The Roadmap to Composing a Better Story
Whenever you go out to watch a film most people will initially take note of the performance of the actors, the quality of the CG, or the exceptional camera work, but the last thing they’d probably take note of is the editing. Though in some ways when your favorite actor goes out on their emotionally heavy journey, it’s the editor’s job to make sure that we as an audience feel what the character up on the screen is trying to emote to us. Often times a job well done in that regard goes mostly unnoticed since the audience is so captivated by the story. This is the work of the editor, to make their work unseen, but not unnoticed by our hearts.
With so many different types of cuts and edits possible sometimes editors can be swept up by the smaller details instead of the larger picture. For that reason we’ll take a look at four major criteria to motivate your edits.
- Eye trace
Working our way up from the bottom to the top, eye trace is the fourth important criteria for your decision to make an edit. This meaning that “a cut must not disorient the viewer, to the extent that their eyes cannot comprehend the action.” When you cut together your story in the editing room you should always keep eye trace in mind since films are a visual art medium. The harder the audience has to keep up with where the main focus of the frame is from cut to cut, the more strain this puts on their eyes. Now action movies break this rule quite a bit since tension and adrenaline is the root of these types of scenes, but even they have to take eye trace into consideration because in the end the less stress you can induce on a persons eyes the more they can enjoy the story on the screen. A good example of a film that does this right is Mad Max: Fury Road, where all the action takes place in the center of the screen and allows the eye to stay in the same position and still keep up with the action.
When piecing together the story of a film you should also consider the rhythm of the cuts. Why? If there’s rhythm in your cuts the audience will become less concerned or aware about any lapses in continuity or in breaking the 180 degree rule. Once you considered the rhythm of your cuts, you can forgo some of the finer details that might end up hindering the overall story. As long as the rhythm is strong and continuous you can break whichever established film rules you’d like. Take a look at Requiem for a Dream: the story is fragmented much like the lives of the characters we follow and from this fragmented state we find a certain rhythm bleeds into the rest of the story, which leads us to…
On to one of the two major reasons to make an edit: Story. This seems like a no-brainer, but when you’ve spent day after day working with the same footage the simple things like story evade your radar. Make sure to consider the story when you make an edit, after all that is the purpose for everyone involved, so if there’s ever a time where you’re stuck between two takes consider which one impacts the story more. Continuity and composition can be taken into consideration, but when the course of the story falls to the wayside because of something in the background, that’s when you should reevaluate the cut. To compromise the foundation of the story is the last thing that you should ever do, due to the aforementioned intentions, but remember that story is “the underlying force hurdling the events forward”, so to impede the story is to impede the film as a whole.
The #1 most important item to drive your edit and tell your story is, and always should be, emotion. Without the emotion of the characters why should the audience care about anything else? Even if you cut for a fluid and cohesive story, it will inevitably amount to nothing if there’s a lack of emotion. Walter Murch always says, “the audience should always be first in the editor’s mind”, which ultimately makes it easier to focus on the task of finding the emotion of the story and piecing it together for them. Emotion is a driving force that all people connect on in some shape or form, so in regard to this notion it makes the most sense that when you cut for the emotion in a scene your film becomes easier for the audience to lose themselves and immerse their minds in the story.
If an editor follows through on this list of important motivations they barely have to refer to it while editing. Its designed to have one motivation flow into the next, because the emotion brings out the story, the story brings out the rhythm, and the rhythm follows the eye tracing. Have you ever tried to tell a story without any emphasis on emotion? I’d urge you to try and see how effective that story might be compared to a story that might be lacking details, yet has substantial emotion weight to it. For more information about editing, visit: http://www.aotg.com/index.php?page=murchrules and the many works of Walter Murch.