Balancing Performances In The Edit | A Talk with Scott Hill, ACE

By Chris Wells
Jun 13, 2024
8 minute read
A YouTube thumbnail with Scott Hill




Welcome to part two of our exclusive interview with Scott Hill, a renowned film editor with an impressive career working on iconic films like Jim Carrey's Bruce Almighty and Here Comes The Boom with Kevin James.

Join us as we learn about balancing performances and creating dynamic scenes through editing. Whether an aspiring editor or a seasoned professional, this interview is packed with valuable insights that will inspire and inform your editing journey.



This transcription has been lightly edited for clarity.

Chris Wells: I can imagine, though, especially for something like that, where the performance, especially for something like Bruce Almighty, where the concept itself is very high concept. It's very high concept comedy. So with something like high concept comedy, I can imagine getting those performances just right so they're not too absurd and everything doesn't feel like crazy theatre.

Did you find that for something like Bruce Almighty that you would use a lot of different takes to kind of balance? Maybe one line might be a bit more grounded, and then the next line can be very silly to balance it out.

Scott Hill: No, you're right. You have to moderate it. Modulate it, I should say. You have to modulate the tone. If you're operating at 100% and completely wacky the entire time, then nothing stands out because then it's all just monotonous. I like to refer to editing stories of peaks and valleys. So you're going to have those moments where it’s going to peak.

It's like, oh, here's our funniest stuff. And then we're going to bring it down a little bit and let the audience just kind of settle a little bit before we boost them back up again. If you maintain that high level, you really can't maintain it because it just tires out the audience.

It’s the same way with drama and tension. A fantastic example of dramatic editing and using comedy to break up the tension is Jaws. Jaws is a hilarious movie, but it's a dramatic film that's using comedy or little comedic bits to break that tension.

Chris Wells: Yeah. And how do you... Because that is obviously a very nebulous thing that you kind of have to feel out. Was it something that you developed over time? Was there kind of, you know, if we wanted to kind of give that lesson to our audience: how can you learn that or develop that understanding of creating those dynamics of a scene?

Scott Hill: Doing it. Sorry. That's the obvious answer, but what it is, is your experience in showing scenes, sequences, entire movies. If you preview a film, you're sitting with the audience, they will tell you whether it's too much or just not enough. If you sit and show people, like for me, I'll cut a film, everything's fine. I'll cut a sequence. Okay. That scene plays great. I think it plays great.

One thing I like to do a lot is incorporate my assistants with me. When I finish, we finish a day. I always like to do a debrief with all my assistants. I'll bring them in the room. We'll talk about their day. We'll talk about what trials and tribulations they're going through. Then we'll look at what I've cut that day. And we just start talking about it. So it's like, okay, I'll play it. For me, it's the first time I get fresh eyes in the room and I'll show them the scene I've cut and then they start critiquing. They'll give me feedback. What's working? What isn't working? What didn’t work for them?

The big key is like, why is that not working? Is that not funny? Did the set-up for the joke not play correctly so that the punchline doesn’t have the impact? What about this moment? Is there enough tension there? Did I cut away too fast? Did I hold it too long? And then, after a while, you forget it. I did it again. I can't maintain it. I got to move on. Getting people to look at stuff is so telling. Just sitting there while they're watching, you can feel it. It's pretty amazing.

Chris Wells: I’ve had that before. Where you show someone a thing, and all of a sudden, the scene that you think is the perfect length feels too long.

You know, like, guys, this shot where this character looks is great. And then it's like, no, this is going on too long. I'm bored. They must be bored. Oh, no!

Scott Hill: Yes, that is the truth. How many times do you sit there while showing somebody and I'm already recutting in my head. Oh, yeah. That's not working. That's not worth it. That’s, have you ever had it where like, you've watched it and then you've gone, this isn't working, but they're loving it.

Chris Wells: Like the editor in your head. The audience in your head isn’t liking it, but then they’re like, no, don’t change a thing. And you’re like, oh, no, we have to change a lot of things. Have you ever had that before?

Scott Hill: I mean, I love comedy, so that’s what I’m known for. One of the most entertaining moments is taking the film out for a preview. Any of those Shadyac films you talk about, any other film I’ve cut for Kevin James or, you know, or whatever? It always happens at least once. If you're lucky, more is stuff that you never thought was funny. You were just kind of throwaway. And you're, you're you're kind of blowing through to get to a bigger joke. And all of a sudden, that line comes up, and the audience roars, and it never fails.

There's always one where it's like, oh, I didn't see that coming. I didn't have any clue that it was going to be that funny. For us, it was like, oh, that's kind of a cute line. And then all of a sudden you get a preview audience of 300 people just losing it. It's like, oh, yeah, I guess we did something right. That worked. That's always a great feeling.

Or it's just the idea of sitting with the audience and they're getting all the jokes, not necessarily finding ones that you didn't think were that funny, but just to play something through. And they're getting every joke. They're laughing at everything. And those are wonderful moments.

Or you get into a dramatic section or dramatic film and you know that it's playing well because you can hear a pin drop. You know, it's playing. That’s great. That’s great.

Chris Wells: I can imagine. For something like Bruce Almighty, where you've also got the mains, you know, you got Jim Carrey, but you've also got early Steve Carell at that point, right? Jennifer Aniston as well. Ignoring what it would be like on a set, when you're editing something like that, is there any kind of ways where sometimes you'll find that when Jim Carrey's performance is at ten, because, you know, when Jim Carrey’s performance is at ten, Steve Carell's performance is a six.

So you have to find the time where, you know, an energy level that you have to find. Is there ways that sometimes you almost go, right, in this scene when Jim Carrey is at ten, we need to find a take when Jim Carrey’s a six, energy-wise. So then Steve Carell can be a ten in terms of the energy to balance that?

Scott Hill: That will depend on whose scene it is because I don't want to step on Jim's performance if somebody else in the scene is not up to it at that point. And it does happen because Jim has so much energy. He can do all those takes. The actors that are also in the scene, they can’t. Where somebody may peak at take three, take five, maybe take six. They're done. Jim’s on 14. And you know you don't even see colour in Jim’s face until take eight. So it's like, okay, so, how are we going to balance this? That’s going to be a challenge.

And Jim's the star. So there's no way I'm going to step on Jim's performance because somebody else in the scene isn’t really up to snuff. But it's all about what's important in the scene at that moment. Nine times out of ten, it's whatever Jim's doing.

But with other actors in other films, it’s the same issue. Some actors peak early. I've worked with some actors where their instincts nail it in one, but the person they're playing against really isn't going to hit it until take five. So where do you go with that? Then you start looking at signals. You're not going to hold the master because whoever else is in the scene is going to peak at a different point in the scene, so it’s not going to play as a oner. You just can't hold it. That means the pacing is going to be off. That isn't going to play. Then you start looking at going into coverage at that point.

Chris Wells: I've had so many times where you film a scene, and you have the master, and it's great, and you're like, oh my God, this is it. I just need this. This is a Steven Spielberg oner! Like that bit on the boat in Jaws. Actually, you watch it with an audience or you go, actually, this is too long.

This other take, if I, you know, use some coverage and do a couple of cutaways, the scene instantly reduces down to half. How could you create that instinct again, I suppose what lessons do you have potentially for someone just starting to understand that?

Scott Hill: Yeah, that's a hard one to teach because that's timing. You have to be able to feel it. If I'm cutting a scene, that scenario where I've got this great master. And how long will it hold? I can feel it's like, no, that isn’t going to hold to that point because it’s going to fall apart at some point, or there’s some piece of information that’s going to require an insert or coverage, or there's something that needs to be pointed out to where you're going to cut away. Especially in comedy. Holding it. That means everybody's timing is perfect. How long can you maintain that? If you've got a group of people that nail it, go for it. But yeah, that’s rare.

Chris Wells: What advice would you have on coverage for a comedy? If someone says, okay, I'm making this new film with Sim Jarry, this new guy, and he's up and coming, but he's got a lot of energy.

What advice would you give to someone working with a very high-energy, hard-working, super-dynamic actor like that? What kind of advice would you give from pre-production to production standpoint to then make post-production a lot easier?

Scott Hill: At least two cameras. You have to because a lot of times, especially with that high-energy kind of performance, will they be able to recreate that after they shoot the mediums and then go in and do the close-up with the same dynamics? Odds are not good that they'll be able to hit that again. You know, lightning doesn't strike twice.

What I learned early on in comedy was you better have two cameras rolling so you can get your coverage, because there may be a flash of genius that only comes once in that scene. And it was that take. That was always my recommendation.

Chris Wells: There’s that famous phrase of tragedy in the close-up and comedy in the wide shot. Do you ever find as an editor, especially editing comedy, that you almost wish you had a bit more wiggle room? Or how do you reconcile that if there's a shot?

Scott Hill: Always. Especially because Kevin James films have a lot of pratfalls. A lot of the time they work because they're in the wide shot. You have to go wide with Kevin because his comedy is so physical. But then Jim Carrey is as well. It’s in the same wheelhouse. That physical comedy, you want to be wider.

Chris Wells: To edit around that so you don’t... so when you have two shots, is it always have two wide shots or have some good cutaways?

Scott Hill: You'll want the good cutaways because like with Kevin, and the same with Jim. But Kevin, there’s so much comedy in his reactions to other people. You know, his little ‘wuh?’ face. You go wide for some of the pratfalls, but with the dialogue, especially some of the well-written stuff where it’s just the banter and then somebody says something and Kevin's like, you want to be tied in on that stuff. It's the same with any actor. That stuff is fabulous.

Click here for part one of this interview.

Click here for part three of this interview.

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