Earlier this week, I posted an article detailing a very long and unfortunately boring raw scene I edited and the steps I took to make it better. Long scenes that consist of 2 characters talking are extremely tricky to pull off. The challenge is finding ways to cut things out that aren’t working without sacrificing the story you want to tell.
The post received two fantastic responses from a couple editors weighing in. These comments were simply too good to live exclusively in the comments section so I thought I’d bring them to the forefront again.
First up was Ed who discussed the importance of a short film’s length:
I read your post with great interest. I’m finding shorts to be filled with promise and, way too often, dashed hopes. For starters, I’ve cut around 9 shorts in the past couple years. But three in particular became sad and classic examples of what happens to way too many of them. One was the story of a returning Iraqi veteran that was written and directed by a Middle Eastern woman. Another was a meditation on a gay teen running from home and then meeting up with a mystical id at a desolate motel. The third about a defrocked priest falling for young girl who’s the victim of domestic violence. Three fascinating stories told from honest and unique perspectives. All too long. The end result was that shorts deserving quality festival exposure found themselves screening either nowhere or at venues of diminished distinction. What they all shared in common was the classic “You can’t take that out because…”. And that because became “she’s a name actress” “he’s a close friend” “the audience needs this moment to appreciate the character arc”. But most telling of all was the concern that a short that’s too short will not impress producers, agents, investors, etc looking to attach themselves to new talent.
Here’s what I feel becomes immutable edit truth. Shorts and features all share the necessity of pairing down time, before the audience loses interest because of dramatic redundancy. And while that may be difficult to reconcile for feature directors, it seems impossibly so for short directors. As an editor, I truly understand that many are made as showcase to attract interest for vertical feature moves. But understand that brevity allows us as audience members to insert our emotional stake into the story. And power viewers in search of exciting young talent have no interest in purveyors of drawn out pieces. The saddest statistic I know is that I have worked with far too many first time only time directors who could not reconcile the “time” element to their story.
Next up Adam focuses on the importance of the screenplay:
I think in both the article and the comment above it sounds more like it was the screenplay that needed to be “paired down”. As an editor myself I have had to cut down or rearrange shorts. And I’m known for being pretty good at it. But there comes a point when you can only go so far before the film starts to play out “chopped up” or watered down. It’s really the screenplay that needs to be tighter. When you strive for brevity in the screenplay you can weave scenes together, fix plot continuity caused by rearranging scenes or dialog, and add missing scenes or beats. Luxuries you don’t have in the edit. Jay, I have not seen The Climb yet, but from your description of the scene above it sounds like it could have benefitted from being “travelled” rather than the entire conversation taking place with the two characters sitting in one location. This would have maybe lended itself to replacing some of the dialog with actions that expressed the same ideas. Also a common thing that can make a long dialog scene boring is, well, long dialog. Characters that ramble on in long sentences. The same sentences can often be chopped up into smaller, more natural sounding ones, while still expressing the same ideas. Another possibility is that the scene is mostly exposition and not beats. I know you can’t change the screenplay now, but analyzing the scene for these things may help you avoid editing problems like this in the future, and it may also help you break down what parts of the scene are essential so you can make the best of your edit this time. Seriously, start traveling your dialog scenes! If your screenwriter side starts traveling your dialog scenes your editor side will stop cursing him and start loving what he’s given him to work with. And the end product will be so much better for it.
I can explain Adam’s sentiment a little further as he was a huge help finishing Playing Through a few years ago. That film is 19 minutes long and consists of not one but two lengthy dialogue scenes that take place in one location. Those scenes were a challenge to edit as well but they were no where near as long as The Climb’s big scene. While they are different movies he does raise a good point. It’s important to recognize these potential issues at every stage of production from screenplay to final cut. Since I began editing The Climb, my screenwriting has become a lot tighter and more focused. I haven’t written a gigantic dialogue scene in a while though I do love to write conversations.
At the end of the day, there are moments when a long scene is necessary and others where a conversation is the most interesting choice. (See Quentin Tarantino films for amazing examples of this.) When it comes to The Climb, I found a balance in between. The scene used to be 10 minutes long told in 2 very distinct parts. It is now a 5 1/2 minute scene that I’ve mixed with another which saved me even more screen time.
Which brings me to Ed’s point about the overall length of shorts. Sometimes, you have to know when to cut. I’m the first to admit that Playing Through’s length probably didn’t help it’s festival tour. There are a million excuses to leave things in but you can’t ignore that a well told 10 minute film can be more effective than a 29 minute film with fat left untrimmed.
However, these are all things that should be considered but not necessarily followed verbatim. Both comments point out extremely important elements that CANNOT be ignore especially by people creating short films. It’s even more important if you are an aspiring filmmaker. So while you should think about your screenwriting and editorial choices, what matters most is the story you are trying to tell and the movie you want people to see. Putting something out there that you aren’t proud of is one of the most obvious mistakes audiences will spot. People respond to dedication when you pour it into every single scene. It starts with a dedicated screenwriter and spreads like a virus to actors, crew and the post production team.
In every project I’ve taken on there have been important lessons that shaped the filmmaker in me. In the case of Playing Through, I’ve had people tell me it’s too long and others complain that it was too short. I don’t think it’s possible to hear any criticism if you aren’t proud of the film to begin with. I was. That’s the only way you learn. Do your best and then find a way to get better.
Who knows how people will respond to The Climb when it’s done. At this stage, what matters to me is that I finish a film I can be proud to put next to Playing Through.
When it’s over, I’ll take a step back and figure out how to raise the bar again and keep improving.
Special thanks to Ed and Adam for the amazing comments!