Quality filmmaking is first and foremost about skills. It is the development of those skills that adds value to a filmmaker; technical skills, aesthetic skills, communication skills. The pursuit of these skills is the intelligent filmmaker’s foremost priority.
This article describes a number of editing exercises that you can do with equipment you already have to develop genuinely useful filmmaking skills without spending a penny.
The fundamental premise here is my most important advice to filmmakers, which I cannot repeat often enough: the master director is also a master editor. Editing is a huge blind spot for most filmmakers, including “professional” ones. This will become clear to you in due course.
For these exercises you will need:
(a) a camera (any model will do);
(b) an editing package (any product will do);
(c) a tripod (any tripod good enough to allow smooth tilts will do);
(d) a cooperative friend.
Exercise 1: Cutting on action
Action: The actor nods three times.
Shot 1: Frame the actor in a long shot (entire body visible) or medium shot (from the waist up).
Shot 2: Frame a close-up of the actor (I recommend from half way down the forehead to a little above the shoulders).
Direct the actor to nod again, making the movement as similar to the original takes as possible.
Your mission now is to select one take from each set-up and cut from one shot to the other on one of the nods. Hence the nod begins in the wide shot and is completed in the close-up. This is called “cutting on action” and it is an absolutely essential skill for directors, because the editor will have trouble making good cuts if the director doesn’t direct a scene with full awareness of this issue.
The point here is that, when assembled correctly, the cut will be so smooth as to be virtually imperceptible. A single frame or two can make all the difference to the smoothness of the cut, so you will probably have to tweak it a few times, but with practice you will develop the ability to make a smooth cut very quickly indeed, often at the first attempt.
Here is the real gold in this exercise: if you cannot make a smooth cut no matter how you tweak it, ask yourself what you should have done differently when you were shooting the scene.
For example, perhaps the actor nodded differently in each take and you failed to adjust their performance (that’s the director’s responsibility).
Thinking hard about how you could have performed better is known as reflective practice and it is crucial to learning – in any area, not just filmmaking.
Variant of this exercise:
The actor faces away and turns to face the camera. Cut from wide shot to close-up in the middle of the turn.
Exercise 2: Cutting to empty frame followed by tilt
Action: the actor take a glass from the table, drinks a sip and puts the glass back on the table.
Shot 1: Frame the actor in a wide shot to include the table and some head room.
Direct the actor to pick up the glass, take a sip and put it back on the table.
Shot 2: Frame a close-up of the actor’s face; the camera isn’t rolling yet. Having established the framing, tilt down to frame the glass on the table.
Roll camera and make the actor repeat the action (pick up glass, drink, put it back were it was). Remember that when you call action the start frame is on the glass, not on the actor’s face.
When the glass re-enters frame as the actor puts it down, tilt up to frame the actor in the close-up you originally set up.
Your task it to cut from the wide shot to the close-up, with the close-up starting just before the glass enters the empty frame.
Cutting to an empty frame is an effective way to make a smooth cut from a wide shot to a close-up. This technique is a staple in filmmaking, and with good reason.
Training significance: this exercise will alert you to the mechanics of a hugely important technique and the measures you have to take during the shoot in order to make it work.
A cut on action to a secondary element (the glass) followed by a tilt to a primary element (the face) is also powerful visual punctuation that a director can use when appropriate. Take this one to the bank!
Exercise 3: Cutting on emphatic dialogue
The human eye is so effectively distracted by even the slighted movement that very smooth cuts can be made even in situations where there is technically no “action” to cut on. An emphatic part of dialogue is the perfect example.
Action: The actor delivers the line “You are consistently late, but this time you will be punctual,” with emphasis on “this.”
Shot 1: medium shot (from the waist to just above the head).
Shot 2: close-up.
Your task is to cut from the wide shot to the close-up on the word “this,” which the actor emphasises. If the actor emphasises that word, a small nod is inevitable, and that small movement is all you need to make a delectably smooth cut.
I first became aware of this technique many years ago while studying James Cameron’s “Titanic.” There is a scene in which Rose (Kate Winslet) says: “Jack, I’m engaged.”
When she says “engaged,” Rose tilts her head down slightly, and director James Cameron – who has a superb knowledge of film editing – used that tiny movement to cut from a wide shot of Jack and Rose to a close-up of Rose.
That cut is so smooth that the only way to study it is by advancing the footage frame by frame.
Years later, while editing my first project, I used the same technique, and it was exceptionally rewarding to put it to good use.
Editing Skills for Directors: General Tips
1. There is no hard-and-fast rule on precisely where a cut should be placed when cutting from a wide shot to a tighter shot; the cut must be in the middle of the action, of course, but frame-specific details can only be determined on the editing timeline. The aim is to make the cut as smooth as possible, and the editor’s job is to tweak it until it’s as smooth as it can be. Tweaking involves moving the cut by a frame or two in either direction and watching how the cut plays.
2. Continuity in the action is important to ensure that different shots of the action can be cut together smoothly. The more clearly the director visualizes the cut sequence, the more skillfully the scene will be directed and the better things will go in the editing room.
3. Shooting a scene with multiple cameras has the considerable advantage of allowing the editor to make a cut using different shots of the same take, making continuity issues irrelevant.
However, even the biggest movies shoot normal scenes with only one camera, so you still need to be fully conversant with the directorial skills required to shoot a single-camera scene competently. One reason for which a single-camera setup is usually preferable is that it is not possible to make a scene’s lighting look cinematic from every angle; the way to achieve the best result is to light a set-up, shoot the angle and then re-light the scene for the reverse shot. This is not live TV!
In fact, multiple cameras are used on film shoots primarily to save time and money on scenes that are hugely expensive to set up, not to slither away from the requirement to direct scenes competently. Battle scenes are classic examples of such scenes.
In short, don’t think that using multiple cameras is a good way out of having to develop your skills. (And if you do want an easy way out, why are you pursuing this industry? It’s not as if you’ll be making easy money. Put that out of mind. )
Diligent practice is how the ambitious filmmaker moves forward, steadfastly unmoved by the onslaught of crass product reviews.
The conscientious filmmaker who works through these exercises will see that directing and editing are inextricably linked, and that directing encompasses a repertoire of principles and skills that require time and practice to develop.
I hope that you will try these exercises soon; as always, I will be pleased to help if you have skills-related questions.
Update – a talented 15yo kid shares the practice video he made
Here is the video; read his comment below.