Editing foreign: Body Language

Editing foreign: Body Language

“Body language and facial expressions need no translation, simply interpretation”

When I left the UK, I had no idea I’d end up doing what I inherently wanted to do, which was what I’d always done, just in a different country.
An editor by trade, I entertained thoughts of starting afresh in another line of work, due in part to unfamiliarity with the film and television industry in Norway but due primarily to my non-existent Norwegian language skills. Learning Norwegian was a challenge I was happy to accept, but attaining an acceptable level of competence to carry out my job, was surely the stuff of dreams. Learning a new language is not easily compressed into a Rocky montage sequence. So there I was, ready for a fresh start, a new profession and a bright future doing something else.

Within three months of moving from London to Norway, I was once again working in the film and TV industry. It turned out language wasn’t the obstacle I had envisioned. I took some preliminary language courses to form the basic building blocks but I absorbed language more effectively on a day to day basis at work, with an open ear and notebook at the ready to jot down any new viking vocabulary.

Norwegian television is a blend of both homegrown content and imports, mostly English language and other Scandinavian content often from the crime genre. (See ‘Scandinavian noir’). I often work with English language content so being a native English speaker naturally gives me an advantage. I help with some scriptwriting here and there but in general Norwegians begin learning English at school from the age of six, so a good many are fairly fluent. This can actually make learning Norwegian difficult as English is always your ‘get-out-of-jail’ card but at least you can always express yourself.

Considering that I’m still learning to master the language, I’m also given responsibility for several Norwegian productions. Maybe it’s some kind of Norwegian joke! I understand a great deal of what’s being said but Google Translate remains my closest ally, and colleagues are sometimes called into the edit suite when dialects and localisms prove too challenging.
The structure of films and television programmes follow certain patterns, patterns editors become accustomed to, and can capitalise on in order to find those key moments. For example, important information is usually delivered near the start of a film or episode; think about character introduction, environment and the challenges faced in order to effectively set up the rest of the story. It’s pretty tricky to follow a hero’s quest, when you don’t know who the hero is or why they are ‘questing’.

As a stranger in a strange land, it’s frighteningly easy to switch off when embalmed by a foreign language on a daily basis. Conversations overheard in public cease to infringe upon one’s thoughts and instead become background noise. After a while, I began to notice that this ‘switch on-and-off-ability’ tunes your senses in to everything else, and can give you an alternate perspective. There’s body language, facial expressions, physical movements and reactions for example. Body language and facial expressions need no translation, simply interpretation. Words carry weight but physical displays of emotion can transcend the spoken word.

The power of gestures and non-verbal behaviour was noted by Aristotle when he wrote Poetics and Rhetoric, where the actions of the person speaking were an important factor in the performance.

“…the poet should work out his play, to the best of his power, with appropriate gestures” (Poetics: Section 2, Part XVII)

“…it follows that those who heighten the effect of their words with suitable gestures, tones, dress, and dramatic action generally, are especially successful in exciting pity…”
(Rhetoric: Book II, Part 8)

Charles Darwin sought to trace the origins of non-verbal behaviour in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals seeing facial behaviour as an expression of emotions, and an insight into our ‘inner state’. Darwin believed that our mental state was linked to our physical movements.
In a similar vein, Geoffrey Beattie, resident psychologist for television reality series Big Brother in the UK, believed ‘that movements of the hands and arms that people make when speaking… are intimately connected with speaking and with thinking.’ Ok, that sounds pretty obvious but it not always that we make that conscious association. During the show his focus was on bodily communication from which his aim was to interpret function and motive in the communication of the contestants.

So as an editor analysing the material we work with, recognising non-verbal behaviour as an aid in storytelling narrative is key. Digesting and interpreting performances and then re-sculpting them into new ones to serve whatever message or story we are trying to disseminate. Perhaps the best way to understand this, is by referencing the Kuleshov experiment in which Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov highlighted not only the effectiveness of film editing, but just how much emotion the audience brought with them to the film watching experience. Kuleshov edited together a series of images in which a shot of a Russian actor was juxtaposed with three other shots (a bowl of soup, a girl in a coffin, a woman on a divan).

The audience “raved about the acting… the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead child, and noted the lust with which he observed the woman. But we knew that in all three cases the face was exactly the same.”

So to conclude. How is this relevant to my experience of integrating into a new culture, and working as an editor? And what have I learnt?
Well, looking back now I see I was naive in thinking I could simply switch occupation so easily. I was naive in thinking I could switch cultures so easily too, but that’s another story! But in terms of my profession, I’m happy I didn’t change as I discovered an inspiring Norwegian media industry which I enjoy working in. I also understand how a new set of circumstances helped me to adapt my editing approach by tuning in more acutely to non-verbal behaviour due to the fact language presented challenges in understanding the verbal.  So in essence I’ve learnt the true meaning of ‘adapt to survive’. And I’ve also learnt that if you’re an editor, you really do have to watch what you say. Quite literally.


Non-verbal behaviour as communication: Approaches, issues and research
By Randall A. Gordon , Daniel Druckman , Richard M. Rozelle , James C. Baxter

Poetics by Aristotle

Rhetoric by Aristotle

Darwin, Charles. The Expression Of The Emotions In Man And Animals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965. Print.

Pudovkin, “Naturshchik vmesto aktera”, in Sobranie sochinenii, volume I, Moscow: 1974, p.184.

The Kuleshov Experiment

Beattie, Geoffrey. Visible Thought. London: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Article image “Cut” courtesy of Paul BCC BY 2.0



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