EDIT ESSAY: Compression, Correction & The Psychology of Framing

Words are one of the most powerful influences on human beings. They can inspire, enrage, confound, explain; make us laugh, cry, shout or jump for joy. They can make us vote for someone or buy a certain brand of shoe laces. The list is pretty much endless and as professional editors, we’re all aware of this.

With the exception of a perfectly selected music track, the effect of a well-constructed sentence or phrase in a television scene is unparalleled in creating a specific emotional response in the minds of our audience. But the path to creating that perfectly structured sync pull is long and varies wildly from genre to genre.

Every genre we edit is different and each one brings up a unique set of problems. Certainly the most complex are drama and documentary, as the most difficult thing to achieve in the moving image medium is to keep someone’s attention for an hour or two without wavering or alerting them to the constructed nature of any film or program.

As a documentary editor one of the most challenging aspects I find is deciding what to let the characters say to the audience and the order in which they say it. This I have always found both exhilarating and exhausting, in equal measure, as it resembles a giant puzzle spread out in front of me and it’s up to the director and myself to figure out the best possible structure, in the quickest way. A process of hundreds of selections, reconstructions and adjustments made over many weeks and months.

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A SEA OF UNSTRUCTURED SYNC

In documentary, we don’t have a locked script where every word a character says has been pre-written by a talented screenwriter and then performed to camera by a trained actor in order produce a specific dramatic effect for the audience. We have hours and hours of unstructured interviews from people who are not used to having cameras pointed at them.

That is thousands of words that need to be listened to, re-ordered and pieced together into a coherent narrative. Our script is finished on the last day of the edit and so in many ways the documentary editor acts as a kind of retrospective scriptwriter.

Have no illusions, drama editing is just as complex and throws up its own very long list of unique, creative and structural problems to solve. We may have different journeys in our two respective genres, but in the end the destination is the same, we both have to keep millions of people transfixed for an hour or two.

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THE UNTRAINED CHARACTER

However, crafting the speech from human beings who are not trained to talk on camera into something that is watchable by a large audience throws up a whole host of very interesting problems. These problems cannot be fixed by memorising the manual to your particular editing software. They certainly won’t be solved if you have a brand new 64-bit computer with background rendering. And you definitely will not learn them in the highly theoretical degree course of a film school. These problems go to the very core of storytelling itself.

Let’s start off with a simple premise. Around 95% of everything that was said to camera in the rushes for a documentary, factual program, entertainment show or reality TV show will never be shown to the audience. Through an enormous, multi-stage process of analysis and selection, we choose the best 5% and the rest gets packed up and put into a vast media vault at the production company or broadcaster, never to be seen by another living soul, ever again. So, the question of course is.…which 5% do we choose?

The process of sync construction in a documentary can usually be broken down into three stages. Most high-end editors do all three of these instinctively, without thinking, similar to a sculptor refining multiple aspects of the statue they are working on.

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COMPRESSION

First is the act of compression. No, not codecs and bit rates per second: the far more complex and subjective task of journalistic compression. Taking the hours and hours of what our characters have said and boiling them down to their very essence by subtracting all non-essential content. These can be as large as dozens of paragraphs of sync and as small as words and sighs.

Untrained documentary characters will always give us way more than we need. Every answer will be full of an enormous amount of superfluous content.  It’s our job to get rid of the maximum amount, leaving only the most interesting, dramatic and logical content of what they’ve said in a framework which is understandable, yet compelling, for any audience. If we didn’t, every single documentary would not only be 50 hours long but also completely unwatchable.

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CORRECTION

Once we’ve achieved this we have to go through a second stage, based around correction. We have to help our characters say what they’re here to say and this is not easy. The most common problem when pointing a camera at someone and asking them to talk when they’re not used to it is nervousness.

Our untrained documentary subjects stutter, they repeat themselves; they go off on tangents when explaining something; they don’t control the delivery of their speech like an actor or a politician; they miss out basic words; their intonation and emphasis on specific phrases can be wrong; and a whole host of complex oratory errors that happen when people who are not media trained converse with a camera.

Over several years editors teach themselves to whittle frames out, add words, reorder sentences, re-direct emphasis and intonation and a ton of other complex techniques that essentially rebuild people’s sync from the ground up.

Make no mistake, this level of detail is self taught. It has always been an extremely time consuming and individual journey full of trial and error for each editor. It requires a huge amount of persistence and turns so many people away from our craft which was another in a long line of reasons I created Inside The Edit, most of this theory had never even been written down before.

But after all of the corrections, after all of the adjustments and refinements that remedy the inherent problems caused by having untrained people talk to camera, we come to a truly fascinating part of our art form.

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FRAMING

For me, one of the most powerful things about documentary editing is that I have a huge influence on the construction of the narrative. I am creating ‘meaning’ in the order of what is being shown to the audience and so the very structure of the film is partly in my hands. I could potentially create dozens of variations in how any set of footage was cut and therefore I am part screenwriter.

There is a very interesting phenomenon in psychology called framing which deals with how events are interpreted and judged by people. How we present information to an audience has a huge impact on how they are going to feel. Let's do a short thought experiment and read these two lines.

1. This food is 95% fat free.

2. This food contains 5% fat.

Both of these sentences are technically the same but will produce very different emotional responses in the minds of the reader. 95% fat free sounds great as I bite into a particular product but eating that same thing and thinking that it is 5% fat doesn’t sound so appetising. We can present the same information in two different ways to illicit two different effects and this is a central theme to high end, creative editing.

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SHAPING PERCEPTION

We are creating the perception for our audience and shaping this perception is a huge responsibility as it is essential to stay completely true to what our characters said on camera and the meaning of what they want to convey. But how we say it also matters and must have an effect as we also have a dramatic responsibility to the footage.

Framing is about choosing that battleground. We are the ones showing information to the audience, not the other way around. They are our guests. We are setting the boundaries within a subject of what is going to be talked about and what isn’t. And then the specific arrangement of what we’ve decided to let them see to create that perception.

If one of our characters says something that reinforces the meaning of what we think the scene is about, great, we keep it in. If they say something that doesn’t, onto the cutting room floor it goes. And what combination or variation in structure of the words that we’ve left on our timeline are going to have the most effect on the audience and best serve the true meaning of the scene?

As editors we are the first audience. Everyone sees the film through our eyes and so this mixture of selection, omission and experimentation in the order during the early stages of sync construction is crucial. These are the central principles of psychological framing and they can be broken up into four very important headlines.

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ADDITION, OMISSION, ORDER & CONTEXT

I am continuously reminding myself these four words. What am I emphasising by leaving in? What am I deemphasising by taking out? In what order am I laying out all the individual sync elements? And in what context and I placing them in?

They are four great Edit Mantras to continuously ask when constructing any scene that is not pre-written, where we have the responsibility to construct the sync narrative i.e. not drama.

Here is a sample of some of the mental chit chat I often have with myself when crafting my sync.

 “If I leave this sentence in, the audience are going to feel X.”

 “If I take this sentence out, they will probably feel X.”

 “At what point should I switch from descriptive sync to emotional sync to illicit the maximum X?”

 “If I delay X until the middle of the scene when the character has set up the main premise, the result will be a much more powerful.”

 “If I swap the order of X and Y, the audience will care more about Y by the middle of the scene.”

Pro editors around the world spend a very long time experimenting with the order and context of sync to create specific outcomes. One of the real joys I find is that I’m always surprised at how many ways there are to structure something and change that perception within an audience.

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There are so many unintended consequences in editing that blossom on our timelines the more we consider the psychological factors of framing and it really is thrilling to plot the exact second in the film when our audience should understand something, when they should feel a certain emotion or at what precise point two sub-narratives meet.

Like pretty much everything in this beautiful craft, it is impossible to write an algorithm, press a shortcut key or memorise a software manual to solve the artistic problems that are inherent in turning dozens of hours of raw footage into a beautifully crafted and compelling narrative.

Shapes, sizes, order and the distance between our blocks on the timeline all have very specific meaning. There are absolutely no arbitrary actions in editing; every single frame has been crafted and is there for a reason. But the feeling of watching something that we’ve created which is dramatic, compelling and honest to the character but wasn’t there in the original rushes is truly a beautiful feeling.