Editing Artistically – Scene Breakdown

In the last email we talked about the editor as a technician and craftsman.

Today, let’s explore the other side of the coin. The creative, emotional and nuanced world of the editor as artist.

The Editor as an Artist

First and foremost, the editor as an artist must have GOOD TASTE.

In order to cut something that others will positively respond to, you should be able to consistently do 3 things, which I’ll list from easiest to hardest:

  • Easy: Recognize WHAT a good cut looks like when you see one (most people can do this)
  • Hard: Understand WHY it’s good
  • Harder: Know HOW to apply these editing techniques to your own work

In your role as the artist, you need the ability to feel the edit. You should know what needs to happen in the cut and then call upon your technical skill to make the necessary adjustments.

So what are some examples that would require an editor to draw upon his/her artistic and creative abilities?

Here are just a few:

Determining exactly where to start and stop your music

Music should be used in the places where it will have the most impact. Be sure to save it for moments that matter. Other times, you’ll find more power in letting a scene play dry – aka, sans music.

Adjusting timing in your cut

Where do should you add a breath or two? When does a viewer need a chance to think and feel for a moment in order to understand the story and connect with the characters?

Shifting the focus onto your scene’s primary character

Every scene should have a clear goal and purpose. When that purpose involves a particular character’s development and storyline, you need to know how to focus the viewer’s attention in the right place or they’ll miss the point entirely.

Deconstructing an Artistic Editing Scenario

Alright, now let’s analyze a great example of artistic editing from a feature film.

This scene is pulled from Jungle, a 2017 survival drama set deep inside the Amazon rainforest. It relies heavily on the creativity and good taste of the editor to work effectively.

In this scene, our characters (played by Daniel Radcliffe and Alex Russell) are paddling down the Amazon on a make-shift raft when they encounter some rough water.

Ultimately, Daniel’s character gets tossed into the river and swept downstream by the torrent.

So far, this is some well-executed but relatively straightforward editing. There is a specific sequence of events that needs to occur and the scene is cut in a way to clearly illustrate them. Likely, these events were edited while closely following the script.

Here’s what has happened so far in this section of the film:

1. The characters encounter rough water on the river and begin paddling hard

2. Their raft gets stuck on a large rock

3. Alex is able to swim ashore, leaving Daniel stuck on the rock

4. Daniel gets swept down river

But…this is where things get interesting and the editing starts to draw on a different set of skills.

This next section is very free-form and open to interpretation, specifically as it relates to timing and geography.

Once Daniel is in the water being dragged downstream, the editor has created a 1 minute and 30 second drowning/survival sequence.

Because of the chaotic nature of this section, it could have been edited in MANY different ways and lasted anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes.

Undoubtedly, there were hours upon hours of footage to choose from here. And many of them could quite easily be played in any order, for as long or as short as the editor felt was necessary.

Look at some of the shots in this sequence:

A scene like this gives an editor nearly unlimited creative license – and plenty of opportunities to screw it up.

The editor must constantly be thinking about:

1) Clear Scene Geography

For a viewer to stay engaged in a scene, they must be able to follow the characters and action as they move around the screen. This comes down to scene geography.

In this river scene, the editor must consider how the shots should be arranged in a way that gives the scene a sense of panic and danger, but STILL allows the viewer to track what’s happening.

It’s a fine line between keeping your audience off-balance with a bit of chaos and completely confusing them.

Orienting the viewer with well-placed wide shots and always considering screen-direction is crucial here.

2) Continuity in the Flow of Events

As Daniel is tossed around by the river, the editor cuts between close shots of him underwater trying not to drown and close shots of him on the surface gasping for breath. When the editor cuts back to a wide shot of the turbulent river, he must be conscious of whether Daniel is underwater or above water.

As a result, some wide shots of the river show Daniel flailing around in the rough water and others show only the rapids, implying that he’s somewhere below the surface. The wides without our main character visible obviously create tension for the viewer, begging the question “did he drown?”.

Juggling shot flow and maintaining continuity is vital to a well-edited scene.

3) Balance of Shot Lengths

This is an important consideration when cutting any scene.

Striking the right balance between medium/close shots full of emotion and wide shots full of information and scope can be tricky.

*Too many close-ups and you’ve got a claustrophobic scene that lacks visual interest. Too many wides and you’ve got a lifeless, emotionless series of images.

4) Adding Visual Accents

With so many shots to choose from, how do you determine where to add the visual accents?

Look at the shot sequence below:

We’ve got a handful of wide shots of Daniel flailing in the water, intercut with very frenetic handheld shots of the camera dipping under the water and splashing around, putting the viewer right there next to Daniel in the river.

But the key thing to remember is that you have to mix it up.

Do you add close-up splashing shot after every time Daniel goes underwater? When do you cut to his POV instead? When do you stay wide for a bit and let the viewer metaphorically breathe?

With a scene like this, you could easily go overboard (get it?) and start to get repetitive showing the same shot combos over and over. It’s up to you as the artistic editor to sculpt the scene in a way that gives the viewer an exciting, perilous experience without boring them with repetition.

Wrap Up

Scenes like this can definitely be a LOT of fun to cut.

But, when given the freedom to create something with so many possible styles and lengths, a lack of constraints can actually prove challenging.

It reminds me of the old saying:

“Given enough rope, he’ll hang himself”.

This is where your artistic/creative side will take over and you’ll need to constantly be evaluating your scene from the vantage point of your viewer…even more than usual.

– – – – –

So I think it’s clear that editors need to live in two worlds at the same time.

But if I’m honest, I’d say I’m 70% Technician and 30% Artist. I tend to learn new skills quickly and don’t have too much trouble keeping my cuts polished up with good storytelling logic.

I’d say I’m 70% Technician and 30% Artist.

But sometimes, my artist side can let me down. Occasionally I’ll realize that I have a perfectly polished cut but the emotion of the scene doesn’t match the goal of the script.

Other times, I’ll find that storytelling is clear but it doesn’t build any intrigue. It’s actually TOO logical and linear, leaving nothing left for the viewer to figure out on their own. That’s a quick way to leave your audience bored and non-engaged.

Which type of editor are you? Are you the logical technician or the expressive artist? Maybe a little of both?

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