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Editing Action

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This lesson takes approximately 120 minutes to complete.


Learn the basics of editing action sequences

Understand how to work setups and payoffs into your scenes

Begin thinking about how footage affects style

Learn techniques to build tension in a scene

Get familiar with the Trim Edit window

Use dynamic trimming to finesse edit points

Control overall pacing and scene structure

Just as important as learning to cut dialogue is learning to cut basic action sequences. Action scenes come in many shapes and sizes—from something as simple as a demonstration of a coffeemaker to a full-scale laser battle in outer space. But all action scenes have some things in common and once you learn a few concepts and rules, you’ll be ready to tackle almost anything.

While all dialogue scenes are nearly identical structurally, action scenes are almost always unique. Some action scenes take place in a large physical space (for example, ballroom dancing), while others focus on tiny details in one location (such as cracking a safe). Some action scenes involve continual movement from one place to another (like delivering milk). In any of these cases the specific details of the action will often call for different types of coverage.

However, while actions scenes are all different, there are common editing patterns you can apply depending on the type of action scene you’re cutting. If you can identify your scene as one of a certain type, that can give you clues as to the best way to approach cutting it.

Later, you’ll learn to identify common action scene types such as fights, battles, chases, shootouts, and others. But don’t think all fights require fisticuffs or that all shootouts require guns. These categories can be applied to all sorts of action scenes, and each has its own set of guidelines and tricks.

Telling a Story in Action

It’s helpful to begin by separating simple actions from complex ones.

A simple action scene is one where there is one central activity, usually performed by one person (or thing). This could be as simple as someone practicing their golf swing or tying their kid’s shoe, or it could be as complicated as someone taking apart a motorcycle engine or painting a house.

A complex scene strings together several simple actions, either sequentially (playing a whole round of golf) or simultaneously (a house-painting competition). As you might expect, complex action scenes require greater organizational forethought in order to cut them quickly and effectively.

Don’t forget, however, that your basic charge is still just to tell the story. Most of the basic tenets covered in the dialogue lessons still apply to action scenes. It’s usually advantageous to start wide and then move in close; most edits benefit from being split; and, of course, you should still always seek to cut on action within the frame. No matter what the content of the scene, you are still going to use pacing and shot selection to guide the audience’s focus.

Most important, don’t lose track of the six essential questions. Plenty of zillion-dollar action films fail to engage the audience because they get so caught up in the what and the how of the action that they don’t bother to spend enough time answering the who or the why. This isn’t rocket science—it’s campfire storytelling.

As the editor, you are limited to the footage that the production team provides, but it is still up to you to find the best dramatic balance. You set the tempo and pacing of each scene, and choose which questions get answered and which get ignored. Invariably, you will have close-ups of faces and inserts of important details. It’s how and where and for how long you use them that ultimately determine the impact of the scene.

Another storytelling concept that you must incorporate into your action scenes is the fundamental idea of the beginning, middle, and end. If you ignore this essential notion, an action scene can quickly become a dense mess of disjointed details without a clear sense of progression.

There may be as many shots of the details of an action as there are pieces of a motorcycle engine. Sure, you can begin with a shot of the assembled engine, and end with a shot of the pieces spread out on the floor; but what about all those shots in between? Assuming you’re not making an instructional video about motorcycle maintenance, the truth about how to take apart an engine is irrelevant. You need to determine which shots tell the story and arrange them in a way that conveys a sense of progress. Just like a good plot, each shot must depend on the one that precedes it, and it must compel the one that follows.

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