Waiting for the Big One

I picked up a copy of British Film Editors by Roy Perkins & Martin Stollery. Very good! Specially-conducted interviews with lots of big names — Jim Clark, Antony Gibbs, Tony Lawson, Mick Audsley — but also a great gathering of archive material to assemble a history of the craft of editing in the UK. This doesn’t tell us everything we might want to know, but the smattering provided is probably more thorough than any existing source. Here’s a good bit from future director Charles Crichton on his early days working with Korda ~

“When I became one of the editors on Things to Come [William Cameron Menzies, 1936], I showed him a rough cut of a sequence showing London under attack from the air (this was before the war). The sequence was full of violence, gunfire, bombs, people running for their lives…Alex said, ‘Charlie, you have made a bloody mess of this. It should be that everyone is standing there worried, waiting because they know something is going to happen, and you haven’t put that in the cut at all.’ And I said, ‘But the director didn’t shoot such a scene. So he said, ‘You are a bloody fool, Charlie! You take the bits before he has said ‘Action!’ and you take the bits after he has said ‘Cut!’ and you put them together and you make a marvellous sequence. What’s wrong with you?’ … I was beginning to learn that the script is not the Bible, it is not a blueprint that must be followed, word for word, to the very last detail.”

Check out the film — though there are some atmospheric close-ups which I think must have been taken after Korda got the idea to generate suspense with waiting, there are several wide shots of people standing about in the big London set which look like they have indeed been pinched from the beginning or end of the take. I’ve occasionally used these little bits of non-acting myself, when stuck for footage, so I know it goes on.

Here’s another example of ingenuity and make-do, involving material that was recorded without the intention of it actually being used in the finished film. In the pre-war days, the film’s editor was often responsible for the soundtrack also. Esteemed cutter Reginald Beck faced a problem editing Carol Reed’s THE STARS LOOK DOWN in 1939 ~

“We practically ran out of money, and I hadn’t finished editing. There was a scene of a mining disaster and the sound crew had not shot me any effects. In the film there is seen some rushing water, flooding the mine, with tunnels collapsing, and pit props smashing, everything. And I had to devise sound effects for all that lot. For the pit-props smashing I went through all the takes and used the clapper-board modulation at the start of every take, manipulating several together to create the sound of rending wood.”

We must all look at this film ASAP! I bet it works — you can cut sounds together (literally splicing and gluing them, in those days) to create new sounds, and a movie’s worth of clapperboards would give you a whole range of sharp, wooden SNAP sounds, the volume and pitch depending on distance from the mic and acoustics of the set or location. SNAPsnapSNAPsnapsnapSNAP! I can imagine it. I can also imagine it being a little funny now we know how it was done.

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2 Responses to “Waiting for the Big One”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    I recall reading an interview with an old director highly regarded for his noir films. He cheerfully described how much of his “look” came from maneuvers to conceal schedule and budget limitations: A closeup of a man’s walking feet with ambient noise instead of the scripted street scene, for example.

    The DVD extras on FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE reveal how heavy rewrites required reshooting on a set that had already been destroyed (Blofeld’s luxurious hideout). One trick involved rear projecting a still from an existing shot and having the actor stand in front of himself (now in closeup) to deliver new lines. Another involved a long bit of Lotte Lenya run backwards.

    I always had a misplaced fondness for the SGT. PEPPER movie, a spiritual heir to the first CASINO ROYALE. After over an hour of lunatic excess, you can feel them running out of funds: the climax with the “Future Villains Band” is a sullen performance number followed by a less-than-perfunctory “fight”, and the last scenes consist of a deserted, undressed town set with Billy Preston as a one-man production number. I want to believe the movie was shot in sequence.

  2. That makes me want to rewatch the Bond — I love artfully reversed footage as a get-out-of-jail device. My favourite is in Fahrenheit 451, where Truffaut somehow forgot to shoot Oskar Werner putting his flame-retardant gear on. Editor Tom Priestley reversed the shot of him removing the gloves and mask, which give the action a weirdly Cocteauesque quality. I run this scene for students and most of them don’t notice.

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