Tarkovsky, a Russian filmmaker and poet, describes filmmaking and editing as the act of ‘sculpting in time’ the idea being that sculptors and painters sculpt with matter and color, music sculpts with sound, and filmmaking uses light burned into a strip of celluloid to capture a copy of time itself. Here is Tarkovsky:
For the first time in the history of the arts, in the history of culture, man found the means to take an impression of time. Just as a sculptor takes a lump of marble and inwardly conscious of the features of his finished piece, removes everything that is not a part of it—so the filmmaker from the lump of time made up of an enormous, solid cluster of living facts, cuts off and discards whatever he does not need, leaving only what is to be an element of the finished film.
He goes on to say: I think that what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time: for time lost or spent or not yet had. He goes there for living experience.
Editing takes a ton of time. When I have an assignment, I procrastinate like crazy. I spend enormous amounts of time not taking the time to sculpt the time. I’m currently not spending time editing a short improvised film (writing lines would have taken too much time) in which I play a character who wastes time, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how maybe that was a waste of time or perhaps too much time has passed now between filming and editing to make it worth anybody’s time.
If you have free time this weekend, I’ll be screening that movie this Saturday at Potluck, 10:30 at the Frontier.
Just because a moment has been captured doesn’t make it true. The presence of the camera, the frame itself, the angle, the timing —everything has a perspective. Even security camera footage is telling a story. A hundred years ago, for the first time, cameras allowed us to capture our own point of view and say, without actually saying a word, THIS is how I see it. This is what it looks like to me. I imagine the next logical step was someone moving the camera a hair to the left and saying, no THIS is what it is. The art of editing is sequencing and timing out an moment to capture the original feeling…to heighten and extend and compress moments so that they’ll ring true.
Imagine the perspective of this place. Squint. Make that classic directors rectangle between thumb and forefinger and pan around the room a bit. What story could we tell about this place? How would we capture the feeling of this room? Would we start in the darkness with the sound of a train rumbling over us? Then fade too…what? A slow motion shot of cream blossoming into black coffee? Would we start with a shot of me looking at you or you looking at me? Who’s story is it? Would we cut quickly to create a feeling of excitement or linger on a long shot of me slowly turning the page.
The editing rhythm should match the rhythm of the piece. That’s what editing is…pulling the rhythm of character and story out of the chaos of all that footage.
Rhythm is important, but first, we need sequence. It’s not just what we see, but the order and the timing that creates meaning and feeling.
Which brings us to The Kulushov effect. The Kulushov effect states that if you use the same footage of a man simply looking with a neutral look on his face, and intercut that shot with three different cutaways, you’ll illicit three very different emotional responses from the audience. Cut from the man to some food and back to the man? He’s hungry. Man—gravestone—man? He’s mourning. Man—man—man? There’s a mirror or he’s a clone or something. Bad example…but you get the idea.
In the early 1920s after the Bolsheviks shook things up and Sergei Eisenstein, a Russian filmmaker, developed the theory of montage (extending the central truth of the Kulushov effect). Montage is the device of creating story and emotion through the sequencing of visual events—of phenomena moving through space. Before that, many early films approached their form like live recordings of plays—largely two-dimensional stories on sets, with the actors moving left and right and cuts with clear title cards explaining what was going to happen next. In many ways, cinema holds more in common with the visual language of painting than theatre. The Soviets used montage to create and illicit strong emotional propaganda. Instead of staging a theatrical massacre with all the FACTS on screen, Eisenstein found that he could build the moment to a patriotic fever pitch by cutting together symbols, synecdoche in motion.
Version one is a Wide, long shot of soldiers opening fire civilians. True, perhaps, but uncompelling.
Version two is a shot of a peaceful village…then a shot of footsteps, boots marching…a baby waking up…close up of swords being drawn…quicker shot of a fearful face…boots again, faster this time…villagers, running now and the camera moves with them…rifles drawn…blood, etc., violence, etc.
Montage turned out just to be the thing propaganda had been missing all those years. Filming something captures a moment, but it’s the editor that must recreate what that moment actually FELT like. In films that impress but completing it all in a single take, you’ll notice that the feelings of cuts is accomplished instead by FRAMING. The camera may be running the entire time, but visually the story is always changing.
Cut on action.
Follow the eyes.
Performance is more important than continuity of action.
I started making movies in 5th or 6th grade with an oversized mini-dv camera. It happened right about the time that kids were starting to “hang-out” instead of “play” and I think in a lot of ways that camera kept my play alive until I went off to college and started playing for REAL. Our progression followed that of a film in the 20th century. At first, we just pointed and captured. Then we felt the urge to capture something magic, the 5th grade equivalent of Buster Keaton having a house fall on him or the rocket hitting the moon in the eye. Then we learned how jokes could be told through order and sequence…how comedy could be created by adding music or slow motion or a close-up. In comedy, the difference between a joke landing or not is often a frame or two in either direction. Not only are you recreating the rhythm, you’re creating a brand new rhythm—cobbled together through a series of takes.
You can cut to draw attention to the form. You can cut to mask the form. You can cut to create excitement or create discomfort or lull the viewer or startle them.
Once your hands are full of these tools you realize that there’s also responsibility. I believe there’s a moral obligation to cutting up time. To tell the truth or to try to tell the truth or perhaps to try and tell a truth. The same footage can be cut to inspire or scare or to be laughed at. Think about cameras. About cell phones. About body cameras. About the stories each of these can tell— one from the perspective of the police, the other from a bystander or victim. The words of a politician cut next to images of hope or cut next to images of prosperity, of multi-cultural teamwork or flags or people who look different from you. It’s the same world. The same objective-starting-point. The same moment in time. It’s the same footage and sound bite. But currently our culture is polarized because each side is feeding itself two different montages, montages that run on a loop and feed us a particular perspective, intercut here and there but basically unchanging and drifting farther and farther apart. If we can learn to see the tools, learn to see how and why the choices were made, we can shift our cultural role from that of media consumers to media-translators and makers. We can see the choices that were made instead of blindly accepting what we’re fed.
The nice thing about time is that, when it comes down to it, you can only do one thing at a time.
Editing, for me at least, at its core is the constant reminder of this lesson. A book is read a word at a time, a journey taken a step at a time, and a movie?
Cut by cut, baby. Cut by cut.