Archive for March, 2010

Old Hollywood Style editing vs. MTV Style Editing or Silver screen vs. Computer Screen – Part 1

March 29th, 2010

If an editor – standing in for the viewer – is a movie’s eyes, are those the eyes of someone suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder?

Since 1981 and the birth of MTV, filmmakers have been complaining, arguing, and embracing the effect of MTV on cutting. This week I’ll look at the pros and cons. Feel free to chime in!

Modern Editing

In “The Lost Art of Editing,” a 2006 article in The Boston Globe, writer Jessica Winter refers to the “dizzying pinball effect of hyper speed editing”, calling today’s editing “jittery” and a “chaotic, rat-tat-tat style of assembly.”

Winter reaches out to Steve Hamilton, editor of commercials, promos, and independent filmmaker Hal Hartley’s films. Hamilton explains, “There is much more pressure on an editor to try to do something noticeable, or perhaps there are more editors who’ve grown up thinking that they have to make edits that are noticeable, whereas before the goal was simply to tell the best possible story and to do so relatively invisibly. I think this mentality is leading to a mistrust of the shot.”

Or is it a mistrust of the material and the editor to bring forth the story from the material – to sculpt the perfect the piece from its hunk of marble – the footage?

Yesterday…All my long cuts seem so far away

“…recent American cinema has seemed so rushed and frazzled, desperate as it is to hold its ground in the losing battle between the haughty silver screen, that decrepit diva who insists on your silent attention, and the accommodating computer screen, the loyal manservant whose command is your every wish.”

Jessica Winter, from “The Lost Art of Editing

What are the traditional values of Hollywood Style editing? Here are the main ones:

  • Invisible editing: Viewer is unaware of cuts – seeing whole show.
  • Long shot durations, except for action scenes.
  • Typically have linear structure and 1-2 plotlines.
  • Music enhances the story. Songs sung on stage and usually backdrop to plot, not driver of plot. Producer tried to remove Somewhere over the Rainbow from Wizard of Oz.
  • Continuity rules! Editors finesse footage to maintain continuity via match cuts (matching eyelines, action, angles, POVs etc.)
  • Jump cuts eschewed.
  • Spare use of visual effects that audience aware of: Time transition effects such as dissolves and fades most common.

Enjoy a fun, old style editing musical salute to Hollywood, made in 1980 by Forbidden Planet.

Stay tuned for Part 2, and positive reflections on the MTV effect.

Editing practices, Editor’s role, Fun & games, History/research, Sound & music editing, Television

Bad Day at the Moviola

March 25th, 2010

Note: This post is a segue from the last post – which explored cut durations, how they’ve gotten shorter since 1980, and how this timing fits our natural attention spans – to the next post which will talk about the ramped up pace and other traits attributes of so called “modern cutting.”  Enjoy the segue!

While I prefer to focus on the positive, I know from being on the planet a few decades that a lot can be learned in life and postproduction from the not-so-hot – the downright painful, and the tragic. So here’s a good example of bad editing.

Why is this bad editing?

The music and narration clip along but the long duration of the picture shots kill this travelogue on “Los Anguhless.” There should be more picture cuts to match the pace of the narration. Since the sound fights lagging pictures, the piece is deadly dull.  Who would want to come to LA?

No excuse #1: OK, so maybe they didn’t have enough footage to cover the narration. Get creative! Blow up shots, slow them down or speed them up, flip them, flop them, pixellate them, and alter the rhythm so that when they repeat their not so borrring.

No excuse # 2: Perhaps this was the style of the time. See #1. And gee, aren’t we glad we’re editing today because we could soup this thing up with effects and the manipulations suggested in #1 and make the available footage dance!!

No excuse #3: I would make a strong case for an additional shoot. What were they thinking not showing the oil derricks, the ocean, and the beach communities?

Editing practices, History/research

Psychologists study Hollywood editing: What grabs and holds the mind in movies?

March 22nd, 2010

“Modern movies may be more engrossing-we get “lost” in them more readily-because the universe’s natural rhythm is driving the mind.”

James Cutting, Jordan DeLong and Christine Nothelfer from their paper on human attention span and film.

Common wisdom claims that MTV and our ramped-up, multi-tasking, instantly communicating world have affected the way editors cut and films are made. More on this subject in the future but for today, I want to focus on one common complaint; shortened cut durations.

A Cornell University cognitive psychology professor and two of his grad students interested in the human mind and its attention span read the research on artworks, speech, and music. Then they applied the theories to 150 popular Hollywood movies shot between 1935 and 2005 in five genres: action, adventure, animation, comedy and drama. To do this, they used video-only .avi files to measure the duration of each shot in each scene and published and article in February in Psychological Science Online.


“Our unit of investigation was the shot.”

Slope, 1/f fluctuation, lag, white noise, traveling windows, Fourier analysis and mathematical formulas – all figured into their methods of analysis. I will summarize their research and findings but if you’d like to dig deeper, read the full article, Attention and the Evolution of Hollywood Film.


The researchers studied “Hollywood style” editing and filmmaking which they defined as the invisible style that “…is designed to suppress awareness of the presentational aspects of the film while promoting the narrative.” They believe Hollywood movies differ in style from documentaries, news, sitcoms, music videos, and art films. While I disagree – I think all genres use invisible editing most of the time and that Hollywood movies differ only from the above genres (except documentary) because they are “long form” (100 minutes on average) – I agree that they make a great case for study. I’d like to see them study TV with its shorter life span and thousands of hours more of footage. But, on to their report!

The trio used a concept from chaos theory – the 1/f fluctuation – which describes a pattern of attention that occurs naturally in the human brain. It can be thought of as a pattern of waves in which the “height” of each component wave varies inversely with frequency (1/f). The 1/f pattern also appears in nature, culture, engineering, and economics.


The most engaging and successful films were subsequently imitated by other filmmakers, so that over time and through cultural transmission the industry as a whole evolved toward an imitation of this natural cognitive pattern.

James Cutting, Jordan DeLong and Christine Nothelfer from their paper on human attention span and film.

The prof and his students found that more recent films – those made after 1980- matched the 1/f pattern found – natural rhythm of the mind. They believe this has occurred over time as the 125 year old art form that is filmmaking has evolved. Their results also suggest that “Hollywood film has become increasingly clustered in packets of shots of similar length.” Action flicks, with their short shot durations, are closest to the 1/f pattern, followed by adventure, animation, comedy and drama.

While they recognize that filmmakers have “particular styles, preferences, and skills,” they believe that films and filmmakers influence each other (we knew that) and that both individuation and influence will continue.


“We suggest that over the next 50 years or so, and with action films likely leading the way, Hollywood film will evolve toward a shot structure that more generally matches the 1/f patterns found elsewhere in physics, biology, culture, and the mind.”

So does this mean we’ll all be working faster and creating show that go by with the blink of an eye? Not! The researchers continue, “But is the task of the filmmaker solely to keep information flow and visual momentum (visual information uptake) sufficiently high to ward off the mind’s natural restlessness? Not likely. Otherwise, all films would be composed of unremittingly short shots.

Finally, they acknowledged that viewers do not rate movies based on shot duration, stating, “Good storytelling is the balancing of constraints at multiple scales of presentation… film editors design shot patterns with care, generating a visual momentum in the viewer, who tracks the narrative.”


Comedy Editing Part 4: The Last Laugh – Adding the Laugh Track

March 19th, 2010

A show is “laffed” after the dialogue mix or after the entire mix. The laughs start after the “laffer” wheels the Laff box in. Whoa… hold the press…That was then. Now Charley Douglass’s original machine from the ’50s, like everything else, comes in a digital format. Still, it contains titters, guffaws, snickers, and chuckles of varying lengths.

Why laugh a show?
To sweeten it. Sweetening means that laughs are inserted to bridge and bolster audience response or lack of response.


Yes. Laugh tracks have been disdained since the ’70s but still they persist. Many beloved shows have them – I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H, and Friends to name but a few.

The worst offenders are single-cam shows such as Gilligan’s Island and Hogan’s Heroes. With no audience and no laughs, a laugh track was inserted at the network’s insistence, requiring extra time and money. The laughter come across as canned due to the rarely varying volume, length, and strength of the laughs. The trend today with single cam comedies such as Ugly Betty and The Office is to fuggeddabout the laugh track.

Most multi-cam shows today take the natural laugh track created by the audience and simply sweeten it – a much lighter touch than in the past.

For more info and the history of laughs tracks, here’s a detailed article:

Editing practices, Editor’s role, Television

Comedy Editing Part 3: Multi-cam and single cam

March 16th, 2010


Multi-cam shows are recorded from first scene to last in front of an audience with three or four cameras. The cameras, labeled A, B, C, and D, are maneuvered by a cabled gang of four camera operators who travel up and down the stage, getting their assigned shots. D camera is frequently called X camera or referred to as the Iso camera as it’s often an isolated camera, running independent of A, B, and C. The Iso cam picks up isolated angles and may run only 50% of the time. After the taping, reverse angles and other angle unobtainable within the shooting space of the stage’s proscenium arch are shot.

After the show is taped, the multi-cam editor receives:

  • A tape for each camera: A, B, C, & D.
  • A tape of the line cut.
  • The script supervisor’s script with A, B C, & D camera’s angles marked with the line cut.

The line cut is a tape of the switches from one camera angle to the other that the director called out to the TD (Technical Director) as each scene was shot. It represents the director’s desires for cutting the scenes and is a starting point for the editor. It shows all four cameras on a monitor in the cutting room where it is called the quad split, a.k.a. Q split and used as a guide for editing.

Prepping the multi-cam show

All camera angles for each take must be synced by time code. This is done after you input the footage into the digital editing system. Below, two short tutorials show you how to sync and cut multi-cam on Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premier Pro 2.0x. Whether you’re cutting comedy or a rock concert (or other multi-cam event) – as these tutorials demonstrate – the principal is the same. This syncing means you gang, a.k.a. lock all cameras to edit.

FCP tutorial form Century College:

Adobe Premier Pro 2.0x tutorial from Creative Cow:

Synced takes are critical to being able to cut freely and easily from camera to camera and not lose sync.

Cutting multi-cam comedy

To start editing, you lay down the best and longest audio track from one of the cameras, usually Camera A. After this, you simply cut from camera to camera “on the fly” as the synced takes play and adjust the cuts later. This method works well if you’re not changing the audio track. However, if you’re changing the audio track in any way – shortening it, repeating it, or slowing it down – you may want to use the normal “stop and start” method of cutting where you stop on your last desired frame and then choose the incoming frame. You will need to re-sync at times with each method.

Matching multi-cam

Since the multiple cameras capture all the action simultaneously, there are no matching problems for the editor, right? Wrong. This assumes that no filmed lines will be dropped during editing, a typically false assumption. It also assumes that the camera operators will always make it to their assigned spots to capture the action. Wrong again. When the camera is out of position, the actor will be shot off camera, partially on camera, or with the camera moving and settling on a critical line. If the director doesn’t catch this there is little chance of picking up the line since by the time the editor receives the footage the next week’s show is already being blocked.

Challenge of multi-cam

The multi-cam editor doesn’t just tidy up the line cut and retire for the day. Multi-cam comedy brings a special challenge for the editor: the audience. The audience, though unseen during the taping of the show, is not unheard: It laughs. These laughs are miked and become part of the daily tapes sent to the cutting room. During editing, the editor incorporates these natural audience laughs into the show.

Sometimes however, the audience doesn’t laugh or it laughs and laughs and laughs, exceeding what is sustainable for an edited show. What to do? The editor must take advantage of the audience’s response by cutting in the laughs but must also keep the drama going. So the editor becomes expert at finessing the laughs in and out of the show. This finessing is called feathering the laughs, dialing the laughs in or out, or ramping them up or down. The audience is thus a boon and a challenge, because it functions as a character – verbal, reactive, and unseen – that the editor must attend to while editing.

Pros and cons of multi-cam comedies

Studios shoot multi-cam for two main reasons:

1)    It can be done live e.g. Letterman, Leno, Ellen.

2) It’s cheaper and faster than single camera. The long list of shows include Two and a Half Men, Friends, Frasier Cheers, All in the Family, and I Love Lucy.


Single camera shows are shot and edited like dramas and most other TV and theatrical shows – out of scene order with a single camera (except for stunts) and several set-ups for each scene. Since multiple-cam shows shoot toward a stage, they can only capture about 180° of the action. This means that reverse angles, outdoor scenes, 360° shots and others are avoided or shot before or after the live audience taping. With single cam, these angles are part of the regular shoot and do not need to be picked-up later, making for more visual creativity.

Single cam shows include Nurse Jackie, 30 Rock, The Office, Weeds, Ugly Betty, M*A*S*H, and Leave it to Beaver.

Which type of comedy – single cam or multi-cam – uses a laugh track?

Find out the answer later this week in the final installment of this series: Part 4: The Last Laugh – Adding the Laugh Track.

Editing practices, Editor’s role, Technical & process, Television

Docu Days

March 11th, 2010

Every year IDA (International Documentary Association),  puts on DocuDays in LA, screening all nominees for documentary features and shorts. IDA times this event to the weekend of the Oscars so that all the filmmakers and their amazing subjects are in town. It’s worth a visit to LA! This year I saw two features and two shorts and was enthralled by all of them. Each is powerful in its own way and highly recommended.


Rabbit à la Berlin, made by a band of Polish filmmakers, gives a rabbit’s eye view of the Berlin wall. The analogies between humans and hares are left for the audience to make in this grounded, pensive doc. The movie’s schnitt (German for editor) was on the panel following the film and its editing was a major subject of the discussion.  Turns out there was very little archival footage so shots of rabbit from many different countries were gathered and stitched together (with a lot of color correction) I’m sure. The producer quipped, “It was an international cast of rabbits.”

The director remarked that it was necessary to gather a lot of rabbit close-ups and reactions to tell the tale. My conclusion:  This story, as so often occurs with a documentary, came together in editing. How else to consistently put across a bunny’s POV of the decades preceding and following the wall? To get a view of the doc, here’s the trailer:

The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner
Booth GardnerThis movie is about the decline of the genial, always in control, well liked ex-governor of Washington and his drive to pass an initiative granting terminal patients the right to elect doctor-assisted death. It made me cry. It also made me believe in politicians once again and the ability of filmmakers on one side of an issue to fairly present both sides.
During the panel discussion the director stated that the “Film’s intent was to open up dialogue on end-of-life issues, not to be an advocacy film.” But seeing a powerful man fight his deterioration due to Parkinson’s disease with every brain cell and muscle, humanized the issue. When Gardner was wheeled on to the stage by his daughter after the movie, he received a standing ovation. Here’s a sampling from the beginning of the film:

Oscar winner for best documentary short: Music by Prudence


The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers Daniel Ellsburg
This stellar doc reflects on the war in Vietnam and the downfall of President Nixon from the angle of the act of Daniel Ellsberg and his assistant Anthony Russo. The pair worked for Rand Corporation to support the war and then turned over 7000 pages of evidence to show that each successive administration disregarded the facts, lied to the American people, and escalated the war.

Afterwards, it was touching to see septuagenarian Ellsberg, who also got a standing ovation, and his wife – a dove on the war from the start – holding hands and intelligently and passionately laying out the facts about the wars we’re embroiled in today. Get an idea of the movie from the trailer:

The Cove

CoveI had already seen stills of the gruesome, bloody footage of this film about the slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan on Facebook. Still, I ducked my head to avoid watching at times, but did not duck its truths about mercury build-up in dolphins and other fish which gets passed on to humans and the intelligence of these creatures.

This film, like Rabbit à la Berlin, gave voice to creatures and clearly depended on VO and editing to make it work. In the post-screening panel the director talked about the challenges of making this film which included death threats, risking arrest, going without a salary for 18 months, and not knowing if there was a film in what they were shooting.

This movie is a “must see” because it proves that docs can be entertaining and change the world and all the effort and sacrifice are worth it. Get a glimpse of it below:

Food, Inc.

Food, Inc.This high budget doc about how our food is produced by a handful of companies who mistreat animals and humans alike to put unhealthy foods in our supermarkets is also a game change changer and a “must see.” Again, IDA put the director and producer on stage as well as Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and an expert seen in the film. Here’s the trailer to get you started:

Oscar winner for best documentary feature: The Cove. Like Man on Wire, which won in 2009, The Cove can be seen as a caper film with much reconnaissance and stealthy nighttime set up leading to daytime coup.

Awards, Editing practices, Editor’s role, Joy goes to the movies

The Day After

March 8th, 2010

OscarsI was extremely pleased that The Hurt Locker won for both picture editing and sound editing and sound mixing too. This was a picture and sound editor’s movie if there ever was one and it previously won the A.C.E. Eddie award for best feature editing. Picture editing drove the rhythm of this story about an American bomb diffusion squad in Iraq and in a way, diffusion was the movie’s metaphor – trying to mitigate the harm the war’s causing. The editing provided the tension from the film’s first frame,  and brought the excellent script, acting, and footage together. It was also the first time a husband-wife team won. Hats off to Bob Murawski and Chris Innes.

Sound editing

I will never forget the night scene in The Hurt Locker when members of the squad go up a blind alley, guns at the ready, not knowing what they’ll find. We can’t see much of anything but their grunted words and the sound effects carry us through. Thank you sound team, led by Paul  N.J. Ottosson, editors and Paul  N.J. Ottosson and Paul Beckett, mixers. Today’s LA Times reported Ottoson’s words backstage, “The most important part was to put you as a viewer into being the fourth man on the team and always being with the guy we’re with. We really [thought] about every shot in the movie instead of making something flashy and cool.”

Last thoughts

All movies nominated had excellent editing but I am glad not only that Hurt Locker took the editing Oscars but also the best picture and best director awards. In accepting her Oscar (finally a woman!) I was hoping Kathryn Bigelow would mention other women directors: Lois Weber, Dorothy Arzner, Barbara Streisand, etc. But I was pleased when she said, “I think the secret to directing is collaborating,” giving credit to all who toiled along with her.

Awards, Editor’s role, Joy goes to the movies, Sound & music editing

Comedy Editing Part 2: Reactions and Rule of Three

March 5th, 2010

This post continues five-part series on comedy editing and how I learned to cut comedy working with editor Dann Cahn on The New Leave it to Beaver series.

1. Reactions are critical

On one episode, ten-year-old Ollie – the new “Beaver” played by John Snee – got a tractor going and plowed it into a partially constructed house. Many cameras yielded many takes of the one-time action but no reactions of Ollie. Dann caught this omission and brought it up to the director. The director agreed but said it was too late — there was no time to go back to the location. “Put him in a chair,” Dann persisted. So a small crew went outside the sound stage, hoisted the boy in a chair above their heads, and wiggled it from side to side against the sky while the camera caught him in a close-up. When cut in, his reactions made all the difference in the scene.

2. Rule of Three

Usually you show three instances of something – say a guy choosing a tie for a date – before you pay if off with him leaving in his selection. Three’s funny, and the viewer stays with it and can remember it; four or more is not – unless the cuts are very short. How does this work? The first tie – the set up – should be funny, the second tie – reinforcing the first – funnier, and the third tie – the punchline or payoff – the funniest – and often the most unexpected.

The comic rule of three most often arrives in three verbal beats:

Example 1: “I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”  Jon Stewart

Example 2: “There was a priest, a rabbi, and a minister…”

Example 3: “I used to be Snow White…but I drifted.”  Mae West

The pause in the middle after Snow White serves as the second beat.

So the rule of three depends on rhythm – timing – whether you’re telling a joke or a story or editing a joke or story.

In these two scenes from 30 Rock you can see the Rule of Three exploited and commented on and how a joke can escalate to be, well, killer.

3. Importance of comedy

If you can cut comedy, you can cut anything because you understand timing – extending moments – time – and shortening it. As with any genre of cutting, you cut from your gut, simultaneously functioning as a creator and the audience. You learn to breathe with the footage and to sense when the materials needs to be snappy, take a breather, show people connecting or separating, etc.

I believe the best comedy comes from actors being real and reacting in a human way to situations. This adds depth and meaning to the comedy and cements the audience appreciation and response. A lot of times you can show hard truths about the human condition, political issues and social mores and reach more people through comedy than drama or documentary. Here are few examples which spring to mind: M*A*S*H, Murphy Brown, The Office, South Park, Monk, Blazing Saddles, Some Like it Hot, Four Weddings and a Funeral, La Cage aux Folles, Tootsie, Best in Show, and Mrs. Doubtfire.

Stay tuned for Part 3: Multi-cam, and single cam.

Editing practices, Editor’s role, Television

Comedy Editing Part 1: Some Cutting Remarks

March 2nd, 2010

Watching an editor cut – even if you’re hellbent on becoming one yourself – is excruciating, like watching paint dry. A veteran comedy editor changed that all for me. In 1985 I was hired to assist Dann Cahn on Ediflex, a new non-linear VHS-based editing. Danny had cut on the original Beaver series which is why he was hired to edit The New Leave it to Beaver series. When he couldn’t quite hack Ediflex, Universal hired an apprentice to do most of my job so I was free to operate the system for Dann. It was nerve wracking since I was learning the system myself but it made me get inside his head. I began to anticipate where he would cut next. What better way to learn editing! He shared his knowledge liberally, left two shows for me to cut, and our finished shows pleased the producers.

So what did I learn?


Comedy, as is often said, is all in the timing. Usually, you want to cut lean – no lingering on frames – but sometimes you want to milk the moment, “cut around the horn” as Dann called it. This means you extend “the laugh” (audience’s enjoyment of the scene) by cutting to people’s reactions – maybe even the dog’s. Just think of how a pie-throwing scene builds. A classic example occurs toward the end of the deli scene in When Harry Met Sally.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Three important truths about editing comedy.

Editing practices, Editor’s role, Television