Students of filmmaking can learn many things on their own, or they can take classes, or they can do both.
Hands-on exercises, analysis of scenes, and study of the history of film editing are standard ways of figuring out how films are put together.
Cowboys and Aliens (2011)
In a course I’m taking at Ryerson University, I’ve recently completed, as a class assignment, a one-page analysis of how shots are cut in the Cabin Flashback Scene in Cowboys and Aliens (2011). I chose the scene because I attended an online question and answer session at aotg.com featuring the editor of the movie, Dan Lebental.
Gordon Burkell, who’s instructing the editing course that I’m attending, set up the latter Q & A session. I wanted to learn more about Lebental’s work.
I’m very impressed with the Ryerson course. I’m pleased I’m taking it – a great instructor, and great fellow students to work with. I’m pleased as well to be getting up to speed on Adobe Premiere Pro, Adobe Audition, and other Adobe Creative Cloud software programs. The Oct. 31, 2013 class was held at a Ryerson sound studio, where students took turns creating and recording sound effects and dialogue for a current editing project. That was a lot of fun.
Our first written scene analysis for the Ryerson class was a technical overview – that is, what are the physical properties of the cuts? Which cuts are dissolves? Which are straight cuts? How is continuity achieved?
In the second assignment, the task was to analyze the same scene, with a focus on how the editor has arrived at editing decisions based upon the personalities and delivery of the actors.
My overview for the second assignment, which deals with aliens, reads as follows:
Cabin Flashback Scene – Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
Cowboys & Aliens – Edited by Dan Lebental and Jim May
Cowboys & Aliens: The Illustrated Screenplay (2011) outlines the Cabin Flashback scene. The Woman (Abigail Spencer as Alice) is introduced at the start of the film in a worn photograph. An early encounter with three riders on horseback establishes that Jake is a cold-blooded killer. Later, he observes a destroyed log cabin. In the first MEMORY FLASHCUT, he encounters The Woman. The cuts rely heavily on reaction shots, and make good use of each actor’s characteristic delivery. Daniel Craig’s performance as Jake and unique personality are effectively employed in a series of cuts featuring brief, intense reactions, timed to a beat, which move the story BACK TO PRESENT, at which point Jake reels and wonders who The Woman is. In the second MEMORY FLASHCUT, Jake’s strong and compelling reactions are a key element in the unfolding of the story. The actor’s gaze and demeanor, in response to each changing situation that he encounters, serve to establish engagement – with greater success than is evident with some other actors in the movie – with the viewer. Abigail Spencer’s performance and unique personality are established in the worn photograph, in which Alice is characterized as “Young, beautiful. Smiling.” Cuts of her in dialogue with Jake are used effectively to move the story forward. The key dialogue begins with a medium shot of the emptying of the saddlebag, at which point gold coins spill out. Alice looks at the coins. Her face darkens. When she tells Jake, in a close shot, to return his ill-gotten gains, he responds vehemently, also in close up, that he’s worked hard for the gold. The subtext is that killing for gain is what outlaw cowboys do for a living. BACK TO PRESENT: The flashback ends with Jake’s gaze directed upward through the hole in the roof through which Alice has disappeared. He stares up, in a wide shot, with NEW DRIVE, as the screenplay notes, in preparation for his epic battle with the aliens.