Picture an action scene. Do you see: A gunfight? A car chase? A battle?
All of the above are prime examples of an action scene, which has one major defining characteristic: A fast pace. But who sets a scene's pace? While the director, actors and cinematographer affect the timing within each shot, it is the editor who ultimately creates the rhythm of a scene.
SETTING THE PACE
An editor establishes pace through his or her selection of static and moving shots, as well as the length and placement of those shots, Long shots and wide shots contain more information, so they are usually held on the screen longer, allowing the audience to register everything they're seeing. Since the audience grasps close-ups and medium shots mare quickly, they don't need to be on-screen far as long as a wide shot, making them perfect for action scenes. Short shots can heighten the dramatic tension of a scene and keep an audience an the edge of their seats.
The cuts in action scenes tend to get shorter and the angles claser until the editor pulls back far the next big moment, For example, the notorious shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho spreads a whopping 50 cuts over three minutes before ending with a still shot of the murdered Marian Crane. But it's not the number of quick cuts that makes an action scene effective, it's the juxtaposition of these shots=short and close, long and wide--that sets the pace.
REPEATING THE ACTION
A common tactic when cutting action scenes is to repeat the same action in two or more shots. This is done to milk the dramatic impact of same incredible event, be it an explosion, bridge collapse or car crash. By intercutting different angles and slow motion shots, an editor can prolong the action far as long as it sustains the story.
Editors also regularly repeat frames when cutting between shots. Since viewers' eyes don't instantly catch up when watching fast-paced sequences, repeating a few frames of the action bath at the tail of a long shot and the head of a close shot results in a smooth cut that the audience will perceive as one, continuous action,
Frequently, the repeating of action is obvious due to the editor's duplication of longer portions of the action over a series of shots, frequently from different angles. This over lapping amplifies the action far dramatic or comic impact and expands time. In the three frames below from "Burn Notice," the hero's descent from a helicopter repeats over three cuts to increase the drama.
IT'S ALL IN THE TIMING
The way you pace shots renders the action either shorter or longer than it occurs in real time. In the former case, making short, quick cuts, employing jump cuts or using a dissolve compresses time and moves the story along. In the scene below, from Zhang Yimou's Hero, the editors employed both short and slow motion shots to speed up time and hasten the hero's journey across the plain, while still giving the scene a feeling of timelessness.
Conversely, by repeating action, setting a slower pace and using dissolves or other effects in different ways, you can expand time, letting the audience absorb informa tion, savor a fun or exciting bit of action orfully experience the emotion of a scene. The three shots below from Sylvain Chomet's The Triplets of Belleville employ long, languorous dissolves to take the audience not only through the seasons, but through the years as a town grows up around the house at the center of the film.
KEEP IT EMOTIONAL
I was the assistant editor on a sitcom with Dann Cahn, a television editor famous for his innovative comedy editing on "I Love Lucy." We worked on an episode where a boy got a tractor going and couldn't stop it until it smashed into a partially constructed house. There were many camera angles and takes of the action, but no reaction shots of the boy. Dann brought this omission to the attention of the director, who claimed that it was too late to go back to the location. But Dann persisted, suggesting they put the actor in a chair. So the crew stepped outside the soundstage, hoisted the actor into a chair above their heads and wiggled him from side to side against the sky while the camera caught him in a close-up. When this new foot age was cut in, the boy's reactions made all the difference in the scene.
Cutting in a character's reaction heightens a scene's emotional intensity, therefore increasing the level of drama, as a character's response to the events in a scene can send the plot in unexpected directions. Reaction shots can also help bridge locations, cover up for continuity errors, speed up slow sections and skip over unnecessary action. Ideally, you should include reaction shots from minor participants and bystanders as well as those of all the scene's vital characters.
The frames below from James Cameron's Avatar illustrate how the editors dropped in a reaction to increase the audience's concern for the characters and the story.
There's a lot more that goes into editing satisfying action scenes than just cutting shots, together. While I haven't touched on how sound and music can affect an action scene, I have tried to hit the highlights in order to place you on firm ground as you move forward.
If you are still unnerved about cutting an action sequence, remember this: An action scene is a mini-story, and each cut-no matter how long or short-must advance that story. If you're buried in a ton of footage (which is normal for action scenes shot. using multiple cameras), organize the shots meticulously on your digital system and become thoroughly familiar with the script or outline. Most importantly, familiarize yourself with the footage and know all the angles, literally. With knowledge and organization you can access a clip instantly and not lose your train of thought in the heat of editing. So go for it; your audience looks forward to experiencing the result.
Gael Chandler is the author of Film Editing: Great Cuts Every Filmmaker and Movie Lover Must Know and Cut by Cut: Editing Your Film or Video, which expands on cutting action scenes as well as many other types of scenes. Gael's Website, www.joyoffilmediting.com, where she blogs regularly, contains an extensive film glossary, lots of resources, free downloads and a Cut of the Month feature.