Learning Action Fundamentals
There are a few critical concepts you should learn to improve your action cutting skills. These are general principles that can be applied in almost any situation. All of these concepts are based on consciously manipulating the audience’s anxiety level to induce an emotional response.
The more you understand how to control that anxiety, the more successful you will be as an editor. While this may sound clinical (or perhaps insidious), it is exactly what makes editing effective. It’s no secret that certain images and certain editing techniques have a physical effect on viewers. Whether you are evoking terror or catharsis, the goal is to use that power in the service of your theme.
Creating a Setup and Payoff
Setup and payoff are broad storytelling concepts that can be applied very concretely in action scenes. Payoff is another word for satisfaction, and the only way to provide satisfaction is to set up an expectation and then deliver it. In terms of editing, this is done with specific shots. A shot of someone picking up a ripe peach is a setup that reaches payoff when she takes a big, juicy bite. Similarly, a shot of a mail truck is a setup that pays off with a shot of a letter being opened.
The peach-biting or letter-opening shots may have significance on their own, but they provide much more satisfaction for the audience when the editor builds up an expectation prior to fulfilling it.
The further you separate the setup from the payoff, the more effectively you hold hostage a part of an audience’s brain. This is commonly called suspense because you are in effect suspending their attention. Providing a setup shot that establishes an expectation raises a sort of tension in the viewer. When you pay it off, you release the tension. The longer you wait to show the payoff, the more the tension builds... but only to a point. If you wait too long, you lose the audience. They either forget about the setup or, worse, they start wondering, “Gee, what was that mail truck shot about?” That means they’ve stepped out of the story—and the next thing you know they’re checking their voicemail.
Establishing Cause and Effect
This is a subset of the setup and payoff. If you show a shot of a hand grenade, you compel a later shot of an explosion. The longer you wait to show the explosion, the more tension you create. If you never show the explosion at all, you disappoint (or confuse) the audience. If you show the explosion without the shot of the grenade, you miss an opportunity to build tension, and again you might confuse the audience. The grenade/explosion example is very clear cut, but cause and effect is often much more subtle, and you can change the meaning of a scene by rearranging the order of the shots.
For example, a thief is rummaging through a bedroom. You have three shots: an ECU of her picking up a diamond necklace; a MCU where she picks up a framed picture of a happy couple; and a CU of her face looking forlorn.
If she finds the necklace first, looks forlorn, then finds the picture, the necklace appears to cause the sadness, and her sadness seems to cause her to pick up the picture. On the other hand, if she finds the picture first, feels forlorn, and then steals the necklace anyway, you have a very different story. If you omit some of the shots altogether, you have yet another version.