Thursday, November 3, 2011


Elizabeth Zelvin

I don’t get it about outtakes. It’s been common knowledge for a long time that when movies are edited, a lot of the footage shot ends up, as the phrase goes, on the cutting room floor. With digital filming, I suppose that’s the virtual cutting room floor: material that’s omitted to make the finished product as artful as possible gets deleted. But when did they start taking these inferior snippets and palming them off on the public as outtakes? I imagine it happened when they started selling movies as DVDs for home consumption. DVDs were priced higher than the VHS tapes they superseded, so it made sense to give the viewers more bang for their buck. So they started making little feature films about how special effects were achieved, interviews with directors and actors and others associated with the movie, and similar ancillary material. They also started including deleted scenes, taking the filmmaker’s editorial decisions and reversing them, in effect stripping the art back out of the finished product.

In a stage play, the actors have only one shot to get each moment right in any particular night’s performance. If they flub a line, the audience hears it. If they slip on a banana peel or crack up when they’re supposed to deliver a joke deadpan, everyone in the theater knows they’ve made a mistake that can’t be retrieved or corrected. Not so in movies. Filming happens in little snippets, and each snippet can be repeated in take after take, until that moment is perfect visually and aurally, just as the director wants it.

One of the unsung arts in filmmaking is post production—the process of creating the look and sound of the material at the beginning and end of the film. It’s been a long time since moviegoers had to look at a simple scroll of titles and credits rolling down the screen. It’s worth paying attention to what happens before and after the movie itself, because the photography or animation and how it’s all put together can be incredibly creative. But in many films, all we get to see as the credits roll is, yep, outtakes: famous actors stepping out of character to repeat a bit of business—putting on a seatbelt, a passionate kiss, or whatever the moment is—over and over, with increasing hilarity, till they get it right.

I know I’m in the minority here, but I don’t have the slightest interest in other people’s hilarity, no matter how famous the other people are. I enjoy the spectacle of people laughing best when I’m telling the joke. Sure, I laugh at other people’s jokes—when I’m included in the moment that produces them: for instance, in the audience when a comedian performs or being one of a group in which someone else tells a funny story. These in-joke outtakes exclude me completely. They’re only funny because they represent mistakes. Life is too short for me to spend it as a silent spectator to mistakes that are truly funny only to the participants, in this case, actors.

Maybe part of it is the current tendency to want audiences never to forget for a moment that the fictional characters we’re watching perform are really famous actors. I think that’s a terrible turn in the wrong direction. They do it in animated films too: we’re no longer free to enter the world of Cinderella or Grumpy or Aladdin’s genie without being constantly reminded that we’re hearing Cameron Diaz or Tom Hanks or Robin Williams perform. As a fiction writer and reader, I find that appalling. We’re meant to suspend disbelief and be enchanted and transported—not to feel good because we’re being permitted to watch “celebrities” perform.

Ah, celebrities—don’t get me started. I first declared that I had no desire to live a spectator life back when TV talk shows first became popular, long before the advent of reality TV. If a lively, witty conversation is going on, I want to join in. I can be lively and witty too. I love being on mystery panels for just that reason. Sure, I can enjoy the liveliness and wit of others. But I want my turn. But I digress.

Let’s get back to outtakes. If what they do with outtakes in the movies is really such a good idea, I have a modest proposal. When we writers submit our manuscripts to publishers, in addition to the carefully revised, critiqued, and well-honed novel itself, let’s include the discarded drafts, deleted adverbs, and rejected characters and plot twists as an appendix to or annotated version of the story. If we call them outtakes, maybe the publishers can charge an extra $5.99 for them.


H. L. Banks said...

Clever analogy!

Anonymous said...

Things like Star Trek and Star Wars blooper reels have been standard fare at science-fiction conventions for decades.

Sandra Parshall said...

Those novel outtakes will end up in print eventually if the author is prominent and doesn't destroy the junk before dying. :-)

JJM said...

Out-takes and deleted scenes at the end of the actual film while the credits are rolling? No, I agree with you there. But on DVDs? Yes, please. I also like critical editions of great books, when they exist and I can afford them. I love such things for the same reason I love behind-the-scenes tours at museums: they allow me to appreciate the art and the skills involved, and to understand the finished work better.

I also want to know how a magic trick, an illusion, is accomplished. Want to know why? Same reason as above -- but, also: if you're sitting there watching Dai Vernon on television, in close-up with a fixed camera, doing his famous cups and balls routine, and you know every single move he's making, and you still can't spot him making them ... The frisson that goes up your spine then tells you you've just seen real magic. ;)

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

What a great case for the alternative point of view. :)