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4 Editing Techniques to Add Drama to a Cut

In this article, we’re going to explore four ways you can add drama to your edits using a range of film editing techniques. 

But first, we need to talk about what drama really means.

Drama is generally considered as stories of a serious nature, but this superficial understanding can limit an editor’s ability to work effectively.

You see, genres can be fickle. Instead of describing a movie’s content in the absolute sense, they are a stereotype. Many dramas cross genre boundaries, incorporating humor, action, history, etc. The opposite is also true.

Four film posters of films that are different genres, but are all character driven films

At their heart, dramas are stories about people, their inner struggles and their outward transformation. According to this definition, you could classify almost all movies as dramas. There is a human story at the heart of every movie, so It should come as no surprise that people love movies about people.

As editors, how can we do our part put the spotlight on that human story in our movie?

Drama is More Than a Genre

Try to think about drama not as a genre, but as an element that features in all movies. Let’s break down the underlying mechanics of drama.

As mentioned, they typically show how people are changed by their environment or how they change their environment and affect the people around them. Note the dramatic themes that run through the movie genres we just looked at.

Dramatic elements throughout four films of different genres: 'Guardians of the Galaxy' is a film about friendship and personal development. In 'The Dark Knight' Bruce Wayne struggles with the morality of being a vigilante. In 'Bridesmaids', Annie develops self-confidence as she prepares for Lillian's wedding, and in 'Sully', Sully's integrity saves the lives of the passengers aboard his plane.

The human elements in these films heightens the action, enhances the comedy and gives context to the history.

While larger changes in a character’s arc are defined by the writer and director, there are many small but powerful decisions an editor can make to support that journey.

Let’s look at some common edits that can make our scenes feel more human. We’re going to use movies that aren’t normally considered dramas and see how adding drama – focusing on characters – can enhance a scene.

Editorial Techniques to Enhance Drama

1. Faces

Many scenes open with the faces of their main characters. It helps us to experience the scene from their perspective and helps us understand their mood and mindset.

In Saving Private Ryan the opening scene which depicts the assault on Omaha beach begins with several deliberate shots of soldier’s faces as they prepare to charge from their landing craft.

These haunting images give the proper emotional context to the events to come, reminding the audience right from the outset of the human cost of warfare.

The film 'Saving Private Ryan' opens with close up shots of four characters

In a very different scene from Bridesmaids, following Annie’s introduction to Lillian’s new friend, the following scene begins with her mocking Helen.

By helping the audience to feel Annie’s frustration, the editor is making what follows even funnier. While the fact that Annie is mocking Helen is not a choice that can be attributed to the editor, we can credit the editor for choosing to cut straight to her face, rather than establishing the scene with a wide shot.

The film 'Bridesmaids' cuts to Annie's face mocking Helen in her car, another angle of this, and then a wide shot of the car

In The Mandalorian, when fighting to save ‘Baby Yoda’ the editor often cuts to shots of the little critter.

If you don’t care about the outcome of this adorable creature there’s something wrong! Faces, especially ones as cute as Baby Yoda’s help us to invest emotionally in the scene.

The TV series 'The Mandalorian' uses a close up of a character in an action scene to remind the audience of the stakes

TIP: Faces can be shown at the beginning of a scene, or throughout at key points to remind the audience of what is at stake. Consider what emotions you want to communicate to the audience and choose shots accordingly.

2. Observations

It’s important to help the audience understand how the scene affects the characters. These events may influence their future actions or transformations.

In Saving Private Ryan, during the Omaha Beach landing Captain Miller observes the death and destruction around him.

His pale, death like face intercut with his POV leaves the audience with no doubt that these events are being etched into his mind. The sequence is even played in slow-motion to enhance the effect.

The film 'Saving Private Ryan' uses close up shots with point of view shots to portray the action from the view of the character

In The Dark Knight Rises, Blake observes Batman fighting.

This sequence reveals Blake’s admiration for Batman, helping to establish the character’s motivation for his subsequent transformation. At the end of the film it is revealed that Blake is in fact Robin, who follows in Batman’s footsteps to become a crime fighting vigilante.

The film 'The Dark Knight' uses shots of one character observing with an action scene to show us his reaction to it.

Here are three key elements you might want to consider for an observation sequence:

1. The Eye Shot

Start with a shot that shows the character’s attention has shifted to something in the scene

2. The POV Shot

Follow up with a shot of what they are looking at

3. Back to the Eyes

Finally, return to a closeup of the character. Eyes are symbolic of the characters mind/soul. By cutting back we show that they are thinking about what they’ve just observed

TIP: The Kuleshov effect shows how context can affect the audience’s interpretation of the actor’s performance. Therefore, when constructing observation sequences, the shots before and after affect how the audience reads the character’s emotions.

3. Reactions

Sometimes the main character observes something in the scene and then reacts immediately. This is similar to an observation sequence but instead of cutting back to their face, we cut back to some sort of action.

Reactions are fantastic for editing action.

In Jack Reacher, during the lead up to the movie’s signature car chase, Jack runs into a police officer that suspects him of murder. Check out this reaction sequence.

The film 'Jack Reacher' uses reaction shorts before an action scene to increase tension

These reaction sequences help to establish the characters motivation and heightens the tension in the scene to follow.

Jackie Chan movies, like Rumble in the Bronx always contain fantastic action. Thanks to good choreography, the incredible fights are easy to follow but editing plays a part too.

The film 'Rumble in the Bronx' uses reaction shots prior to a character dodging attacks to add realism

Throughout his fights, the editor has carefully chosen shots that allow the audience to clearly see that Keung has spotted oncoming attacks.

If the edit shows that Keung sees the oncoming attacks, leaves enough room for him to process the information, then make a decision – his ensuing reaction seems more realistic.

Reactions add realism and they also work equally well for comedy.

In Back to the Future, Marty McFly catches up with his father, only to realize he’s a peeping tom.

In 'Back to the future', reaction shots are used to portray the protagonist figuring out what is happening.

Tip: Cause and effect is a core tenet of storytelling. Reaction sequences link the character and the scene in a way that helps the audience to understand what’s driving the characters decisions. Subtle differences can communicate different messages to the audience. For example, lingering on the character’s face can show how powerful their resolve is. Alternatively, cutting away quickly can show how decisive they are.

4. Vulnerabilities

Vulnerabilities engender empathy from the audience. By reminding the audience of the characters weaknesses, we renew their connection with the character and remind them of the stakes.

In Mission Impossible: Fallout, the editor takes time to linger on shots of Hunt and Walker both injured during the bathroom fight scene:

'Mission Impossible: Fallout' uses reaction shots to show the pain the characters are experiencing.

By slowing the pace momentarily, it gives us a moment to feel their pain. It makes the fight more real, reminding us of its human cost.

In the final congressional hearing scene of Sully, a simulation of the landing is demonstrated in an attempt to discredit Sully.

The film 'Sully' uses reaction shots to show the vulnerabilities of the protagonist.

Moments before he delivers his powerful vindicating speech, the editor lingers on shots of Sully that show behavior that can be interpreted as doubt or nervousness. This builds tension for the audience but also shows that Sully, despite his strengths is a human being like you and me!

Tip: Vulnerabilities don’t need to be spelled out. It’s often easier for the audience to identify with a character when their vulnerabilities are ambiguous. This allows them to project their own problems on the character. Adding handles to the beginning of an action to infer hesitation might be all that is needed to cause the audience to doubt the character’s ability.

Wrap Up

Adding a little ‘drama’ like observations, reactions or vulnerabilities can enhance an edit in any genre.

Among other things:

  • It can make the character’s personal transformations plausible.
  • Realistic characters can lend credibility to unrealistic events.
  • It deepens the audience’s emotional connection with the plot.
  • It can make us cry, and it can make us laugh.

In summary, it’s like salt! It will enhance the flavor of whatever you sprinkle it on.

If you’d like to learn more about film and drama editing, be sure to sign-up for our course, The Art of Drama Editing. Enrollment closes on August 10th at 11:59pm Pacific Time.

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