Tom Jolliffe begins a series of film classes. This week, featuring a guide on how to edit action scenes…
In a new recurrent series, Film Class, I will take you through a guide on various topics relating to all manner of differing film aspects. From everything in front, or behind the camera, during shoot or in post. I don’t claim to be a scholar of any kind (just a piffling graduate), but the series will merely be a guide through the films which have done things right. In the case of this opening gambit, I will focus on how to edit action sequences.
Firstly though, how do you do it wrong? If you’re a film buff like myself and find yourself drawn inexorably to all manner of internet videos, often comical, on the subject, you may have come across an infamously biting dissection of one singular moment in Taken 3. The moment in question involves Liam Neeson climbing over a fence. What should have been a simple action is made incoherent and ridiculous by the editorial (and directorial) choice to include 14 cuts in 6 seconds. It’s eye blistering, disorientating and ultimately pointless but it’s not merely confined to Neeson’s last outing as Bryan Mills. This has been a problem since the turn of the millennium. Too much is being done in the editing suite. You might call it avid farting. Editors seem to be trying too hard to put their stamp on a film (particularly action) when the reality is, that an editor has to be like Dennis Irwin. He’s complimenting the rest of the team. He does a job exceptionally well and walks down the tunnel having not been noticed by the casual observer (though the ex pro commentating will sing his praises). So while Fergie and Cantona (he still plays…right?) take the plaudits, Irwin has done his job well. He’d get the odd moment of free kick flourish every now and again, but his job was always to be an essential cog and not the showman.
An editor is the same. This relates to every aspect, not simply the action of course. When you become too aware of the editor (within the moment and not retrospect), he has failed. One reason I particularly focused on action is that it’s particularly hard to do as an editor. You’re cutting together a sequence that inherently must be fast paced. It must up the tension. Now, that could involve a sequence that in itself is quite slow, but along with the directors footage, the editor needs to be able to punctuate at the right moments and bring unity between footage, sound and music. One second too early, one second too late and it is half as effective as that magic cutting spot.
Take for example most of Sergio Leone’s Westerns. Very deliberately paced. The action would be languid, slow, allowing tension to build before the inevitable explosive moment. He did that to perfection. Go back further to perhaps the most important film in action history, Seven Samurai. Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece blueprinted almost every Western and Spaghetti Western that following over the next 15 years, as well as action films and blockbusters through the 70’s and beyond. Kurosawa in fact edited the film himself (he did the majority of his films). Most gifted directors will orchestrate within the confides of the editing room, as they know exactly how they want everything cut together. You may hear occasionally a disgruntled director bemoan having been locked out of the editing suite having been pushed out of production following the shoot (for whatever reason). It’s often noticeable that there’s a lack of cohesion between what has been shot, and how it’s been cut. Ultimately, the editor must efficiently deliver the directors vision.
More recently there have been a number of exceptionally edited action films. Terminator 2: Judgment Day has recently been re-mastered and briefly re-released. That is an example of how you pace action. Let’s compare it to the sequels since. Certain elements are there in the post millennial sequels. Large, expansive set pieces. Big elaborate shots. Key things are lacking though in those sequels. Firstly you have the major problem that we’re not invested in the characters, as the filmmakers decided that our investment should already be established from watching James Cameron’s films. That in itself is lazy, but that’s not about editing. As far as that goes, there’s no cohesion between what Alan Taylor, Jonathan Mostow or McG shot and how it was cut together. If you take Michael Bay as an example. He’s the perfect poster child for money shot film-making. Everything is shot to look impressive. Cool. There’s no connective tissue though. Everything is then cut rapidly, only broken up by gratuitous slow motion shots. It’s messy, incoherent and a little moronic. Terminator 2 had three editors on board with Cameron (largely due to the fact the film, at the time, was one of the most expensive ever). Cameron knows editing but furthermore he had a couple of genre cut specialists in his suite, Conrad Buff and Mark Goldblatt (who edited the first film). Every sequence plays out in stages. It’s all decipherable. Every cut is well-timed. Everything flows well. Even taking that opening sequence when Arnold commandeers his clothes, boots and motorcycle, it’s perfectly cut and portrays the cyborgs power.
John Woo has his own imitable style. Watching something as outrageously insane as Hard Boiled, one appreciates just how well everything cuts together coherently. Any self-proclaimed action lover absolutely must see the film. Woo (along with editor David Wu) knew instinctively how to piece together the masses of stunt and pyrotechnic filled shots. When I say insane, you just need to watch it. So many stunts. Stunt guys flying everywhere. Squibs going off indiscriminatingly all over the place. Under an editor not versed in Woo’s vision, or indeed filmic language (so many modern editors are technicians, without the thematic knowledge and sensitivity) this film would be the messiest action film ever made. Such is the carnage on-screen, that it requires precision and deftness. I go back to Bay. The levels of carnage are similar, but the cohesion is not there, particularly in the Transformers series (made all the more galling as The Rock had good action). Woo’s approach to editing was always musical. Like he was orchestrating. As such everything flows together well, like a piece of great music. Cuts have a rhythm that compliment what he’s shot. Indeed it’s not as simple as getting the cuts right, it’s about full understanding of what he’s shooting and how it cuts together. With that in mind he can do something as elaborate and flowing as the infamous three minute long take in the hospital scene. The actions have that Woo rhythm but without the cuts. But his touch is still there with occasional moments when the action drifts into slow motion and then out again.
Another example of an action film edited with a musical rhythm is in Robert Rodriguez’s cult favourite, Desperado. The film is lightning fast paced. The cuts are quick, rapid, but without descending into mind numbing incoherence. Played out like a fiery flamenco dance, Rodriguez instinctively cuts everything together with a precise rhythm. If you watch Desperado, it’s slick, impressive and extremely well-edited. It all melds together brilliantly. It becomes clear he has shot the film fully aware of how he will later cut it together and Rodriguez cuts his own films. It feels completely organic.
Post millennium, perhaps the finest example of editing action has been in The Bourne Ultimatum. It’s an exceptionally cut film. Paul Greengrass’s visceral and rough approach to the Bourne franchise has been a topic of divisive debate. “Shaky cam!” It’s a contentious stylistic choice and as far as action goes, one of the few examples of it really working are in Greengrass’s first two Bourne films. The contention comes largely from the haphazard approach that has come from the many imitators. Shaking camera, blitzkrieg cutting. That relates back to my first example of bad editing in Taken 3. The Bourne Ultimatum was cut quite rapidly but it did so with precise rhythm, taking everything to the borderline of incoherence, but remaining clear and concise. If you watch for example the sequence when Bourne meets the reporter in Waterloo station. It’s an action scene without big, elaborate moments or money shots. In its actions, it is simple but the delivery is perfect. In unison with great sound and the effective John Powell score, everything blends well. It’s a really exciting sequence. One of the best in a franchise known for elaborate car chases and bone crunching fights. THAT is how you edit action! Class dismissed.