Monday, May 18, 2015

Editing for Pacing and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

So, I'm going to start this one with a confession. For every one post I put up here, there are at least three that never happen or end up on the cutting room floor. It's common for me to write something, and then read through it, hate it, and throw it out. But this topic - pacing and video editing in general - has been on my mind a lot lately, and as I've written it I've been very pleased with how it's turned out. Video editing is near and dear to my heart because it is my role of choice (outside the director's chair) when working on video crews. In my mind, editing is when a few unrelated shots become a movie.

Sure everyone knows what editing is, and how to do it, but not a lot of everyday moviegoers understand what makes it good, how editors set themselves apart, or where the "art" side of the art and skill coin comes into play. The barrier to entry for video editing is so low that now ANYONE can do it for absolutely free, but still people don't seem to grasp the path to becoming a good editor or how to spot(appreciate) one in the average summer blockbuster.

Editing is like cinematography in that, sure, anyone can have a camera, anyone can learn the rule of thirds, but some few true artists just seem to make really stellar images (i.e. there is an art there above and beyond skill). But how does that break down for editors? Where does the skill end and the art begin? Don't video editors just (1) do whatever the director tells them to, and (2) find the best takes, and arrange them in linear (or non-linear, depending on the story) order?

That would be a resounding no.

If you were to break down a film editor's task list, you would definitely see some things that are very cut and dry, and very skill-oriented - like making sure a film comes in with the right runtime. Film editors do in fact have many rules of thumb, tips and tricks that govern how they do what they do - and there is really a lot there that we could dive into there. But there are also some tasks that are vague and difficult to execute - like using pacing to create tone, or constructing a scene to properly cover the action. However, the important thing for this discussion is to remember that at the end of the day, everything a film editor does operates on two major principles: gestalt and pacing.

A Quick Overview of Gestalt

While I could (and I hope to) devote an entire post on gestalt in video editing, let's just get the definition out of the way so that we can get into pacing. Gestalt (in film) is the understanding that the audience doesn't view any portion of a film in isolation. Audience members don't think to themselves that they are hearing creepy music and seeing someone walking down an alley, they think that this person is walking down a creepy alley. Audience members don't see a shot of a man licking his lips and then see a close up of a burrito, they see a man who is hungry and wants to eat a burrito. While you are watching a film, your brain integrates all of the elements into one, and views them within the context of one another - so the less they mesh the less clear the message of any given moment will be. More powerful moments are created when everything increases your understanding of everything else in a clear and meaningful way. This works in all directions too, you relate things that happen before to things that happen after, you relate things that happen at the same time together, and you relate things that follow a pattern into a single psychological construct. That's gestalt.

Check out this clip from Scott Pilgrim, and notice how everything is related. You know where all of the characters are in relationship to one another, the cuts allow you to understand their communication and reactions with each other because each shot gives context for the shot immediately afterwards, and the action is grounded in the narrative because the cuts let you know why and how things are happening. Besides, I just love this scene.


Now that we've covered gestalt, let's get into pacing. Pacing is a term for how editors manage the psychological state of the audience over the course of a scene, sequence, or over a full film. It refers to how the editor times and transitions cuts, music, movement, and effects to (1) create a reaction in the audience; (2) use those reactions and emotions to affect other contexts and situations; and (3) transition from one emotion, thought, or reaction to another. Pacing refers both to how fast or slow a film is AND the process or rhythm the film uses to transitions from one feeling to another. Amateur filmmakers will often let the pace of a film be determined by the delivery of the actors or the action that has been captured in the camera, leaving the scenes, performances, and action to run the full length, including every unnecessary pause, movement, and extraneous blocking. Pros, on the other hand, leave hours of footage on the cutting room floor so that only the necessary amount of information is conveyed, and at a pace and rhythm that matches the emotion and desired reaction of the scene. Each scene should take the minimum amount of screen time necessary to tell it's bit of the story, you don't want to waste a frame. Then, on top of that, editors have to consider the emotional context, visual language, and audio flow between any two scenes. If you've seen the Ang Lee's Hulk (2003) the transitions between scenes are both very apparent and very fluid, with a visual element from the previous scene always bleeding into the next. That is all done to set the pacing of the film. It's also why the most common special feature on any given DVD or Blu-Ray is the "Deleted Scenes." Frequently, when editing a final film, directors or editors decide that an entire scene is dragging the pacing down, changing the emotional tone too much, or just plain out of place, and so it is cut - sometimes even when it contains information vital to the plot of the film.

For an excellent example of how a film uses pacing to set the tone and transition from one emotion to another, check out the works of M. Night Shyamalan - especially Unbreakable, Signs, or The Village. Shyamalan holds his shots for a long time without cutting to build the tension, and then suddenly speeds things up for a few minutes for scares and excitement, and then goes back to slow to let the audience catch their breath or build to the next release.

Or, if you want an example that is hilarious, fast-paced, and created by one of the greatest comedic directors of our time, you could check out Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

I highly recommend Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. But, let me just start out by saying that if you are ready to run to the movie store (they still have those, right?) to get Scott Pilgrim just off of my suggestion, it's not really a film for everyone. The story is slightly incoherent (I'll talk more in-depth about what that means in a later post - I promise), it can be kind of difficult to track, the pacing jumps frequently from fast to slow, and the narrative doesn't follow the typical emotional logic that we are accustomed to. It's a hard movie to categorize in your brain. But I think it is definitely worth watching just for the pure skill in execution, and even more so if you fit in the generation and demographic that will get the inside jokes from sitcoms and video games.

Also, I do think that the movie deserves a little leeway because it tries to adapt SIX graphic novels into a single film, the team didn't know exactly how it was going to end when they started production, and is a heavy-handed comedy (which always means taking time for comedic payoff, even if it comes at the expense of time for characterization, plot, or action). That's really hard to fit into less than two hours of video. The whole film has kind of got a "bite-off-more-than-you-can-chew" vibe to it. But even with all that, it is a genuinely entertaining and well-crafted film.

So let's go back to what I said before about how Scott Pilgrim jumps around a lot. The pacing in this movie is outright insanity - with some scenes being slow and thoughtful, others fast and frenetic, and some with the drive, rhythm, and repetition of a music video. There's not a wasted frame.

Take a minute to look at the clip below - which starts at the end of a somber scene. Notice how the pacing transitions from one emotional tone to the next, and how the editor keeps ramping up the speed til we make it to the end of the clip. Notice how your emotional state as an audience member is being manipulated by the rhythm of what you are seeing, and how the editor maintains that rhythm by holding visuals and audio the exact amount of time that matches the pacing of the scene. It's really quite brilliant.

Check it out here.

So, not only is this clip dealing with two different scenes, a shift in emotional tone between the two, music and sound cues that are both stark and subtle, swinging camera transitions to add octane to the pacing, and generally ramping up the speed of all the takes, but it also takes a moment - just as the speed of the pacing reaches its apex - to use the pacing for a joke and to get a laugh. If you missed that, it was the shot of the shoe.

All of Scott Pilgrim is like this. The whole film moves at a breakneck pace, that only pauses for emotionally poignant moments before it takes off again and doesn't wait for you to catch up. It has to cover a lot of ground, visually and stylistically as well as within the narrative. Each scene has it's own pacing - setting slightly different tones for each Evil Ex, that bare a stark contrast from the quiet moments between just Scott and Ramona. But the place where Scott Pilgrim vs. The World really shines is in the transitions. To understand what I mean and for bonus points, go back and watch the Katanyagi Twins fight, but pay attention to the pacing and rhythm this time instead of gestalt. The final section ("Getting a life") is a transition, but a different kind I'll cover later.

With the vast number and variety of scenes used in Scott Pilgrim, it would be easy for the film to feel jumpy, disjointed, and like a collection of separate vignettes. Instead, each scene has a cohesive entry and exit point, linking it all together and helping the audience understand how each scene relates to the one after it. Even the opening credits transition from one logo to another, naturally flowing from the setup right into the rest of the film and setting a precedent for pacing and transitions that will be followed for the rest of the picture.

And it works flawlessly.

So while your chowing down on popcorn in your next flick, watch out for pacing. It's something that takes awhile to catch at first, because most films aren't as obvious about it as Scott Pilgrim. If you want to know what type of stopwatch a movie ticks to, you usually have to slow it down and take it shot by shot. But that's not so bad - it makes for a great experience, and hey, that's what the editor had to do.

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