Killing Your Children: getting the tightest-possible edit

While I really enjoy the wild and unpolished nature of independent film, all too frequently I observe work that could really benefit from a savage pruning. Sometimes this lacking may be because the work has missed out on re-edits (and friendly screenings of rough-cuts) due to time constraints. But other times, I think the editor and the director didn’t know where to look for ways to make their story cut together in a tighter way.

So, I’ve put together a list of hints I use when trying to get a tighter edit, with the hope they might be of use to other editors.

All these tricks come with a caveat: if it “looks weird,” then ease up a bit. Note that I have a very jumpy editing style which is more suited for fast, frantic films than more languid “moody” pieces. Your results may vary!

Decide in advance how long a given movement or line is going to take. Then edit the footage to match that length.

Sometimes I’ll edit with all the video turned off, just to get the timing on the dialog right, and then I’ll turn the video back on for fine-tuning. What this technique lets you do is to decide the pacing of the scene, without letting the visuals of the source footage decide for you.

Trim actions to their shortest possible length.

Watch every clip in slow motion… keep cutting frames off the end until you can no longer tell what is happening in the clip. Now back up and add a bit to the ends again. Make sure someone watches what you end up with to make sure they can still follow the action!

In general, try to make the on-camera movements of performers take slightly less time than they did on set.

If the audience sees a shot of your hero’s hand reaching for the car door handle and then the hero settling into a car seat… they will fill in that the hero has gotten into the car.

Time remapping: if an action takes too long in a given take, speed up the footage to match your timing.

This may not always be a linear conversion! Be prepared for your sound engineer to hate you, because you’ll have to change the pitch of the dialogue to get back to the original tone of the dialog before you changed the speed.

Watch the clip with the sound off.

Sound during a take may make it difficult for you to see the optimal pacing of the footage. If you would have cut it differently after watching it without sound, consider using the sound from another take, or move the dialog to be off-screen. In extreme cases, beg the post sound team for ADR (re-recording lines in the editing studio).

Similarly, overlap audio from one take into the video for the adjoining take.

Let’s say you have clip A, followed by clip B.

EXAMPLE A: In one direction, audio A carries over into clip B – allowing the audience time to watch the reaction of the character in clip B to the dialog.

EXAMPLE B: In the other direction, audio from clip B starts while clip A is still playing… preparing the audience to see clip B, and generating a little bit of anticipation / suspense.

Related to this: don’t get stuck on synchronized video and audio endpoints.

It’s our natural inclination to have them match, because that is how the clips come into the project. Drop them on a timeline, the video and the audio start at the same time. But which is more important at the beginning, the video or the audio? The answer will vary for each clip. Trimming uninteresting audio or video first will make it easier to dovetail with adjacent clips. You can always extend the audio or video later, restoring the clip!

Footage, sections of script, or even entire scenes can be cut.

The hardest decision the director can make is “yeah, even though I love that scene, it’s totally redundant.” And yet… this decision is frequently all too necessary. If this part of the script was removed entirely… would the audience still know what is going on? Yes? Well would the mood be changed significantly for the worse? No? Well then, get rid of it. Please. Obviously the director needs to be a part of this decision!

As the director, when you are watching the rough cut, ask yourself: if I went to the snack bar during this part, would I have missed anything really crucial? If the answer is “no,” then you know what has to be done. As Samantha is fond of saying, “you must kill your children.”

Good luck with killing your children.


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6 Responses to "Killing Your Children: getting the tightest-possible edit"
  1. jager says:

    This is awesome! Great post brian!

  2. rekz says:

    Editing is more like haircut & wash the clothes type of thing.

    Just b/c it’s the USA, no reason to KILL everything.
    Surprised you didn’t name it “USA’s WAR vs bad editors!”
    (please not the facetious tone!)

  3. Julie Kerr says:

    Great post. Friendly screenings of rough cuts are great ideas! I had a festival person take a look at my film and she tore me a new a-hole with her commentary but said she liked the film and just wanted to help me make it better.

    So, I’m onto phase 2 of editing and I’m really excited!

    Did you know Annie Hall was supposed to be a mystery murder movie and the editor convinced Woody Allen to just focus on the love story?

  4. Alexandra says:

    @Julie, amazing. Had no idea!

  5. Sion Shankel says:

    That is a really right on article….and the painting to illustrate it is great too! Thanks to Brian Doom

  6. Chris Rasmussen says:

    Outstanding Brian! ~ This should be required reading AND protocol… and not just for indie filmmakers.

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