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Don't Overdo It, Editors!

Calling attention to yourself usually not a good idea By Charlie White
When I was a director, calling shots for live TV, I learned a lot of things about editing. Because calling shots live is nothing but sped-up editing, on the fly, in real time, you must compress all the skills of editing into a split second. In an instant, you evaluate the shot, assess the timing, and initiate the cut, dissolve or effect by calling it out -- right then and there. One good thing about this live pressure-cooker -- it's over when it's over, it's quick, and it feels so good when you stop. The comparison of live video directing to editing is like a baseball player's weight ring he puts on the bat when he's on deck -- it makes the bat seem so much lighter when it's time to step up to the plate. Let's take a look at some live television directing skills that translate well into the editing domain.

The one concept that seems to be to be the most difficult to learn in directing and editing is to not call attention to yourself. The most common beginner mistake is to over-direct. Look at a master film director's work, and many times you'll see a wide shot held for two minutes or more. An extreme example is in Alfred Hitchcock's movie, Rope, where there were no edits at all -- just one continuous shot. Of course, there were some clever devices to allow for film changes every eight minutes or so, but check out this movie for getting a feel for what I mean by avoiding over-directing.

A beginner director, thrilled to finally be the one in the director's chair, captain of the ship, revels in calling shots. Lots of them. These newbies get shot-drunk. "Take one! Take two! Take this! Take that!," they'll bark out. They get take-happy, looking to call as many shots as they can. But I noticed that the older I got, the more I would really look at the shots and make smarter decisions about when to move to the next one. I learned that if I wanted to change a shot, I needed to be able to answer an internal dialog that would always ask the question, "Why?" "Why did you take that new shot?," my internal voice would ask. If I haphazardly changed shots without a good answer, then I would picture myself being kicked in the butt by that device in old cartoons that consisted of a boot with a pull-handle that would administer one swift kick with every pull. Sometimes I would get creative with my answers to that internal voice. "Because I was getting tired of that old shot," I would say. Fair enough. That's a pretty good reason. But it could have been better. Something like, "Because that other guy was vigorously shaking his head in disagreement when the first guy said an outrageous thing." Good reason. Or, "Because the other talk show guest started talking."


The best directors, just like the best editors, are nearly invisible, except to other directors and editors. It's a form of magic we're engaged in here. We don't want those viewers to see or know what we're actually doing. We do the editorial equivalent of moving a hand around down here so they won't see what we're doing up there. A good way to accomplish this sleight-of-hand is to stick with lots of cuts in your work. Contrary to popular belief, cuts are not necessarily jarring. In fact, my theory is that cuts are the most natural transition, and therefore the least attention-getting. If you think about it, the way you see things in everyday life consists of a series of cuts. When your eyes move from one place to another, they look at one object or location, then the next, skipping across, one at a time. Your eyes are not actually panning -- they're giving you a series of takes. So, when editing, don't think of cuts as something jarring. Think of them as something real. If you're choosing a dissolve for every transition, then you're a beginner, or are creating either a dream sequence or a series of stills for a screen saver, in my opinion.

Use dissolves when you have a reason for them, like a change in time or scene, or for a dream-like effect. I feel the same way about using a zoom lens. Your eyes are not capable of zooming. This effect doesn't look natural, and calls attention to itself. When I was a shooter many years ago, I would avoid using the zoom unless I absolutely had to. I would rather establish a shot and then edit in a tighter shot later. The exception to this is, of course, when you are shooting something that's happening in real time and you only have one camera at your disposal and need to get in tight. Or, if you're shooting a horror movie and want to do a quick zoom into a terrified victim's face.

The point is, lay off the special effects, unless you have a solid reason for them. On this Web site, we're often mentioning how an editing system can do real time 3D effects, or another can create real time composites. These are all wonderful effects, and indispensable at times. But those times are quite specific, and usually are in a rapid-fire sequence like a show open, a mind-boggling car commercial, or a music video. I'd say nine times out of ten, the average user slathers on these crazy effects when they're not needed at all, and as a result, elicits unintentional laughter.

Finally, some words of encouragement. This craft of editing is probably one of the most rewarding and challenging of the fine arts, in my opinion. If you master it, the result makes you feel like you can fly. If you can avoid calling attention to yourself, you'll already be a long way toward your goal of editing nirvana. To get a feel for this takes time and experience, though. As with anything that is enormously rewarding, it's difficult to hone your skills to perfection. But not impossible. That reminds me of a quote from the Oscar-winning editor of Black Hawk Down, Pietro Scalia, talking about the craft of editing: "The best way to describe it is like wrestling a grizzly bear. It's painful, but I wouldn't let it defeat me."

Charlie White, your humble storytellerCharlie White has been writing about new media and digital video since it was the laughingstock of the television industry. A technology journalist and columnist for the past eight years, White is also an Emmy-winning producer, video editor and shot-calling television director with 28 years broadcast experience. Talk back -- Send Chazz a note at cwhite@digitalmedianet.com.

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