Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, April 2007. 4/4 and a Whole Lot More: Music as a Foundation for Your Edits by Daniel GaucherUpbeat. Pages 42- 44.
So, you’re sitting there with a pile of footage, perhaps a script or outline, and a deadline to make something out of this stuff. You have to get something rolling, something that will start your flow. You kick back, fire up the iPod, and put on your headphones. There’s always “that song” which carries you far away, inspires you, or makes your senses tingle. Now, about the edit…the edit…. Wait, how about the music? Rhythm speaks to us like nothing else. It touches a primal chord within us, creating emotions and recalling experiences. It’s a great underpinning on which to begin building an edit. In this article, let’s talk about music – how to use it and not abuse it.
Firstly, the timeless phrase, “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” is a mantra every editor should repeat. I suggest taking a break three times a day, inhale slowly, exhale, and recite the mantra. Seriously, in the editing world there are two schools of thought:
• Picture is the most important element, and sound is built under to support it.
• Sound is the most important element, and picture plays on top of that foundation (like radio…with pictures).
With all due respect to numerous fantastic editors who side with the first camp, I myself side with the latter. When an editor cuts, whether to music or dialogue, they are usually tapping their toes. It is natural for humans to live by rhythm… It surrounds us everywhere in daily life. Even spoken word flows with rhythm.
One of the first exercises I teach during editing classes is a dialogue cut. Why? Because dialogue is one of the forms of rhythm we are most accustomed to – if it is cut wrong you realize it immediately. Watch how a conversation flows and you shall see. There are bursts of fast-paced excitement, areas of slower-paced emphasis and the occasional dramatic pause. How do you know when to answer after someone speaks to you? Internally you are tapping that toe, counting the rhythm within the conversation.
How does this apply to the new editor, learning to master pacing? Rhythm is your anchor, which motivates each and every cut. For those of us who are not virtuosos in jazz, let’s talk a little about recognizing rhythm.
Rhythm consists of a series of beats. This is not news. Throw on some AC/DC and you’ll hear downbeat coming through loud and clear. Tap your toes. One, two, three, four – the most common number of beats in a “bar” is four. After you count one, two, three, four, the sequence repeats itself. This is called a 4/4 signature. Any of the numbers could be what’s called downbeat. Imagine the drummer hitting the snare on counts two and four…downbeat.
When it comes to editing it is not too hard to place a cut on downbeat. The challenge comes when you are trying to hit upbeat. What’s upbeat? Usually it is in between the numbers. If you count 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + then you have another series of “in-between” beats, the plusses (or “ands”). Try this: in your sequence make four cuts on downbeats, then make three quick cuts on upbeats. Kind of makes you hold your breath when you see an upbeat cut. These upbeat cuts are immensely useful for adding shock value, or having a cut fall at an uncomfortable spot, breaking the lull of the rhythm.
Upbeat is tougher to place, but takes the viewer by surprise.
Great, so you’ve mastered downbeat and upbeat cutting. Wait. Not all music is 4/4. Musicians, like mathematicians, love to play with numbers. In the most fundamental sense, isn’t that what music is…emphasizing different numbers representing different points in time? Philosophy aside, musicians long ago got over counting just four beats. Yes, they even got bored with upbeats. So, they mixed it up by creating different time signatures. For an example, turn on “Money” by Pink Floyd, or my personal favorite “Outshined” by Sound Garden. When counting beats you’ll notice that there are extra beats that follow the first four, but not enough to make a complete second bar. The time signature they are playing is a 7/4 and counts like this: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 + 3. What we have counted is seven beats, in the form of four followed by three. Try cutting some practice to that signature, emphasizing any of the downbeats, upbeats or extra beats.
Okay, so you’re ready to begin your DJ career now. Keep in mind that there are 3/4 waltzes, 6/8 jigs and a whole host of other rhythms from around the world. Why are things never simple? Because, life would be boring. Next time you are listening to your killer iTunes playlist, see if you can find the rhythms; especially alternate rhythms, of whatever songs you just legally downloaded.
So, that does raise a point. Just where do shows get all their music? Although you may be able to practice with commercial music in your cuts without licensing (for educational purposes only), any professional cut needs music that is licensed.
The first thing I do when I sit down at a new edit is to ask where the music library is, and then I go “shopping.” That’s my slang term for spending a few hours going through what music is available and making pulls of the songs I like. I try to project what moods I’ll need for cutting (fast, edgy, dramatic or subdued), as well as what the overall flavor will be (electronic, rock, alternative, etc.). In the end I have a bin containing about 50 songs of different types. I use these as the backbone on which I build my edit. From there I’ll add more songs as needed. Let’s take four specific examples.
Using a Packaged Music Library
This is the most common method of acquiring licensed music. I use this method in my home studio, as well as for every documentary I’ve cut for Discovery, History Channel and National Geographic Channel. Basically, there are several companies who have brought together the work of many independent composers and put them together into a “collection,” from which you can pull any number of genres. Although these libraries used to be available on CD’s (many, many CD’s), the current move is towards the company sending you a large hard drive (1TB) that has all the songs as files. This greatly speeds up the search-and-upload phases of “shopping.”
The Network Gives You Songs
Sometimes you are cutting for a network that owns the licenses for songs they would like to gain more exposure.
Ever wonder why every Warner Bros. show features the latest and greatest WB Music artists? Okay, obvious example. This model was the case when I cut “When Supermodels Ruled the World,” for VH-1. Who has the ultimate music library? You can’t beat MTV Networks. Because of their licensing agreements with the various record companies, we had access to thousands upon thousands of songs and music videos for use in our edit. Although there were some legal restrictions, all in all, this was editing heaven (of course the Supermodel footage didn’t hurt either).
You Cut in Temporary Scratch Music, (Later Replaced by a Composer)
In the first year of production for “Postcards from Buster,” a PBS series for which I cut 18 episodes, the workflow was just forming. In this case, the editing schedule was tight upfront, but loose on the tail end. Because this new series involved animation and live action, we needed to cut the live material quickly, locking down the content and timing, so the animators could have maximum time to do their part after pix lock. During this animation process there was ample time for composing original music, but because the first part of the edit needed speed, we scratched in our own personal music collections. Bet you didn’t know that Squirrel Nut Zippers, Depeche Mode, KMFDM and the Lemonheads provided the backbone for the edits. Of course not…by the time the shows went to air, the in-house composer had replaced them with similar, original compositions.
A Composer Creates Custom Songs for the Show
This is like the Ferrari of soundtracks, custom created to your specs. When a show can afford to hire a single composer, a wonderful thing happens…the series has a consistent musical identity. Think “Blind Date.” Can you hear those rockin’ guitars and that underlying bass line? Why? Because there was a single composer at the helm, giving that series its unique sound. What about the music for “Star Dates,” “5th Wheel,” or “The Surreal Life?” Wait, they all had rockin’ guitar and underlying bass lines too…same composer. The guy does a lot of work around Hollywood. Seriously, it’s nice to have an in-house composer who can take suggestions, and who works hard to make the best music for your edits.
In summary, from my fifteen years as an editor, audio is it. Between the beats of rhythmic conversation, and the nuances of notes at the hands of good musicians, you should be able to drop some cuts that make your edit come to life. Remember, an editor needs to be a little of everything – part director, part storyteller, part graphics artist, and yes, part musician. Good luck with finding your groove.
Daniel Gaucher is an Assistant Professor of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College. He established himself in the production world as one of the original editors for the hit series, Blind Date. Since then, he’s crafted a series of successes including 5th Wheel, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and Extreme Engineering. His work has aired worldwide on NBC, MTV, Bravo, A&E, UPN, Spike, VH-1, TLC, Discovery, PBS and the National Geographic Channel.