Join Ashley Kennedy for an in-depth discussion in this video Understanding the editor's role in cutting dialogue, part of Introduction to Video Dialogue Editing.
- In this course we're going to talk all about, well, talking. Specifically we're going to delve in to all things related to cutting conversations in cinema, the art of dialog editing. Filmgoers and critics alike often give most of the credit of an engaging dialogue scene to the actors, or to the director. But not very often does the editor receive the appropriate accolades, but editing is huge. Imagine, if we didn't have editing, a cinematic conversation would be exactly like watching a play from one vantage point, one take, one set of interactions.
But editors work with a treasure trove of raw materials, bringing order to chaos, and contributing to the emotional output of a film scene in so many more ways than most people realize. An editor chooses which shot to use, which angle and composition, whether it be a long shot, a medium shot, a close up, and so on. Each shot provides very different emotional energy and gives us different clues about what's going on in the hearts and minds of the characters in the scene.
An editor determines which take to use, given that the director has already established his or her preferred take. Even once the editor has determined that a close up, for example, is best used for the emotional energy of a particular line, that's only part of the job. Each line was recorded in many different takes, often with the director calling for different types of deliveries each time. So perhaps sometimes you're dealing with a calmer, more confident interpretation of the lines. Other times, quicker and more frenzied.
Other times more direct and forceful. The editor must determine which serves the scene best and sometimes different takes are even combined to produce a new type of emotional output. An editor chooses who to show on screen. This means sometimes showing the person speaking and sometimes showing the person listening, or sometimes showing something else entirely. And it is through this juxtaposition that a scene really comes alive. Too often, rookie editors show the person speaking on screen and then cut to the next speaking person and so on.
This is like a very boring tennis match, and we don't get to witness the intricate magic of reaction and response, which is so important to editing dialogue. Finally an editor determines the pacing of a scene. They decide when to linger on shots to let a scene breath, and when to really tighten up the edits to create a heightened energy. So with all of that said, let's take a look at this scene from Schindler's List. We've already been looking at various still images from the scene, so now let's play it out.
This shows a conversation between German businessman Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson and SS Lieutenant Amon Goeth played by Ralph Fiennes, about the concept of power. Remember, as we listen to this conversation we're looking at what shots are being used, we're looking at who is talking and who is listening, and we're looking at the scene's pacing. And most of all we're looking at how all of these elements combine together to make us feel.
- Why do you drink that motor oil? Hm? I send you good stuff all the time. Your liver is going to explode, like a hand grenade. - You know, I look at you. I watch you. You're not a drunk. That's... That's real control. And control is power. That's power.
- [Oskar] Is that why they fear us? - We have the power to kill. That's why they fear us. - They fear us because we have the power to kill arbitrarily. A man commits a crime, he should know better. We have him killed and we feel pretty good about it. Or we kill him ourselves and we feel even better. It's not power, though. That's justice. That's different than power.
Power is when we have every justification to kill and we don't. - You think that's power? - That's what the emperor said. A man stole something, he is broughten before the emperor, he throws himself down on the ground, he begs for mercy. He knows he's going to die. And the emperor pardons him.
This worthless man, he lets him go. - I think you are drunk. - That's power, Amon. That is power. - This very powerful scene is edited beautifully by Michael Kahn, who is a very well recognized film editor and has collaborated heavily with Steven Spielberg for more than 30 years.
He received the Oscar for editing this movie, and his philosophy on editing a scene involves a lot of trial and error during the creation process. "Give me the chance to be wrong," he said at an American Cinema Editor's seminar. "So in that way I can try different things and experiment, "be innovative. "I think an editor needs that because "to try to bring about the director's vision "you may have to take some circuitous routes editorially. "Directors select the takes "but editors have all the dailies. "Sometimes you need a bridge, "you have to get from here to here "and you have to use your own initiative "to get there and make it work." So as Kahn was experimenting with this scene, imagine how many options he had at his fingertips.
Let's break down his final decision somewhat. We start in this master shot. Editors often use master shots to show the relationship of characters to other characters or to their environment. In this scene the master shot is used to establish the scene, showing where the two men are talking, and begin to somewhat establish the power relationship between these characters in the way they interact with each other, they way they present themselves, and the way their bodies move in the space. But the master shot is only used at the beginning to set up the scene.
Once Kahn has done that he pushes into medium shots and close ups to focus on each of these men, as well as to heighten the emotional energy as we begin to see into this very strategic conversation. So let's reexamine this part of the conversation which uses medium shots and closeups and definitely uses some very interesting techniques as far as who is shown on screen. Kahn chooses to hang on shots of each of the men listening to the other. See what you think about how this juxtaposition makes you feel.
- You're not a drunk. That's... That's real control. Control is power. That's power. - [Oskar] Is that why they fear us? - Now this may just be a little bit disorienting because we're being invited to look at these men as they consider what the other is saying. Out of all the possible shots, Kahn and Spielberg have made the decision that it's most important that we see these lines play out in this way, which I think is really interesting.
Now the pacing of this scene is also quite masterful. An editor truly controls the rhythm of a scene. As Kahn says, "When it comes to rhythms and pace, "that's always with the editor, because that's "what an editor is presenting to the director. "A lot of what we do is rhythm and pace and feeling." Okay? So while he says he does share the job of picking the shots and the takes with the director, he says that pacing is really something that the editor owns down to every single frame that he or she removes or keeps in the scene.
So let's take a look at this last part of the scene and really think about the pacing. Pay close attention to the space at the end of the line before Kahn cuts to the next shot, as well as the space at the beginning of a cut before each of the men begins speaking. - He throws himself down on the ground, he begs for mercy. He knows he's going to die. And the emperor pardons him. This worthless man, he lets him go.
- I think you are drunk. - That's power, Amon. That is power. - The space in between these lines is penetrating. It focuses our attention on the words even more, and gives these words greater meaning and importance. Now that we've determined a small part of what it is that an editor does when cutting a dialogue scene, let's dig in deeper.
We're going to spend the rest of this chapter really dissecting many different types of strategies for the art of cutting conversations.
- Understanding the editor's role
- Acknowledging nonverbal dialogue
- Looking at the script
- Choosing shots
- Laying the foundation
- Refining the edit
- Viewing the final cut