Movie Making Manual/Scene Editing

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How to Edit a Dramatic Scene[edit]

There are two types of scenes in a dramatic motion picture. Action sequences and Conversations. This is important because conversations are edited the opposite of action sequences.

Conversation vs. Action[edit]

Action = no dialog
Action sequences are scenes (or parts of scenes) where there is no dialog.
Conversation = dialog
Conversations are scenes (or parts of scenes) where the actors continually talk back and forth. (Normally, a monolog is considered an action sequence since there is no natural rhythm between the actors.)

Golden Rule: When two or more people are talking back and forth, you have a "conversation". The rest of the time, the scene is considered "action."


Editing Action \Rightarrow Look for the best images[edit]

Action sequences are edited based on the images on the screen. For action sequences, the picture is the most important thing. Because there is no dialog to worry about, you tell the story visually.

Editing Dialog (a conversation) \Rightarrow Keep the natural rhythm between the actors[edit]

In contrast with action scenes, a conversation is edited based on the rhythm of the dialog as the actors talk back and forth. The rhythm of the dialog must sound perfectly natural... which is surprising since, most of the time, each actor's dialog comes from a different shot.
Special Note: The gap between the dialog must seem natural. You must decide how soon to cut from one actor to the next.
In a conversation, the audio is more important than the picture. Therefore, a conversation is edited based on the audio, not the picture.
If the picture is bad and the audio is good, the audience will think it is supposed to be that way. If the picture is terrific and the audio is bad, the audience will complain.


Example - Selecting the shots in a conversation[edit]

A typical conversation between two people is filmed mostly with over-the-shoulder shots using a single overhead microphone which points only to one of the actors.

Sound from the first actor
When the camera is pointed at Actor "A" over the shoulder of Actor "B", you will hear the dialog for Actor "A" clearly. But the dialog from Actor"B" will not be clear because the only microphone is directly above Actor "A".
Sound from the second actor
When the camera is pointed at Actor "B" over the shoulder of Actor "A", the dialog for Actor "B", who is now directly under the boom microphone, will be clear but the dialog from Actor "A" will be faint.
Rule
Therefore, when you edit a typical scene, you use the dialog (sound) of Actor "A" from the shots of Actor "A" and the dialog of Actor "B" from the shots of Actor "B".
You have no choice. Because this is the only good dialog, you MUST edit the scene this way. However, if you can seperate the audio from the video you can mix and match the good audio with video that doesnt nessecaryily go with it. (for example, if you want a shot of Actor B's reaction to Actor A's line, you can use the dialouge from the actor A clip on the actor B shot).
The only adjustable element
The only choice you have is the gap or space between the dialog. Your goal is to make this gap seem totally natural. (This might seem trivial but it is not. Also, there is a special circumstance where you will add huge gaps between the actor's dialog. See Narrative Music below.)

How do I edit a conversation?[edit]

Here are the steps for editing a conversation (scripted dialog from a narrative drama):

Step 1 - Study the Dailies for a Conversation[edit]

The first step is to look at all the dailies. On a motion picture or television drama, you will be working with the Circle Takes.

Circle Takes
Circle Takes saves money. When the movie is shot on film, it costs a lot of money to prepare the dailies for editing therefore only the best shots are used.
Circle takes are the dailies that the director feels are worth the expense of doing a telecine, audio sync, etc.. For 35mm film, when the director likes a take, she yells, "Cut, Print". Just as soon as she yells, "Print", the script supervisor, the camera assistant, and the sound mixer person will circle that take number on their notes so the lab will print only these circled takes. That is how these shots get the name of Circle Takes. The next morning when the director views the dailies, she views only the circle takes. Therefore, if you are editing a motion picture or television drama shot on 35mm film, the dailies that you receive are usually pretty good.
Practice Scenes

The Highlander Uncut scenes are no longer for sale. The Star Movie Shop is no longer open to the public. None of the other unedited scenes are digitized for editing on personal computers. And even the Gunsmoke footage is only for sale to instructors and only on tape. Finding good practice scenes is unbelievably difficult.

American Cinema Editor's (ACE's) Editing Contest \Rightarrow Deadline OCTOBER.
If you are a film student at a recognized film school, applications for American Cinema Editors' The ACE Student Editing Competition are accepted in OCTOBER (that is this month only). The first 50 applicants only. $125. (American Cinema Editors, inc., 100 Universal City Plaza, Verna Fields Bldg. 2282, Room 190. Universal City, CA 91608) Look at their website for all the rules and details. Three finalists will be guests at the annual ACE Eddie Awards in February. Each will receive a plaque. The winner will receive a special Student Award and publicity in the Hollywood trade papers. ACE does not pay transportation or hotel expenses for out-of-town students. Note: ACE is an honorary society of film editors; not a Hollywood union.
"Overview Movies"
Overview movies are extremely helpful for determining which takes are the best. An overview movie is all the dailies cut apart and re-assembled so you can watch all the dailies while following along with the story. Just by watching the overview movie, you can quickly find the best dialog.
The term "Overview Movie" is not a standard term. Sometimes it is simply called a rough assembly of all the dailies.
When looking for the best audio, you are looking for both good quality sound and the best delivery of the dialog by the actor. When you see all the clips in the overview movie, you will immediately notice which shot has the best performance.
Ignore the picture... mostly.
Since you are looking for the best quality dialog in a conversation, you are basically ignoring the picture (in a conversation) and concentrate on the spoken word. If you are editing circle takes (the really good takes from a feature film or television drama), the picture is almost never bad. The image might not be great but it will be OK. Therefore, when you find the best audio for a piece of dialog, you don't worry too much about the picture which comes with it. The picture can be fixed later.
Editing procedure
Once you have selected the best take for a piece of dialog, the procedure is simple. If you are using a professional editing program such as Final Cut Pro, you will select a fresh copy of the take. Then you will trim the clip by setting the IN and OUT points. And finally, you put the trimmed clip on the timeline. You must do this for each piece of dialog for the entire scene as you follow along with the script.
How to trim clips
There are no rules for how to trim the clips for each piece of dialog however I prefer to cut half way between each piece of dialog. I look at the audio waveform of the clip and quickly see where one actor's dialog ends and the next begins. I simply cut half way in-between (in the middle of the silence.) If the actors are talented, they will repeat themselves perfectly for each take. Therefore, the spacing between pieces of dialog (the timing) is usually perfect. Therefore, if you always cut half way between, you will retain the natural timing of the actors. They do all the work for you!
ADR = Replacement Dialog
The instructions above are very simple. Look at the clips for a scene and select the best sounding dialog while ignoring the picture. But what happens if you have the ability to do ADR where you replace bad dialog with good dialog or even different dialog? So before you cast everything in stone, you must stop and think, "If I take the best looking clips (based on the picture) and replaced the dialog with clean sounding dialog recorded in the studio, which shots would I select then?" Sometimes the decision is made for you because the actors are not available. The lower the budget (and the lower the pay to the actors), the less likely you will be able to find the actors when you want to do ADR. But if the actors are all available, ADR changes everything!

Step 2 - The Rough Edit for a Conversation[edit]

Check the gaps
Once you have decided which audio is best (for each piece of dialog == Actor "A" said this, Actor "B" said that, Actor "A" says this, Actor "B" says that), you assemble all the clips together following the script as a guide. That means you put the clips on the timeline of our editing program such as Final Cut Pro.
After this is done for all the dialog in the conversation, you listen to the rough edit. All the dialog should flow naturally from one actor to the other; back and forth, back and forth. If it does not sound natural, now is the time to fix it. To fix any timing problems, you adjust the gap between the actors' dialog so the dialog sounds like a real conversation where one person speaks and then the next person speaks, etc.
Visual Discontinuities are OK... for now
When you watch the rough edit of the scene, you will probably see visual discontinuities between the shots. Example: At the end of one shot, an actor is looking in one direction and at the beginning of the next shot, the actor is looking in the wrong direction. Again, don't panic! This is normal for a rough edit. For now, just listen to the dialog and make sure it sounds perfect... all the dialog must flow natural like a real conversation. The dialog is the only thing you worry about now.
Best Audio
Normally, the best audio comes from the close-up shot of the actor. This is because the microphone (which is usually located overhead) is closer to the actor in a close-up shot. On most single camera film shoots, there is only one microphone and it is pointed at the actor who is shown on the screen.
Lock the Audio
Once you are finished with the rough edit of a conversation, the audio is basically finished. Then you lock the audio once the audio sounds perfectly natural in the conversation. Later, you will add sound effects and music but you will not make changes to the dialog once it sounds good in the rough edit... unless, of course, you plan to add narrative music which is explained later.

Step 3 - Adjust the Picture for a Conversation[edit]

The next step is to adjust the picture to eliminate any discontinities and, hopefully, make it look better. But this is only the picture, not the audio, which will be adjusted.

I repeat, in case you missed it!!!
Once the rough edit of a conversation is finished, lock the audio. That way, you will never make a mistake when you adjust the picture. For a program like Final Cut Pro, you simply keep the dialog on separate tracks and lock those tracks which are dialog.
Let's play tennis.. and be bored!
After the rough edit is done, the picture should look like a tennis match... bouncing back and forth as each actor speaks his lines. This gets boring very quickly. Also, the scene is not very informative to watch since you never see the person who is listening. If you never see the person who is listening, you miss seeing what people are thinking which is often more important than what they say.

Rolling Edits and Adding New Shots[edit]

Now we get to the fun part of editing a conversation -- Rolling the picture edits and adding cut away shots.

  • Remember, this is only for a conversation, not an action sequence. Action sequences are already edited based on the best images so there is no need to make any adjustments to the picture of an action sequence. Adjustments are only made for conversations.

The visual images for a conversation can be improved in two ways:

Rolling the Picture Edits
Once the audio is locked, you can roll the picture edits either forward or backward in time. The roll picture tool simply makes one clip longer while making the other clip shorter without changing the total length of the two shots. Therefore, using the roll edit tool does not increase the length of the scene nor does it shorten the length of the scene.
Most professional editing programs such as Final Cut Pro have a special tool designed specifically to roll the picture edit (of two adjacent clips) forward or backward. Note: Be sure you have locked the audio because the roll-edit tool (in Final Cut Pro or Express or Adobe Premiere) will roll both the picture and the audio if you are not careful. Since the audio for a conversation is perfect when you finished the rough edit, you do not want to change it with the roll-edit tool. Most importantly: you want to change the picture without loosing sync or making any changes to the audio.
Adding Cut-Away Shots (Adding new shots)
Finally, you can add additional shots to a scene for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, this is to hide continuity problems, (discontinuity problems) or simply to hide a bad frame. Or you can add a new shot (a cut away shot) simply to help tell the story. Or it can be to add new information for the eye if the shots are too long and too static.
With a professional editing program such as Media Composer or Final Cut Pro, you simply put the new clip (the cut away shot) on a track above the other tracks. Done!!! Most of the time, you only add the picture and not the audio. Therefore, I prefer to add add cut-away shots after I have finished rolling all the picture edits.
When you listen to the DVD commentary of Garry Marshall on his motion pictures, he mentions that he puts a cat in the movie so he has something to cut away to when he wants to speed up a scene or hide problems. Look for the cat in the last scenes of Runaway Bride.

L Cut == Split Edit[edit]

L Cuts are the same as Split Edits. Locking the audio and rolling the picture edits creates a Split Edit which is commonly called an L Cut or J Cut. This is an extremely powerful tool for filmmakers. Locking the audio and rolling the picture edit seems trivial but the impact is great.

Frequently, you need to only roll the picture edit just a few frames forward or backward. Many times, that is all you need to find a better transition point for the picture. Note: There are quicker ways to create L Cuts however locking the audio and rolling the picture edit is the easiest to understand.

A split edit or L Cut changes the meaning of a scene. Here is why: (This is important!!!)

1. Rolling 'Forward' in a Conversation == Reaction
If you roll the picture edit forward in time (to a later time), you will see the reaction of the actor after he has finished talking. The camera remains pointed at the actor who finished talking while the next actor begins to speak. When a good actor finishes saying his or her lines, he will have a very interesting expression on his face. It is important to see this. (Remember, rolling the picture edit to show reaction is only for conversations, not action sequences.)
2. Rolling Backward in a Conversation == Anticipation
If you roll the picture edit backward in time, you will see the anticipation of the actor before he begins to speak. Before one actor has finished talking, the camera switches to the actor who is about to speak. When you do, you usually see a very interesting expression on the actors face the second before he begins to speak. It is important to see this. (Remember, rolling the picture edit to show anticipation is only for conversations, not action sequences.)
Huge impact
By showing the actor's reaction or anticipation, you change the feel of the scene. When the audience sees what the actors are thinking, the audience gets a totally new insight into the scene. That is why L Cuts are so important. It is probably the most powerful tool that an editor has.
This is art, not a science
Deciding how far and in which direction to roll a picture edit is an artistic decision. Translated: you must use trial and error to find the best possible visual transition'... whatever that is!!! Only your artistic sense will tell you when it is right.

Hopefully, now you begin to see the challenge of film editing. There are more things going on than you can possibly see. What do you show? What do you not show? This decision is not as easy in a conversation as in an action sequence.

Stretching Time in Action Sequences vs. Conversations
If you are editing an action shot, you can slow the scene down to show everthing from many different angles. When the car blows up, you can show it from every possible angle, over and over again.
But in a conversation, you don't have that freedom. But with a conversation, the actors speak at only one speed. You cannot change that speed in post-production. You cannot repeat the dialog just to slow the action. The conversation must always sound natural, flowing from one actor to the next. In a conversation, you are very limited... unless you use tricks!!!!
Cool tricks for conversations == Narrative Music
Actually, there is a trick which allows you to show more of a conversation; Add narrative music (music which helps tell the story.) With narrative music, you use music or musical sound effects to act like another actor in the conversation. When you pause to add the sound of music which is extremely expressive, the pause in the conversation allows you to show more visually. This is a technique editors use to give a scene more time.
To do this, you place a gap inbetween dialog. Then you add music which fills the space so the conversation still seems natural. This music cannot be simple background music which plays blandly in the background. Instead this music must contribute to the conversation. This is why it is called Narrative Music. (More about Narrative Music later.)
The best visual transition
One of the most important things to look for is Continuity. Example: After you roll the picture edit, is the actor facing the same direction when you cut from one shot to the next? If not, you must not use it. You have to find another transition point. That is, you must roll the picture edit to a different point where the continuity problem has disappeared. Strange enough, even though it is easy to have continuity problems, it is just as easy to pick another point (roll the picture edit to another frame) and the continuity problem will disappear. It is amazing.
Watch for Lip Sync problems
Another important thing to watch is lip sync. Most of the time, when you roll a picture edit, loosing lip sync is not a problem. Most conversations are filmed using matching over-the-shoulder shots. In all of the shots, you never see the lips of the actor who is not talking. Therefore, you never have a lip sync problem when you roll the picture edits because his lips are not visible.
But in some shots, such as a wide shot, the audience might see the lips of both actors. Then you have to be extremely careful that you do not show the actors out of lip sync when you roll the picture edit. Sometimes, you have to go back to the rough edit and change the gap between the dialog so that both the clips have their dialog lined up (so that the two clips are in sync.) Then, when you roll the picture edit, you will see the actor's lips from one clip and listen to the actor's voice from the other shot and they will still be in perfect (or nearly perfect) sync. (When you watch a lot of movies, you will begin to see slight errors in lip sync before or after an edit. This is probably because of an L Cut. it it is not enough for the audience to notice so don't worry.)
Hey, that's ugly, man!!!
The other use of rolling the picture edit is simply to hide bad frames or ugly shots. Sometimes, you can even roll the picture edit forward or backward until you eliminate the entire shot. (Remember, the audio is locked so it always sounds perfect no matter how much you roll the picture edit.)
3. Emphasize one actor or another in a conversation
Rolling the picture edits can also be used in another way... at the same time. You can roll the picture edits in a conversation to show both the anticipation of the actor before he begins to speak and the reaction of the actor once he finished speaking. This is a tremendously powerful tool because it draws the attention of the audience to a particular actor. Therefore, much of the time that the other actors are talking, you continue to watch the actor you are interested in. This is easy to do since all you are doing is rolling the picture edits with the audio locked.

If you wish to see an good example of rolling picture edits to show reactions, anticipation, and to emphasize one actor over the other, the Star Movie Shop had a DVD-Video disk called Fireworks Display which shows how the same conversation can be edited in four different ways. In the four examples, you see both the rough edit (which is identical for all our edits) and the adjusted edit side by side so you immediately see the effect of rolling the picture edits. In one example, the picture edits are rolled forward to repeatedly show the reactions of the speaker. In another example, all the picture edits for the scene are all rolled backward to repeatedly show the anticipation of the next speaker. And in another example, the star of the show is emphasized and finally in the last example, the picture edits are rolled to emphasized the secondary characters (the workmen who are creating a fireworks display.) It turns out that this last example is the best because the confused expressions on the workmen's faces tells the audience that the workmen think that Maurice is crazy!!! You never see that when the workmen are talking. Only when they are listened, can you see what they really think of Maurice Middlefield. Remember: all this is done with the same audio from the rough edit. Only the picture changes by rolling the picture edits. The audio never changes; It is the same dialog in all four examples. (Note: Star Movie Shop is now closed to the public. You might find this disk on eBay. Wikiversity Film School still has copies of this disk but they only loan it to students.)

Step 4 - Add Music and Sound Effects to a Conversation[edit]

Finally, you add music and sound effects. Here is where it really gets interesting. Music is more important than you think. Film editors should not ignore this section.

Film scoring seems so simple... but it can be a surprisingly creative tool for film editors (not just film composers.) Most people don't think of music as an editing tool but it can be... if you wish. And an extremely powerful tool... if you know how to use it.

Mood
The most important thing to remember is music creates the mood of the scene. Music does not have to have a song, melody, rhythm or anything else. It just needs to create a mood. Think of sounds, specially orchestra sounds, which create a mood. What sound creates fear? What sounds create horror? What sounds create happiness?
A five-year-old kid pounding on a piano keyboard while watching a scene from a movie is the ideal film composer. Most professional musicians cannot think this way because they are trained to create beautiful songs. So don't be surprised if highly-skilled musicians have no idea how to create a film score. Our schools don't teach this.
Sources of Music
Film editors work with music all the time. They just don't know it.
Dialog (the spoken word) has music in it. Try reading a script in a monotone voice. You will immediately see the difference. An actor who is trained for the stage has a three octive speaking voice. In a conversation, the actor's voice will range 3 octaves.
When you edit a scene, you must decide if the actor's voice creates the proper mood. If not, you have to add music.

Two totally different kinds of music[edit]

There are two kinds of music in a conversation -- Background music and Narrative music.

Background Music in a Conversation
Background music is very simple and soft music which is heard in the background to enhance the mood of the scene. Background music has no drums, at most only single melody, and never is at the same frequencies as the dialog. Background music can be a single note held for a long time. It can be that simple!
Narrative Music
Narrative music is completely different. Narrative music is music which tells a story and acts like one of the actors in the scene. Narrative music can have themes which are very short melodies which are associated with an actor or an action.
Narrative music can only go in gaps between the dialog of the actors because it is too strong to be placed on top of dialog. That is why, if you want to add narrative music, you must go back to the rough edit and add the correct gaps between the dialog of the actors.
How long should the gap be? How long should the narrative music be? You must make the music, and then create the gap to fit the music. The only way that you will know the correct length of the gap is if you work closely with the composer during the editing of the scene... or if you are the composer!!!! This is why the best film editors also are great film composers (or at least understand film score composing). It is really not that hard so try! (It takes a lot of time though. But it will make your edits better.)
Let me repeat!!!
When you add narrative music to a scene, it is like adding another actor to the scene. Therefore, when you edit a scene with two actors plus narrative music, the conversation no longer bounces back and forth between the two actors with a natural rhythm. Now the music also speaks to the audience as well as the actors. So now, the edit of the scene must bounce back and forth between Actor "A", Actor "B", and the music. Each has equal weight. When one is speaking, the others must listen. So when the music is playing, the actors must listen. That is a cool trick since there was no music when the scene was filmed.
The Trick
So how do you get the actors to stop and listen to the music? There was absolutely no music during the filming of the scene. On the movie set, the actors never hear any music... if for no other reasons that the film score did not exist then.
Of course, there is a trick to this. If you are lucky (which for most scenes, you will be), you have shots where the actors are listening to each other. You simply use this footage when you want the actors to listen to the music. In these shots, the actor is waiting to reply. The audience does not know this. So it looks like the actors are actually listening to the music.
Actually, this is easier than it sounds. Normally, for close-up shots and over-the-shoulder shots of an actor, you cannot see the other person talking. The other actor's lips are not visible. So before and after an actor speaks, you always have footage of the actor listening. That is the footage that you use!
But I hear voices!
Yes, when you watch one actor listening to another actor, you hear the dialog from the second actor. Get rid of it! Simply replace this unwanted dialog with room tone.

How do I edit an Action Sequence?[edit]

We have spent all this time talking about editing conversations, now what about action scenes?

There are no rules for editing an action sequence. In an action scene, the story is told with pictures. Any pictures which tell the story are correct. You have total freedom.

When you edit a conversation, you must follow the script. The dialog is fixed and cannot be changed. But with an action sequence, you are totally free to do anything you can with the material you are given. There are no rules!