Stunning Visuals, Editing and Sound!

The Oscar nominations for 2013 came out recently and I was once again put in mind of the different technical categories and how misunderstood they are because when most craftsmen and artists do their job and do it well, the result is a seamless vision.  If it’s not, it’s jarring and there’s a problem.  As a result, we often associate great technical work with what we can see as obvious: Great cinematography is often interpreted as great, sweeping visuals; Great editing as lots of intricate cuts; Great Sound as the sounds of explosions or music.  But, honestly, it’s about so much more.

One movie that started me thinking about this was the recent un-nominated Upstream Color.  I wrote elsewhere that the movie is a masterpiece of sound design and, fortunately, there’s an Oscar for that, Best Sound Editing (they just didn’t bother to nominate the one movie that quite simply excelled in every respect at sound editing).  Here’s how it works: Best Sound Editing has to do with weaving sounds into the soundtrack to form a kind of aural score for the film.  Different effects are used to create a beautiful tonal aesthetic for the film while the Best Sound category is about the skill behind making the dialogue, effects and music work together at proper levels, where the background isn’t too loud or too soft, where an explosion is punched up just right, and so on.  It may seem easy but it’s not.

Years ago,  I rewatched The Poseidon Adventure on TCM and noticed something I hadn’t noticed as a kid: The sound was awful.  During the scene just after the wave hits the ship and everyone is upside down trying to figure out what to do, the only thing you hear are the voices of whoever is speaking dialogue in front of the camera.  So, for instance, if Gene Hackman is speaking, that’s practically all you hear.  There’s a room full of dead, dying and injured people, stressed out and terrified, and yet, not a shout, scream, moan, or general hubbub can be heard.  Nothing.  Just Hackman’s voice.  The movie punches up the dialogue to ten and knocks down the ambient sound to zero every time someone talks.  This isn’t great sound mixing at work.

Citizen Kane, for all its praise in the areas of cinematography and story structure, really excels the most, arguably, with its sound editing.  The work here is extraordinary both in general sound mixing and sound editing.  The way that movie sounds, from the echoes to the blended sounds (Kane shouting “Sing Sing” blends into a car horn when his wife and Getty leave the building) to the shrieking of a caged bird, Kane is a house of wonders in the sound department and it’s even more amazing considering they were just 12 to 14 years into the sound era when they made it.

Editing is another area that I think gets misunderstood a lot.   Most people think of editing as a simple by the numbers job someone has to do.  Once a movie is made, it goes to the editor who has to make 215 cuts so that all the scenes match up.  Once the editor has done their work, matching up the shots, they’re done! Only, no.  An editor works closely with the director to not only get raw footage to make sense to the audience but decide how to juxtapose certain images and actions for a greater aesthetic cohesion between what the director wants and what the footage can deliver.  Click here for a clip that demonstrates exactly what I mean.  It may be a comedy clip foremost, and it is, but it’s also an excellent little study on how editors are a part of the creative process (except now they don’t actually splice film, they use a digital editor).  It’s from one of Albert Brooks’ finest movies, perhaps his finest, Modern Romance.

Finally, we arrive at cinematography and I think it’s here that the art form itself needs to be broken down into several different categories.  Perhaps one for interiors, one for exteriors and one for action.  It’s important to differentiate because with cinematography, it’s not just about where you point the camera but how you light it as well.  A good director of photography (DP) works with a lighting designer to get the look just right (in fact, many people say the cinematographer “lit” the movie, not “shot” it).  Gregg Toland, on Wuthering Heights, Citizen Kane, Ball of Fire and The Best Years of Our Lives, wasn’t just pointing the camera from an angle of the director’s choosing, he was also making sure it looked interesting once there.   Welles may have said he wanted the shot of Kane signing his Declaration of Principles to obscure him, but it was Toland that worked with people on the crew to make that effect work and not look simply as if someone forgot to turn on the lights.  Toland was supremely gifted and all of his movies seem to have shots where characters are obscured by darkness.  An entire scene in Ball of Fire, in the motel room, is played in the dark but looks absolutely great.


The next category, exterior, is the one most people think of when they think of great cinematography, if they do at all.   It’s where people see big, sweeping vistas and think, “Wow, what great camera work,” when, really, it’s just great scenery.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t have extraordinary exterior cinematography.   Black Narcissus has great cinematography, both interior, exterior and interior disguised as exterior.  It’s not just about sweeping vistas but the point of view of the camera.  The view from behind the wall when Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is standing near the bell, the shots of Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) and Clodagh in Ruth’s room while she applies lipstick by candlelight, the overhead shot, done on a set using a matte painting in post production, of Clodagh and Ruth, struggling over the precipice.  It’s how Jack Cardiff, the DP, set those shots up and photographed them that made the difference, not the vistas themselves.

The last category, action, used to require a lot more physical setup work than it does now.  In today’s movies, the action is often inserted later after actors have been photographed in front of a green screen, presenting a whole new challenge for cinematographers who have to get used to not seeing the final image as they shoot it.  Of course, DP’s working with matte paintings in the past had the same problem.   But it was the physical rehearsals that differed.  For instance, when Robert Surtees had to photograph the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959), there was a titanic amount of rehearsal by stunt people that had to take place, an idea of what would happen when, where to get the shots and then rolling the cameras and hoping for the best.   Spoiler: it all worked out exceedingly well.  In fact, I’d say the chariot race in Ben-Hur may well be one of the best examples in history of great cinematography, editing and sound editing all working together in perfect unison to produce a great cinematic event.  Really, every aspect works perfectly.

So if you are someone who watches the Oscars  (I used to be, not anymore), when they get to those categories, remember how much talent and work goes into each one of them.  And if you’re not, simply keep it in mind when you watch a movie and see the credits roll that the men and women who do the sound and the lights and edits and the camera shots aren’t just a bunch of soulless technicians doing their job and going home.  They’re artists, as much as the director and writer and the actors you see on the screen.  And when they’re good, they make everyone else look great.


*pictured at the top, though not discussed in the piece, is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, one of the best examples of great sound, editing, and cinematography that most people wouldn’t naturally think of as having great sound, editing, and cinematography, but really, all three are key and all three are expertly done.


24 Responses Stunning Visuals, Editing and Sound!
Posted By vp19 : January 19, 2014 3:49 pm

The excellent sound editing on “Citizen Kane” shouldn’t be all that surprising. Remember, Welles and many of his cohorts on that film came from the Mercury Theater, and their several years of radio experience probably came into play during production.

Posted By LD : January 19, 2014 4:13 pm

Like a lot of people I tend to give credit for a film to the actors, directors, producers and even composers and writers. A couple of people did come to mind while reading your blog.

Film editor, Verna Fields, has been given a great deal of credit for the success of JAWS by Spielberg and others (Oscar). Her contribution and that of composer John Williams is immeasurable.

The other day I was watching THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE and decided to research the cinematographer because I was so impressed with the lighting and the atmosphere it created. Turns out, Nicholas Musaraca was also the cinematographer for a half dozen Val Lewton movies, including CAT PEOPLE. Also on his list of films, OUT OF THE PAST and THE LOCKET.

Thank you for reminding us of all the professionals it takes to make a couple hours of film.

Posted By Dan : January 19, 2014 4:40 pm

That’s what I like about the Coen Bros. films. I feel like, for the most part, their understanding and continuous acknowledgement of the care that must be given to sound, editing, and cinematography really makes their films more than just a good story with good characters but a film that also feels good. The films have a texture that becomes infectious and absorbing as the audience delves into the time and place that each film takes place. That’s why I love watching films like FARGO, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, A SERIOUS MAN, and INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS because the filmic choice being made, whether subtle or not (by a crew assembled so fittingly) strikes me as yet another layer of the film’s total significance.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 19, 2014 6:47 pm

Excellent points. I, too, was thinking of these things as I watched Captain Phillips, with its shaky cam combined with rapid editing. Not only is it nauseating for audience members with motion sickness or certain eye problems, but no viewer EVER gets a firm grip on spatial relationships or clarity of action. Its capacity to create suspense was cut in half by this style, which is director Paul Greengrass’s forte. Hitchcock would have taken down Greengrass and his movie with one quick witticism.

And, not only was it nominated for best film but for best editing!!!!

Posted By Doug : January 19, 2014 7:26 pm

Watched Damon Runyon’s “Bloodhounds Of Broadway” last night and was quite impressed by the editing and sound and, of course, the brightly colored cinematography. I also had opportunity to shout, “Hey! There’s Charles Bronson! And Timothy Carey!”
There was one disjointed editing error-Emly and Tessie converse about what a ‘Ouija’ board had said, a few minutes before they try the board. But still a great movie, and Mitzi Gaynor just shines.

Posted By george : January 19, 2014 9:01 pm

“I, too, was thinking of these things as I watched Captain Phillips, with its shaky cam combined with rapid editing.”

Greenglass also used that style in UNITED 93 and his Bourne movies. That’s also Michael Bay’s style. His action scenes are an incoherent rush of blurred images. He needs to watch some Don Siegel or Phil Karlson movies, to see how it’s done!

Like most of Martin Scorsese’s films, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is brilliantly edited by Thelma Schoonmaker … regardless of what you think of the film’s content, which I know a lot of people find repulsive.

Posted By AL : January 19, 2014 9:55 pm

Greg–WOW. A brilliant article. Thank you for illuminating us…

Posted By gregferrara : January 19, 2014 11:53 pm

Welles work with radio definitely influenced the amazing sound work on KANE, I agree.

And Verna Fields may be more responsible for the Spielberg Look than Spielberg. I think she worked with him extremely well.

Posted By gregferrara : January 19, 2014 11:55 pm

Suzi and George, I haven’t seen CAPTAIN PHILIPS yet. Kind of wanted to but didn’t realize Greenglass directed it. Can’t stand his shaky cam style. Kind of thought it had run its course by now. Definitely becoming less prevalent by the year, thank God.

Posted By gregferrara : January 19, 2014 11:55 pm

Thanks, AL!

Posted By Martha C : January 20, 2014 12:03 am

Thanks for another great post! I’m with AL on this-WOW! :)

Posted By george : January 20, 2014 12:18 am

Dede Allen’s editing had a lot to do with BONNIE AND CLYDE’s success … especially in that famous scene at the end we all remember.

Posted By swac44 : January 20, 2014 5:48 pm

I’ve discovered that I have an extreme physical aversion to shaky cam, not just in handicam horrors like Paranormal Activity — the latest one made me nauseous for hours afterwards, and not because of the content–and Devil’s Due–but also in acclaimed titles like Rachel Getting Married and Dallas Buyer’s Club where the camera is constantly shifting around. This is supposed to be “documentary style” but I bet the Maysles and Barbara Kopple never let their camera get so jerky that it made viewers physically ill. Or at least didn’t do it in every frickin’ scene.

I’ve since learned this effect is created by mounting a digital camera in a bungee cord harness that allows the operator to maintain that restless frame, but more than once I’ve found myself sitting in a theatre thinking, “They invented the tripod for a REASON.”

Posted By Martha C : January 20, 2014 6:35 pm

@swac44, I agree! Remember how excited everyone was with the ‘steady cam’? Now seems they all want to use the ‘shaky cam’…ugh!

Posted By Doug : January 20, 2014 6:51 pm

For what it’s worth-supposedly putting a penlight/small flashlight
below the TV screen gives the eye something to unconsciously focus on, steadying our vision while watching “Cloverfield” type handicam films. Haven’t tried this myself; I’m as susceptible to vision induced motion sickness as anyone.

Posted By robbushblog : January 20, 2014 7:44 pm

If you listen to movies from decades past, and listen to movie made nowadays, you will find that filmmakers don’t use ambient noise all that much anymore. Hitchcock used it, Welles used it, even Francis Ford Coppola used it quite well, especially in The Conversation, of course. Now you rarely hear anything other than what is directly onscreen. I miss ambient noise.

I always stay until the end of the credits for every movie. It’s not much, but it’s my sign of respect for all of those who worked on each film. In addition to that, there is often a scene after the credits these days.

Posted By Shuvcat : January 20, 2014 8:32 pm

I would be happy if they didn’t mix the sound so that you have to turn it *way* up to hear the mumblecore dialogue, and then get blasted out of the room when the music or explosions start. It seems like they’re magnifying the exact opposite of what I want to hear when I watch a movie.

Posted By george : January 20, 2014 9:00 pm

“If you listen to movies from decades past, and listen to movie made nowadays, you will find that filmmakers don’t use ambient noise all that much anymore.”

Maybe this is because so many directors now come from commercials, where the focus has to be on the product, and the company paying for the ad doesn’t want any distractions?

Sofia Coppola and her ex-husband, Spike Jonze, make good use of ambient sound (and music) in their films.

Posted By robbushblog : January 20, 2014 9:10 pm

It’s been a while since I last saw a Sofia Coppola movie. You might be right about that. That would make sense, being raised by her daddy. I saw HER on Friday night and the ambient noise didn’t make an impression on me, but you might be right about Spike Jonze too.

Posted By chris : January 20, 2014 9:33 pm

And, a quick reminder to some people: just because a movie itself is bad or not quite up to Best Picture status doesn’t mean it can’t receive an Oscar nomination or win in a tech category. There has been great tech work on films that shouldn’t have received the light of day. This year Tolkien fans are ticked off that “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” rated a Best Makeup nomination over their beloved film. I’ve not seen either. However, if a makeup man can do a job that can fool people in a live setting…..

Posted By george : January 20, 2014 11:31 pm

Any movie with Walter Murch’s name in the credits usually has great sound design. He’s renowned for his work with Coppola and Lucas.

The sound in AMERICAN GRAFFITI, where the music seemed to come and go from passing cars, was revolutionary in its day. If you like ambient sound, GRAFFITI is the movie to see (and hear).

Posted By gregferrara : January 21, 2014 12:15 am

I agree with Rob about staying through the credits, I always do that, too.

Also, George, yes, AMERICAN GRAFFITI has great sound editing (Walter Murch, James Nelson) throughout. And editing (Verna Fields, Marcia and George Lucas).

Posted By kingrat : January 21, 2014 8:58 pm

Another classic film with great sound editing is IN WHICH WE SERVE. The sounds of the ship, the guns, and then in one key scene absolute silence.

I’m going to add the phrase “mumblecore dialogue” to my movie vocabulary. Great phrase! Unfortunately, Robert Altman’s McCABE AND MRS. MILLER was much too influential in making it trendy to have nearly inaudible dialogue.

Wouldn’t it be great if shaky cam suddenly became the most uncool thing a director could do?

Posted By robbushblog : January 21, 2014 9:45 pm

It already is, if you ask me.

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