Making the cut
How do you turn 37 hours of film into a 90-minute movie? With art, science, and 'movie magic.'
'Best Picture' will be the most visible award given out on Oscar night this Sunday. Another will be presented for an "invisible art" - the art that saved the cinema.Skip to next paragraph
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If you've ever watched home videos of someone else's family, you know how boring they can be, even after just a few minutes. So why do you gladly sit in the dark for two hours at the local cineplex?
It's not enough to have good actors, a good screenplay, or even a good director. Someone has to search through many hours of film footage to find the best parts and join them together so that they make you laugh, cry - or at least make sense.
That "someone" is the film editor.
When you watch a movie, you see only what the camera saw. And on a typical movie shoot, the camera saw a lot. On average, 37 hours of film are shot. That's about 200,000 feet, or 37 miles' worth, of exposed film.
To make a 90-minute movie, the editor has to reduce that to just 8,100 feet. But film editing involves much more than just cutting out the bloopers.
"It is actually participating in the storytelling," says editor Paul Hirsch via e-mail. Mr. Hirsch was nominated for an Oscar this year for his work on "Ray," the story of musician Ray Charles. "It's like having a first-row seat, and being able to pipe up and say, 'That's boring,' or 'That's confusing.' "
Using the screenplay as a blueprint, the editor watches all the footage, finds the best parts, and - under the guidance of the director - puts the images together in a way that best tells the story. The editor tries to show you just what you'd want to see at a given moment: a guitarist's fingers flying across the strings, a dog's wagging tail, the emotion on someone's face.
"The editor is the super-audience," says Matt Chessé, editor of "Finding Neverland," a movie about the man who wrote "Peter Pan." "You have the ability to arrange the movie the way you want it to play for the audience. You try to make the most enjoyable, funniest, scariest, or most romantic moment out of what you have to choose from." Mr. Chessé has also been nominated for an Academy Award for his work on that film.
Creating these "moments" is a subtle skill. Chessé told how he built a particularly moving scene in "Finding Neverland."
In the scene, young Peter Llewelyn Davies (played by Freddie Highmore) throws a tantrum in front of J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp). In real life, Peter inspired Barrie to write "Peter Pan."
"The way the scene plays," Chessé says, "you get this feeling that you're moving in on Freddie, closer and closer into his fierceness - pulled right into his little face."
This "feeling" is the result of manipulation, otherwise known as "movie magic": Chessé used a trick to combine different versions, or "takes" of the actor's performance. He put them together in a way that created the illusion of a seamless whole.
As Chessé recalls, "Freddie got fiercer and fiercer in his performance with each take. And the camera moved closer and closer with each take." Chessé recognized that this zooming-in movement would heighten the drama of the scene.
But there was a problem: If he placed the different shots of Freddie one right after the other, the "jump cuts" would distract viewers from the emotion of the scene. Instead, Chessé "cut away" from the boy to Mr. Depp's reaction, then back to a closer shot of Freddie, then back to Depp, and so on, closer and closer to Freddie.
Because the images in a movie pass by so quickly, you probably don't notice most of the thousands of "cuts" an editor has made. On a VCR or DVD player, you can slow down the playback for your favorite scenes. Notice how the scene was put together. See if you can figure out how the editing helped to make you jump, giggle, or feel sad.