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Improve your video editing by studying the masters

I’M GOING TO BE SHARING A SERIES OF ARTICLES I WROTE WHEN I WAS A CONTRIBUTING EDITOR FOR VIDEOMAKER MAGAZINE. These articles are still available on the magazine’s website and I’ll provide a link, but I’ll also be adding a preface to each one and include an update, if one is needed. Often, the material is still relevant, without dragging it into the present. Some things never change, even when they do.

This article on editing uses the film Zentropa (directed by Lars von Trier) to illustrate many of the points. Originally titled “Europa,” the film won both the directing award and a technical prize at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, but it is now difficult to find. Netflix doesn’t even carry it, which is a shame, because it is a unique production. If you get a chance to see it, you should.

link to Videomaker

Learning by doing is fine. If you sit down at an edit controller and hit the buttons until they do what you want, you will probably learn how to edit. Do it long enough and you might even get good at it. But once you understand the basics of the craft, you may want to try to attain a higher level of sophistication. To do that, you should study the masters.

Perhaps you have a natural visual sense that comes easily to you. Mozart, speaking about composition, said that he wrote music like a pig piddles. Great music flowed out of him without effort. Great visuals may come to you in the same way. If so, you’re lucky. The rest of us have to study… and learn.

Transit Authority

Take a film class. Study the silent-era masterpieces, in which the directors created the very language of film. Rent a Hitchcock film; examine closely what he’s trying to achieve with camera angles, sound effects and lighting.

Look at the way a director transitions from one scene to another. Transitions are moments in your work where technique actually helps tell the story by either:

1) giving the audience more information; or

2) smoothing the scene change so that the audience moves through the story, without disrupting the suspension of disbelief (the crucial ingredient in any dramatic production).

When a transition is noticeable, it should add something to the story, not merely distract the audience.

The main transitions for video are the cut, the dissolve, the wipe and the digital video effect.

The cut is the simplest transition, where one scene replaces another. There are four types of cuts. An action edit might go from a wide shot of a person reaching for a box to a close-up of the box as the hand enters the scene. Time the shots perfectly, and the audience will view the action as one movement.

In a screen position edit, you draw the viewer’s eye to certain part of the screen. When you make the cut, you place what you want the viewer to see in the same part of the screen. A form edit is a cut between two similar shapes, such as a cut from a wheel to a close-up of a person’s eye. An idea edit tells the audience what you are thinking, or what you want them to think, such as when you cut from a shot of your oafish brother-in-law to a shot of a gorilla.

Dissolves and fades are those transitions where one picture gradually disappears as another appears. Dissolves replace one picture with another. Fades replace the picture with a color such as black. Fades and dissolves tell the audience that there has been a change of time or place in the story.

If a line or pattern moves across the screen, revealing another picture beneath it, you are seeing a wipe. Both dissolves and wipes are often created using a special effects generator, or switcher; the speed of the transition is usually expressed in frame-length (1/30th of a second) increments.

Digital effects cause the picture to shrink and fly around the screen or perform some other high-flash transition. Keys superimpose one picture over another. In video, a chromakey can replace a color, such as green, with a new video source. This is how the weather reporter standing in front of a green wall can “appear” in front of a map on the local news.

Audio can also play an important role in transitions. To smooth a cut from one scene to another, try a split edit, also known as L cuts or staggered edits. There are a couple of types of split edits. In an audio lead video split edit, you bring the audio for Shot #2 in before making the visual transition from Shot #1 to Shot #2. Conversely, if you bring in Shot #2 before the audio changes, this is a video lead audio split edit.

These are the basic transitions. Like an artist’s choice of media or color, the way you use them can have a dramatic effect on your final product.

Filmmakers achieve these effects optically, but the results are similar. One film boasting fine examples of great transitions and other interesting effects is Zentropa, a Danish/French/German/Swedish production directed by Lars Von Trier. This highly acclaimed film captured both the Jury Prize and the Prix de Technique at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival.

Let’s take a look at this film and its transitions. Keep in mind that Von Trier was also the co-writer of Zentropa, which allowed him to carefully plan the techniques during the scripting process. Without such foresight, his ambitious set-ups might have failed.

You Are on a Train in Germany

Shot in ’40s-style black and white, the story takes place in 1945 Germany, just after the war. Kessler, an American, has taken a job as a sleeping car conductor on Zentropa, the railway company. When Kessler sees the recently-refurbished first-class sleeping car for the first time, the scene cuts to a close-up of Kessler–and the shot is suddenly in color.

Is this a mistake? Did Von Trier have the camera operator load the wrong kind of film? Of course not.

My interpretation (which may be wrong, but that’s the beauty of interpretation): when the characters appear in color they are experiencing a strong emotion. Von Trier uses this technique consistently throughout the film, perhaps to tell us that although day-to-day life is somewhat drab and “colorless,” at certain times emotion heightens our senses.

In a later scene, Kessler must make up a bed for a beautiful woman. When he sees her, she’s in color. Although the audience doesn’t know it, this is Kate, the woman who will change Kessler’s destiny. The scene goes back to black-and-white, as Kessler struggles with opening the bed. (It’s his first night on the job and he’s still in training.) He holds the sheet up in front of him and when he drops it, he’s in color. This symbolizes his embarrassment in front of Kate.

A little later Kate and Kessler look out the window of the moving train together. They see a man and a woman who have been hanged. Hand-painted signs mark the dead; they read “werewolf,” the name of a German resistance group working against the American occupational forces.

The shot cuts back to Kate and Kessler; Kate pulls the shade down on the window. As the glass darkens, the reflections of the hanged people appear in close-up. This larger-than-life optical effect intensifies the emotional impact of the sight. In reality, the dead would have been far away from the train, making such a close-up reflection impossible.

Visual Clues

A well-planned transition can provide visual clues which viewers may not understand until a second viewing. Kate tells Kessler that it frightens her when the train goes through tunnels. The scene cuts to a shot from ahead of the train as it moves through one of these tunnels. We can see that until recently the Nazi eagle adorned the rounded front of the train. Someone has torn it off, but it’s obvious that it was there. The shot dissolves to Kate’s face, taking up the same amount of room on the screen (a form dissolve).

We find out later in the film that Kate is actually a werewolf. The dissolve tells us that she doesn’t reveal them outwardly; her Nazi sympathies lurk just beneath the surface.

Outside her cabin we see Kessler sitting, deep in thought. Slowly the scene behind him dissolves to huge letters that fill the screen: WEREWOLF. This shows what’s going through Kessler’s mind. To achieve this effect, you would shoot the background scene, dissolve it to the letters and then key Kessler over both these shots in post production. Or, this being film, Von Trier could have used rear-projection for the background shots. The effect is stunning.

Listen to My Voice

Another device that distinguishes this film is the use of an unseen narrator. This voice begins the film as a hypnotist would, instructing the viewers to go into a deep sleep. The voice tells viewers that they are on the train, in Germany and so on. What the voice is really saying: that you, the viewer, are Kessler. Accompanying the visual of the tracks rushing by is a powerful reading by Max von Sydow. Warning: if you’re susceptible to suggestion, take care while watching this film.

Another great transition begins with the camera in a wide shot looking down on Kessler as he tries to sleep. His eyes are open. The camera rotates and moves slowly until Kessler’s eyes fill the shot. Then the light changes so that only his eyes light the top half of the screen. Next, the lower half of the screen turns into a train passing (both images are still on the screen).

Then the entire picture dissolves into the shot that began the film, the tracks moving under the train. The hypnotist/narrator says, “On the count of three there will be a message for you of great importance. One…two…three.” On three, the scene cuts to Kessler’s uncle shaking him from a deep sleep.

One of the most disturbing and effective sequences involves two German boys left in Kessler’s care on the train. As Kessler works, the two boys find their way into the compartment of a man recently appointed mayor of his town by the Americans. The werewolves hate any German who cooperates with the Allies. They have sent the two boys to kill the mayor.

As the mayor and his wife feed the younger boy chocolates, the other boy nervously tries to load a gun. He has his back to the mayor. American military police (MP) are in the next compartment; the boy, hearing them, drops a bullet onto the floor. The scene cuts to a shot from floor level with the bullet (in color) in the foreground and the mayor (in black-and-white) in the background. The train crosses a bridge and the audio fills with the racket of the crossing.

The boy shoots the mayor. The mayor falls. The scene cuts to a shot from behind the mayor (in black and white). A second shot rings out; the man’s blood splatters the window in color. In the next shot, the boy appears in the foreground (in color); and the mayor appears in black and white and in close-up (another larger-than-life distortion of reality for effect) as the boy shoots him again.

As the mayor’s wife grabs the boy who shot her husband, the boy drops the pistol. The scene cuts to the smaller boy reloading the pistol. In the background of this scene, there’s a close-up of the other boy and the mayor’s wife struggling. Again, the background picture is out of proportion.

The MPs rush into the scene; the small boy shakily points the pistol at them as tears run down his face. The scene cuts to Kessler (in color) as we hear the Americans’ automatic weapons firing. The camera moves in close on Kessler as he realizes what has happened.

The hypnotist/narrator counts to ten and tells Kessler that he is now at a party. The background changes from the train to the party scene. Someone calls Kessler’s name. As he turns towards the caller, the camera pans off him in the direction he turns, over to the speaker. Kessler is now at the party.

The seamless movement of the camera and the effects pulls viewers into the story, while the unreal elements make it clear that more is going on than what we actually see. Transitions are used only when needed to move the story forward or to reinforce a point.

I’ll show you one more example from the film; then I suggest you study it on your own. Kessler sees the girl again after a long separation. In the background running water appears. “Marry me,” she says to Kessler. They kiss and as they turn toward the background it dissolves into a shot of the priest, who performs the wedding ceremony.

Consider the Possibilities

Strange and unusual, you say? True, but the hypnotized audience is in a “dream state,” where anything is possible. Like a dream, one scene melts into another and not everything makes perfect sense, at least not on the surface.

These effects work in this film, but would be inappropriate in a different format–one with a more realistic approach, for example.

Still, by studying Zentropa and other masterworks distinguished by the unique use of effects, we can explore the possibilities of our own productions.

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