Learning To Edit From Your Favourite Movies by Jeronimo Hill
A very interesting piece on how your favourite movies can help you to get the most out of your editing. Jeronimo shares his experiences in how his favourite movies have influenced his editing style.
I was recently watching a documentary on cinematography titled “Light and Shadow” on youtube. It is a series of interviews with some of the world’s most accomplished cinematographers, or at least Hollywood’s.
At one point, they start talking about advice they have been given from their peers and teachers, and suddenly Stephen Goldbatt, DP in movies like The Help, Closer and Charlie Wilson’s War, said: “Turn the sound off and watch the cuts. See if the cuts work”. I immediately wrote it down.
I often struggle to edit down my work to put together a series. For instance, I entered a contest in B+W Magazine which needed me to submit three images that told a story and had coherence in style, so I did the exercise. I put on Blue Valentines by Derek Cianfrance, muted the TV and started to watch the frames go by. I put on that movie because it is one of my favorite indie films of the recent years.
I actually studied acting in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts some years ago, so performances always rank first on my priority list when it comes to movies. This particular movie has powerhouse performances and reeks of truth. The photography had only to make justice to that. I was astonished to see how much of the story is told in just the first few frames of the movie, about the characters, the tone and the kind of story we are about to watch.
First we see a little girl screaming, standing on a field. Then we see the outside of a humble suburban home as dawn breaks, then a toy horse in the front yard. Then we see the inside of the house which is messy with plates and girly toys and a bolding man covered in paint, sleeping on a chair. Finally a little girl crawls inside the house through a dog’s door gap to wake up the man. There is so much information in that small sequence about who these people are, how they live, the mood of the moment and the conflict ahead. I was 20 seconds into the movie.
As photographers we have it harder, in a way at least. Cinematographers these days have both sound and text to help them tell the story (moving around with massive cameras full of cables, keeping focus, on the other hand, is not our job.) We have one to ten frames to tell the whole thing. Ten if you are lucky, actually, I have often heard that most series must have six shots at most, or they are not solid in story telling. That is an opinion, of course, but in fact most contests ask for 1-5 shots tops, so it must hold some truth.
That being said, it is hard to build sequences, specially for those working outside the studio and dealing just with what everyday life has to offer. But this exercise is very helpful. I for one, didn’t use to pay much attention to the focal length, angle, sharpness, etc, of every single shot in a movie, there are so many other things going on that draw our attention. But this way it is very clear how specific these choices are and I think it has made me more conscious of both when watching films and shooting and editing shots.
I strongly advise that you pick up your favorite films and carefully watch them unfold on mute. I chose Blue Valentines because it is raw, naturally lit and very intimate, which are things I like in still photography as well. But whatever your taste in movies is, give it a try and take note as to how you can incorporate their editing techniques to your own.
Some directors I have really enjoyed with this exercise are:
Yuharu Atsuta, Hoyet Van Hoytema, Andrij Parekh, Raoul Coutard, Rob Hardy, Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski.
Things to think about when editing
1. Be specific
With both the theme of your story and the objective of each frame within it. In acting, these are called objectives and beats.
Let’s say the whole series is a play, there is a main theme and a main objective for each character for the whole play, which drives the plot forward and shapes the story. Be as specific as you can with it. What are you trying to say? Is the main theme loss, unrequited love, war, belief, revenge, conquest, etc? These themes are universal and happen every day: you can conquer a mountain by climbing it or a neighborhood by exploring and interpreting it.
Then, there are objectives to every beat (allegedly from ‘bit’) of each scene. What is the objective you are trying to achieve with each frame? A shot can be meant to intrigue, seduce, assault, charm, etc. All the frames, put together, achieve the main objective of the whole story. But remember, you have to be specific with yourself, if you are solid with your objective, it will work, but keep in mind that people will always interpret the story themselves. So don’t crack your skull trying to come up with an objective. Remember KISS: “Keep It Simple Stupid.”
Literally. Try to listen to what your pictures sound like, smell like, or even feel like. Sometimes the elements missing in a picture are more important for what they incite in our imagination. So pay attention to things that are intrinsically in the picture. This sometimes makes you put a shot in that otherwise you would have disregarded, but can be key.
3. Don’t decide just yet
A book is not finished until it is printed. A play never sees its definitive performance, and a movie sometimes has two or even three different cuts. This is because as everything in this universe, we constantly change. What makes perfect sense today, may not make sense at all tomorrow or even tonight. So take your time, come back to your sequence may times and see how it feels like on different occasions. Unless, of course, your gut tells you it is done. Listen to your gut, not your mind.
Some ways you can edit your sequences
Lightroom ( I still use LR 5)
I love to use Lightroom to edit my sequences. I usually go through the folder or folders containing the pictures I want to edit with (if there are more than one, simply cmd+click the ones you want to include) and select (cmmd+click) the ones I think inform the story the most, without caring the amount of photos I select. Then I press “N” to make only that selection visible and “L” two times to turn the lights off. Then I start taking out the ones I either don’t love or don’t hold key information by cmmd+clicking on them again. Then I label them with a color label usin right clic>set color label and put them in a Collection I have created for them.
In the collection you can move and swap them around to organize them in different orders to see how the sequence flows. Finally I strip down the series as much as I can, re arrange and take screen shots for a final comparison. You can then print them or just save the sequence in that order to export the files individually.
I am expecting a Canon Pixma Pro-1 in the mail, which is very exciting, I have done some research and found out it is the best I can afford (please advise me otherwise if you think there is a better option).
So I haven’t done this my self a lot, but I have heard from many photographers (and can I imagine they are right), that the best way to edit is to have the pictures in your hands so you can swap them around and arrange the order on your desk or white board. Simple as that. I recommend you do the Lightroom exercise first so you only print the frames you think are absolutely worth holding in your hands, print small and play around for at least a few days.
This is a small sequence I put together as an exercise for this article. I went through all the pictures a took from a road trip to Sequim, WA, and tried to tell the story of a day I wasn’t feeling particularly well but had a special encounter up the mountain. I kept it down to six frames.
Please let me know if you find this useful and if you have any comments or critiques on my work, fell free to post them at:
INSTAGRAM: jeronimo hill
FLICKR: Jeronimo Hill
All the best,
Jeronimo Hill – Mexico City, 2015
Thanks to Jeronimo for this interesting piece. I had not really given it all that much thought, mainly because I rarely have time to actually watch a movie nowadays. What about you? Is this helpful? What is your process? Comment below please.