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Editing Non-scripted Projects: Music Video

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Even though I’ve edited a lot of trailers and commercials, where music played an important part, I had never had an opportunity of working on an actual music video. Thanks to a fortunate coincidence, I was recently contacted by a young singer, Oktawia Kawęcka, who had just recorded a cover of the Oscar winning “Writing’s on the Wall” by Sam Smith (well, at that point in time it hadn’t won an Oscar yet), asking for an editor. It was extremely hard to resist the temptation. So I didn’t.

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PEV04 – Norman Hollyn on Performance Enhancing Visual Effects

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This interview is part of the larger series about Performance Enhancing Visual Effects. Norman Hollyn is an editor best known for his work on Heathers. He’s a professor at USC, where he teaches editing. He wrote two books on this topic as well, “The Film Editing Handbook” and “Lean Forward Moment” which I heartily recommend. For those more visually inclined, a great course of his, “Foundations of Video: The Art of Editing“, is available on Lynda.com, and you can find a few of his webinars on Moviola.com

Before I published my previous interviews with Alan E. Bell and Zbigniew Stencel, I sent Norman drafts of those and asked for his opinions. Here is his reply. see more

Why slow motion seems majestic

There is much to be said about the memorability of slow motion footage in movies. While perhaps the most extreme recent example was the invention of “bullet time” in Matrix, and recently we have seen it taken to the extremes in Inception, the overcranking (shooting at higher framerate to later play it back at regular 24 fps) was the hallmark of cinematography ever since it was invented in 1904 by Austrian priest and physcist August Musger.

There is little doubt that slow motion footage for some reason does make the action seem more pronounced, more memorable, more impressive, and often more majestic.  Even though some cinematographers of note did tackle the reasons why slow motion has this certain effect, so far I have not found a convincing explanation in this field.

A possible insight into why slow motion might have this effect comes from the research on how people react under extreme stress: in combat, in sports, or in situations where one’s life is threatened. There exists a number of reactions that can happen to people in such situations. Alongside tunnel vision, selective deafness, there also is a perception of events occuring in slow motion. Most likely it is a result of the sudden flush of hormones like epinephrine, and the attempts of our brains to encode as much of what is happening as possible for future reference. Usually it is accompanied by the feeling of vividness, and awareness of being alive (this is also why such states of mind can become addictive, and life can seem pretty bland afterwards),  sometimes referred to as “hyper-reality”.

The important part is that the real slow motion effect in our brain is only an illusion, and the result of physiological processes of hastened memory creation. It does not grant the subject powers of Neo to dodge bullets, it only increases the awareness of occuring events. The reaction time remains as it is, even though the employed actions might be more efficient, than they would be in “normal time”.

However, it is highly probable, that our brain, when confronted with slow motion footage, takes it as a signal of something memorable happening, and tries to employ its standard procedure in such cases – trying to remember as much as it can, because it is an important, potentially life-threatening event. Due to the fact, that there is no hormonal rush, the effect is subsided, but it seems to have an impact nevertheless. How foolish of our brain to think so! And yet, we fall for the same trick again, and again. And slow-motion does work, even if used in excess.

Therefore, next time you see the slow motion footage employed to accentuate certain aspects of the action, or use this effect yourself, be aware that it works, because it references the state of mind that is already available to the viewer, and mimics what happens when our brains do firecely try to create a memorable event.

If readers are interested in further exploration of this topic, I suggest the book “On Combat” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, which has a great compilation of physiological effects that accompany events.

The anatomy of a promo

This is my latest production. It’s a promotional spot for a non-profit organization that is dedicated to another passion of mine – historical personal combat.

What follows is an overview of the production of this short movie, including how the screenplay changed during production, breakdown of my editing process, and a few techniques that we used in post-production to achieve the final result.

Production

It was a collaborative, voluntary effort, and included cooperation from parties from various cities in Poland. The Warsaw sequences (both office and training) were shot with Sony EX-1R, 1080i50, with the exception of slow-motion shots that were recorded at 720p60. Sequences from Wroclaw and Bielsko Biala were shoot with DSLRs at 1080p25. Therefore the decision was made to finish the project in 720p25, especially since the final distribution would be via youTube.

The most effort went into filming the Warsaw training, where we even managed to bring a small crane on set. Out of two shots that we filmed, in the final cut only one was partially used – the one where all people are running on the open clearing. We envisioned it as one of the opening shots. As a closing shot we filmed from the same place the goodbyes and people leaving the clearing, while the camera was moving up and away. It seemed a good idea at that time, one that would be a nice closure of the whole sequence, and perhaps of the movie as well.

We had some funny moments when Michal Rytel-Przelomiec (the camera operator, and the DOP) climbed up a tree to shot running people from above, and after a few takes he shouted that he can last only one more, because the ants definitely noticed his presence and started their assault. What a brave and dedicated guy!

A few days later we were able to shot the office sequence. The first (and back then still current) version of the screenplay involved a cut after the text message was send to what was supposedly a reminiscence from another training, and finished up with coming back to office, where Maciek (the guy in office) would pick up a sword and rush at the camera. Due to the spatial considerations on set (we were filming in Maciek’s office after hours), we decided to alter the scenario, especially since we had already filmed the training sequences, including the farewell closing shot.Therefore instead of Maciek picking up a sword and attacking the camera, he actually rushed away to training, leaving the office for something dearer to his heart. It was also Michal’s idea to shot the office space with 3200K white balance to create more distant, cold effect, and it worked really well.

Post-production

All footage (about 2 hours worth) was imported into Adobe Premiere CS5, that allowed skipping transcoding and working with the source files from the beginning right to the end. After Effects CS5 and Dynamic Link were used for modest city titles only, although perhaps it could have been used to improve a few retimed shots. Music and effects were also mixed in Premiere.

The promo was in production for over half a year, mostly because we were waiting for footage from other cities, some of which never materialized, and we decided to finish the project with what we had. Actual cutting was pretty quick, and mostly involved looking for the best sequences to include from other cities. Some more time was spend on coming up with a desired final look for the short movie.

Editing

The general sequence of events was laid out by the screenplay written by Maciek Talaga. At first the clip started immediately with corporate scene. We were supposed to have some similar stories from other cities, and I was ready to use dual or even quadruple split screen for parallel action, but since the additional footage never materialized, I decided to pass on this idea. In the end it allowed us to focus more on Maciej Zajac, and made him the main hero of our story, what was not planned from the start.

After leaving the office we had to transition to the training, and preferably to another place. Wroclaw had a nice gathering sequence, and completely different atmosphere (students, backpacks, friendship and warmth), which constituted excellent contrast to the cool corporate scenes from Warsaw, presenting another kind of people involved in pursuing the hobby.

The order of following cuts was determined by the fact, that we had very little material from Bielsko-Biala, and it all involved the middle of the warm-up. We had excellent opening shots from Warsaw, which were great for setting the mood, and adding some more mystery. I used them all, and even wanted to transition to push-ups and other exercises, however when the guys already stopped running, coming back to it in Bielsko sequence ruined the natural tempo of the event. Therefore with great regret I had to shorten the crane shot to the extent that it most likely does not register as a crane shot at all, and transition to Bielsko for the remaining part of the warm-up.

Coming back to Warsaw seemed a little odd, so I decided to cut to Wroclaw to emphasize the diversity, and a short sequence with a few shots of a warm-up with swords. Here I especially like the two last cuts, where one cuts on action with the move of the sword, that is underlined by the camera move in the next shot, and then the one that moves the action back to Warsaw, when a guy exits the frame with a thrust. I was considering using a wipe here, but it looked too cheesy, so I decided to stick to a straight cut.

As an alternate to this choice, I could at first come back to Warsaw, and move the Wroclaw sequence between the warm-up and sparrings, but this would then create an alternating cadence Warsaw-other place-Warsaw and I wanted to break this rhythm and avoid that. Therefore I was stuck in Warsaw for the remaining of the movie, even though it had at least two distinctive parts left. We had an ample selection of training footage from Wroclaw, however it was conducted in a gym, and including it would ruin the overall mood and contrast closed office space vs. open training space, so in the end we decided against it.

Unfortunately we did not have any footage from gearing up, so the transition between the florysh part in Warsaw to the sparrings is one of the weakest parts of this movie, and I would love to have something else to show. I did not come up with anything better than the cut on action though.

The sparring sequence is mostly cut to music selection of the most dynamic and most spectacular actions from our shoot (not choreographed in any way), including a few speed manipulations here and there to make sword hits at proper moments or to emphasize a few nice actions, including the disarm at the end. There were a few lucky moments during shooting, where Michal zoomed in on a successful thrust, and I tried to incorporate them as much as I could, to obtain the best dynamics, and to convey as much of the atmosphere of competitive freeplay as was possible.

The sequence ends on a positive note with fighters removing masks and embracing each other. I tried to avoid cutting in the middle of this shot, but it was too long, and I wanted to have both the moment where the fencing masks come off, and the glint on the blade of the sword at the end (which was not added in post). In the end the jump cut is still noticeable, but it defends itself. There is a small problem with music at the end, because I had to cut it down and extend a little bit to hold it for the closing sequence, but it is minor, and does not distract too much from the overall story.

Apart from the serious and confrontational aspect of the training, we wanted to stress the companionship, and I believe that both the meeting sequence in Wroclaw, and the final taking off the masks and embrace did convey the message well.

During cutting I realized that regardless of the added production value of the crane farewell shot, there is no way to include it at the end. It was too long, it lessened the emotional content, and paled in comparison to the final slow motion shots that I decided to use, including the final close-up of Maciek, that constituted the ellipse present in the first version of the screenplay. Therefore it had to go, regardless of our sentiment towards it.

The feedback from early watchers was that Maciej Zajac was not easily recognizable for people who did not know him, and made us wish for something more. The idea of the beginning with sounds and no picture came from Maciek Talaga, and I only tweaked it a little bit. We first thought about putting as the first shot the one where Maciej takes off the fencing mask, however it did not look good at all, and the transition to the office scene was awkward at best. In the end I proposed the closing close up as the first shot, which in our opinion nicely tied the whole thing together, being both introduction of Maciek, setting focus on him as a person, and also nicely contrasting the “middle ages dream or movie” with his later work at the office. Excellent brief textual messages authored by Maciek Talaga added also a lot to the whole idea.

Color grading

All color correction was done in Premiere Pro with the use of standard CC filters and blending modes. I experimented with the look in the midst of editing, trying to come up with something that would best convey the mood. I started with high-contrast, saturated theme, and moved quickly to a variation of bleach bypass with a slightly warmer, yellowish shift in midtones. However, it still lacked the necessary punch, and in the end I decided to over-emphasize the red color (an important one for the organization as well) with a slight Pleasantville effect. It gave the movie this slightly unreal, mysterious feeling, and the contrast underlined the seriousness of effort.

The office sequence did not need much more than the variation of bleach bypass, not having anything actually red. The increase of contrast and slight desaturation was mostly enough to bring it to the desired point, thanks to Michal’s idea of shooting it at lower Kelvin. Warsaw sequence required additional layer of “leave color” effect where everything apart from red was partially desaturated, a little more push towards yellow in highlights and in midtones, all blended in color mode over previous bleach bypass stack. I will do the detailed breakdown of color correction I used in a separate entry, although perhaps with the introduction of SpeedGrade in Adobe CS6 this technique might become  obsolete.

Michal also suggested a clearer separation between the various cities, so I pushed Wroclaw more towards blue, as it involved more open air, and Bielsko more towards yellowish-green, to emphasize its more “wild” aspect. In the end, I had the most trouble with footage from this place, because as shot it was dark, had bluish tint, and involved pretty heavy grading, which on H.264 is never pleasant. Overall I’m satisfied with the results, although there are a few places that could benefit from perhaps a few more touches.

The blooming highlight on the fade out of the opening and closing shot was a happy accident and a result of fading out all corrected layers simultaneously mixed with “Lightning effects”, at first intended only for vignetting (as mentioned in my another entry).

I like the overall result. I also enjoyed the production on every step of the way, and even though it could still perhaps be improved here and there, I am happy. It was an excellent teamwork effort, and I would like to thank all people who contributed to its final look.

Is there a reality out there?

Human beings love stories. We thrive on them, they evoke our emotions and give us reason to live (or die for that matter). Stories are what give us sense and meaning.

Stories are also almost absolutely subjective, at least in terms of their final impact on individuals. The final act of every creation—stories included—happens in the mind of the recipient, and it is the stage upon which the storyteller has no control at all. It is the sum of our experiences that does decide what our perception of the story will be. Therefore there are as many variants of a single story, as there are people on the planet. And from this perspective, who is to say which story is better?

This kind of reasoning brought us the idea of post-modernism, where even the concept of reality itself begun to be treated as subjective to one’s interpretation, and wholly dependent on one’s point of view. In its peak, this philosophy proposed that we in fact create the very reality by our mental processes, and that by changing the way in which we think and perceive the outside world we can totally remake it, because it is nothing more than a narrative. It also proposed the ultra-egalitarianism, postulating absolute equality of everybody’s view of the world.

I’ll spare you the paradoxes of post-modernistic philosophies, and listing the flaws of this kind of unfortunately quite prevalent magical thinking, but there is one thing that I personally can’t ignore. The uber-egalitarianism proposes that science is “just another piece of storytelling”, and that it has no special claim on saying what’s real, and what’s not. This point of view saddens me, especially when it is voiced by famous psychotherapists or people who really should know better.

This statement is very, very incorrect. While I absolutely agree that each of us creates their own inner picture of reality, and then by our actions we can influence the outside world, sometimes even make an important contribution towards some big changes, it is by no means equal to creating the outside reality, or to claiming that there is no objective reality at all.

There exist certain rules that every atom in the universe does seem to follow. These rules can be discovered by systematic observation, and they even can be described with the use of an abstract language of mathematics. Even such seemingly chaotic and stochastic systems like weather can be described with certain probability, and with certain “resolution”.  It is amazing that we were able to create the semantics which allows us to predict the events that do happen “randomly”, like radioactive decay for example. Of course, not the course of every single one of them can be described—they are truly random in such sense—but their general, statistical behavior is quite well established, enough for building reliant nuclear reactors or medical imaging devices.

Such is our advancement in this kind of observation that it allows us to build tools like GPS which take into account the space-time curvature, and relativistic lengthening of time, or tackle the idea of quantum computing. We are so certain of the laws that govern the universe, that in our arrogance we create amazing things that rely on these laws to function properly. And they do work. There are laws in the universe that we can all rely upon.

These laws do not care who you are, where you live, whether you are a human-being, an amoeba, or a piece of anti-matter. They do not care about your life story. They are identical for everyone and everything, the true example of uber-egalitarianism. As such, these laws are the reality: the objective reality, ever-present for everyone and everything in the same way. And science is the process that seeks to discover and describe these laws. Therefore to dismiss it as “yet another storytelling device” is a mark of ignorance or a sad lack of understanding of what this process entails.

To be fair, science is messy, and mathematics is an abstract language that—sadly—not very many people know or even want to learn. Science does involve at first noticing some observations (which are objective, repeatable facts), and then trying to come up with some kind of abstract description that will allow prediction of future behavior of the observed system. This part happens in an objective reality. The problems might start when one has to translate or interpret the findings.

All our “natural” languages are inherently imprecise, and are a product of our daily experience and the environment that we live in. We have problems translating ideas that fall out of such experience, because we lack proper frame of reference to convey the true meaning of elaborate equations—equations that are very precise, and leave little room for debate. We have to resort to metaphors to describe constructs like electron cloud, which are described without fault by mathematical equations, but can never be properly described with the use of common words. Such attempts of passing the knowledge to “uninitiated” are prone to misunderstandings, and superficiality, as we can witness for example with the idea of an “observer” in quantum mechanics. For some reason people started associating the act of localizing an electron (measurement) with the presence of some kind of consciousness observing the act, sparkling a lot of shallow, misguided philosophical speculations. This is the limit of metaphors, and there are things lost or added in translation. Such is the nature of telling stories—their authors have almost no influence on how they will be understood.

In the end science does indeed tell stories that are supposed to help us make sense of this world that we live in. The difference is that the stories being told are based on the most fundamental aspects of repetitive, and reliable objective reality, a translation from very precise language of mathematics into our limited, poetic language of everyday life. These stories are not made up. They might be better or worse translations, but what they describe is real.

Some people seem to be offended by the word “objective”, and prefer using “consensus” instead. I think it is a misnomer. The laws do not care about our consent. Even though there exists a substantial subjective element to how things are explained, interpreted and understood, the facts, and the laws themselves remain reliably unchanged. There is an objective reality out there, and we’re relying on it in all our activities every day, especially now, when you are reading these words. :)

Thanks to these laws, we are alive, and can go on telling our stories in a manner that is most convenient for us 😀