Stanislavski for the Steenbeck
Acting for the edit ☛
One of the things I love about editing is the sense of being a craftsman. You may not physically handle the material, but the set of rushes for each film feels like it has its own texture. It might be pliant, allowing you to cut it in any way you like; it might be coarse, only fitting together well if you work with the grain; if you’re really unlucky it might be tangled and almost impossible to get your scissors into. I used to think that this texture was down to the director. It’s certainly true that where the camera is placed, how it’s moved and how much coverage is shot will have a significant effect on how easily the shots go together. However, if you’re cutting drama, there is an even more significant factor – the technical skill of the actors.
So what is it that actors do that make a set or rushes easy or difficult to cut? A lot of it’s down to continuity: both continuity of physical movement and continuity of emotional pitch. Essentially, they make sure that the editor can cut seamlessly from any shot to any other shot. It’s easier to illustrate this with a mistake. When I was an assistant, I cut a scene featuring a much-loved British comedy actor (he will remain nameless). It was a simple situation: his character started off sitting on a sofa, then stood and walked across the room. The scene was covered with a close shot of him on the sofa and a wider shot of him standing up and walking. He had an important line around the time he was to stand and my heart sank when I saw that in the close shot he said this just before he stood up, but in the wide shot he spoke just after he was standing. By this simple, but pretty basic, error he’d not only stitched me up, he’d stitched himself up. I couldn’t use the close shot or, in the edit, he’d appear to say the line, stand up and say the line again. His mistake forced me to play a strong line that I wanted to use in the close up, in a wide shot that was there only to establish the geography of the room. Not good editing, but the only option he’d left me.
But there are more ways in which an actor can help the edit than just by avoiding continuity errors. In fact, one reason why multiple takes are shot is so that the director can change something in an actor’s performance. Change, by its very nature, can create discontinuity. With the movie I’m currently editing, Sparks & Embers, I’ve been very impressed by the actor Kris Marshall, who’s proved exceptionally skilled at dealing with this particular issue. Kris seems to have an instinctive understanding of where I will want to cut and has made sure, where possible, that he’s kept any changes to his performance away from those cut points. This means that director Gavin Boyter and I can swap one take for another without difficulty.
So how does Kris know when we might want to cut? Actually it’s not that difficult. The great director Alexander Mackendrick explained the reasons for making an edit very well. He asked us to imagine that the film was in fact a play in a theatre. The editor can instantly transport the audience to any seat in the house, always taking them to the one that will provide the best view of any particular moment in the drama. The question is: where will we want to look? Whose reaction will we want to see? It’s not always obvious, but if character A says to character B “I think you’re lying”, we know that we’ll instantly want a clear view of B’s face. What do they think about that accusation? That’s the cut point – “I think you’re lying.” Cut to B: “How dare you!”
The most common cut point, however, is on movement. Every time a character turns, stands up, shakes hands or performs any definite action, the editor has a good opportunity or even a need to cut. This is often because the movement means that the audience no longer has the best view of the action and we need to take them somewhere else, to a better view. It’s also true that the movement ‘justifies’ the cut, so that the audience feels that there’s a good reason for the sudden jump in perspective.
Where the cut point isn’t obvious, a skilled actor can more or less tell the editor where to cut. This can be done with a look. When a character spots something, we want to see what they’re looking at – that gives us a cut point. When a character throws an admiring glance, we want to see how that look’s received – that gives us a cut. Even when a character breaks eye-contact, perhaps out of shame or shyness, we want to see how the person they’re talking to takes that – again that gives us a cut. I’ve heard tales of heavy-weight Hollywood actors deliberately not breaking eye-contact or even blinking, in order to deprive the editor of a cut point so that the shots stays on them. Apart from being absurdly vain, this just isn’t playing the game. Tennis doesn’t work if you don’t return service.
This being said, there’s nothing wrong with an actor summoning the camera to them. I have cut rushes where, in contrast to such Hollywood big-shots, the actors have been too self-effacing. This sometimes happens when close ups are being shot. An inexperienced actor, or one from a stage background, will sometimes switch off at the end of their line. They idle in neutral while the other actor speaks, listening (okay, sometimes they’re not even listening) but not responding until it’s their turn to speak again. “Acting is reacting” is a well-worn cliché, but it’s very true when there’s a camera in front of you; giving engaging visual responses to the other actor’s lines shouldn’t be seen as upstaging. An actor can even help the other actor get a laugh, by the way they react to a comic line.
Whenever the camera is pointed at an actor, that actor has the right to keep it entertained. Last year I cut a film for artist-filmmaker Daria Martin, which starred the very talented Anamaria Marinka. Like Kris, she had a stunning command of her craft. In one scene her character sits on a chair waiting for an experiment to be set up. The moment could have been dull – nothing dramatic was happening – but seeing as film was rolling through the gate, Anamaria decided that she might as well do something interesting. Her eyes wandered round the room, taking everything in and responding to it. She then lapsed into thought. Then she became a little impatient with the wait. With each of these beats she gave me an out, a good cutting point, so that I could jump to the start of the experiment if I wished, or I could hold the shot and watch her further thoughts if I preferred. Neither Daria nor myself had ever found watching someone just waiting to be quite so engaging; we held the shot more or less in its entirety.
Not only can the actor suggest where the editor might cut, they can even suggest which shot we should use. Anger expressed by a fist suddenly banged on a table calls for a wider shot, so that we can appreciate the drama of the gesture, and possibly even see all the other characters jump. The actor has pushed the camera away. If, however, the actor chooses to express a more repressed anger – the subtlest clenching of the jaw – we want to see that in the closest shot available. The actor has drawn the shot towards them. Both might be valid choices, but each one calls for the editor to cut to a different camera set-up.
A brief word of warning however – this level of technical acting is not for the fainthearted. I live in constant awe of actors who can bare their souls while they remember not to move their head half an inch to the left or they’ll spoil the lighting. While there are basic technical skills, like hitting a mark so that you’re in focus, that every screen actor has to learn, these more detailed skills aren’t for everyone. Some find that such techniques get in the way of creating their character, and that’s the most important business of an actor. Even the guy I mentioned who couldn’t remember whether he said the line before or after he stood up has gone on to win a Best Actor BAFTA and, even if his command of continuity hasn’t got any better, he gave a great performance and deserved the award. But it’s a tough business and anything that an actor can do to give themselves the edge can only help. If nothing else, an editor sitting in a darkened room somewhere will smile and offer silent thanks to the actor who has smoothed the grain of the day’s rushes and helped their scissors to glide.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011
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