Dialogue Editing – Where to Edit
By John Purcell
By necessity, editing dialogue involves making splices. You must get from this shot to the next—where do you jump? By far the most common place to move between clips is in the space between them. This allows for a natural transfer of energy from one source to another (see below), and it usually works.
Longer crossfades, shorter crossfades, asymmetrical crossfades—these will influence the effectiveness of the transition. But if cutting between words or sentences doesn’t yield believable speech, then you probably need to pick another place to edit. Here are some easy possibilities:
• Try forgoing the smooth crossfade between clips, voting instead for a hard cut (almost hard) just before the first modulation of the incoming sentence; the energy of the incoming word may be strong enough to mask the underlying tone mismatch (see below). Such psychoacoustic masking is part of the thinking behind such wonders as MP3 encoding.
• Move the edit slightly while maintaining the same sync. This will work for you until there is a text or rhythm change between the clips.
• You may be able to edit just within the first word of the incoming shot. These solutions involve cutting in or near the gap between the words. However, sometimes that just won’t do; you must gather your wits and begin editing within words. This involves a certain familiarity with the workings of language.
Using the Structure of Language to Your Advantage
The sounds of language consist of vowels and consonants. Generally, vowels are created with an open vocal tract and consonants are the result of some sort of constriction in the mouth or throat. Understanding a bit about vowels and consonants can be helpful when you’re trying to squeeze takes together to form a replacement sentence or when you need to tighten or loosen a phrase.
For the most part, it’s the vowels that give you trouble. They’re usually longer than consonants, so they have more opportunities to wreak havoc, and being open they tend to be more tonal, more musical, than their percussive consonant cousins. It can be frustratingly difficult to cut within vowels. In fact, unless you’re totally without options, don’t try it. You’ll likely create a bump since the complex tonal elements of the vowel won’t line up properly at your cut. And if you try to smooth the edit with a crossfade, you’ll create a double voice. Approach vowels as respected adversaries and focus instead on consonants.
Most consonants are useful landmarks for lining up alternate takes against a reference. Those like D, P, and T tend to show up quite clearly in a waveform, so they’re ideal beacons for navigating through a sentence. The only problem with short consonants is that they’re, well, short. The very attribute that makes them useful for alignment lends them little flexibility. You can’t really stretch time by making a T sound longer. You can, however, play with the space around it. Don’t be afraid to lose a tiny bit of time before a T or buy a little more pause after a P. Just don’t expect to gain a lot of time.
Editing within Words
If the vowels are too dangerous and the short consonants are good as markers but not the least bit flexible, where can you edit within words to change the length of a sentence?
• Cut in the pauses when possible. You can make up a lot of ground by pulling a frame here and there from the spaces between words, but there aren’t always real pauses in a sentence or it sounds unnatural when you tamper with them. Be careful not to hurt the breaths.
• If a vowel is terminated with a sharp consonant sound, you might be able to shorten the end of the vowel using the attacking consonant sound to mask the vowel glitch. Try it; it just might work.
• Look for a shorter or longer vowel sound from another take. This isn’t the fastest approach, but it may give you just what you need.
• Use sibilants. Sibilant sounds are the “hisses” created by consonants such as Sh, Ss, or Ch. They inhabit an enchanted land between vowel and consonant sounds. Like other consonants, sibilants are easy to spot; in fact, their familiar pursed-lip shape is the most obvious of all waveforms. Unlike normal consonants, however, sibilants are long-lasting so there are usually many opportunities to make them longer or shorter. Very tonal vowels are all but impossible to splice, but sibilants are more like white noise than music, so you’re rarely punished for editing them. In fact, you can do (almost) anything: cut, fade, loop—all within reason, of course.
No matter how you go about splicing together a line, there’s one truth you really ought to pay attention to: never fade during a line of dialogue. Put another way, there should never be any dialogue inside a fade. You can easily fool yourself into thinking that your quick fade at the beginning of a word—your attempt to fix the actor’s flub—actually works. You may decide that the fade over the ringout at the end of a sentence really does remove that little noise. No, on both counts. Fading over dialogue just doesn’t work, and it robs the line of its natural energy.
Gifts from the Picture Editor
Victoria Rose Sampson, dialogue editor, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl; Sex and the City
Sometimes film editors will lop off the ends of sentences and wonder why it doesn’t sound right, and then expect you, the production dialogue editor, to fix it! Let’s say an actor originally said “I am JJ, you idiot!” The director wanted to make this character more likable so the film editor cut off the words “you idiot” leaving the “JJ” dangling in midair. Figure 11.10a shows what the edit looks like in Pro Tools. Notice the scene and take number, 39C-4.
Compare this to the original sentence:
In Figure 11.10b notice the little tail on the end of the second “Jay,” which is the word “you.” If the actor had said “I am JJ . . . you idiot!” It would have been easier to remove “you idiot” and have it sound almost like the end of the sentence. That’s why looking for alternate takes is a good idea!
I found an alternate whose second “J” sounded like it would work as an ending of the sentence (Figure 11.10c).
Look at Figure 11.10c. Notice the scene and take number: 39C-2. The selected take was 39C-4. So even without looking at the sound reports, I know that there are at least takes 1 and 3 as well. After listening to all the coverage, this was the best candidate. I cut off the second “Jay” from 39C-2 and attached it to the original 39C-4 and added matching ambiance on either end. It’s not perfect, but compared to just lopping off the words it’s passable! (See Figure 11.10d.)
When you edit production sound, you have to be a “dialogue detective” and search around to find creative solutions for problems that you hear. Sometimes you find these solutions in alternate takes or alternate angles. By listening and keeping your mind and ears open, you will start to be more creative in finding “fixes.”
Excerpt from Dialogue Editing for Motion Pictures: A Guide to the Invisible Art, 2nd Edition by John Purcell © 2014 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.