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Techniques

Golden rules

  • Editing should remain invisible, only the effect is to be experienced - the best cut is the one you don’t see
  • The storyteller should never let the audience get ahead of them - less is more
  • The audience has to be a participant, not just a spectator

Why do cuts work?

Editing is a strange thing when you think about it. We might have a continuous shot of a whole scene, and yet it feels right to cut into that with another completely different size and angle of shot. Yet it works. Why?

We are selective in what we see, even though we have a very wide angle of vision. Our eyes kind of work like a zoom lens. They also move incredibly fast. So when we look at one thing, and then to another, what is happening? We certainly don’t take in the ‘pan’ or ‘tilt’ information. It is more like a cut. So when we look about we are in some ways editing. Often we know what our next shot will be, we look and frame with certainty. But other times... surprise! Our attention is drawn to a sound and we have no idea what to expect.

When to cut

Where you cut is where you want one bit of information to come to an end, and new information to start. And that really depends on how long it takes to read a shot, to understand the information it contains.

Think about a title at the beginning of a film. A one word title might only need 2 seconds to read, whereas a title with ten words would obviously need longer. It’s the same for any shot. Ask yourself what information is within that shot and has the viewer had time to read it properly, to understand it.

The length of a shot can also be determined by the pacing of the scene. A slower paced scene would generally have less cuts and longer shots, a faster paced scene more cuts and shorter shots. It’s worth remembering this too when planning a shoot, a faster paced scene need more set-ups, otherwise you end up seeing the same shots again and again.

Look at an action scene from ‘Speed’ or ‘Terminator’. Try to count the amount of different shots (different angles and framing) that are used. Compare this with a slower, quieter scene in the same film

The over-enthusiastic editor, sitting with ten set ups for a scene, might try to jam all those set ups in just because they’re there. But it can become distracting. You don’t need to use every shot. Sometimes one, two or three shots will suffice. It’s all about the rhythm and pace.

Rhythm is something you either have or don’t have, but when you have it, you have it all over
Elvis Presley

Rhythm and pace

Imagine yourself on a fairground ride. You sit in the carriage and the ride starts, you look down and you’re 100ft off the ground. You feel excited, scared, not sure what will happen next. But if the ride keeps creeping along at the same height and same speed, you will soon become used to it and ultimately become bored.

You need variety to make something interesting, and this is why the rhythm and the pace of a film has to change. Think of the roller coaster. The ups and downs, peaks and troughs, speeding downhill followed by a slow creep upwards, the anticipation of what is coming next (often the most exciting moment), and then finally, the pay off. This is the effect you are trying to achieve within a scene, from scene to scene and from the finished film as a whole.

It’s the emotion during the film that dictates the rhythm more than the story

Structure

Structuring the peaks and troughs and the information within the film is the first challenge for the editor. Quite often the order of scenes are moved about, either to make sense of the story, or to make it more interesting. Don't waste your time fine-tuning your cuts until you have the structure in place, because when you move scenes around the pacing between scenes and within scenes can alter a lot.

Scene cards

Using ‘scene cards’ can be a real help in trying things out and keeping an overview of the structure before actually doing it for real in the timeline. They give an instant visual reference and be used by everyone in the edit suite. Number your ‘scene cards’ and have relevant information on them like characters, action and important plot or story points. Get them up on a wall in chronological order. Then try moving them around to see if your new order would work. This can save so much time and variations can be tried with great speed. You can also make notes on the cards of what you intend to change in the scene. It can help to colour-code ‘scene cards’ for easy reference.

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