Steve Semel is an editor who has been working in the business for many years, often working in the comedy genre. His latest film is not, however, a comedy -- THE WAY OF THE GUN. He has also edited AIRHEADS, THE TRUTH ABOUT CATS AND DOGS, I'M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA, JURY DUTY, and the Martin Lawrence film YOU SO CRAZY.
This article is excerpted from a longer piece that Semel wrote for EditorsNet.
By Steve Semel
Aug 21 2000
The following is a quick rundown on how I go about business in the editing room. I always keep a steno pad by my Avid that notes each scene and its number of setups. (This list is prepared by my assistant while the material is digitized.) When I cut the scene for the first time, I simply cross out the entry in the steno pad. In this way, I always know what I have left to cut, and I apportion my time accordingly -- I don't like to walk into the cutting room the day before the director is due to watch my cut of the film and discover that I have a scene for which there is five hours of untouched material. I'm constantly referring to my steno pad: This scene should take me half a day, this scene two days. These pickups a day and a half. My cut is due in four days? Looks like I'm working late for the next three nights. Sometimes those all-nighters just can't be avoided; when that happens I take a deep breath and dig in.
A note from Norman: I find this more trouble than it's worth. On the latest Avids you can put bins into folders, so I keep a folder of completed scenes, leaving the uncut scenes out in the project window. Anything which is still in the project window needs to be cut. I also keep a copy of the film continuity taped to the wall near my editing setup. In the left margin I check off each scene as it is shot (actually, as I receive and watch its dailies). I then check off in a different color, the scene after I've cut it.
I am not suggesting that anyone else needs to follow me down that particular compulsive path (though I have yet to discover any part of the filmmaking process that suffers from being over-organized), but I mention my little steno pad to illustrate a point: Every editor should develop a plan and a schedule for the entire post-production process, from film editing to music to sound design to titles, negative cutting and on-line. Do not lose sight of where you are in this convoluted and amorphous process, and adjust the plan as you go.
Once past that first tense milestone, the director generally comes into the cutting room on a daily basis during the picture editing process. On the first day we formulate a plan. A feature film director normally has 10 weeks from the end of principal photography in which to forge a cut, prepare a temporary soundtrack -- with the help of some combination of the film editor, the music editor and the sound designer -- and screen it for the producing entity. I've already used anywhere from a week to two weeks out of that 10 to finish my first cut of the film, depending on the amount of film shot. The director then has eight or nine weeks to create the director's cut. Within that period of time, we want to re-edit and screen the film several times. Each successive version should be tighter than the last, with more music and sound effects, as well as added narration, inserts and titles.
The craft of editing is not about sitting down and making a scene perfect and then moving to the next scene and never revisiting the first, because the requirements of any scene will change as the process proceeds. Dialogue will become superfluous and you'll have to figure out how to cut it out. The take of an actor's performance that gave you goose bumps in dailies will come to be seen as over-the-top when you watch it in context. Some bit of essential plot logic, a 30-second speech in the script, may boil down to one off-camera line of dialogue, and you'll need to recut the scene accordingly. You will come to realize that entire sequences have to be dumped. These realizations won't all happen in one pass through the film, so the filmmakers must apportion their time so that they can go through the whole thing a number of times.
Generally speaking, the sooner music is added as an element of the editing process, the better the final music and film will be. Prerecorded music often allows you to arrive at what works best. (I am ignoring the crucial issue of music licensing fees here.) If an original score is to be written for the film, the process of trying temp music allows the filmmaker to generate a dialogue with the composer about what the filmmaker is looking for. The composer may have a completely different take on the score, but at least there is a point of reference from which to begin that crucial conversation. Bad filmmaking happens to good people when the composer is brought in at the last minute, after the picture editing has been completed and he only has enough time to take one pass at writing the score. When this happens, and the score arrives at the final sound mix, you may come to realize that the music is completely wrong for the movie. And it's probably too late to change.
I am always hopeful that a director has a sound designer with whom he would like to work. Usually the director doesn't have enough time during production to think about post-production sound, but as the editor, I do. For example, if specific sound effects are missing from a scene while I am cutting it for the first time -- either because the scene was shot silent or because the production sound is unacceptable -- I'll ask the sound designer for that effect to put into my cut. In these moments, the key is to be as specific as possible.
In most films I've worked on, the fundamental concept of the titles changes dramatically during the process. The director originally had intended to have the titles play over the first scene, but then we discover the scene plays so well that we don't want to mess it up with titles. So we try titles in black after the first scene, but that slows down the pace too much. Then we try titles in black at the head of the movie, but that seems too plain. Graphics would help, though, so we decide to bring in a title designer. Is there money in the budget? No? Back to titles over the first scene. And on and on and on.
Narrative film editing and post-production can be a confusing, often maddening ordeal, and in most cases the process ends not when the filmmakers are completely satisfied with what they've created, but when time or money (or both) run out. Fortunately, there are many time-honored procedures and guideposts to provide a framework in which to toil. By adhering to that framework, you can help stack the odds for a better film.
© 2000 EditorsNet
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