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Sunday, 24 June 2012 16:28

Editing Action Footage

Written by  Gordon Meyer
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Editor Stephen Myers, ACE began his career as an assistant to Director Jonathan Demme and has been cutting feature films, documentaries and TV shows for over 25 years. With The River (starring Mel Gibson) as one of his first credits, Myers knows his way around action and suspense films, and his most recent feature, the mockumentary And They’re Off, involves the world of horse racing. Regardless of the genre, when Myers edits a project he works from the premise that each scene tells a small story with a beginning, middle and end. “Any action scene to me is about telling a story and about showing who has the upper hand at any moment and who ends up being the victor at the end of the scene,” explains Myers.


The editor shares a few tricks of the trade when it comes to cutting fight sequences. “In order to get the most out of the footage, you really have to study it closely,” says Myers. “One of the tricks you learn when cutting action is that stuff happens so quickly in the frame that when you’re cutting from one angle to another you actually have to repeat the action so that the eye perceives it as continuous movement instead of a jump cut. The opposite may be true if you’re showing the impact of a gunshot: Instead of repeating that action you may actually cut out a frame or two to make it look like that impact has more force.”

Whether he’s cutting action or dialogue scenes, Myers says that it’s crucial to know the footage inside and out. “Actually, I think dialogue scenes, in a way, are harder because there’s a lot of subtext,” he notes. “There may be subtle differences in the performance from take to take, while in an action sequence you’re just looking for the take that works.”

Myers likes to work on both documentary and scripted projects but feels that cutting documentaries makes him a better editor overall. “With documentaries, you really have to be innovative with the use of footage that you might not normally be with scripted shows,” he says. Working on documentaries has taught Myers to look at how footage can be used differently than was originally planned, especially if there’s a problem with the storytelling. “You’ve done everything you can think of to make it work as scripted, and then you realize you can make the scene work by cutting things together differently,” he explains.post_actioneditingft3

Indie Filmmaker Mark Savage often shoots and edits his own films, and he has encountered many of the same editing challenges that Myers has faced. His most recent film, FertISLE, was shot on an isolated island 80 miles off the New Zealand coast and, as of press time, was in postproduction with Savage serving as the film’s editor.

Every director and cinematographer thinks about how footage will cut together, and since Savage likes to cut his own material, shooting for the edit bay is of high importance. “I think about the editing a lot when I’m shooting and map out how much of the scene I need to cover,” says Savage, who always wears his editor’s hat. “When I was on that island, I felt like I was never just shooting. I was constantly evaluating the footage to determine which stuff was usable and which shots I could delete on the fly to free up space on the data cards. One of the things I also did as an editing tool was turn the camera on myself so I could tell myself the shots that I just did and then how I want to cut that footage together in post.” Because Savage often works on low-budget productions, he doesn’t usually have the luxury of working with a lot of coverage. But he says that his experience as an editor has trained him to think in terms of how he’ll cut the footage together while he’s shooting, enabling him to a very large degree to cut the film in the camera. 

The one thing these two savvy editors clearly have in common is their passion for good storytelling. No matter the genre or available footage, they will utilize every skill and technique in their arsenal, including editorial “cheats” like cutaways or adding/trimming a minute number of frames, in order to tell the best stories they can.

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