Editing — Verisimilitude

The first film I made is called, What Makes Things Move, 10 minutes long, an introduction to physical science for 1st grade school classes. Since, I’d never made a film before and had not studied filmmaking my approach was simple and direct, easier since I lived in West Los Angeles and had a relationship with a small educational film studio  on Santa Monica Blvd., then called, Film Associates of California.

Film Associates advanced me “hard” costs of $1,200 (essentially the value of a script I’d written), to cover film, processing and equipment rental. The deal was, if my product wasn’t satisfactory to an independent audio/visual review committee at LA City Schools they’d own my work but if it was satisfactory, they would distribute it and pay me a royalty. As part of this deal, I was not permitted to use any Film Associates facilities.

Before I made this deal with Irv Braun, the owner of the studio, I’d read extensively about photography, shot still images and I had a B/W and color dark room in my home and I held a bachelor’s degree in radio and television production. I had no practical experience in motion picture making. I asked a few questions of Jack Lord, an editor at Film Associates, who told me about tape splicing and after observing his editing process, I kluged together an editing bench at home by lengthening the take-up rods on B&H home hobbyist rewinders with supports at the ends to hold multiple reels on either side of a vintage moviescope. My first expensive purchases after a Bolex included a precision tape-splicer, a 4-gang synchronizer with detachable sound heads and some used split reels. My partner, Anne Webster, helped me make some bins by sewing unbleached muslin for my wooden mockups of the hammered-green painted steel ones we saw at Film Associates. When I started shooting, Jack Lord told me about Miller fluid heads and O’Connor legs that offered the possibility of smooth camera movement (pans and tilts) but since I imagined the flow of images, I only moved the camera if I had to follow action or when I felt I might want to relate adjacent scenes through movement. A counter guy at CFI (Consolidated Film Laboratory), where I had the Commercial Ektachrome processed, told me about “one-light” “work prints”, using white leader,  A & B roll editing and marking the print for the “timers”.

After the approval of the rough cut, I constructed a sound track using 16mm magnetic stock. I cut synched sound effects in between voice-over rather than building a sound effect and music reel. With my extensive radio production experience, I decided to cue unsynched sound effects and music wild (in the same way film music is recorded) using marks on the print. This confused the mixer at General Deluxe since instead of an orchestra, he was monitoring ¼” tape. I saw little difference in a practical sense.

After the approval of the finished rough cut in synch with the mixed sound track, I turned to cutting the camera original. Because of the potential for irrevocable harm caused by handling and dust attracted to the film’s accumulation of static electricity, “negative cutting” for professionally released movies is never done “at home”. But Irv set the budget so I rented a hot-splicer, bought a bottle of cement, white gloves and black leader and Anne, recognizing my tendency to cavalier risk-taking, helped do this. Negative cutting is when I really learned about cuts and effects because they are an artifact of  “timing” the exposure, i.e., fading the printer light to and from black.

Camera negative (in the case of Ektachrome, it’ a positive) is always prepared for printing a master in at least two synchronized reels because splices overlap on one frame or the other. To hold reliably, cement splices must be wide enough to hold. From the CFI timer I learned how adjacent shots are alternatively placed on an A or B reel so that each shot is spliced to black leader and the splice always lands on the black leader. (The concurrent footage of the reel opposite the one with the image contains black (opaque) leader.) The negative cutter must conform original material, frame for frame, using the tiny frame numbers on the edge of the film (that prints through to the work print) and always only lap the splice on the black side of a cut and make a perfect, clean splice as permitted by the limits of technology. Instead of a bin, original footage to be used in making up the original A & B rolls for printing  (called, “conforming”) is carefully cut and each shot loaded onto plastic cores that can be loaded into an aluminum “split reel” from which the film can be led across the workbench to a take up reel using rewinders.

Decisions about effects are finalized in conforming the original. Although the length of a fade or dissolve may be adjusted by the timers, providing that you leave enough frames on either side of a transition, a straight cut is cut to the frame. Prior to electronic editing, where an analogue tape or digital copy of the film original is edited and the result viewed in a monitor, you couldn’t view effects not made the in-camera. The transition was marked with a grease pencil on the roughcut and you imagined it. Historically, in-camera effects have been experimental or associated with surreal, gothic or science fiction subjects, with the caveat that filmmaking has always been and still is experimental. However, earlier film printing technology at first lacked the sophistication needed for controlling exposure effects that still printers commonly used. Multiple exposures were made, effectively enough, using masks in front of the lens, mimicked electronically today with “green screens” and computer generated image masking. But the language of cinema effects throughout the history of the medium is based on a simple standard: viewers anticipate verisimilitude and any deviation from this conveys a meaning. Ostensibly, the filmmaker intends and controls this meaning. In as much as electronic image manipulation allows a potentially infinite range. Even a state of the art editing facility like Avid Media Composer contains only a few but more than enough to make the film editor’s task tend to be one of concision rather than exploration.

Realistically, every cut is a test of verisimilitude because it conveys a contextual change.

Imagine, you’re viewing a scene and the next image is an aspect of the first scene but now this scene becomes the context. Filmmakers enjoy latitude in this without interrupting the experience of verisimilitude, especially using sound, music or visual effects. Straight cuts that are made during camera motion, for instance, convey a different meaning than straight cuts that follow an eyeline or action but with sound or music, a meaning similar to a straight cut can be achieved with shots of camera motion. New ideas arise when experimenting with this.

Straight cuts or effects can anticipate a viewer’s eyes and/or attention in following an action and there is no rule about how the filmmaker has to deal with that anticipation, whether consistent with verisimilitude or not—as far as the viewer is concerned, the play’s the thing.

However, fashion is just as mandatory in filmmaking as it is in ladies apparel—but even this cuts both ways. If you’ve “got that “swing”, you can wear cowboy boots with your negligee to an opera—no problem. Iconoclastic material must have inherent special value but change and surprise are more important in today’s commercial media landscape than ever before. Challenging fashions is not what many who hire media professionals are after but under normal circumstances, the script and style of a production is understood well enough to avoid issues and now it is often possible using electronic media to present a client with alternatives. When doing so, I’ve found it important to make sure the client is satisfied that I know what they want and how they want it. In new relationships, I give them what they want before showing them some alternatives and let them choose.

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