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Timing your Cut to Enhance the Drama

This quick tip will help you pace your edits.

All movies are or should be a series of arcs. You start it at one level, build to a climax, and then you have to come down and start it over again. If you stay at one level, it won’t sustain.

The best way to create these arcs is by giving the audience time to laugh, think and feel after impactful moments. Essentially, you’re manufacturing pauses to amplify the proceeding action or dialogue, thus organically, giving it more dramatic power.

Let’s dive deeper into some situations where you’d want to give the audience that time….

Dramatic Moments

First, after a dramatic moment. It gives the audience a chance to gauge the character’s reaction and possibly empathize with that character’s feelings, further investing your viewers in the story.

In this scene from Jack Reacher, Jack and Helen are going to discuss their plan for gathering evidence on a case that they’re investigating. After Jack gets tired, he’ll send Helen on her way, but not before an ambiguous moment where there may or may not be romantic intent. Here’s how that could play out…

4 screenshots from the movie 'Jack Reacher', in which an intimate scene ends and a new one begins immediately

It’s not bad – Helen’s reactions as she seemingly misinterprets Jack standing over her, convey her confusion. Then she exits the room and we switch to the wide shot of the car as we go to the next scene.

But there’s an even better option. In the theatrical version of the film, the editor added an extra shot outside the hotel room, to give us more time to mull over exactly what that somewhat flirtatious gesture might mean to Helen.

4 screenshots from the movie 'Jack Reacher', in which an intimate scene ends, a shot of Helen reflecting on the previous scene is shown, and then a new scene begins

The range of emotions Helen is feeling, the amusement, embarrassment, attraction, is much more robust with the added shot. This solitary moment with her strengthens the bond that the audience has with the character.

Comedy Gags

Next, you’ll want to give your audience time after a comedic moment. In this scene from Van Wilder, Van’s antagonist Richard will experience some pretty severe gastrointestinal distress in a rather public setting. In the next scene, Van is gonna be sitting in a class, listening to his professor. The images below show how this broad comedic moment could play out.

Screenshots from the movie 'Van Wilder', which transition from a scene of Richard having gastrointestinal distress to a scene of Van studying in class

It’s an outrageous joke that’s sure to cause laughter and a big reaction in a theatrical setting. As a matter of fact, the laughter and commotion might be so loud that any lines occurring directly after the joke – in this case, the professor’s lines in Van’s classroom will go unheard.

So, let’s do what the editor did for the theatrical version of the film and add several shots between the end of the scene with Richard and the start of the professor’s dialogue.

A series of screenshots from the movie 'Van wilder', in which a scene of Richard having gastrointestinal distress cuts to a scene of Gwen sealing an envelope, then a scene of a teacher handing out test papers - the camera eventually pans to Van

Now we’ve got an extended series of shots, including an entirely new short scene with Gwen writing to Van’s father. And we’ve added some shots in the classroom before the professor starts talking. Since these shots are visual only (in that they include no dialogue), we have time to get acclimated to what’s happening before we’re bombarded with new sonic information that we might miss.

As an editor, most of the time you’re sitting alone in an empty room, so don’t lose sight of the fact that there’s going to be many occasions where you’ll want to take your audience’s reaction into account when you cut a scene.

Action Sequences

Finally, you’ll want to give your audience time after a frenetic action sequence, where high stakes or high conflict encounters are resolved. In this scene from Once Upon a Time in the West, we’re going to see a very high action shootout between Harmonica and three bandits. It’s gonna release the tension that’s been building over the first 13 minutes of the film. Let’s see how that could play out:

Screenshots from the movie 'Once Upon a Time in the West', showing a shootout between Harmonica and bandits, and then transitioning to a shot of Harmonica opening his eyes

Now there’s nothing wrong with this version of the scene in a narrative sense – the last bandit collapses, and we cut to a closeup of a possibly wounded Harmonica. But in the theatrical version, the editor cut in a shot of a windmill slowly turning before we see Harmonica’s eyes opening. The tranquil windmill shot here gives the audience time to catch its breath and absorb what’s happened.

Screenshots from the movie 'Once Upon a Time in the West', showing a shootout between Harmonica and bandits, and then transitioning to a shot of a windmill turning in the wind, and then transitioning to a shot of Harmonica opening his eyes

It’s very common to see shots of nature or similar still life shots used for this purpose. The windmill shot has the bonus of prolonging the suspense as to whether Harmonica has survived the gun battle at all. Don’t feel bound to whether or not a shot provides new story information. Sometimes a shot can just serve the vital purpose of letting the audience digest what has happened.

When you’re editing, there can be a temptation to deliver information as quickly as possible so that your audience won’t get bored. But remember there are moments that might require the audience to think about something, laugh out loud or otherwise process what’s going on. Be sure to allow ample time for the audience to regain composure after these moments, before presenting any additional important information or dialogue.

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