Editing a Film with Little Dialog Shows How Much Can Be Said Without Saying a Single Word

By in Timeline Tuesday, Video Editing

On July 6th, 2013, one of Canada’s largest rail disasters occurred in a small French community known as Lac-Mégantic.  A freight train carrying crude oil derailed, crashed, and exploded, killing 47 people.  This real-life disaster serves as the backdrop for the fictional story “L’Armoire” (“The Dresser”), executive produced and written by Clara Pasieka, produced by Sangeeta Wylie and Marie-Claire Marcotte.

Clara Pasieka, co-star of L'Armoire (The Dresser)

Two months after the Lac Mégantic derailment shook her town and her world, francophone (French) Sophie is beginning university at Concordia in Montreal. Alex, a popular anglophone (Engish) resident don offers to build her dresser. Despite the language barrier, both develop a trust and understanding as they work together.

Andy McQueen and Clara Pasieka in L'Armoire (The Dresser)

The opportunity to edit this film came almost by chance. An assembly editor who had worked with me several years ago had recommended me for the job. I was honored to be a part of such a uniquely Canadian story. Not only does the film touch on the Lac Mégantic train disaster, it also touches on the French/English disconnect, which is an important part of Canadian culture.

As an editor who does not speak French (very well) it presented a language barrier beyond all the normal editing constraints. Conversely, this actually meant that most communication of the film is spent without dialog, as actors stare and gesture in amusement and bewilderment at each other. This required an extremely subtle touch in the edit, stretching and smoothing every nuance to make sure the right message was conveyed on screen.

Most editors are given a list of all the best takes before beginning their work.  My beginning was no different.  However, these takes are often based on dialog.  I soon discovered that, as the combination of gestures and subtle nuances added up, so did my need to search beyond the chosen material.  I had to map every frame, meticulously, in order to see every nuance that could be possible.  In many ways the biggest language of the film was neither English nor French; it was body language.

I mapped every shot onto the script, combing material for each beat in the “conversation” – which, again, often did not involve any spoken words.

Next, I aligned all takes as if they were multi-camera files, allowing me to watch every take on a quad or 9-split screen, analyzing the small differences.  Without much dialog, seeing takes like this way was not a hindrance at all.  This resulted in an interesting experiment: each time I chose a take, I was forced to watch all other similar takes alongside it.  Editing like this actually caused me to experiment more, and not be afraid to try new things.

In the end, our characters finish building the dresser and, despite not speaking each other’s language, begin a friendship based on trust and understanding.  As for myself, I developed an even greater understanding of how much can be said without needing to say a single word.

Timeline of L’Armoire (The Dresser)

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I am an editor and award-winning composer from Toronto, Canada.