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At first, it seems normal. A man sits in his car, stuck in traffic. The faces of people stuck in cars around freeze, but it only lasts a blink — not long enough to make us think something is different. Slowly, however the man’s car fills with smoke. Fellow motorists watch passively. The sounds he makes struggling for breath breaks what has been up till now an impossible silence. He climbs up, out of the car’s sunroof, then climbs higher and higher until he’s flying. He soars far from the cars and stony faces until elderly officials on horseback tug a rope tied to his leg, pulling him back down to earth.

The gorgeous dream sequence that opens “8 ½” reveals its unreality in gradual drips, through careful editing. The scene from the 1963 Federico Fellini film fuses sound sparingly over a series of shots where the camera moves horizontally. It’s easy to miss the signs that what we’re watching isn’t real, like the way the camera freezes on close-ups of faces. But once the man is flying, the audience is certain they are not watching a scene set in the real world.

There’s an art to the cinematic dream sequence. Done poorly, the technique is nothing more than a cheap way of moving the plot forward, a hazy, cliché-ridden cut scene that mines no deeper meaning from a character's REM patterns. Executed deftly, however, and a sequence is a powerful tool: an artfully edited montage that splices together a mental picture can do everything from expose simple truths characters would never mention aloud or haunt the audience with allusions to past events.

University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts Professor and veteran Hollywood editor Norman Hollyn said the sequence in “8 ½” is an excellent example of an effective sequence, as it mimics how real people experience dreams: we accept them as reality until illogic boils over and shocks us into wakefulness.

“It’s the opening of the film, so we don’t know what kind of world we’re in,” said Hollyn, whose 1984 “Film Editing Room Handbook” is in its fourth edition and assigned in college; his 2008 visual storytelling guide “The Lean Forward Moment: Create Compelling Stories” expands on the rules he set forth. “Fellini’s using a combination of camera work and sound to increasingly give clues about how this is not reality grounded.”

"What we’re doing is being very conscious of things the audience is unconscious of."

According to Hollyn,  editing as it pertains to traditional Hollywood filmmaking, aims to be an invisible manipulator of emotions.

“When editing is done in a classic way and done well, what we’re doing is being very conscious of things the audience is unconscious of,” he said.

Images are cut in a sequence and rhythm that our subconscious will accept. Movies cut from between points of view quicker than a human eye could ever move. But we accept the movement because editors sequence images and sound logically, in ways that tell a story.

Juxtaposition, Hollyn said, is the key to making audience’s emotions rise and fall.

Editing can change the mood of a scene in ways of which audiences may not be aware, the editing choices need the proper context to be effective. For example, a long take followed by a succession of quick cuts can create tension in a way that quick cuts alone would not.

“If you have a half hour of fast cutting, it loses its ability to have sort of emotional effect,” Hollyn said. “What a filmmaker will try and do is intersperse those sequences with ones that don’t have that kind of high energy.”

A scene portraying a hallucination or a dream will, for instance, forgo some of that invisibility and use jarring cuts or tricks.

Since dreams are without logic, editing a proper sequence requires a different set of rules. A scene portraying a hallucination or a dream will, for instance, forgo some of that invisibility and use jarring cuts or tricks. But Hollyn said a good editor doesn’t overdo it.

As an example, Hollyn pointed to the dream sequence in a movie he edited: the 1988 dark comedy “Heathers.”

In “Heathers”, Winona Ryder reluctantly conspires with Christian Slater to murder a pack of mean high school girls who share the name Heather. Ryder, a former member if the clique, is able to mimic each Heather’s handwriting, so the deaths look like suicides. As the bodies mount and the alibis grow flimsier, Ryder’s growing unease is illustrated in a dream sequence that slowly builds in intensity.

“We set up the reality of what we’re seeing,” Hollyn said. “She’s in her bedroom, which we’ve seen before and we’ve seen Christian slater’s character enter.”

Ryder falls asleep, and dreams that Slater is in her bedroom, holding a paperback copy of “Moby Dick”. Slater absurdly underlines the word “eskimo” to serve as a suicide note. Things don’t seem altogether dreamlike but, as Hollyn noted, hints starts dropping once the duo walks downstairs.

“Christian’s character runs down to the kitchen to get a knife and the color balance changes. We push the blues, which you’d expect in a night scene but we went big with it. Then there’s a shock cut to a knife that we hold on to for a little bit too long compared to what we’ve done before.”

Once Ryder runs into the hall, the cuts quicken and the door slams with pronounced loudness, punctuating the eerie music that plays over the scene. There is a gradual escalating bizarreness with the editing, as the camera quickly cuts between tight shots on Ryder’s face and hands as she tries to unlock the bedroom door. The spliced close ups culminate in a shot borrowed from the master of suspense.

“Michael Lehmann, the director, did this classic dream trope, where you’re zooming at the same time that you’re dollying [note: rolling the camera] in the reverse direction,” Hollyn said. “The image at the end of the hallway looks the same but because you’re dollying forward and moving back, the walls change in strange ways and it feels odd. Hitchcock did it in “Vertigo”, when he wanted to show Jimmy Stewart’s fear of heights.”

The queasy camera move cuts to a funeral scene that ends all pretense towards reality. The camera moves from Heather’s corpse to an inverted image of a minister before spinning 180 degrees to the rotund reverend who eulogizes the deceased teen by expounding on the significance of the underlined word “eskimo” in her copy of Moby Dick.

The camera then cuts to a church packed with mourners wearing identical white robes and 1950’s style red and blue 3D glasses. With a visit from the ghost of Heather 1, it’s obvious we’re out of the film’s reality. A short but shocking zoom into an eyeball is the last thing we see before Ryder wakes in her bed to the sound of her mother calling her down to dinner. 

“We were using all of the elements we had at our disposal for that,” Hollyn said.