Making a Book Trailer (9): Editing

The editing was done in the Creativity Exploratory lab on the Michigan State University campus, a room wall-to-wall with monitors and CPUs of this size and that, mismatched too-large chairs, students jacked into headphones, the shiny cardboard yield of the packaging industry emptied of contents and abandoned here and there, dusty old computers on the floor that would think no more, on a table excavated hard drives waiting to be smashed or passed on to persons with less need for capacity and speed, empty packets of salty snacks, paper-format cartoons and FYIs taped to walls, others scribbled on a whiteboard, monitors playing their dazy screens, a window air conditioner blowing, a mini-fan going—all the features you’d expect in a student-populated, hard-used IT workspace.

Here in the lab Pillai and Drew selected and ordered the segments in the trailer. Selected how? Ordered according to what aesthetic?

As I mentioned in my post on the script, connections between the voice-over and specific images in the visual stream were severed early in the process of making the trailer—before shooting began, in fact. We did not have footage of a car to accompany my words about a car, for example. We had footage of binoculars, but no binoculars in the voice-over.

When it came time to order the recorded scenes into sequences, there was no inherent connection between the moving images in our collection and the narrative. (The big exception to this dissociation is Omar as the designated companion.) The latter provided the plot, the skeleton, but the flesh of the trailer, the images and sounds, had to be added to it. How would the scenes be picked in relation to the procession of words?

Pillai believed that strong emotions would be evoked by the objects they had filmed, as if the objects themselves had feelings:

In this trailer, as the focus was on the memories invoked through objects, it was important to go by their emotions—their tears and smiles when they were touched by the sun dancing through the leaves and the breeze.

The associations of ideas and emotions with various images—did I just hear someone think, Eliot’s objective correlative?—created connections between particular elements in the narration and particular shots. Certain structures of bone belonged with certain ligaments and shapes of muscle. I’ve already written about some of Pillai’s associations between objects and feelings. Here are others that he and I discussed at one time or another.

Lights flashing on The fact of Joel’s suicide breaking into my blindness.
Ant crawling People in their routine unable to see what’s going on because they are too engaged in their tasks, have their heads down: what I couldn’t see—that Joel was saying good-bye.
Shower Interior, enclosed space of purification: the bathroom. Everything washing away.
Shot outside the window to the river, with flowers Sense of life continuing.
Colored platter/egg coddler /flames/hands What life does the object carry, what stories, what has Joel passed to me? But also the juxtaposition of the flames and flowers, symbols of life.
Pages of manuscript, stamps Ways I haven’t let go of Joel. Ways I’ve put my arms around it.
Stamps floating free Release, beginning to accept, to let go, to move with the current of time passing and water flowing.
River Time, current.
Binoculars Object that shows I am seeing in a less blinded way, less one-sided, seeing both Joel and me.
 Omar A companion, life, energy, the river, gifts. Restoring the idea of gift from poison to something generous.

In assembling a sequence of sights to follow the voice-over, one can identify emotions and ideas in the right-hand column that are expressed by the spoken words, then convert them into the appropriate image in the left-hand column (Pillai, of course, didn’t work so mechanically as that). In this way he and Drew Seymour, the editor, assembled a rough order for the visual stream, such that the appropriate emotions connected to images were synchronized with specific passage in the voice-over.

There was another major consideration in the sequence of images: rhythm.

Generally one thinks of rhythm when it comes to a trailer, because it helps lead the audience into the heart of the work. Often the mainstream films prefer sensational leads, while the art film might privilege Bazinian long takes with artful dissolves.

Pillai is referring to the French film critic André Bazin. His reference to “long takes and artful dissolves” is a perfect description of the style of the trailer.

Rhythm in the sense of an alternation of types of shots was a special concern because of the intense use of extreme close-ups in filming. As Pillai put it,

At a fundamental level, editing is smooth when you have a change of scale, i.e. volume between shots, for instance, when you cut from a long shot to a mid-shot or a close-up. Or you must have a change of angles of at least 30 degrees—if you are going to cut between shots taken from almost the same position, the transition will be noticeable.

In other words, Pillai and Drew needed to avoid jump cuts. Tim, with his experience as a news cameraman, gave the example of juxtaposed head-and-shoulders shots, which look jarring. A wide shot inserted between them makes the sequence smoother.

These were the general concerns as the trailer was assembled. The macroediting was done before Richard and I saw a rough cut, and when we came to the lab to watch it, what we observed was the fine-tuning.

At the Apple touchpad was Drew, with Pillai in the director’s chair (too large, mismatched). The software was Final Cut Pro X. I wish I could provide a technical discussion of its features, but my nontechnical assessment is that it can do anything.

Drew Seymour is a graduate of Michigan State University with a degree in Bio-medical Materials Science Engineering. He has been involved with producing, directing, filming, branding, editing, and social media for an eclectic mixture of projects including the punditry news show The Reaction, the life culture podcast BNF, and short documentary films. He has just completed working for the Creativity Exploratory at Michigan State University.

We observed as Pillai and Drew adjusted the shot of the swing hanging on the rope; Pillai wanted to slow down its motion. Drew played the same few seconds again and again, and I heard “school district south of San Francisco” repeatedly as they adjusted the speed of the swing. Between Pillai’s quiet voice and the noise of the air conditioner, I couldn’t understand their conversation. After repeated calibrations,  Pillai nodded when it was right and said, “Yes.”

They changed the pace of a dissolve into a five-second shot of tangled tree-roots on the riverbank. Pillai, using the old vocabulary of celluloid, wanted to move the dissolve forward a few frames. Five minutes went by, ten. Finally it was right. (This shot was later eliminated altogether.)

Microediting, I soon learned, is laborious, intense, slow, minute (in Pillai’s words, “painstaking and productive, obsessive and absorbing”). We watched for an hour and a half as Pillai and Drew adjusted less than a minute’s worth of the trailer they had already been editing for several days. I now understood why editing a full-length movie takes months.

I should say something about our difficulties with sounds.

The ease with which the green ribbons on screen that represented pieces of audio (I think that’s what they were) could be manipulated sometimes led to unintended effects. Bird sounds could be dropped in willy-nilly or moved unwittingly and, said Pillai, result in “a cut-and-paste effect that I wanted to avoid.” They needed layering at more gradual levels. We also discovered that what sounded fine through low-fi speakers was no good through high-quality headphones at high volume. The birds were singing to the accompaniment of what sounded like a dishwasher. Drew applied a filter and cleaned them up.

“Bird sounds are now the leitmotif of our film,” Pillai said with a bit of avian pride. Indeed, the call of a cardinal begins it.

In one microediting session I observed, Pillai wanted the loudness of the churning water in the shower to differ in two clips, with the first quieter than the second, so the second would startle and punctuate.

There were mysterious problems; sound in one of the clips had dropped out of the sound track. A hardware/software mismatch? No one was sure. Drew returned to a backup version from yesterday’s session and pulled the clip from there.

This was the second point of punctuation in the trailer, the bird sounds being the first. How high should the peak of sound be? Over and over they played the bathroom scene, adjusting duration and volume:  . . . late in the afternoon. Yes, this is my time. . . . late in the afternoon. Yes, this is my time. . . . late in the afternoon . . . late in the afternoon . . . late in the afternoon … Dazed myself, I admired the editors’ precision and tenacity.

I’ll give over the summary words to Pillai, who brings us back from microediting to a larger viewpoint, from metadata and codecs to the poetic end of this technical practice:

In this trailer, where the focus was on extreme close-ups of objects—shot through a macro lens—in most of the shots the challenge was to work on their evocativeness to point to the rare poetic quality of the book, which is invested in the materiality of the object as the career of memory, while at the same time [the book] uses it as a point of departure to journey into the deeper recesses of the heart where guilt, anger, justification, and redemption intersect in a profound and poignant way. The shooting and editing was, therefore, dictated in the final analysis by this journey into the interiority of the narrator through exterior objects—both visual, like the egg coddler or the stamps, and sound, like the chirping of birds and the water.

Editing: to splice, to unite, heart-sound-sight.

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