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Advice for directors and actors: match your moments

Before I share this advice, a little about me for those of you on SP that don’t know (just so you're aware that I kind of know what I’m talking about). I started editing features when we cut on film—-that was a long time ago. Most of my career - probably 98% of it - was fixing movies in trouble. What that means is, a producer realized too late that he/she hired the wrong director or bought the wrong script (usually both). On about half of these films, new scenes were written to fill the plot holes and I'd figure out what additional shots were needed to make existing scenes work. I'd then direct the new stuff and re-edit the entire picture. On the other half of the pictures, I would simply re-edit. The other way I get hired is from a completion bond company that has taken over a picture. Yes, there are people like me in the business. Don't look for our IMDB credits. They aren't there. We work uncredited (signing non-disclosure agreements in perpetuity). Everything I fixed got a distribution deal (probably 99% of films made, don't). So there.

I’m advising on a feature currently, and this problem cropped up that I’ve seen a lot over the years. A “moment” that isn’t matched. It typically happens this way (we’ll use basic coverage and two actors in this example): you shoot a master, two shot, over the shoulders, medium singles, and close ups. Let’s say that in the medium single shot, the actress does something magical, or accidental, or changes her character in some way that really shines. You want to use that bit. It’s fantastic. In the case of this actual problem, the actress changed her physicality, relating to the actor in this scene in a completely different way, that gave the scene more depth. I love it when that happens. For the rest of the coverage, she kept that performance. But that means, in the master, 2 shot, and the actor’s medium single, that performance isn’t there. Now, as an editor, how do I get to that performance? Sometimes it’s easy. Most of the time, editors really struggle around those missing pieces because the emotion isn’t consistent. And too many times, as this editor did, he simply didn't use those takes or set-ups, and it’s awkward to say the least.

Ideally, what needed to be done, is that the director should have re-shot the master, 2 shot, and the actor’s medium single to match the moment that actress gave. You have to give the editor a way to get to those moments that doesn’t interrupt the emotional flow of the scene.

For actors: I’m not saying you have to match your performance in every camera set-up. A lot of actors change how they say a line or give a look, for example, and that can be really helpful to us in building the subtleties of character. But if you have the urge to invade the frame of your co-star, it might cause problems. If you straighten your co-star’s tie in a shot, but don’t in the rest, we are stuck cutting to that damned tie a lot of the time. The times that you don’t have to worry about this too much, is if the director is shooting with two cameras or more. Go hog wild. I don’t want to stifle what you do. It’s hard to know, as an actor, when you can get away with changing things up, and that takes experience. But that’s what directors are for, so hopefully he/she will guide you and catch those moments in the coverage. But if you accidentally spill a plate of food on your co-star, and the director likes it, you might say something like “do you think we’ll be reshooting the master?”

The best thing a film actor can do, is sit in a professional editing room for a few days or more. It doesn't even have to be on your film. I've often allowed actors in my editing rooms as long as the director OKs it, and I'm happy to talk through my process as I work.

Does any of this make sense? I fear I’ve not explained it well.

Oh, a side note to John Lubran. They are editing this on Premiere Pro, and I thought of you. I’ve changed my view a bit; it’s not as clunky as it used to be! For example, they’ve added “dynamic trimming” which wasn’t on the last version I used. I thought that a serious flaw. Seems they really are listening to filmmakers. (I still like Lightworks, though!).

  • Dan, any gems you care to share I'll always read avidly (lightworksly?!?). I always learn from you.

    Any members trying to get into the industry, tips from “grey dogs” like Dan are priceless. You won't find this stuff on any college course, it's like a mini masterclass going through his posting history. It's worth spending the time and effort to do so. And you can bet the bonding companies don't hire amateurs ;-)

    10 months ago
    • Holy crap. Thanks, Paddy. (Nice puns!)

      I only wish these guys had enough money to hire me to actually recut it instead of me blathering on about "listen, you guys, you have to cut to character" and them looking at me with blank stares. Ah, well. It's a different industry now.

      10 months ago
  • Or of course, you could employ a decent script sup.
    Love from Script Supervisor.

    10 months ago
    • I couldn't agree more, Becky. The scariest words I see on script notes are these: "per director"

      10 months ago
    • Also, Becky, if you're interested, I have a rant about what makes a good script supervisor (in answer to a question on SP).

      shootingpeople.org/ask/view/34534119dee5...

      10 months ago
    • Becky said it! If a scene you're directing is evolving in the way you describe, a good script supervisor should nudge you and point out "you might want to re-shoot your master" and save your bacon. It's happened to me. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Dan. It's perfectly clear and very helpful.

      10 months ago
    • @John Harden Thanks, John. Absolutely, Becky nail it. But if I might add one diplomatic move: when you point this out, be out of earshot of the 1st AD. A lot of them here in America think the schedule is the most important thing. You know what? Scratch that. Be out of earshot of everyone!

      10 months ago
  • Thanks so much for this, Dan, a really useful piece of advice. I have already encountered problems like this in editing sequences with actors. As another grey dog (who did tele docos and is now embarking on a feature) I deeply appreciate this kind of knowledge, which carries skills not usually needed in documentary where you have to seize the moment and then find a way to cut round it. Any more tasty morsels like this will be eagerly gobbled up by me!

    10 months ago
  • Thanks Dan. I followed the link and thats a great rant, really really useful. Im a live gallery PA by trade, just starting getting drama SS jobs, lucky enough to shadow some old school scripties to learn the ways and now Im doing lots of short films, working my way up to a TV drama or feature. Ive not had any editor feedback so its hard to know what I could be doing better and what Im missing. I know my shot descriptions could improve and my general neatness. A short I worked on is going in edit today so im going to email the editor and hopefully he can spare a minute to give me a bit of feed back, the more honest the better! Ta.

    10 months ago
    • I'm sure visiting the editing room wouldn't be a problem, Becky, especially on a feature, it would be welcomed by the editor and assistants within the first week of shooting. Please keep in mind, too, that the more inexperienced the editor is, the less they'll have to say about your notes. Most cutting shorts haven't had feature OR script note experience, so they may not know how to best utilize your work. The best script super I ever had was trained on set by a 40 year veteran. It's really great that you're getting that type of access to those old hands!

      10 months ago
    • @Dan Selakovich Hi Dan, been reading your posts today and there some great advice in there. I've been editing low budgety shorts, showreels and the like for the last year or so and I've never been given notes (more than an excel spreadsheet with "good" next to some shots) from a script supervisor. As an editor what do you with them, why is having the timings useful? I get that being able to know if a line is read in a shot is useful, but how do you use all this information?

      Cheers!

      10 months ago
    • @Peter Brook You may not realize, but your question is absolutely massive. I could write a short book on how I use script notes that are properly done. As a small example, I can look at a lined script and know all of the coverage, which dialogue is covered, where a shot might be a PU and at what point, then look at the facing page and know what lens length was used, and which takes the director likes. All in about 30 seconds I know everything hanging in my trim bin (digital or otherwise), and a rough idea of how I will approach that scene without looking at a frame of footage. I will also know that on 24B Take 3, that and actor flubbed a certain line, but the rest of the take is completely usable, and possibly the best take up until that mistake. All of that information goes into my brain, and absolutely colors how I will approach the scene.

      What you're given as notes is pretty absurd. But let's take that: you sometimes have "good" for a take. That's helpful. You can determine what the director is after. Once you view that take, you can get a feel for the director's POV of his work when you compare that shot to others that were not labeled "good." What did the actors do that made this "good" when compared to other takes? Sometimes it's a completely subtle thing. That "good" take can color how you approach editing a scene, and serves best at giving the director his "vision". But that's with experienced directors. Probably on a short or first feature, the director liked that take because there were no flubs from the actors or camera department. In other words: technically good enough.

      Script Timing. OK, where do I start? Proper script timing is critical. It tells you how long each scene will be, and ultimately, how long the film will be. What if you think you're making a 90 minute feature (because there are 90 pages), and the timing results in a 78 minute feature (I've actually experienced this, so don't think it can't happen)? Not good. Or the distributor requires the film to be over 95 minutes so that television sales can collect the maximum profit. That extra 5 minutes can get an extra $10k per territory. All of that needs to be known before shooting.

      Next: if you are shooting on film, timing is important so that the producer can know when to fire the director. I'm only half kidding. Film is expensive. Processing is expensive. Digital transfers are expensive. Let's say you've timed the script and the producer and director have determined they can afford a 10:1 shooting ratio. They don't look at a 100 page script and multiply 100 minutes x 10. They look at the timing, and buy enough film for the running time x ten. You could have an action scene, and all the writer has given you is: "...and all hell breaks loose!" That one line is not representative of screen time. Many inexperienced directors think that a 10:1 shooting ratio means, "I can have 10 camera setups." And he/she can, but only if they shoot one take for each set up. What if the director shoots 3 takes of ten setups? Ratio is blown, that's what. The PM and the producer will take the director aside, and tell him to get his shit together. If he keeps blowing the ratio, he'll be fired (this is on low budget or mid budget indie films. Big budgets don't care how much film they burn through, as long as the film stays on schedule). All of this is based on the script timing. FYI: most PMs will do their own timing before they start a schedule or budget, whether digital or film.

      Why timing is important, creatively: one of the first things I do when I get a script is break it down into sequences. Not scenes. Sequences. Most films have between 30 and 50 sequences. A sequence is its own beast, typically with its own beginning, middle and end. For example, on the film Die Hard, we might say that John flying into L.A., coming to the Nakatomi building until he has a fight with his wife, is a sequence (I'm doing this from memory, so don't hold me to that!). That has one emotional consistency, with a beginning, middle, and end. Films tend to speed up as they go, so if I do a timing and see that those sequences get longer instead of shorter toward the end of the film, I try to determine how I can edit those sequences based on that longer time. Perhaps the scenes are shorter and you have many scenes in a sequence. Then it's not a problem, usually. But if you have fewer scenes and the sequence is quite long, you might have a structural problem with the script. All of that is based on a script timing. I know it seems really esoteric, but it's all fodder for my brain to subconsciously work away before I cut a frame.

      These are just a few bullet points. As I said, your question is massive, and it's hard to answer with any competence in a thread like this. Hopefully I've given you something to consider.

      10 months ago
    • @Dan Selakovich Yeah that's really interesting. Thanks for taking the time to write that out!

      10 months ago
  • Also just the change of the dynamism or energy level in the acting requires reshoot of previous: there may be many takes with actor direction bringing them gradually to drift that way although without blocking- or prop use modifications.

    10 months ago
  • Thanks, Dan. I have devoured the posts you mention as they appeared but will re-read and absorb again today!

    10 months ago
  • Just got back from a trip where I had the pleasure of no Internet. Looks like you've started another great strand Dan. Lovely to see the now 'official advice team' is still able and generous enough to contribute gems to this community.

    There's a book, both paper and electronic versions, that could be compiled from the best posts made here over the years. It'd be relatively easy to edit and ought to be a definitive classic. Probably also be wry enough to be entertaining as well as informative.

    10 months ago
    • Absolutely. And a darn sight easier to index that trawling through forum archives!

      10 months ago
    • @Paddy Robinson-Griffin Let's do it :)

      10 months ago
    • It would be pretty great. I know I'd read it! Someone suggested some time ago about archiving helpful threads into an "advice" section. I thought that was a great idea, too. Or if Shooting People made it easier to find old posts. For example, when I was trying to find my post about "Script Supervisor," I plugged that into SP search engine and came up with zero results. How is that even possible? Surely that term has been mentioned hundreds of times in SP threads. It's very odd.

      10 months ago
  • Many thanks for that great piece of wisdom Dan.Whatever else you care to share would be studiously received!

    10 months ago
    • Thanks so much, Malcolm. Here are some other names you should look out for: Paddy, John Lubran, Wozy, Marlom, Paulina Brahm (excellent advice for actors), and a some others that I can't think of right now!

      10 months ago
    • @Dan SelakovichJust found this conversation. With regard to shooting on film and calculating stock. Rather than basing it on the script, it should be based on a shot list which is generated from the storyboard/anamatic/previz. Then apply your shooting ratio to that shot list and you shouldn't run out of stock. Providing you have a strong 1st AD who can make sure the Director stays on track. I pray for a strong 1st! :)

      10 months ago
    • @Mark Wiggins Hmmm... I would never do it that way. Basing it on a shot list or storyboard rather than time--footage through the gate--doesn't make much sense to me. Especially since a story board would only consider a single take of an undetermined length since your way is not basing it on the script's scene length. Of course you're going to have scenes that the director will have more or less coverage for, like carrying scene 12 in only a master, and scene 36 that needs 10 setups. All of that is considered, but it is all based on time. It's good to have storyboards, but often they are thrown out the window for a range of reasons, from a shot that is physically impossible at that location based on a storyboard drawing, to planned time at a location is less than contracted for, to an actor changing their performance that might require a different way of shooting the scene. The constant in all of that is script time. In the end, it all comes out in the wash, because you'll have some scenes that are going to be 4:1 and some scenes that will be 15:1. Having storyboards and shot lists help to determine that, but it's all based on a script timing.

      What I want out my 1st AD is his expertise in knowing how many setups I can get at a certain location in a certain amount of time, and how he manages the crew to get those set ups. That's true whether digital or film, and a great 1st AD is invaluable. I want him or her to be fluid if things change. I want the AD and his team to fix tomorrow's problems before they become problems. I absolutely want him/her to keep me on schedule. I can honestly say that I have never asked an AD how much film I've shot. I'll go to the script supervisor and ask her how long that scene actually is compared to the script timing. If I'm running long, I'll adjust accordingly. But again, it's based on time, not setups and takes alone.

      What I was talking about in my post above is about young directors that don't understand shooting ratios. It's incredibly common.

      10 months ago
    • @Mark Wiggins Oops, one more thing: shooting ratios in the indie world are not based on the shots the director wants to get. They are based on what the production can afford. So all the storyboards in the world aren't going to get you extra money. Even digitally, you can have a 25:1 shooting ratio, but if it's an 18 day shoot, you'll never get to a ratio that high unless you're running and gunning with multiple cameras.

      10 months ago
  • Yes, of course it's all about time. A storyboard is just a visualisation of the script and I find directors can better relate to it when you are talking to them about timings and shooting ratios.

    The 1st AD's job is to keep the director and the production on track, to make sure all the shots that are needed get shot and the director doesn't get bogged down with a particular shot (which would have serious implications for shots that have not been done yet.

    Yes, the Script Supervisor is the one who has the information you need but the Script Supervisor can't tell a director to move on etc. That's the job of the 1st AD. I have seen jobs fall apart because of a weak 1st.

    10 months ago
  • I think that, when it comes to film, storyboards/anamatics/previz are very important. You've got to start somewhere and, if you have a storyboard (which at the time is the Director's vision of how he/she will shoot the script) you can then tell the Director how much its going to cost to shoot that storyboard. Then production can tell you if they can afford that. If not, a discussion starts and the two sides can work towards each other. If production totally ignores the storyboard and says its all about timings from the script and nothing else matters and we are going to totally ignore the director's storyboard, then you are asking for trouble.

    All directors work differently. Some don't storyboard so its not an issue. Many do and it has to be taken into account when determining things like stock need.

    After all, a film is supposed to reflect the director's vision. Everyone should be trying to help him/her create that vision and help him/her create it within the confines of the limitations of the shoot (time/logistics/budget etc).

    10 months ago
    • I was only responding to shooting ratios and script timing. Not how one approaches style or the look of a film.

      10 months ago
  • Fantastic advice, thanks very much!

    10 months ago
  • Thanks Dan! I'm a newby to screen acting but totally understood your lesson. Years ago I watched a video of Michael Cain explaining about continuity of the actor for close ups and the master (smoking a cigarette example). I think all actors need to see from an editors POV and learn from.

    10 months ago
    • Here's a secret for you actors: matching your action will get you more screen time. The editor won't do that consciously, but I've noticed that it ends up that way. Or often, to use your example, if you take a puff of a cigarette on a different line when we're cutting from, say, a two shot to a CU, we might have to wait until the cigarette is out of frame to make the cut. In wider shots, if the emotion of the cut is right, most of us don't worry about matching action, or to say it a different way: matching action is secondary to the emotional cut.

      Also, in an intimate moment with another character in a CU, don't shift your eyes back and forth (this happens when the actor looks into the eyes of her co-star, shifting her gaze from his left eye to his right eye really quickly). Pick one eye and look into it (preferably the eye on the camera side). Boom, more screen time.

      But all of that is a little different than my original post. The point was this: if you want to change things up, you have a happy accident, or the other actor does something different that changes YOUR performance, it's important for the director to possibly re-shoot coverage to capture that new moment in earlier coverage.

      10 months ago
    • The flipside of what Dan says - I've seen minutes of screentime cut because an actress kept trying to pull attention in the scene in different ways each take. It was a 'mare for the editor, and in the end it meant pretty much the whole lot ended up on the floor.

      The scene's not about the cast, it's about the characters!

      10 months ago
    • @Paddy Robinson-Griffin We call that "mugging" here, Paddy. And yes, it's the worst. Because, as you point out, it's not about character. It's a joy editing really good actors. But if you've got an actor like you mention, you end up editing around a performance, and it's a nightmare.

      You've brought up one of my fears about bringing up these points about screen acting. Everything about screen acting is subtle. Really minor adjustments to a performance come off huge. So imagine what huge adjustments look like!

      Often, if you give an inexperienced actor a direction, they really run with it, taking it too far. Or if I say, "I really like that bit you did here" they start emphasizing that bit, and ruin it. Or if I give a bad direction, it can be hard to say "forget that. That was a terrible direction I just gave you." It's a bit like saying "don't think of a pink elephant." That's all you can think about.

      Acting for the screen is all about subtlety. I met Jack Lemmon once, and he told me about this director that kept saying "do less" take after take. Jack finally said "if I do any less, I won't be doing anything at all." The director replied, "exactly." That's when he realized the difference between stage acting and screen acting. Wish I could remember the movie and director!

      10 months ago
    • @Dan Selakovich
      George Cukor

      10 months ago
    • @Alève Mine How in the world do you know that, Aleve? Shit, is this a common story? I thought it was all mine!

      10 months ago
    • @Dan Selakovich Maybe you're the one who had started it: I had heard it before, but didn't remember the director: looked him up. :)
      Either way it's amazing that you had met him.

      10 months ago
    • @Alève Mine I mean Jack Lemmon

      10 months ago
    • @Alève Mine Boy, I'd better get some new stories! Yes, he was one of the most gracious big stars I have ever met. I try to ask actors that have worked with a lot of great directors if there was a turning point for them in how they approach acting based on how a director worked or a single direction given. Jack Lemmon's was the best ever answer. I think I met him in '84 or so, and never forgot his reply. Oh, I also asked him for his leather jacket. He laughed and said "no."

      10 months ago
    • @Dan Selakovich Oh I've got stories Dan. AMA. In film, music, art, literature.

      They aren't all new to me, because I'm a partial "veteran", still they will be new to you. Look no further.

      10 months ago
    • @Alève Mine Hahaha. Can I buy your stories and make them my own? (Seinfeld reference).

      10 months ago
    • @Dan Selakovich I will not capitulate!

      - or maybe yes, depending on your budget...

      10 months ago
  • Hi Dan. re your original (which seems to have moved on a bit...) good actors should learn what we used to call Film Grammar, which includes stuff like Overlapping Action and I've used two actresses who were watching so when it came to their bit knew about Crossing the Line so knew which side of the camera to look. A few drama schools do teach film grammar. I've also had moments when after the action but the camera is still rolling I've used expressions in the edit from the actors when they though all was over...

    10 months ago