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Editing Case Study – Vaga Heroica

Since I have had such a great time this year working on 48 Hour Film Project, I decided to follow through and guide you over the actual editing process of this short movie.

If you have not yet read my 48 HFP Experience article, I encourage you to do so. This will give you the overall picture of what follows. In case you don’t have time or are not interested, here is the movie again:

The big picture

In general, I follow the same procedure, when I start each scene. I sync audio. I watch all the footage and put markers in places which seem interesting. When I see a clip which I know should make its way into the edit, I put it on the timeline right away. Then I choose the master shot or several, which I consider to be the best take, that will serve as the backbone that drives the whole scene, and finally I look for the weakest moments or the moments that could use more detail. Tightening up involves usually cutting to another shot, but also sometimes extending a given shot beyond its originally intended length to get the most out of it.

Then there is the process of seeing, how the cut is guiding the emotions, are we close where we need to be close, are we wide when we need to detach. Is the flow and the rhythm right. Is the attention focused at the proper place or character? Is the main hero of the scene getting enough screen time? Where is the “lean forward moment”, aptly named by Norman Hollyn? Is there a change happening, and will it not be lost on the audience? All these are the questions that the editor needs to answer for his work to be successful.

Subsequent viewings and feedback from other people allows to tighten the edit more or to experiment with other takes. Sometimes the best take does not sit well with the rest of the footage and has to be discarded or used creatively. Sometimes an edit is challenging, sometimes the best parts are interspersed between the takes and it takes some skill to tie them together. Sometimes the performance has to be created from different takes within one frame.

Transitions from one scene to the next are as important as the scenes themselves. There are times when a transition or a lack thereof can heavily weigh on the shape of the cut. Some transitions are simple, others are more elaborate, and involve some setup, establishment, and sometimes they are also a visual language of the film. And by transition I don’t mean an effect, such as a wipe, cross-fade, fade to black – though they can serve this purpose as well – but more often these are specific shots that cut together well and move action from one place to the next.

I am going to describe the editing process in the chronological order in which the footage appeared on my machine, and illustrate it with excerpts from the timeline.

Scene 1 – Intro titles

Scene 1 - Intro titles.

Scene 1 – Intro titles.

Even before I received any footage, I got the script and started working on the intro titles. I had to choose a font, text animation and background. The last was easy – the start of the movie is a perfect place for the black frame. It doesn’t distract from the message, and allows to easily transition into the action that follows.

I had more problems choosing the correct font. Futuristic but with some grit, Fallout or Terminator style, but without being a blatant rip-off. Thanks to Creative Cloud subscription I had access to Typekit library. I also had ample time to make my choice. In the end, there was another thing that dictated it – the availability of Polish diacritic characters. As it turned, the choice was rather small. In the end, I settled on Refregirator. Not too futuristic, not too round, looked convincing enough.

I decided to make the animation in After Effects, where I had a number of nice presets to browse. After dismissing numerous cheesy ones, as well as those that felt too cyber-ish to me, I stuck with the good old terminal. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but it would do the job.

I adjusted the timing in such way that after each line there was a brief pause, to let viewers catch up with the message, and that each sentence is read as a single thought. Overall I was happy with the result. We came back to this animation only once, when we decided to remove part of the next to last line.

Scene 4 – The onions in the lab

Scene 4 - An interesting first start.

Scene 4 – An interesting first start.

This was the first scene that I got. A single camera, multiple takes, multiple angles. I watched the whole thing and took the master shot, which seemed to work best. I was not sure about the opening and the transition, so I left it for later. I knew I wanted to spend more time on the two heroes, as this was their scene, not the doctor’s. I didn’t want to get too confrontational, as this was more of a setup, and no actual conflict. But I wanted a little bit of tension there as well. So for the first shot of heroes after the cut I decided on the one from the low angle, instead of the one where they are facing the camera. Plus there was also a reaction from the taller hero that played well in there. Then I closed in on the doctor, to show that he is not going to be intimidated by the older one’s question. It took a while to get the timing of that cut right to make it flow. I also wanted to let the doctor’s voice sink in, give heroes a moment of thought, when he is looking from one to the other. I extended this shot as far as I could, choosing the doctor’s switch of attention as the motivation to cut back to the shot of two heroes, right when the older one starts speaking. This cut also took some time to finesse and required me to cut the sound and add some room tone underneath.

For the moment when the doctor agrees, I moved us back to the wide shot, to let the tension lessen a bit, until he finds out it’s the enemy soldier, not their own. Here I cut back to the low angle, however I felt that maybe something more emotional would be needed. Sadly, the close-up performance of the taller hero had only a single take, which was not that great in this very moment, and the other parts did not work here at all. I had to resort to the low angle for his phrase. When the doctor starts speaking, I was tempted to get closer on him again, but I remembered, that it is not his scene, and he is in fact really disinterested, maybe even disgusted with this whole exchange. So I brought back the wide shot, and only after this I decided to get confrontational and close-up on the older hero with the shot where he is looking almost directly towards the camera. There was also some good performance over there, clearly showing his attitude towards this whole affair, and the kind of sly, yet tough person that he is. I stretched it as long, as I could.

The close-up of the tattoo repainting lasts only as long as it should, since it is not that great, and we jump back to the older guy. Here again the transition between this shot and the next was a bit tricky, mostly because of the hand movement of the doctor. I wanted to have the cake and eat it too – have both the hero’s reaction, and doctor’s uneasy moment when he was fixing the glasses and thinking how he should answer this blatant in-your-face transgression. I experimented with cutting to the close-up of the doctor, but then the following cut ended up really hard, and the close-up didn’t flow well too, so in the end I settled on again resorting to the wide shot, and letting go of the pause between the hero’s sentence and the doctor’s reaction. Had I had more time, I might have experimented with making a split-screen, but this was not a steady shot, and it would be difficult to pull off.

About the next transition I am not very happy. I had a lot of close-ups of the onions being taken out of the basket, but they didn’t feel right. I also had another angle, where the focus was on the fourth doctor, but this very moment was not looking well at all, plus he is the least important person there. I settled on the head movement of the taller hero, even though you can see – and more importantly feel – that the shot is too short for the onions to be lifted and handed over. Unfortunately, nothing else seemed to work here. The low angle was also the only take that had good performance with handing over the magnesium pills, and I definitely wanted the onion throw and catch at the end. It was their scene, and I had to end on them walking out. They cheated, they made it, it worked, even if there were some doubts whether they were actually winners here.

I wish the last shot lasted until they leave the scene, but it was not to be. Besides, I still had to wait for the rest of the material to decide on the transition.

After all of this, I came back to the opening of this scene. The only shot that would transition us into the action was a close-up of the hand of a soldier guard, where we can see our heroes and doctors inside and also the tattoo on the soldiers hand that sets up the repainting moment. It wasn’t a static shot, so the camera movement had to sit right, plus here I decided to cut on action, even though if you look closely, it is a completely different action in both shots. The seamless sound transition is what makes it work, even if it is not the greatest opening.

Scene 3 – The wheelbarrow walk

Scene 3 - DoP saved the day.

Scene 3 – The DoP saved the day.

I received the wheelbarrow walk as the second scene, shot in 4K. This turned out to be the case when DoP was thinking as an editor, and went against my explicit instructions, which turned out for the better.

At first, I treated the multiple takes I got as continuous medium shots, and I felt that there was not much to choose from. No single take would work on its own, there were always some glitches in the performance here and there, as they usually are. There was one medium shot, where the middle portion was great, but the beginning was off. There were a few details, close-ups on the barrow wheel, but I felt I would not be able to use them to their full potential. I began by laying down the part of this shot that worked, and started looking for what I could do with the opening.

The first shot with the wheelbarrow going through the poodle of water felt like a great choice, especially since I knew we were to cut there from an extremely wide establishing shot of Warsaw, that I didn’t have yet, but I was certain that we could not go immediately into the action. I love using audio cues to introduce new elements on screen, and this would be perfect for it, the picture of a reflected lamp post and then the wheel rolling in. That was then settled. Next I wanted a wide shot of our heroes, and the only wide shots available were from the side. Which was not bad on its own, but I could not find a good transition between these shots and the medium shot which I already had. Also, the voice performance on the best choice was not perfect. I experimented with a few ideas. First I tried to extend or trim the cut, but this did not work. Then I took a medium reverse shot, which was not visually perfect, but after laying down audio from a different take it worked well enough. I tinkered with it to make sure that the rhythm of movements flows nicely from one shot to the next, and that the noise of throwing an onion corresponds to the picture, and finally managed to make it work.

Even the best medium shot was not perfect. In principle it worked sort-of-fine, but there were a few pauses here and there, maybe a bit too much talking, sometimes they got too far apart and there was a dead space between them. It could have been tightened. I was looking at various close-ups of details, but these cut-aways always look awkward to me, like a crutch, and actually detracted from the already emotional exchange that the two heroes are having between each other. I wished for a close-up of one or the other. Well, I had to do with what I had, and I decided the medium shot to play out. Sometimes knowing when not to cut is also an art.

A bit dissatisfied, I moved to solve the ending. There was only one wide shot here that I could use, not really much of a choice. Any detail would not do, as it would only cause confusion, especially in conjunction with the following scene in the lab. I wish I had a shot where they are exiting the frame or where we are showing the entrance to the building in scene 4, but that was not to be. I had to make do with what I had. The cut is not sitting perfectly, even though I again took special care to make sure that the rhythm is preserved. I wanted a longer moment of silence at the end, but I could not extend the medium shot, and extending the wide shot or shifting audio didn’t work.

After showing this first cut to the director and the DoP and saying that I was missing some close-ups, the DoP mentioned, that the material is in 4K, and that I could zoom in. It was a “D’oh” moment for me, because of course I could, and why didn’t I think about it immediately. So I managed to get closer on each hero, when they were having their most emotional part of the discussion, which helped to achieve this nice rhythm of establishment-reverse-medium-close-close-medium-wide, that mirrors the emotional content and mood of the whole discussion they are having. Despite several misgivings about the length of the reverse shot, and maybe a bit of a lag and empty visual space in the later part of the sequence, I think it is working fine.

Scene 6 – The dumbbell in the lab

Scene 6a - Entering the lab.

Scene 6a – Entering the lab.

Technically speaking, there are three scenes in here. One is the approach to the door (A), then there is the corridor scene (B), and finally the lab (C). However, they all flow together, and all were recorded together, so I treated them as a single entity.

As far as the approach goes, the initial wide shot was the only one, and I had to use it. Most likely as the transition from the previous scene, but also to establish where the action will be taking place. Next I could just cut to the close-up from about the same angle, but it would be awkward, plus the shot from the inside at the approaching heroes looked quite interesting. I couldn’t cut in too early, because the sound man was still visible in the back, so the only real decision was whether to cut away before the knock or after. I also wanted to use the other shot with the soldier peeping out. After checking out various possibilities I settled on a double knock. Apart from having two good shots together, it added some urgency and anxiousness that worked well with the fact that it was the middle of the night.

Then we had to transition from the door to the lab. I think a straight cut would work fine, but the heroes didn’t have the body with them in the previous shots, so I wanted to show how they are dragging it, instead of having her magically appear inside. Apart from the shot from the side with maybe a bit too much negative space on the left, there were also several takes of them dragging her at the camera. However, these felt weird, when juxtaposed with previous two shots – a repeat of the angle – plus each take had its own issues, and they never really exited or darkened the frame. I settled on the shot from the side, even though I had doubts about its visual quality. An audio cue from the following shot provided a nice transition into the dialogue, effectively shortened the awkward visual and dragged the attention away from it. I wanted to end it as soon as they exit the frame, to have a seamless time compression when they already begin with her on the table, and without this J-cut, it would drag on for too long, be too noticeable.

Scene 6b - The dialogue proper, I love this scene.

Scene 6b – The dialogue proper, I love this scene.

The dumbbell scene itself had much more material to choose from. There were several wide takes, one of which was really good on its own, with great timing on part of all actors, that I decided to build upon. Each actor and both doctors had their own close-ups, and finally there were several takes of the final action of the gun being repeated. When I was cutting it for the first time, in the script we had at least two or three more afterwards. There was a temptation to keep it wide and distant again. However, the acting was too great to go to waste. I would prefer to have the first close-up of the older hero to be a medium shot, and then progress to close-ups in subsequent cuts, but despite the abundance of material, that unfortunately was missing. I had to choose between rushing to confrontation, or staying longer in the master and cutting to the medium shot of the doctors. The second option, however, would put too much emphasis on the characters that are not really part of this story, so I decided to go all-in. Let it be the confrontation almost from the start. So we had the close-up, a medium, and then a close-up again, this time absolutely justified, as the older hero becomes more and more pushy. Then we go back into the master shot again to catch some breath, see what the situation is with the younger one, and guide the movie to the moment that will be the heroes undoing.

Now it was the moment to show the young hero, his emerging disorientation, panic, and helplessness. I selected the longest sensible moment where his eyes are darting from one person to the next. Choosing the cut-in point was a bit tricky, because I had to make sure that it corresponded to his movements in the wide shot. And then I didn’t want the moment to end too soon, and I didn’t want to go back to master shot again. No, this is the moment which had to play out, when we should be close. I considered briefly cutting to the close-up of the dumbbell being taken out of the body, but this would destroy this confusion, the reveal would be too early. So I cut from his face straight to the older one’s, which shows no emotions, but is anxiously awaiting the outcome, frantically trying to come up with with something that is going to save him once again. Then go back to the young one, when he sees the dumbbell being found and their plan discovered. There is no escape now.

For a brief moment I cut to the medium shot with the dumbbell, so that the viewer can see what the doctors found. And then back to the young hero, who clearly does not know what to say. He blinks, and then after a brief moment of hesitation finally speaks, pretending that he doesn’t know what the problem is and hoping that his pretended dumbfoundedness will resolve everything. Then back to doctors turning to the older one, and here I break the rhythm, letting him speak during this shot, because the astonishment of two doctors is more important here. I extend the pause a bit, and cut to the older one again for his last phrase and the look of expectation in his eyes.

I wilfully extended all these shots as long as I could to allow the emotions to build, for the viewer’s perception to register the slightly off, artificially slow-motion performance that in the real life often is one of the effects of our bodies recognising that something important is taking place. Originally the situation played out a bit faster, but this scene really needed this awkwardness. It shouldn’t flow too easily. We need to feel uncomfortable, because the heroes feel uncomfortable. Doman, the actor playing the younger one, asked me at some point to remove the blink and shorten the wait on his close-up, but I explained that the silence there was crucial. I owe it to Walter Murch – the knowledge that blinking is correlated to finishing a thought in one’s mind, and a start of another.

The final two cuts – doctors looking at each other, and then the soldier repeating the gun – were also chosen on purpose. I had the doctors’ straight-on close-up and a profile. But the close-ups did not work too well, and the profile completely ruined the climax of this scene. It became more about the doctors. I didn’t want them to hijack our attention. Similarly with the last shot. There were multiple excellent options to choose from, and I settled on one after long consideration and multiple attempts. We are a bit wider, there is a rack focus when the older hero looks back, the attention is very precisely directed. Figuring this one out was a process that took quite a while.

In the end, I am very proud of this scene. It grew on me, when I decided to forego the best wide shot, despite really great performance of the whole team. It was good, even great, but it needed more, and even though this “more” had to be meticulously crafted, it is so much better, than any single take, no matter how good it is. It’s cinema, not theatre.

Scene 5 – The bonfire

Scene 5 - The toughest nut to crack.

Scene 5 – The toughest nut to crack.

The bonfire was tough. There were two things happening here: one was their initial dialogue, the other was them digging up the corpse and dressing it up as a war hero. It was filmed very late, everybody was tired, and the material was only so good. Initially I wasn’t sold on the pan downwards – it felt too long – and the performance on the wide shot was not that great. On the other hand, the close-up angles were also a bit awkward, and intercutting between wide and close-up shots is usually chaotic, because the audience does not know whether to focus on the characters or detach from them. There was also a lot more talking in this scene, than what ended up in the movie. This was the case were several lesser evil choices had to be made.

Trying to make best use of the material, I cut from the wide shot to the close-up of the taller hero, but it did not seem to sit well. Intercutting them talking was also a bit tough, because they were both sitting in the right part of the screen on their close-ups. But it was also an extremely emotional, deeply bonding moment for both of them, so we had to stay close, otherwise the detachment would make the scene look possibly ridiculous or at least loaded with too much pathos, and that I didn’t want (and I was sure the director did not want as well). So the lesser evil was having them stay on the right side, looking at each other, and hope that the wide shot establishes the geography in audience minds well enough so that this positioning stops becoming an issue. The first transition was solved by adding the close-up of the bonfire, at the suggestion of our DoP. It played well into the thoughtful, a bit melancholic mood of this scene and allowed me to tighten the dialogue a bit as well.

The transition to digging was another of these lesser evil choices. I feel like I had used my life-time assortment of cross-fades early in my editing career, and I avoid them like a plague, trying to make up for the reckless mistakes of my youth. Here, though, I did not find a good progression of shots that would work, plus there was a passage of time involved, so I tried to hide the cross-fade within the blurriness of the following shot, where the taller hero is blowing into the bonfire. The tilt upwards and cutting to the older one digging was also one of these not-perfect-but-it-has-to-dos. I experimented a lot here trimming this transition, and I ended up with what you can see. And depending on where you look when it happens, it either works well, or it doesn’t. Our perception is a funny thing. Then I cross-faded again into the shot of the corpse, and this actually seems to be working fine. Unfortunately it is not totally clear, what exactly the heroes had done here. We were missing some kind of explanation, but there was no way to add it with the constraints of time that we were under.

Finally, there is a wide shot with the uniform, which is perhaps dragging too long. I wish I had something to remove that pause between older hero’s two dialogue lines, but unfortunately the close-up there on the taller one was not usable. Another lesser evil choice, to let the scene play out as it is. It adds some tension, but I think the apprehension of the younger hero could have been expressed or shown in a different, better manner. And the final shot of the scene is also something I am not happy with. Still, it felt the best thing that we had at the moment.

If I had to name a single scene in this movie that we could go back and fix, this would be it. I think it only works because of its overall mood, and the magic of the fire. It distracts enough from the weak parts, and introduces this dreamy, unreal feeling of it all, that allows it to flow and forgives a lot.

Transition – Scene 5 to scene 6

Transition from Scene 5 to 6 - Nothing fancy.

Transition from Scene 5 to 6 – Nothing fancy.

Cutting from a wide shot to a wide shot was a no-no here. I needed a detail, preferably with both heroes out of the frame. This pan to the shovel grip was the best thing I could come up with. I wanted to hold it for longer, but the shot didn’t allow for it. On a second thought I could have retimed it and slowed it down at the end. Half a second would sit better. As it is, it feels a bit too hasty for me. I didn’t want to use another cross-dissolve here, as I already had too many of them in the scene itself.

Transition – Scene 4 to scene 5

Transition from Scene 4 to 5 - A simple fade to black does the job.

Transition from Scene 4 to 5 – A simple fade to black does the job.

I experimented with a straight cut, and a cross dissolve, but the first didn’t work well, disguising the passage of time, being a bit disorientating, and the second lessened the impact of the ending of scene 4. Sometimes fade to black really is the best solution, especially if it coincides with moving from day to night.

Scene 2 – The establishing shot

Scene 2 - The establishing shot with visual effects.

Scene 2 – The establishing shot with visual effects.

Not much editing here, the length of the shot was arbitrary. For those interested, here is an overview of the vfx work done.

I didn’t have much time for experimenting with it. The plate was shot in 4K, but I cropped it to avoid showing the kayak on Vistula. It was shot on a tripod, but there were still some micro-movements that needed to be eliminated. I tracked and fully stabilized it to get rid of these. I painted out all the antennas and cranes in the shot, but didn’t have more time to add any additional war damage. There was a lot of haze here, so I pushed the grade on the footage pretty hard. Then I comped in the explosion and smoke (from another shot), adjusting their colors and levels to match background. To hide the edges I rotoed out the buildings and comped them in front. Finally, I added subtle pan and zoom. If I had more time, I would have added slight camera shake at the moment of explosion. That might have sold the shot even better.

At the last moment our music composer asked me to give him several more seconds on this shot. I was unable to comply, mostly due to the way paint works in Fusion – I did not find a way to make the stroke last longer. We had to work with what we had.

Transition – Scene 2 to scene 3

Transition from Scene 2 to Scene 3 - Sometimes a straight cut does the job.

Transition from Scene 2 to Scene 3 – Sometimes a straight cut does the job.

Going from the establishing shot to the detail was a simple cut. There was no need to do anything else here. The camera move added in scene 2 helped, as well as the explosion sound that connected both together. That one was easy.

Scene 7 – The Execution

Scene 7 - The climax of the movie. Talent performance is everything.

Scene 7 – The climax of the movie. Talent performance is everything.

There were multiple takes from different angles. The first ones started with the soldier and both guys already kneeling. I could have cut to those, but the dialogue delivery was also not that good. I chose therefore the last master shot that starts with an empty frame, what worked even better. Then I examined the close-ups. This emotional moment was definitely calling for us to go as close as possible. The audience needs to feel these emotions, be immersed into the cowardice of the younger hero, and embrace the realisation that the game is over for the older one.

There was only one take of each, no real choice. Thankfully, both actors played their roles extremely well, my task was to make sure that the best parts are chosen and that they fit together. At first I was tempted to cut to the younger one, cut away to the older and make them look at each other, then cut back to the younger, and end on the older. However, it felt as too much cutting in the scene that required a calmer pace. Plus I decided it’s better that they do not actually meet eye to eye, because it would mean that there is some understanding between them. No, here it’s everyone to himself, total isolation. The younger hero realizes that he is a coward, and looks for help, but the older one is not there to give it to him. He hangs his head, feels everything is lost. He expects to be shot. Then the older is looking at him, and finally realizes that the young one is not going to volunteer and save his skin. The game is over. The jokes did not help, somebody here has to pay. It is going to be him.

The idea to end this scene with a shot was there from the beginning. But at first I put it at the very last video frame and added a three frame cross-dissolve. The feedback I received made me roll back the video and cut without fading. The shot would ring half a second afterwards. In the end it does look better.

Selecting the proper gunshot sound was also crucial. I wanted a single shot, and I wanted it to be loud. The time was precious, but I managed to find something suitable, even if it was not exactly a single shot from the gun that the soldier was carrying.

Transition – Scene 6 to scene 7

Transition between Scene 6 and 7 - Cut to compress time with a slight preceding audio cue.

Transition between Scene 6 and 7 – Cut to compress time with a slight preceding audio cue.

A straight cut between the soldier shot in the background and the empty frame with the wall worked well. The time compression was clear, as was the change of place. One might be tempted here to also fade to black, but it would draw unnecessary attention. At this moment we want to see the immediate continuation, the resolution to this absurd, unfortunate situation.

This is also the place where I decided against the adage to cut on action – there is an empty frame at the beginning of the first shot in scene 7. I did this, because I wanted the gravity of the situation to sink in. A slight camera movement helped well enough to make the cut invisible.

Scene 8 – Planting the onion

Scene 8 - One shot that does it all.

Scene 8 – One shot that does it all.

This scene consists of just a single shot. There were several takes in one long clip, and the last one seemed like the best one. The only difficulty here lay in removing the audio from the final part of the shot, as there were noises from outside of the set there, and I didn’t want this to end too soon. Like the gunshot – let it unroll from start to finish, let it play out. Also, let the audio guide the picture, and start it half a second earlier.

A lot of people were asking us about this scene. What does it mean, why it is there. I think everyone should decide for themselves, as this was to be a symbolic, a bit hopeful ending (rather than just a black screen and a gunshot). For me it was this: despite the tragedy that happened, the life of a comrade – maybe even a friend – lost, there is hope, that something new will grow up from it. It’s a tribute to the anti-hero hero, the farewell of the old life, and the sign of the young hero moving on. However, this is only my interpretation, and we deliberately decided to abstain from limiting it for the viewers. It’s great when people are asking questions!

Transition – Scene 7 to scene 8

Transition from Scene 7 to 8 - A straight cut to black, rising and a fade in after a few seconds.

Transition from Scene 7 to 8 – A straight cut to black, rising and a fade in after a few seconds.

We ended scene 7 with a black frame, so slowly fading up seemed like the best way to go. Depending on my mood during each viewing, the last shot comes directly on time or a bit too soon, and does not allow the gunshot to ring out and reach the deepest corners of the viewer’s mind. The initial timing was even tighter, due to my concern was that it being too late would also ruin the effect. The second director wanted it pushed further apart, and we settled on a compromise. In the end, I think it could have been indeed moved several frames later.

Transition – Scene 3 to scene 4

Transition from Scene 3 to 4 - This one required an additional shot.

Transition from Scene 3 to 4 – This one required an additional shot.

It was a difficult transition. At first I did not have anything to work with. I so missed the two heroes leaving the frame, it would be perfect. In lieu of that, I asked for a specific shot to be filmed: a soldier coming into frame from the right and leaving on the left, camera dollying forwards towards the lab. It did not work out as well as I hoped, but the team shot several other ideas just in case. The one I chose was also hardly perfect, but it had to do. It was static, the transition felt artificial. I added a delicate zoom into the center to underscore the movement to the inside, and pan to the left to match with the camera movement in the previous shot. It felt better. To match this movement I also had to tweak the in point of the following hand close-up. Once that was done, we had a decent transition.

The main title

We thought of adding the title in front of everything at first, but that didn’t sit right with me. The music was already done, and having the title without any sound felt weak. Having it on the explosion was a bad idea as well. The initial shot with the reflection of the lamp post seemed the best place to put it. We chose a font that would match the initial titles, and experimented with layout and timing. Putting it in the upper right corner was an interesting composition, and fading out just before the wheelbarrow enters the frame made everything flow nicely.

I briefly considered either stabilizing the shot, or tracking the title to the camera movement, but in the end there was no time to do it properly, and it wasn’t done.

Wrap up

On the one hand, any movie is just a collection of the scenes and the transitions between them. On the other, it is something larger than the sum of its parts. It has the pacing, flow, and rhythm of its own. While a single scene can play out great, editors always need to be mindful of the whole picture as well. Thankfully, in this case we did not have to do any significant changes to the material with the exception of cutting short the bonfire scene, which I am still in two minds about, as it ended the dialogue pretty abruptly. Perhaps had we had more time we would have watched it several more times, found other issues, experimented with different ideas, and ended up with something different or something better. This we do not know. As David Fincher aptly put it, “movies aren’t finished. They are abandoned.”

I hope this detailed walkthrough, even though specific to this project, illustrates the editing process well enough, and maybe gave you ideas that you can try in your own works. As you can see, editing involves a great number of decisions that need to be made with each cut or transition. Back in the days of editing on film, most of this happened inside the editor’s or director’s head. These days we can experiment on live footage in real-time, fine-tune to our hearts content and find the version that works best. I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other. Editing in one’s head saves time and makes you think like a director, engages your imagination more. On the other hand, being able to explore various options makes it easier to find a better solution to a difficult edit, and spend less time arriving at a surprising solution. They both have their advantages, and it’s great that we live in the time when virtually anyone can practice this kind of storytelling.

In the end, I am happy how Vaga Heroica turned out, despite its shortcomings. It was fun to edit, and I hope this article was also an interesting read for you. I am curious, if you got inspired, or maybe have suggestions on how you would do things better or differently.

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One Response to Editing Case Study – Vaga Heroica

  1. BartW says:

    I asked my friend Misha Tenenbaum from for his notes on the project, taking advantage of his offer to do so for any submitted work (

    Here is the link to the notes that he gave me (active until Nov 27th):

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