So to RECAP
PHASE 1: 1895 CINEMA IS BORN – the first phase of every filmmaker wherein we shoot everyday life, devoid of narrative and capture a ton of moments on film, a small percentage of which is genuinely usable, entertaining footage.
PHASE 2: 1902 FILM AS THEATER – Capturing limited stage-like drama (wedding videos, church plays, a friend’s joke, etc) – these are films with a linear plot as the action happens.
You can probably count on one hand the amount of feature films in the last 75 years that have been shot this way — as one long continuous take. I can only think of three off the top of my head:
1. Hitchcock’s “Rope” (1948) – Starring Jimmy Stewart. Shot on film, they couldn’t shoot the entire 80 minute film in one take, so they had to have clever transitions planned at the end of each roll of film to seamlessly break into the next roll. Each roll of film lasts about 10 minutes. Staging was particularly tricky as walls and set pieces were flown in and out to complete a scene as actors walked into or out of a particular room. A technical marvel, but more of an experiment than a new way of filming.
2. ”Russian Ark” (2002) – A 96 minute Steadicam sequence shot in the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum using a Sony HDW-F900. Choreographing 33 rooms of the museum and 2,000 extras and 3 orchestras, there was only time enough for 3 takes. The first two busted on technical problems, the third and final was the keeper.
3. “Timecode” (2000) – An experimental independent film by Mike Figgis that is not only shot in one long 90 minute continuous take of action, but FOUR – all playing back on the screen simultaneously. Its a complexly choreographed story as actors are weaving in and out of each other’s stories and shots throughout and where one plot line peaks while the others are in a lull to keep from discombobulating us with information overload. It does succeed slightly in not exploding your brain so there’s that.
Now, if you’re wanting to remain in Phase 2, the rest of your life, it’s possible. Especially if you’re not dealing in artistry per se. I knew a guy making upwards of $200K in event videography a year. There are Weddings, Bar Mitzvah’s, Birthday parties, Marching Bands, Plays, Sports, Court Depositions — all kinds of stuff to shoot on a wide shot from the back of the room on a tripod and make a buck.
But, if you’re interested in artistry, you’re going to have to evolve because very soon the constraints of the frame’s limitations will wear on you. You don’t WANT to show the whole recital with 3 or 4 minutes of dead time between acts. How about we clip those out and compress time a bit. You don’t WANT to stay on a wideshot the whole time during the church play. Let’s see a closeup of our Lord and Saviour’s Face when Judas betrays him with a kiss.
Well, my friend, you have just stepped into the next phase.
PHASE 3: Editing is Born (1903)
The Great Train Robbery, a motion picture released by the Edison Manufacturing Company in 1903, was written, directed, and photographed by Edwin S. Porter, based on a Butch Cassidy robbery. This twelve-minute silent movie, one of cinema’s first narrative films, used fourteen shots to tell the story of a robbery and the ensuing chase.
The film contains a staggering array of firsts or near-firsts: it was the first to use title cards and a panning shot, and probably the first to use a script. More important, it was one of the first works to take advantage of film’s unique power to move an audience across time and space with continuity editing and cross-cutting among different stories — techniques that have become the cornerstones of modern cinematic language.
And here is that film. Again, funny to watch the pantomime acting, but we’re still doing big stage theatrics at this point because Closeups haven’t been invented yet.
“The Great Train Robbery” – 1903 – B&W
Did you catch that huge event at the 7:11 mark? The world’s first cross-cut. By now the cross-cut is old and familiar to us. First we’re watching Jason Bourne kick some booty over here, then we cross-cut back to CIA headquarters where they’re trying to decipher his latest movement, cross-cut to another operative who is preparing his assassin weapon du jour to take out Bourne. The plot is moving forward on 3 levels and the action in the one scene is driving the dramatic stakes higher and higher in the other two.
The cross-cut in the Great Train Robbery is where the thieves are getting away after their holdup and MEANWHILE (cross-cut) we go back to the original station where the attendant is being revived and untied by what appears to be little red riding hood? Or not. Meanwhile the towns people are having a little bit of a hoe-down and the attendant comes running in upsetting both the men and the hoes with his news. Cut to chase scene with muzzles flashing as the law pursues the baddies. Maybe. This was before the white clothes black clothes thing so it’s hard to tell who is who.
But you know what caused the audience to freak their freak the most? The Medium closeup at the end where the lawman shoots his pistol DIRECTLY AT CAMERA! People were not used to this film medium and thought they were being shot at, and urban film legend has it a few even fired back into the screen.
And they say Black and white film is inaccessible. Pssht.
Anyway there are volumes and volumes that I could write about the power of editing. The power through editing to manipulate time (speed things up or slow things down), to manipulate space (change locations), to heighten drama or comedy and even to form new ideas and associations in the audience’s mind by cutting two images together.
Did you know in the “Psycho” shower scene that we never actually see a knife stab the girl? Through the magic of editing (and sound effects and music), Hitchcock creates an horrific scene by showing a knife hand plunging, a girl screaming, and blood spilling down the drain.
The power of editing is this: our amazing brains make the connection and fills in the gaps. Also in Jaws, it turns out that it was more powerful and nerve-wracking to NOT see the shark initially and just see edited snippets surrounding the attack.
It worked on me! I know I didn’t want to get in the water that summer! And it didn’t matter that it was a swimming pool either, I just KNEW there was some chlorine based water predator down there in the deep end waiting for me.
There is an AWESOME documentary that I show to my Film classes at this point when we begin to look at editing. It’s called THE CUTTING EDGE – THE MAGIC OF MOVING EDITING. I’ve put a picture up here too, because you don’t wanna get it mixed up with the other Cutting Edge movie about the ice skaters. TOE PICK!
Anyway, I watch this film about once a year and as I grow as a filmmaker, I pick up new insights EVERY time I see it. Plus it’s inspirational to see where editing has come from and to see showcased so many different styles. And how important a single frame can be.
All tricks and tools for your director/editor toolkit!
But trust me when I say there is MUCH to be learned about editing and editing well. The idea of continuity editing, the idea of Eisenstein’s Montage Theory, Dmytryk’s 7 Editing Rules to Hide a Cut…sooooooooo much.
What this new phase causes us to do, though, is to break up our shooting into segmented pieces to be assembled later. In Post-Production. We can now cover an event with 2 or 3 cameras and cut together a scene in Post. A scene is running too long and we can cut out a few lines of dialogue and streamline the narrative in Post. DVDs are loaded with deleted scenes and generally when you watch them you agree, “Yeah, that scene blows. It’s repetitve and it drags on and totally would have slowed down the whole film’s momentum. So, good call, Director so-and-so! Good call!”
And this is purely my opinion, but some of the best Film Directors I know out there are strong editors. Because once you can begin to unlock the keys to what makes an edit cut together smoothly, it can redefine how you shoot your films. For one, an editor knows when you’ve “got it” in Production. You’re cutting the scene together in your head as you shoot so you know if a scene is working or not.
Again, a little thing I like to call “intentional filmmaking” begins with shooting for the edit. So that is Phase 3. Shooting with Post-production in mind, telling a narrative with shot selections, and shooting/assembling your film in a non-linear fashion. Since you’re editing the film, you don’t have to shoot in script order. You can if you want. But why not shoot all the scenes at the race-track at one time. And then all the scenes at the restaurant at one time. Then in post-production, you put those elements in their script order.
There’s a great editing assignment where you take footage from a film and re-cut it into a different genre. For example, here is a trailer for Stanley Kubrick’s horror film “The Shining” re-cut into a romantic comedy.
Badda boom badda bing. You’ve just witnessed some Editing Magic!
TOMORROW: Phase 4 – Father of Film Language