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The cut is the most powerful tool an editor has at his disposal, yet it’s one of the hardest to master. In what order should shots be shown? What drives the decision to leave one shot and cut to another? And how can you fully harness the power of the cut? Find out in the second of this 4-part series, ‘What Drives the Cut?’.
In Part 1 of this series, we examined the evolution of film editing as an art form. In this post, we’re going to talk about how stories can be told with editing. But first we need to talk about the cut itself.
Modern movies contain hundreds if not thousands of cuts. Each cut consists of two elements: The shot you are cutting from, and the shot you are cutting to. Unlike other transitions, a cut is instantaneous – it’s invisible. Thus, we can think of a cut as the decision to change from one shot to another.
So that begs the question, why do we choose to change shots?
Why Change Shots?
Different shots include and exclude different information from the frame. By holding back information, an editor can generate anticipation. When it becomes relevant, an editor can guide the audience’s attention and deliver the correct information. In fact, the sequence in which information is shared is so critical, that editing can make or break a movie.
Let’s explore this thought further.
In a good novel, questions are posed and answers are withheld to compel the reader to continue. A murder mystery typifies this, but the same is true of all stories. You finish the book, because you want to know who did it. If the opening page revealed the murderer, his motive and method, there would be little point to continue reading.
Instead, each chapter, page and sentence is carefully crafted to keep the audience in anticipation and deliver relevant information as the narrative advances, revealing just enough to keep the reader engaged, but withholding just enough to keep you reading. You could say those big over-arching questions are the page-turners.
But what stops you from just skipping to the last page? Have you ever watched a movie but because it’s boring, skipped to the end? The premise is intriguing, it’s got a great macro story, and you want to see the conclusion, but there’s no micro-story to keep you watching from shot to shot and scene to scene.
Well, a great story poses smaller questions along the way, these are the ‘sentence-turners’, and they’re just as important as the page turners – if not more.
These smaller questions might be something like: What will he say back? Who is inside? Will the arrow find its target? These tiny decisions represent the opportunity to give a story momentum or to slow it to a crawl. In fact, a sentence is the perfect analogy for understanding a cut.
Each shot contains a complete and unique thought. An editor will often allow a shot to play out, then once it’s served its purpose, they will cut. Its purpose may have been to deliver information that answers a question, or it may have been to raise a brand new question.
Good edits pose big questions. They make you want to finish the movie. But great edits pose smaller questions. They make you want to watch the movie. – Film Editing Pro
Raiders of the Lost Ark
This kind of cutting is exemplified when new characters are introduced in films. Take for example the incredible opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, edited by Michael Khan. The first shot establishes the location but the main character’s identity is shrouded in mystery, prompting the audience to wonder several questions like: Who is he? Why is he here? What will he find?
A travel montage ensues while the opening credits play. Subsequent shots provide answers and pose new questions like “Who is following him?”.
A map reveals he’s hunting for treasure. One of the supporting characters pulls a gun! How will he React?
With a whip! He steps into the light revealing his identity.
The scene ends, with a satisfied audience. Questions have been answered, yet there are questions that remain unanswered, compelling the audience to continue watching. Michael Khan has carefully controlled the flow of information in a manner that makes the entire scene engaging, creating questions that set up subsequent shots to provide answers.
Contributing to the Story
Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the writers of South Park have talked at length about the importance of causality in good story telling:
We’ve found out this really simple rule…if the words ‘and then’ belong between these beats (plot points), you’ve got something pretty boring. What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but’…’This happens and therefore this happens, but this happens, therefore this happens. – Trey Parker & Matt Stone, Creators of South Park
What is editing if not simply visual storytelling? The same principles of causality apply to editing. Every shot is like a link in a chain – each new shot hangs off the previous one, and also sets up the next. In other words when a GREAT shot finishes, it feels like the end of a two-part episode. You can’t wait to see part 2. And then, the next shot feels like Part 2!
Now let’s be balanced. Can every shot be that amazing? No. A fair percentage of cuts will just be pragmatic. For example, combining takes to quicken the pace or to hide continuity issues. But audiences expect each element of a film (whether that be score, dialogue, location, and of course the editing) to contribute meaningfully to the story. When cuts consistently happen without motivation, the audience goes to get snacks.
Next time you’re editing, remember that a good cut should feel motivated and necessary to the progression of the story and provide information that the audience cares about. Bad cuts are ones that are arbitrary, provide irrelevant information, or repeat information that previous shots have already shared.
So, what happens when you do it right? And what happens when you do it wrong? To answer that question, you’ll have to see Part 3 of this series.
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to visit our training page. There, you can sign up for hours of free video training on general creative editing and more specific topics such as trailer editing, action editing or music editing. We’ve got something for every skill level!
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