Film editing is, by its very nature, a study in manipulation.
On a surface level, we manipulate the order of events unfolding on screen. We choose what a character says or doesn't say simply by including or excluding certain pieces of media from our timelines. We can even take completely unrelated pieces of video or audio and give them new meaning, as well as change the meaning of everything around them, depending on where they're placed in the timeline. That's a lot of power.
On a much more subtle level, however, an experienced editor can greatly enhance the emotionality of a scene using different types of temporal manipulations. They can compress time to build energy and make everything seem faster and more kinetic. They can decompress, or lengthen, certain periods of time in order to accentuate the emotionality and drama of any given moment. These are the types of manipulations that separate the good editors from the great ones.
My good friend Paddy Bird, an extremely experienced documentary editor and the founder of Inside The Edit, recently pulled a tutorial from his course that shows us – with incredible depth and precision – one of the most powerful techniques he uses to enhance drama in a scene. This technique is called "dramatic sync tempo decompression," and used correctly, this simple practice can take your work to another level entirely.
In this video, Paddy gives us an in-depth example from the documentary Cities At Dawn of how and why temporal compression works. We not only get to see the finished product after Paddy has worked his magic, but we also get the raw, uncut interview, a compressed and re-ordered version of the interview (the "sync" as Paddy calls it), a version with B-roll applied to it, and finally, two versions of the scene with temporal compression applied. Essentially, it's a crash course in Paddy's step-by-step process for going from raw footage to a finely-tuned cut. Check it out, and enjoy:
For those that don't have the time to watch the video, here's a quick recap.
In most genres and styles of filmmaking, documentary and non-fiction in particular, your characters rarely speak or act in a way that is conducive to creating great drama on screen. In narrative, hopefully this would be resolved on set with the director giving constructive and focused performance notes to the actors. In documentaries, however, you rarely have that type of creative control over the characters. That's where the editor steps in.
The most dramatic and enlightening moments often happen very quickly, which means that if we leave them at their original tempo in our timeline, they probably won't have as much of an impact on the audience as they should. That's where temporal decompression comes into play. Once you've identified the most emotional moments in your scene, you can artificially add time between spoken phrases in order to make every word more impactful. Essentially, you're creating dramatic pauses to amplify each and every word, which gives the audience time to digest and ponder what is being said, automatically giving it more dramatic power.
In the hands-on example from the tutorial above, which comes from Paddy's fantastic online editing course, we see the primary character, a photographer named Anthony Epes, as he describes his experiences in capturing stunning images of cities at dawn. There are two particular emotionally-charged moments in the rough cut that give power to this scene, but both happen quickly, in a matter of seconds. They're not reaching their dramatic potential.
By adding artificial space between each impactful phrase in those particular moments, Paddy is able to draw out the drama and let his selected B-roll add more meaning to each individual phrase. The difference between the original cut and the decompressed version is night and day.
Of course, for this to work properly, you absolutely need something else to cut to so that there aren't odd jump cuts or anything like that. In documentary, this would be accomplished with some B-roll footage that corresponds with (and adds depth to) the drama unfolding in the interview. In narrative filmmaking, on the other hand, you would use cutaways or reaction shots of other characters in the scene in order to mask the cuts.
Regardless of how you choose to use temporal decompression, it's one of the more powerful tricks in the editor's toolkit. If you're interested in learning more of those tricks, as well as an extremely powerful framework for editing, head on over to Inside the Edit and check out the amazing course Paddy has put together.