RedShark Replay: With interest in all things editing at a high on the RedShark site as we mover further into the New Year, here's another chance to read Peter Hass' excellent article on the art of editing.
An extremely important part of my editing process is note-taking. This is particularly true on larger films or projects that span long periods of time. I find that writing down my thoughts and concepts is the only way I can keep all that information and ideas straight. Recently while working on the opening reel for a new documentary I found myself stuck. After trying multiple approaches I felt as though I was still spinning wheels. I decided to look back through my notes from other projects to see if I could spark a creative fire.
I came across old notes I had made that helped me get a new start on things. These points are a combination of original thoughts and are probably casually inspired by conversations I was having with editor friends at the time.
Be up front
A very important lesson I've learned over the years is to put your thesis and visual concepts upfront. The screen is a sort of keyhole that the audience is peeping blindly through into the lives of your characters and story. When you're putting your film together, you need to place yourself on the opposite side of that door and hang out in your audience's mental space. By putting the important factors of your story up front you are setting up the context for the rest of the film.
The first few scenes of your film are very important: you are expressing what part of the filmic language you are using; what cinematic "dialect" the film will be speaking in. I like to think of the first real as a Rosetta Stone for the rest of your film.
Now I'm not saying that every film needs to have an opening title crawl or voice-of-god narration to describe who everyone is and what is going on, but the opening scene (or the entire first reel) says a lot about your film and how you plan on communicating with your audience.
Plot, theme and "what this is about" are different
Alan Moore, a graphic novel/comic book writer most famous for Watchmen and V For Vendetta, wrote an essay on his process of creating comics. Part of his advice to aspiring writers revolved around the fact that many people (including himself in his early years) would all too often confuse what the story was about with the plot and themes.
Moore discusses at length his theory on the differences, but to sum it up, the plot of the story is simply all the moments that are occurring (the action), while what a story is about tends to be played out through the action of the story.
My own example of this would be, say something like Stanley Kubrick's version of The Shining. (Caution: spoilers.) The plot is pretty straight forward: a family stays the winter at an isolated hotel, until the father, Jack, starts developing a possibly supernatural case of cabin fever and begins tormenting his family until he becomes trapped in the frozen maze outside the hotel. The themes that are revealed through that plot are lot more complicated than a simple "slasher" horror film; issues of alcoholism, family disfunction, and family violence are deeply ingrained in much of the story (as is a lot more according to the documentary Room 237). The film seems to be about inner demons coming to the surface and harm that causes other and one's self.
I strongly suggest you find a copy of "Writing For Comics, Vol. 1*" by Alan Moore as a many of the visual and narrative concepts hold true with cinema as well as comics.
(*note, there are no other sequels / volumes. I assume it was a joke by the author).
How does that old saying go? "Best laid plans of mice and men directors and their AD's." Planning is crucial to the success of any film. This means in the cutting room or out in the field. But being overly rigid in the face of adversity will only result in compounding problems and failure. If the dolly shot isn't working or the montage isn't telling the right story, it's important to have a clear vision of what you're attempting to say, have the ability to step back, and willpower to change your approach.