By Maury Loeb
We all have a basic understanding about what editing consists of. In the simplest terms, editors stitch together raw footage to create a cohesive and coherent story. But one of the most vital features of a “good edit” is the establishment of tone. Tone is the aspect of a piece that describes its particular mood, character, atmosphere and flavor. Dictating the proper tone of an ad is a deceivingly sophisticated endeavor that goes beyond the simple mechanics of a few well-spliced shots. Editors need to tell a cohesive story, but we also have to tell the right story.
While some commercials can be ill-conceived and fundamentally “tone-deaf,” trying too hard to project “cool,” the best commercials make viewers feel connected to something. Wieden + Kennedy’s original Go Forth work for Levi’s is a great example. It’s a hipster anthem, but one that makes bold tonal choices in the edit to unique and memorable effect.
Another is the hilarious It’s a Tide Ad, which so precisely and successfully recreates the tonal doppelgangers of existing ads that it’s actually deceiving at first. The ability to produce a very specific, intentional flavor from disparate, raw ingredients is what elevates editing from a craft into an art. The script might be the script, and the footage might be the footage but creating the right tone for a spot not only honors the vision of the ad, but also enhances and elevates the finished piece.
This requires an editor’s technical skill of manipulating and synthesizing their raw ingredients, but more importantly, it relies on an editor’s taste, creativity and sensibility. In the commercial world, offline editors are uniquely positioned to get the first crack at establishing the tone of a spot and the opportunity to shepherd a spot through its finishing, making sure that the intended tone of the ad is realized at the end. It takes the brilliance of talented colorists, sound designers, musicians and animators to achieve a polished finished product, but a good offline editor can sketch out a comprehensive “tonal roadmap” for a spot.
Sound, picture and pace are the most fundamental determinants of tone. Editors manipulate these elements by employing an infinite arsenal of weapons in order to achieve the intended tone of a commercial.
Sound and our emotions have a primal relationship. Sound is essentially a form of “invisible touch” that is processed in the same part of our brains that processes emotion and perception, making it an ideal parameter of tone. Music is probably the most effective, immediate and raw influencer of tone. It is quite literally a construct designed to create an emotional response. Throw three different pieces of music against the same footage and you will walk away with three entirely different experiences. As far as weapons in an editor’s arsenal go, its standard issue for a reason. Would ASPCA ads be as iconic with any other track besides Sara McLachlan’s “In the Arms of the Angel” even if they were equally as cloying and maudlin?
A thousand different tracks could have complemented Sony’s famous Balls spot, but would it have had the same impact without Jose Gonzalez’s dreamy, slightly unexpected version of “Heartbeats”? Tone can be equally dictated by an editor’s approach to sound design. Google Chrome’s “Speed Tests” dynamically toggled between hyper-real and overtly stylized sounds, creating a piece that’s both observational and awe-inspiring. The result is a unique tonal voice that is utterly engaging with just the right amount of cheekiness.
Editors can inform the tone of a spot beyond the images initially captured in the camera. Manipulating the color palette of the film colors the character of a spot in profound ways. Editors can dial through a range of emotions as they dial through the color spectrum, capitalizing on a color’s ability to elicit specific emotions — from the isolation and melancholy found in blue tones and the menace and danger found in greens to the welcoming warmth of rich reds and golds. A film’s light and dark tones can telegraph an impressive amount of information to an audience as well. Consider the flat palette of Skittles commercials and the way it helps enhance their awkward, comedic tone. Or the way crunchy contrast and saturated colors can make a tabletop spot look punchy and appetizing.
Editors also set tone by the pace at which a commercial is cut, both in the tempo of the edits and the speed of the footage itself. The tonal adrenaline of Nike’s Write the Future is due in large part to its dynamic edit as it jerks the audience through kinetic bursts of flurried cuts and pregnant lulls of over-cranked shots. Likewise, Ikea’s Lamp wouldn’t feel nearly as sad if it weren’t for the deliberately paced, measured editing. Nike’s Michael Jordan ad Frozen moments played out in real time would feel like a trite highlight reel, but the deftly handled ramping between super slow motion and real time creates an epic grandeur that amplifies the message of the spot.
Commercials have the unique role of being little films in the greater service of advertising something while also representing a particular brand. In commercials, an editor’s sensibility is key. Is the tone of a particular spot congruous with its message? Does its tone align with the sensibility of the brand? Commercial editors have the dual duty of approaching their task as both stewards of the filmmaking process and stewards of the brand itself. Our role is crucial in making sure the end result both conveys the intended message of an ad in a way that jibes with how a brand wants to be perceived.
Editors are crucial at establishing tone in broad-strokes, but also on a granular level, understanding how a particular line is delivered or graphics are placed can have an impact on the overall tone and experience of a spot. It’s important that brands and agencies see editors as more than just craftspeople who know how to cut footage together using certain programs. Good, experienced commercial editors are tonal specialists who understand how to influence the tone of an ad and make it just feel right.