Because of Mama


Editing the Short Film...

The (Very) Basic Stages of Editing

Rewriting in the Editing Room



Editing the Short Film: Rewriting in the Editing Room

    It's important to note that each of the stages outlined above is actually a step in a rewriting process. Editing a film is not unlike editing a paper: you make notes about what ideas you intend to cover; you assemble these notes into a rough draft; and you re-read the paper, looking for problems that you work tirelessly to solve. Some of the problems might be huge: your structure doesn't work, or your logic doesn't stand up to scrutiny. On the other hand, some of your problems might be minor: you've left out a comma, or you've written a sentence that is un-emphatic. In any case, as you edit, you work and re-work your text, problem-solving as you go.

    When editing a paper or a film, it's useful to have a sense of what sorts of problems typically arise, so that you can be on the lookout for them. For example, if you know that most writers have to work and re-work their thesis sentences before they get them right, or that paragraph coherence is a common problem, you'll have an eye out for these problems as you edit your work.

    When we edited Because of Mama, we encountered several different problems that seemed to us to typify the sorts of problems generally encountered in editing. We list them here, from large to small, so that you can look for them as you edit your film. We tell you how we solved them in our film:

  • The film's structure doesn't work. This moment is perhaps the most terrifying of all moments you can have when editing: you look at your rough assembly and you understand that the structure just isn't working. At first, you'll just have a gut reaction that something is "off." The film will feel tedious, or slow, or confusing. You'll have to analyze that feeling, figure out what the problem is, and then strategize as to how to fix it. In Because of Mama, the problem was that the concert scene didn't work. If you look at the script, you'll see that all of the interaction between the boy and his father took place before he arrived at the concert. As he played, he flashed back on the events with his father, using those memories to move him to play more feelingly. Our intention was to repeat key shots from earlier in the film, to invoke the boy's feelings. But the result was disastrous. All of the film's drama had happened by the time the boy went on stage. The film lagged, and the repetition of shots was a bore. Our editor suggested that we try taking the final bit of drama between the boy and his father and withhold it from the audience, revealing it in flashback form as the boy performs. Her suggestion required a major restructuring, but it saved the film.

  • A key scene doesn't work and needs to be fixed in editing. This problem occurs in almost every film: the scene seemed to be working when it was written and as it was shot, but when it's placed within the context of the film it's just not "happening." Often a scene is simply too long, and it's length interrupts the movie's overall rhythm. If the scene is necessary to the film, you can't simply drop it; you have to rework it or even rewrite it in editing. For example, our final scene wasn't working. The scene was well-written, and well-acted, but it was too long. We were belaboring the points because we weren't confident that the audience would feel satisfied with our ending. In the end, we cut the scene in half, removing all but the most essential dialogue moments. We lost some talk that the writer was fond of, but in the end she agreed: we had a leaner, stronger scene.

  • A scene slows the film down. Again, this problem is very common. Your film is moving along, and suddenly it falls flat. Again, the acting might be fine, and the scene might work on its own, but it doesn't move your film forward. Here you have to ask yourself: is this scene really necessary? Return to the questions we list above, in What Makes a Good Scene. Does the scene have a dramatic moment? Does it move your story forward? Does it reveal anything new? If you find yourself answering "no" to these questions, you should drop the scene. If you look at the Because of Mama screenplay, you'll see that there's a scene early in the film between the boy and an ice cream vendor. The scene has charm, but it bogged down the film. We cut it. Do you think we lost anything?.

  • The acting isn't working. Sometimes you'll find that the acting just isn't working. An actor does something that seemed to work in the moment, but is distracting on film. Maybe a gesture is too big, or too small. Or maybe the actor is using the wrong eye-line. Generally, these problems are easy to fix: you can cut around the actor's mistake by dropping the line altogether or by substituting footage of the other actor's response.

  • A key shot is missing. Here's when a director will kick himself. He needs a reaction shot and understands that he doesn't have it. If you're a big-time filmmaker, you can go and get the shot. But if you're making a short film, on limited time and money, getting the shot is almost always impossible. In our case, we understood in the editing room that we didn't have a key shot of the boy reacting to his mother when he's finished performing at his concert. To get that shot, the director would have had to return to Russia, reassemble the crew, and re-shoot. Not practical. So we had to cheat: we repeat a shot from earlier in the film. If your editor is good, few will notice the cheat, and the shot will work.

  • Some important information isn't conveyed clearly. Sometimes you think that your film is finished, and that everything works. But you know your film too well: you know what's happening, and what's going to happen. Accordingly, you might miss a problem that others will see. That's why it's important to get other people to view the film while you edit it. Fresh eyes will spot fresh problems. In our case, many of our viewers were confused in the scene where the boy's shoes are stolen. We listened to their input, and re-cut the scene for clarity.

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