Aspects of Editing


by Edgar Burcksen, A.C.E.

Rhythm plays a very important part in our lives from the basic physical to the complicated mental level and everything in between.

Our heart beats rhythmically and our breathing also has a much deliberated cadence to it; when we move around it is governed by the rhythm of walking, running, or the pedal strokes on our bicycle and even the chewing of our food has a calculated tempo. All our non-rigid technical inventions are based on the repetitive aspects of their nature whether it’s the RPM of the combustion engine or the hertz cycles in electricity. Even as we entertain ourselves, the music and dance moves follow a strict pattern that carries exotic names like allegro, andante and adagio, while the tango, the waltz and the foxtrot push us in choreographed moves that follow the beat of their melodic measures. When we add language, the string of words is forced into the stroke of the rhythm to form the lyrics of a song and even when the music is absent we recite our poems rhythmically to the beat of the iambic pentameter or the pounding 16-bar beat of the rappers.  So it is no big surprise that film and, in our instance, editing listens to a variety of pulses that are the backbone of our art.

When we talk about the rhythm of film and TV we have to distinguish the different forms it can appear in and how each form prints its structure on the editing process. The most basic rhythm in editing is determined by the cut.  This is most visible in, for instance, less sophisticated music videos where the cuts follow the downbeat of the music. It also performs prominently in montages where the juxtaposition of unconnected visuals needs the power of the rhythm to bond them into a deeper meaning than the mere appearance of the visual all by itself. A more refined rhythm is present in the images themselves determined by the tempo of the dialogue, the action, or both. The most sophisticated and elusive rhythm lies in the meaning of the string of images that forms the story of a film or TV program. To be an effective editor you need to master all of these aspects of editing and then the rhythm upgrades to the level of what is called the pacing of a movie.

As an editor you have to think of yourself as a conductor of a big symphony orchestra who wields the baton to speed up or slow down the instrumentalists according to his or her interpretation of the music. The editor has the same power as the conductor controlling the beats of the cuts, the rhythm of the sequences and, finally, the pacing of the entire movie. In each of these instances the intriguing part is how the editor follows or molds the rhythm. When the editor deals with the simplest of this, the splices that connect visually unrelated images, then he or she has the choice of following a set meter, then abandoning it to make a dramatic statement or totally neglect the notion of rhythm and follow the inner rhythm of the shots themselves as performed by movement and the simplicity or complexity of the visuals.

Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011) starts off with a long montage of wide shots of iconic Parisian landmarks edited to the music of jazz great Sidney Bechet. The cuts follow the beat of the music and if you were not aware of some interesting undertones, you could easily discard the montage as a mediocre promotional job of the French Department of Tourism. However, when you find out that the film deals with the nightly adventures of Hollywood screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson) and his love for the City of Light, a lot of things begin to click. Like Gil, Sidney Bechet was an American expatriate who found his home in Paris and, like Woody Allen, plays the clarinet. Add to that Gil’s encounters with the 1920s American clique of art matron Gertrude Stein who chaperoned the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Cole Porter and you begin to understand how Woody Allen and his editor Alisa Lepselter set you up perfectly for their engaging story.

In the documentary Darfur Now, I edited a montage of angry people that culminated in a dirt devil that swept through a refugee camp. The tempo of the quick cuts was determined by the rhythm of the angry expressions of the people. I had no idea what they were saying, I just let myself lead by their anger. Here the content of the visual determined the rhythm of the montage even though the juxtaposition of the elements had no discernible dramatic flow. In reality TV, the montage, or the quick succession of unrelated visuals, is used abundantly to compress time: here the rhythm of the movements in the visual provides the connecting tissue and when that element is lacking then a pounding beat of music takes over the rhythmic succession of images. Reality TV editors become masters of these tools because they administer realism by juxtaposing snippets of reality in a quick chain of visuals.

The rhythm of a sequence is governed by two elements that follow a dramatic progression: dialogue and action. Both of these elements are recorded with their own internal rhythm either as separate entities or as a combination of the two. The editor can just follow these internal rhythms or play with them by speeding them up or slowing them down or fluctuate the rhythm to develop the dramatic course of a sequence. When I edited Bill Dear’s romantic comedy Politics of Love last year, there was a sequence in which Democrat Aretha Gupta played by Mallika Sherawat and her Republican love interest Kyle Franklin played by Brian J. White, finally have a date dining at a restaurant. I considerably slowed down their first encounter when they were just exchanging some personal information to enhance the feeling that they were still being rather apprehensive about each other. But when they start to discuss politics the sparks begin to fly and I sped up their dialogue by overlapping their lines until they settle down and let the romance take over where I then added in pauses that as a viewer you can easily fill in with the notion that there is a blossoming affection for each other. You can accomplish this manipulation of rhythm in a sequence by stealing looks from other takes or inserting pauses in the dialogue to slow it down. Also, you can do the opposite by simplifying lines, taking out excess words like “you know” or excess lines that start a thought like “what I wanted to tell you” or for that matter any line that precedes a line that starts with “that.” I, also, frequently speed up or slow down pauses between lines or words in a shot: when there is a one second pause you can increase the intensity of a reaction by doubling the speed to 12 frames or by slowing it down extending the pause to two seconds and consequently turn the reaction into a more thoughtful or tentative response.

In action sequences, you have to adjust the pacing constantly. A flood of action cuts solely based on the rhythm of the movements becomes either boring or incomprehensible. The play with rhythms in action sequences is shown very clearly and over the top in the kung fu genre where extended fights are plainly choreographed around a hero who overcomes attacks by multiple villains at once. Bruce Lee fights his multiple adversaries in a flurry of punches and kicks to then almost stop to give us a primordial scream before the next flurry mows down his opponents. The ultimate rhythm adjustment appears when obvious slow-motion is inserted to show the aesthetic beauty of the moves and to also let the viewer catch a little breath before the next assault of quick cuts drags him or her back into the action. Although in the kung fu genre these action sequences are plainly exhibited as larger-than-life, in Hollywood action-adventure movies these techniques are also used in a much more subtle way. In the direct-to-DVD action flick Roadhouse 2: Last Call, I used speed-ups and slow motion many times in the fights to regulate the pacing without falling into the trap of the operatic kung fu routine that doesn’t take realism very seriously.

The definitive pacing exercise lies in the combination of the sequences that form the movie. Each individual sequence might be exciting, engaging and well-edited but when they’re all strung together it becomes painfully clear that gelling them into an engaging story is a totally different issue. As an editor you reach this phase when you present your Editor’s Cut to the director. You have put all your energy, skill and talent into editing the sequences and have them reviewed separately for quality as you completed them but now watching them all together you have to concentrate on two extremely important issues that are closely interrelated: story and pacing. The story needs to make sense and be easy to understand, and you can accomplish this by moving sequences around or deleting them. But the pacing of the story is of equal importance. Redundancies and red herrings can bore and confuse the viewer and when that happens you have lost your audience. If these two pests are the heart of a sequence, then the whole sequence should be removed, but when they’re part of an indispensable sequence, you have to adjust the fabric of the information and retime the rhythm.

Each individual sequence might be exciting, engaging and well-edited but when they’re all strung together it becomes painfully clear that gelling them into an engaging story is a totally different issue. 

The pacing of a film’s narrative is a complicated combination of information and emotion. Too much information leads to confusion and too much emotion deteriorates into melodrama. Pacing these elements perfectly is the task of the editor. Unfortunately you cannot set up rules for it because so much of it relies on the intuitive and inner rhythm that each of us possesses. It is a process that requires talent to be successful, but you can hone your skills by watching a lot of movies and particularly bad movies: good movies are for entertainment and bad ones are for learning. Go to a bad movie and find out if you can predict the rhythm. I always tap my finger on my lap to predict when a cut appears or pace the dialogue. When that exercise bores me, I try to predict what the next sequence is going to be. It is a fun way to make watching a bad movie interesting while honing your skills in rhythm and pacing so that predicting the twists and turns in the story becomes a pleasant intellectual exercise. Bad films or TV programs are not only there to be used as comparative material to make good ones shine but they’re also an indispensable educational tool to teach editors rhythm and pacing.