Film Editing: Cutting Action Sequences
October 10, 2013
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The best film editing occurs during the shooting of a film, and the best way to control the shooting is to be the director. A director understands the rules explained here and knows when to break those rules. So for the moment assume that you are not only the editor of a film, but also its director.
Pre-plan: The best way to execute the design and flow of an action sequence during the editing is before you film it, and the best way to show everyone what you're looking for is to storyboard it. A storyboard looks like a comic strip, with a drawing corresponding to each shot of the central action. When the drawings are viewed in sequence, everyone sees how the shots will fit together in the finished sequence.
Cover yourself: During filming, shoot as many angles of the action as the schedule and budget permit. Shoot wide shots, medium shots and close-ups of shots you conceived of during the storyboarding process. That means that you should film the action with several cameras or from many angles using one camera.
Consider Logistics: It's important to begin with a master wide shot to show your audience everything they need to know about where characters and items are in relation to one another. Then, when you cut to different angles and close-ups, the logistical data has already been offered in the master shot. Obey the 180-degree rule, always making one character face screen left-to-right and the other character face screen right-to-left, so that your audience won't be confused about who's who.
Edit for Smooth Continuity: Even if you're cutting shots very quickly, some sense of continuity is necessary to create a smooth flow. This is largely due to screen direction, but also to making the action scenes fit together.
In a car chase, for example, the first car approaches and then races by. The next shot, taken from the angle facing the rear of the first car, shows a second car in pursuit. In a close-up angle shot, someone with a gun leans out the window of the second car. In an angle looking over the gunman's shoulder toward the car being pursued, you film the shooter pulling the trigger. Finally, in a close-up insert, you show the first car's tire as it is shot and deflates.
"Cubist" Editing: Instead of editing for continuity, where you show each part of the action in each shot, cubist editing refers to letting the entire action play out, in each shot, from different angles. This makes the action seem longer in duration than it really is. Instead of being realistically correct, the action is stylistically and dramatically correct. Like any technique, cubism should be used sparingly. Otherwise, it loses its impact and seems gimmicky.
Example: A motorcycle jumps over a fence. In editing for continuity, you would first show the angle that best shows the motorcycle leaving its ramp, then cut to an angle under the fence that shows the motorcycle clearing the fence, then cut to the angle from the far side showing the landing of the motorcycle on the other side. In cubist editing, you would show the motorcycle leaving its ramp, clearing the fence and landing, all in one shot, from each angle.
Cutting Out a Frame or Two Within a Shot: This is especially useful in making a punch, a sword slice or a gunshot look more brutal than it is. At the point of impact, remove a frame or two, just enough to make the action "skip a beat" and move along slightly faster, but not so much that the whole image appears to "jump." This technique creates a subconscious "filling in the hole"—your audience will picture the impact the victim feels even though they haven't really seen it.
Use these tips in your film editing so that your action will evolve into an exciting masterpiece.
Photo Credit: morgueFile