that only – staged plays filmed from a typical theatre audience position. They gave an impression of third person point-of-view, and the only way of catching the spectator’s attention to a part of the screen was the movement of character.

In 1903, British filmmaker George Smith carried out a highly successful experiment by changing point-of-view in Mary Jane Mishap. He juxtaposed wide, establishing shots with Medium Close Up of the characters, to make the audience empathize with characters. Dividing a scene or sequence was tried even before that. Goerge Méliès attempted things very close in his Journey to the Moon (1902), one year back.

In those years only, Edison’s film company made two films that explored cinematic storytelling breaking them into sequences. Both the films – The Life of an American Fireman (1903), and The Great Train Robbery (1903), made in the same year, well used the techniques of cross-cutting to portray simultaneity. Now, the audience could see for the first time while an action is happening here (here can be any space which was on the screen at that moment) what is happening in another place at the same time. The concept of meanwhile was very effectively produced by the logical juxtaposition of scenes, connected through some common cues, by a set of conventions later to be known as parallel editing.

It was the filmmaker, sometimes also known as the cinematographer or producer those days, who decided such cuts and joins. However, specialized persons had to be employed soon, for the purpose of physical joining of negatives of different scenes or shots. They went up the rank with time and started suggesting things to the boss. They were the world’s first editors.

It was in 1903 only, when the first big close up (also known as the insert) appeared in Edison Film Company’s short The Gay Shoe Clerk to give a glimpse into a character’s psyche and want, by shifting point-of-view. A mini story was effectively told using only two shots and three cuts. Cinema had started in the magic tent. But now the magic went too far.

That year was indeed very auspicious for the future of cinema. A young screenwriter called David Wark Griffith joined American Mutascope and Biograph Company, the same year. In twelve years, he would change the filmmaking scenario of the world and establish cinema as a modern elite art.

Griffith applied almost every possible camera techniques prevailing in his time to make his first feature length film Birth of a Nation (1915). He perhaps never invented the techniques himself, probably he never presented a true point-of-view shot to narrate in a first person, but it was Griffith more than anyone else in the world who showed how the narration in literature, especially that in the Victorian novels, could have a one-to-one correspondence to cinematic storytelling. He showed how a shot could truthfully represent a sentence in literature. He showed a consistent way to cut and join shots, to build up an equivalent of paragraph in literature (ie, a scene in the movies), and to join scenes to build up a chapter in the novel (ie, a sequence in the movies).
Ever since Birth of a Nation, all filmmakers around the world, starting from Eisenstein in USSR, Bresson in France, Phalke in India and Hitchcock and John ford in Hollywood followed in Griffith’s line.

With that followed a line of Master editors too. They joined two shots to join two lives, otherwise separate. We still keep two persons talking over telephones looking at opposite directions, in different shots, so that their looks – their eyelines – match. We still hide the shot changes in modern films depending on the action change – matching the two different shot magnifications on action. It is so similar to a sentence change, or to the complexity of the sentence depending on the change of the principal verb.

Editors make the movies feel more lifelike. In life too, we want to cut the unnecessary parts off from our memories, to erase the wastes of our folly, to make it focused and steady. Do we not?

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