Film Editing


Film Editing

Admitted a master oj his particular branch oj film making, Otto Ludwig, who worked tor a year at the A.R.P. Studios at Ealing, and has also edited American and German films, contributes this study of" cutting.”

by Otto Ludwig

THE highbrows call it “ montage.” The film executives technically call it ” film editing.” And the workers in the studios call it ‘‘ cutting.” It is all the same, whatever you call it. Each term signifies that chapter of a film’s history in which it goes into the film editor’s hands—very much in the way that meat goes into a sausage machine—and eventually comes out as a finished article, just as the sausage does.

It is a complicated business. The first time I went into a cutting-room I was appalled. But, like most difficult-looking things, it was not so hard to master as I at first thought, and I have now been a film editor for many years—in America first, then in England, and now both in England and on the Continent.

But to the uninitiated my job is rather like a jigsaw puzzle. I have to gain order out of chaos. Thousands of feet of film are handed over to me to be sorted out. The scenes are in no order whatever. I may receive the last scenes first; the beginning of the picture last.

From this medley of film sequences I have to make a coherent story, smoothly-running, interesting, and with correct film technique. By film technique I mean that due consideration must be given to those thousand-and-one items which make all the difference between a good picture and a bad one. Too many close-ups, with faces looming large upon the screen, would be disastrous, and in the same way too many sequences with the

stars a long distance from the camera would be just as bad.

Every filmgoer must have experienced those pictures in which long " tracking shots ” of a motor-car are shown. A “ tracking shot ” is one in which the camera is kept on the move —in the case of a car, running parallel with it, or ahead of it, or behind. In other words the camera travels with its subject all the time.

This type of " shot ” is apt to make you feel dizzy if you’re sitting in a darkened cinema.

It is bad editing. The ‘‘ tracking shot ” should be cut after a few seconds, then a close-up of the car shown for a moment or so. After this, the ‘‘ tracking shot ” can be joined on again. In this way the cinema-goer gains the sensations both of being a spectator and of actually being with the driver of the car, and is given a rest from that sickening sense of vertigo.

Similarly I saw a British film a little while ago in which two or three minutes were wasted while the camera followed a servant girl across a hall, up some stairs, through a door, and right up to the side of her mistress’s bed.

It was an unnecessary waste of time. It struck me as being tedious. It would have been quite sufficient to have shown the girl leaving the servants’ quarters and immediately switched over to the scene in which she entered the bed-room.

The term “ film technique ” covers such things as these, as well as a multitude of others. There is the accentuating of action and cutting out of

speech ; ensuring a brisk pace which, though really much faster than real life, looks natural on the screen ; and balancing the “ shots ” carefully in order that the chief characters shall be more dominant than those who are not so important.

If you were to come into the editorial sanctum in the middle of a picture’s cutting, you would probably wonder how on earth a film is ever completed.

The best way to realize how is to go on to the studio floor when the picture is being made.

" O.K. ! ” exclaims the director. The camera comes into operation and the microphones spring alive.

Before the actors make any move, a young man jumps from the side of the set with a board in his hand. On this board is marked the name of the picture, the name of the director, and the name of the assistant director. In addition there is a set of figures, which may be like this :

" A. Scene 98. Take 4.” *

At the same time the boy will read out the same information for the benefit of the recording apparatus.

Then he skips out of sight of the camera as quickly as possible. At the finish of the scene another boy leaps forward, this one with two pieces of board in his hands, which are clapped together. This denotes that the scene is finished, the noise being sufficient to record this fact.

The former is the number boy ; the latter the clapper boy. You never see them on the screen, though they are filmed hundreds of times a week.

Mysterious Rituals

Visitors to the studios often wonder why these mysterious rituals are performed every time.

Without the clapper boy I’m afraid it would be almost impossible to synchronize the sound with the action, for only by this mark on the film can we tell at which part of the photographed negative the sound negative should be attached. The sound track and the negative are separate, being joined later. As for the number boy, his little board is the clue which makes it possible for us to sort out the

» See J'1'*' *S

scenes. These Doys are essential to us in the cutting-room.

“ A. Scene 98. Take 4.”

A notice such as this obviously explains that this scene is one numbered 98 ; every scene on the scenario is numbered and the numbers run into thousands. A man walking across a room is one scene. A close-up of him talking is a separate scene entirely.

“ A ” means that it is “ A ” camera. Sometimes there are two or three cameras, set at different angles. They are marked “ A,” “ В,” “ C,” etc., and if in the cutting I decide that a certain angle is the most suitable, I know exactly which piece of film to choose.

“ Take 4 ” means that this is the fourth time that this particular scene has been filmed. Each scene is photographed at least three times, generally over the half-a-dozen times, often a dozen times and not infrequently twenty times. I have known a scene to be “ shot ” as many as thirty-five times before the director has announced his satisfaction.

Something might go wrong with several of the “ takes.” The star might muff his or her lines. Someone may make an interruption. Perhaps the lighting will be wrong.

Sitting by the side of the director is the script girl. Her job is to report everything that happens, every action, every word of dialogue. If the scene is spoiled, she marks it N.G.

After the film has been developed, it is handed over to me. I am already familiar with the story. There is a script by my side, giving all the scenes. I am also supplied with comments from the script girl. I don’t waste my time with those which have been marked N.G.

The scenes are passed over to me as soon as they have been developed. I don’t get the whole of the film at once, though in some cases this has been known to happen. A colleague of mine at the Radio studios, where I used to work, recently had 175,000 feet of film suddenly dumped on him, which he was told would have to be reduced to 7,000 feet. The picture was Bring 'Em Back Alive, taken entirely in the Malayan jungle and brought back complete. It was a stupendous job editing that film !

As a rule, however, scenes are rushed over to me very soon after they have been “ shot.” Contrary to usually-accepted ideas, I don’t immediately pick up a pair of scissors and begin snipping away at the film there and then.

The film is put through a machine, usually known as the moviola, which is an apparatus for projecting the film on to a small white background under a magnifying glass. It is geared at normal theatre speed but can be slowed down and stopped at will.

Every " take,” except those definitely negatived, is studied under this machine. I make what is called a rough cut. Certain scenes must obviously come out. For example, the microphone is often visible and these ” shots ” must be cut.

Having made the rough cut, the shots that are left are projected on to the screen in the studio private theatre, with one or two officials watching—myself, the director, the cameraman and perhaps the star.

It is a strange experience for the outsider. Perhaps the scene is one showing the star sitting down to answer the telephone. .

The scene is shown once. Then a second time, with such a slight difference that it is difficult to distinguish it from the first one. Then a third time, and so on, almost up to the number of ” shots ” taken—as I have said, perhaps half-a-dozen, perhaps a dozen, perhaps more. Only one or two will have been omitted at this stage.

We have to select from these ” shots ” the one which we consider the best. The star rarely has a say in the matter and it is left mainly to the film editor and the director to decide.

There are numerous things to be taken into consideration. The lighting ; the recording: the camera

angles ; the acting.

It is an ironical business. The scene which is recorded best of all may be the one which is badly lighted. The one with the best acting is the one in which the recording has slipped up. The one in which the acting and the recording and the photography all come out perfectly may be ruined by the fact that the powerful arc

lights have caught a mirror and have reflected a dazzling ray across the scene right in the middle of the ” shot.”

The only way to get over these difficulties, if the best is wanted, is to do a little bit of juggling with the sound track and try to attach the sound track of one " shot ” to the film of another ” shot.”

“ Re-takes "

Sometimes, however, this cannot be done. It may be that not one of the scenes will be any good after all and the sequence in question will have to be filmed all over again. ” Re-takes ” are annoying things. I have often known one of the actors to have left the studio altogether. It may be difficult to get him back.

Maurice Chevalier was in New York when it was discovered at the end of one picture that certain scenes would have to be re-made. Engagements made it impossible for him to return for some time. So cameramen, director and other members of the cast who were in those particular sequences had to travel all the way across the continent to New York to re-make the necessary scenes there ! The picture was One Hour With You.

Once we have selected the best ” shot,” it is put aside until the other scenes come along. We go through the same process with each sequence, until at last every scene has been filmed and the best “ takes ” chosen.

Don’t think, however, that the picture is completed by then. That’s where my job really begins, for the real jig-saw work starts полу.

With the assistance of the script, I know in just what sequence each scene should come. This is where the importance of the number boy becomes so obvious. Without that notification at the beginning of each shot,” it would be almost impossible to tabulate the scenes. As it is, each one is clearly numbered.

On the face of it, all I have got to do is to stick together all the scenes from number x to number 2,000, or whatever it is.

But things don’t work out quite in this w-ay.

To begin with, the picture is far, far too long. A scene that takes three minutes actually to “ shoot ” has to be cut down to half-a-minute. I have to use my judgment as to which parts of the scene shall be cut. If I cut too much, the scene will appear too jerky. If I don't cut enough, the picture is going to drag and is going to run too long.

Sometimes, I can cut out whole scenes by careful juggling. Take, for example, when two people are introduced. Both say “ How do you do ! ”

In a well-cut film, you never hear this courtesy. It is cut right out. Yet nine hundred and ninety-nine people out of every thousand who watch this scene on the screen will swear that the characters greeted each other with these formal words. It is a case of imagination filling the breach. It is quite sufficient to put in a brief shot of the host malcing the introduction and you need not even hear him doing this !

Having cut out unnecessary scenes such as this, I next turn to speeding up other scenes. A fight, for example. Every alternate “ frame " (each negative is referred to as a “ frame ”) can be cut out. This makes the fight far quicker, and exactly halves the running time.

The picture полу at a respectable length, there is still a lot of work left to be done. Many of the sequences can be twisted round entirely. Scene 99 may precede scene 40. Or maybe 40 and 41 will change round.

You have to look at it from a story’ point of view. Imagine for a moment that a man is sitting at his desk. He is about to be murdered and outside the house is the murderer, aAvaiting his chance to enter. Is it better to show the murderer first or the man about to be murdered ? You have to take into consideration the whole trend of the story before deciding this. It may appear to be a trivial matter ; but all these small points make the difference between a successful picture and a failure.

At last, the picture is ready for showing in its completed form ; though not its final form.

A.s a complete film, it is эЬолуп time

and time again to the director, the executives and the film editor. Perhaps the picture will be re-edited several more times. Certain points in the story may not be quite clear enough. And, although as a general rule it is the story that counts and not the star, there are instances in which the star must be taken into consideration.

If you have a player like Garbo you must stress her part. In a case like this, it is the star that counts more than the story’ and this is often the reason why big stars are accused of playing in mediocre pictures. The real reason is that the film editor has to play’ up to the star, a thing which I in\’ariably avoid doing personally, for to my mind the story is the thing.

When the studio people are satisfied with the picture, it is “ tried on the dog.” This crude expression is one used in the film business to describe the showing of a picture in an ordinary cinema when the audience is not expecting it.

If the audience doesn’t like the film (or any of the scenes) then the film editor gets to луогк once again. On many occasions, re-takes are e\ren necessary. At this stage, it really is difficult to get hold of the cast once again. By this time, many’ of the players л\’П1 have gone off elsewhere ; many of them to different studios, some of them e\ren to different countries !

If the film passes the audience successfully, it is at last ready for the censor.

Perhaps more trouble ! The censor wants this altered and that deleted. Once more the film editor has to use his wits to make the film coherent and easy’ to watch.

Heavy Cutting

It is really amazing how much can be cut out of a picture e\ren after it has been cut se\reral times.

Just as an example—though I ha\'e no personal interest in this—there was the British serial, Lloyd of the C.I.D., which, after its editing, ran into about a dozen instalments of an average of half an hour each. The picture Avas generally released. A little while later the film editors had another go at it, and cut it down still more, with the

result that it was re-issued as a single feature lasting one hour, under the title of The Green Spot Mystery.

When I first came to England, two already-cut pictures were handed over to me for revision. One was Never Trouble Trouble. I cut 1,000 feet out of it. The other was The W Plan. I relieved this of 2,500 feet.

It is sometimes quite a heart-breaking business. There is an expression in filmland which is genuinely tragic. It is “ the face on the cuttmg-room floor.” It refers to those actors and actresses who are cut right out of pictures. For one reason or another, it is found, after a picture has been completed, that their part is unnecessary. Thus are dreams and hopes felled with one snip of the scissors.

The film editor can do some extraordinary things with those strips of celluloid. He can even re-write the whole story by settling down to change all the scenes around ; which is a lengthy but amusing pastime.

One of the classic stories of filmland is that of the film editor who made a complete film without the hero making a single scene for it. What the cutter did was to dig out all the star's old

pictures and from them he obtained sufficient situations to enable him to work this hero into the leading part!

It is by no means unusual to change the stars around after a film has been produced. By careful adjustment, the second lead can be changed into the hero, mainly by cutting short the original hero’s scenes and giving fuller length to the sequences played by the second lead.

Sometimes a girl—or a man—will ” steal ” a picture from the star. Her acting will be so good that she stands out, overshadowing the heroine completely. It is heart-breaking, I know, but unfortunately that girl’s part often has to be toned down considerably in the cutting-room for the benefit of the star and the story.

I am happy to say, however, that in instances like this the studio executives, seeing the original negative, almost invariably make up for so cutting down the girl’s part by giving her a contract and bigger chances in future pictures.

The film editor’s 30b is certainly an interesting one. It is not merely mechanical; it is intensely human.



The world film encyclopedia, 1933




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