The Scissor Supremacy

What shot next? ☛

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?

A quick reminder of the panel:

Mick Audsley

Chris Dickens

Clare Douglas

Ewa J. Lind

“Reaction to the dialogue is the most important thing at any particular moment.” – Clare Douglas

Where do we want the camera to be? The director and cinematographer will have made decisions on set that limit our choices but, unless they’re trying to cover the scene all in one shot, they will have left the editor with some options: most commonly, should we be on character ‘A’ or character ‘B’ at any given moment. Ewa’s principle for deciding on whom the shot should focus relates to the character’s internal drama. She’s keen to ensure that when there’s a change happening within a character the camera is there to see it. Often this will be when a character is told something that they weren’t expecting to hear. Of course this means that very often you’re not on the speaker when they’re delivering momentous news, because there’s no dramatic change visible in them. Clare agrees.  She stresses: “reaction to the dialogue is the most important thing at any particular moment.”

Chris, too, sees this broadly as a story issue, but brings in some of his experience from cutting comedy. He tells me just how technical and precise comedy directors can be, many of them coming from the world of live performance where timing and sentence structure can make the difference between getting a laugh or a painful silence.  There is a commonlyheld belief amongst these directors that the camera has to be on a character when they’re saying a line that’s funny or important, but Chris doesn’t believe this always to hold true. Like Ewa, he thinks that what the other characters bring to the moment can be just as important as what we get from seeing the speaker, if not more so. He often listens for the best verbal performances, and puts other images over them. Having selected these best bits when he first puts the scene together, he will go back in subsequent passes and think through a logic to knit together his choices. As Mick puts it, it all goes back to having an opinion on the story and the way you want to tell it.

Irfan Khan in “The Warrior”, as cut by Ewa Lind, listening in Hindi

Chris’s comment about starting out by finding the best verbal performance moments, prompts me to remember stories I’ve heard about some editors cutting sound first and then deciding on the images. Do any of the panel do this? Clare sees picture and sound as being so intertwined that you can’t treat them separately. Mick agrees “it’s a dance between the two”. Ewa, however, is happy to admit that she prioritises picture over sound, referring back to her experience of cutting films in a foreign language and how she finds that surprisingly helpful, allowing her to focus more on body language, facial expressions and what’s said by the actor’s eyes.

The editor’s choice will often be more complex than just deciding which character the camera should be focused on: we may also have choice of shot sizes. On this subject the panel becomes animated.  Mick is keen to reject the cliché that you should start a scene with a wide shot. While he admits that it can sometimes be important to establish the geography of a room, this isn’t always the first priority, “it could be that the guy who’s nervous, and is fiddling with a handkerchief is the best place to start the scene.”

Ewa comments that she tends to find the very close and the very wide shots to be the most emotionally loaded; she thinks of medium shots as being quite neutral. Clare offers that important lines can demand closer shots; however, actors’ body language can sometimes call for a looser shot, encouraging you to stay wide.

“the closer you are to an actor, the more you reveal about their state of mind” – Mick Audsley

Like Clare, Mick is also led by performance, but in different ways. He finds that some actors put in less effort when the shot is wide, but with other actors the wide shot can be more powerful than a close-up. That being said, he cites the golden rule “the closer you are to an actor, the more you reveal about their state of mind”. Ewa also sees the close-up as tending to have the greatest dramatic weight. She shies away from giving close-ups to characters who don’t merit that level of emphasis; a character needs to earn the right to a close-up. She’s keen to withhold the really intimate close-ups for as long as she can, until there’s something really important happening, in order to be able to add emphasis.

Jmes Stward in “Vertigo” performing for the wide shot.

Clearly the question isn’t just about what shot size you go to next, but about what shape you want the whole scene to have: about creating a progression of shots that reflects the emotional shape of the drama. Mick has a strategy whereby he decides on what shot size he wants to end a scene with and reverse engineers a pattern leading back to that shot, although he’s keen to emphasize that this strategy doesn’t always work. Interestingly, Ewa’s approach is to be deliberately unbalanced; she likes to favour one character more than another. “You deliberately give the audience an in-road through a character. You only get to know things that they know”, she tells me. The editor taking the role of a narrator, unseen and unheard, seems to chime with Mick’s general exhortation to take a definite approach when cutting a scene; to make a statement.

“It’s a bit like telling a joke” – Chris Dickens

The best overall summary of the importance of making the right choices of shots when cutting a scene comes from Chris Dickens: “It’s a bit like telling a joke,” he offers, “If you tell a joke the wrong way it’s not funny. You have to get the order right and get the punchline at the right time. That’s what cutting a scene is like, that’s how I approach it. If you get it mixed up, if you get the structure wrong, the scene isn’t going to work. That structure decides whether you use a wide shot or a close-up or if you hold on one shot.”

This article concludes the trilogy of interviews with my panel on the art and craft of editing. I hope you found their thoughts as insightful as I have done, and that their ideas find their way into your own thinking about how you cut a scene. Let’s keep on thinking about and discussing this remarkable alchemy of the modern age: the magic of splicing together moving images to create emotion.


Copyright © Guy Ducker 2013

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge


*** STOP PRESS – A.C.E. are coming to London town for the first time with EditFest on  29th June – featuring both Mick Audsley and Chris Dickens ***


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