Ralph E. Winters was one of the most well known editors from the era of big Hollywood studios. He started very early on at MGM and worked all his way up until he was cutting big budget films. He successfully transitioned to sound and worked in many classics such as Gaslight (1944), King Solomon’s Mines (1950) or The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Now watch this scene

First thing you may realise when you watch it is there’s no music; it adds a sense of realism and immediacy, and brings certain objectivity to the scene. This scene is very tricky: the chariots are running in circles all the time, and like many action scenes, there is no dialogue that moves the action forward. Ralph E. Winters and his assistants received a large amount of material, shot in different days and not following the script order. So how they managed to achieve this result?

  • They drew a graphic of the career in a poster, writing down each camera position, kind of shot and script action.
  • R.Winters started the edit following the chronological order of the scene.
  • A first rough cut showed all the featured action moments plus any interesting shot they found. It was long and lacked rhythm and tempo, but it was a guide of what they had and had not.

It took 3 months to edit this scene alone. Winters knew that the heart of the scene was the relationship between the two riders so as soon as the close ups of the actors arrived, he build the dramatic tension between them throughout the action shots. Watch it again, and see the careful balance between the descriptive and more emotional shots. Our heart beats fast while we follow the struggle of the race, and shrinks when we understand the struggle of C.Heston towards his old friend. We are by his side when he is not happy but remorseful after winning the race. This gesture brings up his humanism and his role as the hero of the movie.

Without the emotional side, an action scene is very very very boring. Hitgirl and his daddy give us another excellent example. Watch it: Kick-Ass edit! In a seminar organised by ACE in London a few years ago, the editor Eddie Hamilton explained to us how it took him 3 weeks to edit this wonderful scene. Regardless of technology, the editor has to pay close attention to rhythm, tempo and suspense while keeping the dramatic elements and sense of orientation clear. What I mean by orientation is that your emotional connection to the scene is never lost, and you are totally immersed (In Kick-Ass example, there is a clever use of spatial disorientation). It is an unbelievably hard and long process, but also very rewarding!

(Source: “Editing & Postproduction” by Declan McGrath)

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