“Check out this awesome video!” bellowed Chet from across the yard. He was waving a DVD at me. “It’s of the Gollywog Hotel being dynamited last week to make way for the new bypass! I took my family down for a picnic!”
If I hadn’t been laying in a lawn chair daydreaming I could have pretended that I had something pressing I needed to attend to, but as it was, I couldn’t think of a good excuse, so I let him come in and we popped in the DVD. And hey, construction workers dynamiting an old eyesore, how boring could that be? Thirty minutes later, I knew how boring it could be.
“You have some good footage Chet,” I said, “you really do. You paid careful attention to camera angles and moves, your camera stabilizing work is really good, you shot multiple views of the implosion with telephoto and wide angle lenses, but your pacing ruins this whole thing.”
He looked crestfallen. “Pacing?” he said glumly.
“You spend twenty-nine minutes and fifty-five seconds on getting your family to the hotel and five seconds of the implosion. What you need to do is take control of the perception of time in your video. Unless you just got hired to edit “24” very few things need to happen in ‘real time.’ ”
Chet looked intrigued, so I went on.
Don’t Drag the Compelling Content
In life there are the interesting moments and there are the dull moments. We imagine that while James Bond spends a certain amount of time jumping from bridges and karate chopping assassins he also has some amount of down-time back at Universal Exports writing up reports and making tea, but we tend not to see those moments because people watch 007 movies for the car chases and explosions. One of the important jobs of the screenwriter, the director, and the editor is to figure out what to show and what not to show in order to carry the story along at a pace that’s comfortable and entertaining to the audience. Much of this weight falls on the editor – even wonderfully written and beautifully shot scenes can cause a movie to drag interminably if not well edited. Depending on the situation, a director may want to speed time up or slow it down.
Speeding Things Up
One of the most common problems with amateur video comes from leaving in what would better be cut out. If your family packs a picnic lunch, and piles into a car to drive somewhere, you don’t need to show the whole thing. A good editor can boil it down into key parts that convey the entire meaning – a knife cutting a tomato, a sandwich being wrapped, a basket closing, the family getting into a car, someone looking out a window, a map on a seat, a car pulling to a stop. Sometimes in movies, directors need to get characters across weeks, months, or years very quickly to keep the story from dragging. One common way of doing this is through a “video montage” sequence where short, representational scenes are shown and our minds fill in the rest.
Cutting Time to Speed up Time
The classic montage was defined by an editor named Slavko Vorkapic who was born in 1894 in what is now Serbia. Vorkapic was so good at compressing time using fades on visuals of lifetime events, baptisms, weddings and graduations, changing seasons, pages being torn off calendars and spinning newspaper headlines, that screenwriters used to simply write “Vorkapic” in a manuscript where a montage was to be added. Directors like Frank Capa, would hire him solely to produce montage sequences.
In the 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington , Vorkapic squeezes a whole civics lesson in about three minutes showing Jimmy Stewart as the newly elected Senator arriving in Washington, viewing monuments, interspersed with created footage of a ringing Liberty Bell, John Hancock signing the Declaration of Independence, and the burning torch of Liberty, over which plays a swelling soundtrack of patriotic music. By the time Stewart ends up in the Lincoln Memorial listening to a young boy read the Gettysburg Address, the audience knows that Mr. Smith has not only been studying American history, but is deeply moved by it as well and they’ve been prepped and are now ready for the patriotic story that follows.
Heavy handed sequences with turning calendar pages and spinning newspaper headlines have fallen out of favor, but the montage is still a popular way of showing the passage of time.
“While these are standard practice for showing large amounts of time passing quickly,” says Chaskes, a Los Angeles reality television editor who also edits independent feature films and documentaries, “Alternately, one can go for the very quick, bold stroke — the most famous example perhaps being [Stanley] Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, , which cuts directly from a bone tossed into the prehistoric air to a space station.”
Using a technique called a “match cut” – cutting between two objects that look similar to create a feeling of continuity between them – Kubrick explains visually that the bone being tossed into the air is the first step in the construction of the space station orbiting the Earth – effectively fast forwarding 200,000 years of human evolution in seven seconds.
In the 1994 film Forrest Gump as well as the 2000 film Castaway, both directed by Robert Zemeckis, the passage of time is shown in ways less subtle than Kubrik’s, but still not as bombastic as a strict montage. The growth of Tom Hank’s hair and beard in both movies, the slovenly dress as his year-long running odyssey progresses in Forrest Gump or the calendar he scratches out in Castaway all serve to give a visual reminder that time is passing. Items like these can be introduced almost anywhere in a production like this where the preamble states that a character is changing and time is passing.
Stay Tight! Advancing the Story
But editors don’t always need to cut out days, weeks, or thousands of years of history: very often they’re trimming seconds. Editor Michael Chaskes continues: “Apart from these very obvious manipulations of time, editors in film and television routinely expand and compress time in ways that are meant to be more or less imperceptible to the audience. Simply to save the monotony of watching someone perform an inconsequential action (walking across a room, or going through the full action of starting a car, or whatever), editors will “cheat” the action any way they can to get through it quicker, hopefully without the viewer really noticing. You may see someone begin to walk across the room, followed by a cut to a reaction of the person left standing there as we hear the door slam – saving several uninteresting seconds. While beginning editors may try to match action perfectly on each cut, and let action play out at full length, it’s often better to use as little as you can get away with, without drawing undue attention to the cheat, in order to avoid boring the audience.”
Slowing it Down
Sometimes editors want to make a scene linger, perhaps because it is important, or to build tension, because the real-time length would be too short, or even because what they want to show is so cool they want to show it for a long time.
Take for example the 2002 action adventure film xXx directed by Rob Cohen. Seven minutes into the movie, the anti-authoritarian bad boy Xander Cage, played by actor Vin Diesel, steals a Senator’s car and drives it off Foresthill bridge. The three-second plunge from the 730-foot high structure is stretched to nearly a minute through the use of 18 different camera angles, some filming in slow motion and others at normal speed. Showing the same footage several times from different angles is popular in action movies where there’s a big event that happens quickly. The next time you see a big explosion in a movie watch carefully to see if it’s been drawn out by backing up in time to show parts of the explosion more than once from different angles.
Filmmakers choose to slow down scenes for many different reasons. Slowing shots, says Michael Chaskes, can “be done either for pure aesthetic effect (as in the final sequence of Bonnie & Clyde where the notorious gangsters, played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway get their just desserts), or simply to allow the audience to see everything that’s going on when realtime would be too fast. Such as the very famous Odessa Steps sequence by [director Sergei] Eisenstein [in Battleship Potemkin (1925)]. The director breaks the action down into small, discrete pieces so that the audience can take everything in, even though the total time of the shots well exceeds the real time that would have elapsed.”
Not all manipulation of time is done using slow motion or skipping ahead in events. Multiple Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg really shows his talent in the first few minutes of his 1998 war film Saving Private Ryan where he masterfully controls time, both speeding it up and slowing it down through the use of long and short cuts and by the clever use of sound. In the minutes leading up to the landing at Omaha Beach, Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, and his soldiers grimly await their fate as the landing crafts plow relentlessly through the water. Spielberg uses cuts that average around five seconds in length showing the men and the boats. As soon as the Higgins boats land and the doors open, German machine guns open up and the average length of a shot goes way down and many of the following cuts last less than a single second. Spielberg effectively uses this rapid cutting to make things seem like they’re happening very quickly and the viewer barely has time to see them all.
Spielberg has a terrific understanding of the sensory input which helps our perception of passing time. At several times during the frenetic beach invasion he removes the sound, first by putting the camera under-water and the second time after an artillery shell goes off close to Tom Hank’s character, temporarily deafening him; suddenly, to the viewer, time seems to pass more slowly.
It’s About Time
“I get it!” said Chet excitedly, “What I really have here is more of a three-minute video. I should cut the first twenty-nine minutes of my footage to tell the story more economically and use the multiple camera angles I shot of the implosion to draw out the final sequence? Adding some slow motion mixed in with normal speed and maybe even cutaways to reaction shots to draw out the exciting portion?”
“Chet,” I said to him, “You couldn’t have said it better if you were a fictional character I invented just to say that.”