Editing tricks - Hitchcock, Vidor, Lang, Wilder, Pabst

Wolf DeVoon

New member
Using multiple cameras has suddenly become a popular thing to do, and it's disastrous. Instead of getting one beautifully staged, well-shot take of something, you're getting 2 or 3 camera angles of the same thing -- all mediocre -- because the staging cannot be as good as it should be, since you have to allow for where the other cameras are. If the lighting is good for the A camera, it may be terrible for the B and C cameras. You're spending a fortune on raw stock and lab. You're running through miles of film out of which maybe you get a little something. I've been watching dailies on a film using multiple cameras, and they're just awful. I've talked to several cutters I know, and they're all complaining about the same thing. Eight, nine, ten reels of dailies a day, four of which are dailies, and the rest of which are junk.

(Verna Fields)

There are two primary uses of cutting or montage in film: montage to create ideas -- and montage to create violence and emotion. For example, in REAR WINDOW [1954], where Jimmy Stewart is thrown out of the window in the end, I just photographed that with feet, legs, arms, heads. Completely montage. I also photographed it from a distance, the complete action. There was no comparison between these two. There never is. Barroom fights, or whatever they do in Westerns, when they knock out the heavy or when one man knocks another across the table which breaks -- they always break a table in bars -- they are always shot at a distance. But it is much more effective if it is done in montage, because you involve the audience more -- that's the secret to that type of montage in film. And the other, of course, is the juxtaposition of imagery relating to the mind of the individual. You can have a man look, you show what he sees, you go back to the man. You can make him react in various ways. You see, you can make him look at one thing, look at another -- without his speaking, you can show his mind at work, comparing things -- any way you run, there's complete freedom. It's limitless, I would say, the power of cutting and the assembly of images. Like the man with no eyes in THE BIRDS [1963] -- zooming the camera in -- the stacatto jumps are almost like catching the breath. Is it? Gasp. Gasp. Yes.

The rhythm of the cutting in REAR WINDOW speeds up as the film goes on. This is because of the nature of the structure of the film. At the beginning, life is going on quite naturally. The tempo is leisurely. There's a bit of a conflict between the man and the girl. And then gradually the first suspicion grows and it increases. And naturally as you reach the last third of your picture, the events have to pile on top of each other. If you didn't and if you slowed the tempo down, it would show up considerably.

(Alfred Hitchcock)

It was a car crash [in SPIONE, 1927] and I wanted to escape from the conventional treatment of long shots of the car, close-ups of the driver, and then a long shot of the car wreck. I wanted my audience to be behind the wheel of the car -- not sitting at the side of the road. So I placed my cameras in strange positions. Rushing towards the car on each side of the road were tall trees in unbroken rows. As the speed of the cars increased, the trees swept by faster and faster, losing their identity and becoming threatening blurs of black and white. Suddenly they appeared to shift the direction of their flow and loomed ahead at a crazy angle. One huge tree dashed straight into the camera, its trunk filling the entire screen. A quick cut to the terrified face of the driver then instant blackness. It was much more effective, I thought, than a conventional crash.

(Fritz Lang)

During the shooting [of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, 1946] which began April 15 and ended August 9, 1946, I worked very closely with Daniel Mandell, one of the really fine film editors. Danny has put most of my pictures together, and knows as much about the subject as anybody you could name. Our company met at 8:30 every morning to see the film we'd shot the day before. Danny sat next to me, and I would pick the takes to be used, and briefly discuss the way I intended the scene to be cut. Then, during the course of the day, Danny would come on the set and we would talk over specific problems. Occasionally, every few weeks, I would devote an evening to running the assembled film with Danny, and making suggestions to him... The day after we finished the long 4-month shooting schedule, Danny had a first rough cut ready to show. It ran just a few minutes under 3 hours, and very few changes had to be made in it.

(William Wyler)

Every cut [in DIE LIEBE DER JENNY NEY, 1927] is made on some movement. At the end of one cut somebody is moving; at the beginning of the adjoining one the movement is continued. The eye is thus so occupied in following these movements that it misses the cuts. Of course, this was very difficult to do.

(Georg Wilhelm Pabst)

When THE BIG PARADE first opened in New York, it was 12,800 feet in length. In the editorial process, we had pared the action to the bone. Each one of the several thousand scenes had been subjected to the closest scrutiny, trimmed to start as late as possible and end the moment the climax was reached while still preserving its full value. Nevertheless, the 800 feet seemed to bother the ditributing company. They informed us that it made the first show begin too early and the last show too late. They told us that is the New York commuters came out of the theater too late, they missed the train departures and sometimes were forced to spend the night in a hotel in the city. I hated to sacrifice another foot of the film for the sake of eastern commuters, but I began to fear that if I didn't eliminate the 800 feet, someone with a less symphatheic pair of scissors might do it for me. By this time I was directing another film, but I volunteered to take the picture home with me, all 13 reels of it, and each night after dinner I'd see what kind of loving surgery I could perform. I set up a cutting table in my living room, complete with rewinds and strong frosted backlight. It occurred to me after several evenings of getting nowhere that I could cut 3 frames from the beginning and end of each scene (6 frames at each film splice) the total might add up to 800 feet, since there were thousands of splices in the picture. It took several nights and a whole Sunday to do this job. At its completion I still had 165 feet to go. I went back and cut out one frame on each side of each patch and the combined total of the many little pieces of cinema film added up to exactly 800 feet.

(King Vidor)


Wolf, thanks for your post. I would like to address Verna's thoughts on Multicam. While indeed lighting and framing for a 2nd or third camera is usually a compromise, while shooting a documentary having a second camera can making editing much smoother, and if you are smart you can do it well. Also back in the day, it was really hard to cut Multicam, Now FCP X and most other editing systems have built-in syncing systems so that choosing that shot does not slow down the process. ( I literally was just doing this) BUT it totally is true that when you shoot Multicam you have more footage to deal with and that is a pain.

Wolf DeVoon

New member
Bart, to clarify and agree, multiple cameras ("iso") are swell for covering certain kinds of live events like music and dance, sitcoms of course. In 1990, one of my shows got noticed by UK Producer magazine because previously everyone was using a remote control room and doing hot switch of multiple cameras on location. BetaSP with SMPTE code made it possible to run 3 tapes in post-sync, and I could call the cut on the fly, stop, go back, try again or mark certain edit points. Ancient history. As you noted modern digital platforms make everything easier.

However (a big however) I still shoot film style, one camera for drama. Lots of reasons why, primarily because each shot in decopage (scripted shots, specific plan of pix) has a mise en scene objective, composition, framing, camera move, background action for that particular set-up that cannot be limited by general lighting or blocking for multiple cameras B, C, etc.