Film Editing: Activity 2

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Writing with Images

Editing is one of the most creative aspects of filmmaking. The film editor, in conjunction with the director, establishes the pace and structure of a film by connecting various shots to create scenes and sequences that form the final movie. The shots the editor chooses and the ways they are combined set the mood, develop the action, create the rhythm, establish the film's time and space, and guide the viewers' attention. For a typical feature-length film, the editor begins with hundreds of thousands of feet of film and must reduce it to less than 10,000 feet.

Part A. Film editor Carol Littleton describes editing a film as being a lot like writing: "You become a writer, but you're writing with images…" Ask your students to think about how visual images differ from those created by the written word. For example, have them write a paragraph describing a disagreement between an official and two runners about the outcome of a race. Then ask them to draw a series of pictures (stick figures are fine) that depict a similar scene. Ask them to analyze how the written description differs from the visual images they used and how this difference may affect the way films are made. While the written version may describe very specific thought processes, the pictures probably illustrate specific actions. People say, "A picture is worth a thousand words" and "Actions speak louder than words." Have students consider in what ways these sayings are true in regard to motion pictures and in what ways they neglect the difficulties of communicating with images. In what ways do the interactions of characters in a written story differ from the interactions of characters in a traditional narrative film?

Part B. In the 1920s, Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov conducted a series of experiments designed to demonstrate that when two separate shots are projected in succession, the viewer assumes a connection between them. In one experiment, Kuleshov spliced together a series of shots that had been taken in different places and at different times. The shots were of a waiting man, a walking woman, a gate, a staircase and a mansion. Kuleshov's viewers—who interpreted the sequence as a man and a woman meeting at the gate in front of the mansion—had, in essence, inferred a whole narrative on the basis of seeing only portions of it. This effect allows filmmakers to use exteriors and interiors miles apart and imply that they are in the same place, to have people filmed on different days appear to be talking to each other, to have actors seemingly facing dangerous situations, or to imply that what actors are thinking about is represented by a subsequent cutaway image.

To illustrate the Kuleshov effect, show your students drawings or photographs (as described above) that are not necessarily related, but which, when viewed together, can be mentally connected in time and space to create a brief scene.

Part C. The Kuleshov effect is an editing technique that illustrates how the human brain tries to find connections between objects when viewed together. Other editing techniques rely on how the human eye works. For example, there usually must be an appropriate change in distance for a shot not to seem like a mistake or "jump" cut. The direction in which things move across the screen is also an editorial concern. A car that exits the screen on the right is expected in a subsequent shot to reappear on the left—otherwise the car could be perceived as a different car coming from the opposite direction. Scenes featuring characters in opposition to each other (a hero and villain, for example) usually feature one character continually facing one direction with the other character continually facing the other direction. This keeps the two "sides" clear. Have your students prepare a "shot list" (see example below) listing the shots from a sequence of a film they've watched. The list should outline the details of direction, position, distance, continuity, or relationship that is communicated with each cut between shots. Have them explain why they feel the edit does or does not work. If they desire, they can use arrows or symbols as shorthand to describe what is happening in each shot. Here is an example of a shot list for the comic strip illustrated below.

1. LS - Exterior of house. Day.
2. LS - Mom to boy. Boy facing right, Mom facing left. "You should call your Grandma."
3. MS - Overhead. Boy staring at phone facing right. Phone on right side of screen.
4. CU - Mom's face. Mom facing left. "You should call your Grandma."
5. ECU - Boy picking up phone. Hand enters from left side of screen.
6. CU - Boy on phone. Phone on left side of screen. Boy's right ear. "Hello, Grandma."
7. CU - Grandma on phone. Grandma facing left. "Why don't you call more often?"
8. CU - Boy staring at phone. Phone on left side of screen.
9. ECU - Phone. Boy's hand on left side.
10. CU - Boy hanging up phone. Phone on left side of screen. Boy looking at phone.


Add-on Activity:

If your students have access to video cameras, ask them to replicate the Kuleshov effect. This can also be done using digital or still photographs, drawings, or pictures cut from magazines.

Film Editing: Manipulating Time and Space

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Complete Film Editing Activities Guide (PDF)

Activity 1: Film Editing Terminology

Activity 2: Writing with Images

Activity 3: Creating Meaning

Activity 4: Learning from the Best

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