Return of the Scissor People

Making the cut ☛

Last time I asked my panel of expert film editors how they prepared to approach their material. Now we’re on to the main event – cutting the scene. I wanted to talk about the most basic but central element of the craft: the cut. When do you cut? Indeed, when don’t you cut? What gets in the way of making a good cut?

A quick reminder of the panel:

Mick Audsley

Chris Dickens

Clare Douglas

Ewa J. Lind

Oscars and other awards (which they have aplenty) aside, click on the links to check out their CVs. I think their work will tell you why I rate these guys highly and respect their opinions.

So, I ask my panel to talk about the moment of the cut: what makes an editor decide that this shot has played itself out, that it’s time to give us something new to look at? Ewa Lind offers advice that had been passed on to her from her mentor Barry Vince – ‘always go out on a high’. She explains that he was talking about never going out when the energy is low, after something’s happened; always go out when something’s about to happen. If someone’s throwing a ball, cut just as it is about to leave the hand. Or if a character is walking, place your cut when they’re at their tallest, just before their front foot hits the ground. She also advises against letting characters leave frame, on the same basis. Besides, what do we get from seeing a defocussed empty frame?

“Always go out on a high” – Ewa J. Lind

Clare brings up the issue of pace. She observes that a badly paced edit will make the audience feel that something’s not right, without being able to say why. Even films where editing is deliberately made to stand out, shots are jump cut etc., have to be paced properly to work and will be seen as an exhilarating ride or a confusing jumble of shots depending on whether the pace is good or bad. Of course, pace is related to rhythm, and a sense of rhythm is something an editor either has, or they haven’t – but clearly pace is an important factor in the placement of edits.

Ewa has more to add on the precise placement of cuts. She personally favours not cutting in the middle of words. “Words are almost visceral,” she says “There’s a ‘point’ to what’s said, and you’ve got to see that ‘point’ hit”. She mimes fencing for me. In fact, the only occasion when she’ll cut in the middle of words is if she deliberately wants to de-emphasise what the speaker is saying, if, for example, someone is talking and she doesn’t want the audience to focus on their words. She disagrees with Edward Dmytryk’s exhortation always to cut in the middle, which she believes takes all of the energy out of an edit.

Anne Hathaway – one take wonder.

Chris meanwhile has more interesting things to say about the value of not cutting. “People unconsciously know when you cut,” he tells me, “they know that you’re cheating.” If you see a car driving and then it rolls and the actor gets out, even if it’s done with effects, it feels real. If someone’s singing and you can hold the shot for the whole of that song, you know that they’ve really done it. Famously Chris did just this recently with Anne Hathaway singing ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ in Les Miserables, a decision some would say contributed to her Best Supporting Actress Oscar (although Chris himself is too modest even to make reference to that film). I’ve written about sustained takes before, but Chris’s point gave me something new to think about – that sense of a held take having the energy of a live performance, the tension. Chris tries to avoid cutting unless he has to, although he’s keen to point out that he avoids making hard and fast rules about anything. The group generally agrees that there are no fixed rules of editing.

“People unconsciously know when you cut, they know that you’re cheating” – Chris Dickens

The discussion so far, is based on the assumption that you can cut where and when you like, but it doesn’t always feel that way. The decision of when to cut is oft complicated by the editor’s perpetual enemy: bad continuity. The head that’s turned before the line from one angle, and after the line from another. The coat that’s first over the left shoulder, then over the right. The panel hold similar views on the importance of physical continuity, but with a variety of emphases. Good continuity can be very important or almost irrelevant, according to Clare, it depends on the style that the director and cameraman have adopted. A very clinical, precise style will cause continuity errors to stand out, a looser more documentary style will tend to be more forgiving.

Ewa recalls that this was something she felt to be vitally important when she started her career, but she’s learnt over time that it’s of no importance whatsoever, especially when compared to emotional continuity. She sometimes feels a little smug, she reports, when she cheats physical continuity and nobody notices. It’s amazing what you can get away with. She does comment, however, that she sometimes finds that inexperienced directors get really stuck on physical continuity. Chris comments that he ignores physical continuity completely because he knows that he can always go back and find a solution later.

“Lack of continuity is the poetry of cinema” – Mick Audsley

“That Obscure Object of Desire”… well, one of them anyway.

Mick Audsley is the most forthright in his views on continuity. “Lack of continuity,” he claims, “is the poetry of cinema”. He points out that only cinema can do discontinuity – he cites Buñuel’s film That Obscure Object of Desire where the female lead was played by two actresses who are swapped from one shot to the next. Mick believes that discontinuity creates a sort of tension, indeed material shot with multiple cameras can sometimes cut together too smoothly and be dull as a result. Discontinuity can be expressive; if you watch someone getting out of a car, not seeing all of the door opening can help convey the sense that they’re in a hurry. Of course, some discontinuity is not poetic: it’s a mistake that expresses nothing, he concedes, but if, like Chris, he sees two moments that he wants to be close to each other he’ll prioritise that desire, and fix the continuity issue later. “It’s a card trick” he tells me, you do something to distract, perhaps using sound or music to pull the audience’s attention from the sleight of hand.

So, these are some of the things the panel thinks about when deciding to cut or not, but how do they decide where they should cut to? In the third part of this expert discussion I’ll be asking about cutting between shot sizes, camera angles and characters. Coming soon…


Copyright © Guy Ducker 2013

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge

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3 Responses to “Return of the Scissor People”
  1. Mahmut Akay says:

    Another brilliant read. Looking forward to the next part!

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Last time I asked my panel of expert film editors how they decided where to cut. This time, in the last installment of this three-part interview, I’m asking them how they decide what should be the next shot. Assuming that the director has given us a choice of different camera angles, how do you decide where to cut to? On which character should the camera be trained? You might even have different sizes of shot on each character: so when do you use the wides and when the tighter shots? […]

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