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American Cinematographer (1974) - The Film Editing




The creative process of putting all that "EARTHQUAKE" action together‑a gargantuan task‑was skilfully handled by a petite, soft‑spoken lady with feature editing credits as long as your arm

Since I'm semi‑retired and living in the country, I come into Hollywood these days to work on only the pictures I like. When I was offered the assignment of editing "EARTHQUAKE", it was such a different type of story that I couldn't resist it. This picture has been a great challenge, but a very pleasurable experience, because I was working with a wonderful crew, a wonderful cameraman and a wonderful director.

Of course, I've worked with Mark Robson before‑on eight features to be exact. We have a very nice relationship and I like working with him. Although he is a top‑notch editor himself, he gives me free rein to exercise my own creative individuality in cutting a sequence the way I feel it should go. Then we go over it together and he either likes it or he doesn't. If changes are required, I make them, but at least I've had an opportunity to follow through on my own concept. I guess he has confidence in me by now.

There aren't many directors like that around these days. With most directors, you cut it exactly the way they want it, and there's no room for editorial creativity. During my career I've worked with all kinds of directors. I've worked with Hitchcock and Hathaway and Mankiewicz and Preminger and John Ford. Ford never told me anything and he never looked at the picture until it was finished.

The fact that Mark Robson had been a working editor for a long time has great advantages. He understands an editor's problems and he makes sure that he shoots everything that is needed to cut a sequence together smoothly, but he doesn't shoot a lot of superfluous material. Even so, there was an enormous amount of footage shot for "EARTHQUAKE", about 200,000 feet, but this was mainly because multiple cameras had to be used in so many of the scenes. There were at least four cameras on most of our action material and I would select what I thought was best and put it into first cut. Mr. Robson and I worked pretty long hours on it, but I enjoyed it. I like working.

We started cutting right after the first day's shooting. As soon as the dailies were cleared, the film was coded and sent up to my cutting room. I keep up to date, so that by the time a sequence is more or less finished shooting, I'm pretty well set on it and have it all cut. I generally work that way. I don't like to get behind.

Inevitably, there were some delays because of the great amount of second unit material‑trick shots and miniatures and matte shots. This kind of work takes time to do, and we had to wait until we could intercut these scenes with the first unit material. In spite of these unavoidable delays, I had my first cut of the picture completed seven days after shooting ended.

Mark Robson looked at the first cut and then we went into our changes. We scrambled sequences around and trimmed scenes until we got it the way he wanted it‑ahead of schedule.

In editing a picture with as much action as "EARTHQUAKE", you adhere to the script as much as you can, and from that point on it's a matter of isolating the most exciting bits and putting them together. I tried to get as much action into it as possible. For some reason I always seem to get assigned to pictures that are very physical. I don't know why. Pictures like "NORTH TO ALASKA" and "THE YOUNG LIONS" and "BROKEN LANCE" all had a lot of physical action‑fighting and brawling and things like that. "EARTHQUAKE" is packed with action and that suited me fine, because I like working on action pictures very, very much. They're more flexible and I think you can do a lot more with them. I like dialogue pictures, too, but, still and all, you're locked down with dialogue.

There was so much going on during the actual earthquake sequences that, in order to put it together, I had to develop a "feel" for the material‑as if I were actually experiencing an earthquake. The earthquake action was shot in many different phases, not all at once as you see it on the screen now. I would cut together a part of it that had been completed in the shooting. Then I would put that aside and wait until the rest of the material came in. After that, it was a matter of getting it to all mesh together.

The unique element in the earthquake sequences that was a bit tricky was the fact that most of these scenes were shot with a certain amount of camera shake. The thing that worried me the most was that in the long shots that were made first, the shake wasn't very noticeable because there was nothing in the foreground to serve as a reference for the degree of background movement. I was afraid to leave those scenes on the screen too long, for fear the audience would be watching the background. Therefore, those cuts were short. In the shooting that was done afterward, Mr. Robson and Mr. Lathrop always made sure that there was something in the foreground to accentuate the shake.

Some of the matte shots and other trick shots that couldn't be filmed with the shake were later sent to the optical department and they added what they called "agitation". I would give them a sample of the shots that were to go before or after the cut and they would try to duplicate the same degree of shake. Sometimes the optical department would also add dust or smoke to certain production scenes so they would match the matte shots made by Mr. Whitlock.

There were many shots in this picture of a type that are never found in a normal type of picture, and that's what I liked about it. There was a chance to try something different. Twenty years ago when Fred Zinnemann was filming "THE NUN'S STORY", he decided to use no dissolves. He timed the scenes so that you could cut directly from one location to another smoothly, without using a dissolve. It worked, and now everybody does it that way. Dissolves are rarely used anymore. Television has educated people to jump from one thing to another. Everyone wants to have everything happen quickly. They don't want to wait for anything. That's why we had to make some jump cuts in the earthquake scenes. We did that to tighten the action up. Mr. Robson would say "Take the air out."‑and I would sometimes cut eight or ten feet out of the middle of the scene, hoping that the cut wouldn't be obvious or jarring to the audience.

What made these jump cuts more difficult to do was the camera shaking that was going on. I would do it by determining exactly where the eye would be focused in the scene and then cut in on another spot where it would be focused in the same place. Sometimes I would do it by laying one piece of the film on top of another to find a frame where the shake coincided.

Most of these jump cuts turned out very smoothly. .There's only one that I wasn't quite happy with. It was a shot that was done with two different agitation elements. It was shot with a certain amount of shake on the set and then the optical people really shook it up later. I didn't realize that it had moved a fraction. If I had, I could have smoothed it out a bit, but by that time the negative had been cut. It's obvious to me because I've seen it a hundred times now. The more you see a film the more critical you get. But a paying audience sees the film only once, so perhaps they won't catch it.

Even with all of the control exercised in the filming of "EARTHQUAKE" unexpected things happened now and then. For example, in the film Richard Roundtree plays the role of a daredevil motorcyclist. The double who was doing the stunt for him took a spectacular spill that wasn't in the script. He wasn't hurt too badly‑just shook up a bit. Anyway, we held that take aside and later actually used it in the picture. We simply shot another scene of Richard Roundtree duplicating the last part of the action. It wasn't intended and we tricked it up, but it added to the excitement of the sequence.

The shooting script of "EARTHQUAKE" is designed in such a way that it deals with many different characters in separate situations. The storyline finally brings them together in time to be interrelated during the earthquake. We would never stay on a sequence about a particular character or pair of characters for any length of time. There would be a sequence to establish a character and tell a bit about him and then we would move on to another. The important thing was to plant the characters in places and situations, so that when the earthquake started the audience would know exactly where they were and wouldn't lose track of them.

I can say that the only sequence in the film that really gave me any kind of problem was the one where 70 people are trapped underground and they tunnel through into the storm drain. I sort of put that sequence aside as long as I could, because I wanted the chance to think out what I could do to improve the timing. There was a lot of material shot for that sequence and the problem was to let the audience know that 70 people had gotten out, without having the sequence grow tedious. The part where Charlton Heston and George Kennedy were drilling through the wall took an endless amount of footage. We didn't want to dissolve the scene, but we also didn't want to hold the audience there until they cut this big hole through the cement.

In addition to that, there was some trouble in the storm drain part of the sequence, because the water hadn't come up to the right level. I waited until those scenes had been re‑shot and then ran all of the material for the sequence‑eleven reels of it. I first put it together rather loosely, but it ran much too long. The only way to keep it moving and get it down to proper length was to take a certain license with cutaways and tighten the action up. That's what we did and it worked out quite well.

All of this called for a lot of patience, and when young cinema students ask me‑as they often do‑what it takes to become a film editor, I always tell them that patience is the first requirement. For example, there was a situation on this picture where we wanted to delete a scene, but I didn't have enough material to cover the cut. Mark Robson told me that I wouldn't have the patience to solve the problem, but I said: "It's a challenge, and I'll lick it." I just insisted that there had to be a way of doing it. There's always a way. Well, I found a way and he liked it. He just walked away shaking his head, but I thought it was fun.

Besides patience, I think you have to be dedicated to become a film editor. That's always been more important to me than anything else. I guess my whole life has been made up of wanting to do the best I could. I enjoy editing, and I think that's necessary, because editing is not a watching‑the‑clock job. I've been on pictures where I never even knew it was lunchtime, or time to go home. You get so involved in what you're doing, in the challenge of creating‑because I think cutting is very creative.

When I first became an editor, I would dread going onto a picture with a new director because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to cut the mustard. Then one director told me: "Never be afraid of a man who knows." I remembered that and it certainly applies to Mark Robson. He knows editing. He's been an editor and he's well aware of the problems. When you work with a new director who has never had any editing experience, he often asks for the impossible. You can't tell him it won't work. You just have to do it his way and let him realize that maybe he was wrong. With Mr. Robson it's quite different. He let's me do what I want and then comes up to the cutting room so that I can show it to him on the Moviola. If he thinks something doesn't work, we just forget it. I guess we just understand each other. We talk things over. Sometimes he doesn't agree or I don't agree‑but there's no big problem. We just get on with it and eventually arrive at something that we're both happy with.


Film Editor