Film Editing with Clarke Mackey

Wednesday, October 14, 2020 – Editors Kingston hosted Kingston media maker, writer, teacher, and cultural activist Clarke Mackey to talk about film editing and its comparisons with print editing.

Clarke has worked as a director, cinematographer, editor, producer, or writer on over 50 film, television, and new-media projects. In recent years, he has been producing micro-budget documentaries about community activism in Eastern Ontario, including ’Til the Cows Come Home (2014) and the feature archival documentary Revolution Begins at Home (2016). In 2010, he compiled his research and experiences into a book called Random Acts of Culture: Reclaiming Art and Community in the 21st Century.

About Clarke

Clarke is an emeritus professor in the Department of Film and Media at Queen’s University, where he taught for 30 years. Before that, he was a faculty member at York University and Sheridan College of Art and Design. We thank Clarke for his notes, which form the basis for this post.

When he was asked to make comparisons between film editing and print editing, his initial reaction was that they were two very different processes, with few similarities. But, as he thought about it further, he decided that there were some important similarities.

Cinematic Language

Clarke began by describing how movies communicate story, information, and emotion to audiences. What do we mean when we talk about “cinematic language”? Perhaps surprisingly, words, either spoken or written, are not that important in movies. Movie writers understand that, unlike in a play or novel, dialogue plays a smaller part in screenplays than you might think. Other elements loom larger, as we’ll see.

He broke down cinematic language into the “five building blocks of cinematic storytelling.”

1. Actions: things happen, people do things, the world changes, etc. (Sometimes that might mean speech or even text, but words are overshadowed by other elements in cinema.) It’s no accident that after the camera is turned on, the director yells, “Action!”

2. Mis-en-scène. What is in front of the camera: setting, props, costumes, lighting, weather, etc. What is emphasized? What is background? What is the mood? This can be quite complex and subtle, and it mostly works unconsciously.

3. Shots: area of view, point of view, other types of shots. We see things through a camera lens, which has certain characteristics. Where is the camera placed? What is in the frame, and what is not? Shots are the bricks that construct the house, like the words and phrases of a written text.

4. Cuts: Editing is the most important, most unique element of cinematic language. This is where we can say a film is being “authored” or composed (the music analogy is a good one to help understand how a movie is made). Everything that happened before – the script, the rehearsals, the sets, the shooting – are the materials the editor-composer needs to gather to do their work. The editor uses the shots to build the house.

Clarke spoke about the three Cs of cinematography: conception, capture, composition. A few basic principles:

– The shot-reverse-shot pattern: The looker, the viewed, the response.

– Parallel structure: The chase, the flashback, etc. Meanwhile, back at the … .

– Rhythm, pace, contrast: From whole notes and eighth notes. A very fast sequence of shots is like eighth notes in a melody.

– Ellipsis: Things that are purposely missing, things we have to figure out or can assume from the context. There is a lot of compression of time in movies, similar to text.

5. Sound. There are four layers: dialogue (tone of voice, accent), ambience, sound effects, music. All work together, also mostly work unconsciously.

Like text, movies are linear. They take place over time, one shot after another, just as one word of text comes after another. This horizontal progression of sounds and images is easy to recognize. What is perhaps less noticeable is the vertical layering of the elements. (To use the music idea again, we’re talking about harmony rather than melody.)

He used three clips to show how these building blocks work together to build suspense and kindle emotions in the viewer.

1. A reproduction of a Van Gogh painting: first the image, then the image with music, finally the image with the music after telling us that “this is believed to be the last canvas Vincent painted before he killed himself in 1890 at the age of 37.” Did that change our response to the image?

2. A clip from the Hollywood classic, High Noon (1952), in which the marshal is waiting for the bad guys, who are arriving by train. Medium and point-of-view shots as well as close-ups are used to build tension. The lighting is harsh, with lots of contrast. Sometimes the background is the brightest part of a scene, while one actor’s shadow falls on another. All this has an unconscious effect on the viewer. Extreme close-ups show people’s reactions or anticipation. Tighter shots quicken the pace, while a sequence of four close-up looks creates the effect that time is extended. Dramatic music signals the beginning of the showdown.

3. A clip from The Matrix (1999), in which Morpheus offers Neo two pills: one red, one blue. Different types of shots, the low lighting, the rain, and thunder and lightning establish the mood and add suspense. The camera focuses on important elements: the glass of water, Morpheus’s sunglasses (mysterious), the two pills. Music and sounds support the visuals: suspenseful music, changes in music, lighting strikes, high-pitched sounds, perhaps a clock ticking and ethereal singing. An important moment is reflected in a big swell in the music.

The Job of a Film Editor

The film editor’s job is somewhere between that of a music composer and collage artist, weaving together a complex of pre-recorded material, usually captured by others, into a unified whole. They have a lot of creative leeway, like the print editor, who is “invisible” if they’ve done their job right.

The actors’ eyes are the most important element, capturing emotion and intention. At the same time, the viewer tends to look at the person not speaking, so part of the art of an editor is to know when to use that to advantage. Going from a wide shot to a close-up builds intensity.

Are there different types of editing, as there are in print? In big films, yes; there is an editing team, with a film’s structure and pacing controlled by the editor at the “top”. There is a separate sound department; different people are responsible for dialog, music, and sound. But it can be a two-way street, with editors putting in certain cuts and sound effects, even music. In a documentary, the work of the editor as author is easier to see, since they are structuring the work from the raw material rather than from a script.

The editor and the director will have a high-level conversation before filming to discuss the scope of the film. They watch all the takes in script order, and the editor will take notes. The editor can request a reshoot; it depends on the budget. A smart producer will allow a week for reshooting six months after shooting ends. In the case of a documentary, the editor and maybe also the director will do a “paper edit” after filming to decide how to structure the film.

Film and Print Editing: Similarities

Both the print editor and the film editor are de facto advocates for the end user. It is their responsibility to think hard about how the reader and the viewer are reacting at each moment. Is the work clear and understandable from sentence to sentence, shot to shot? Is it boring, or does it compel the user to turn the page or stay glued to the couch? Is it well paced? Does it hold the reader and the viewer? Does the work both entertain and also delve deeper, and with greater wisdom, into life’s mysteries?

Both types of editor must understand how viewers view and readers read, but they also need to be aware of how genres and styles continue to evolve in a rapidly changing world. How does an editor navigate these changes and contradictions?

In the end, there is also the important question of elegance and polish. There should be no mistakes, no missteps, no awkwardness, no typos or misspellings. No bad acting or continuity errors, no superfluous dialogue in fiction. In these ways, we are comrades. We want the same thing, and we’re responsible for making it happen.

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