Editing tip # 1: Jump cuts
Regular readers may be wondering about the recent silence from the Cutting Room Floor: I can report that an exceptional run of work has stopped play. I’m working hard editing a feature film called We Still Kill the Old Way directed by my friend and colleague Sacha Bennett. In order to keep you all entertained, meanwhile, I thought I might share some tips I’ve picked up over time. Fun-sized ‘Tales from the Cutting Room Floor’, for consumption on the hoof.
Many filmmakers think that the purpose of jump cuts is to be jarring, to make their film edgy and abrasive. I beg to differ. If made intelligently, a jump cut can be as smooth as a standard ‘invisible’ edit.
The jump cut has been a fixture of the hipper end of film editing since 1960, when Jean-Luc Godard use it in his ground-breaking movie À Bout de Souffle. The film had a flagrant disregard for the established rules of cinema, not least the rules of editing. If Godard wanted to go from one interesting moment of a shot straight to the next, he just did so, ditching all the boring stuff in the middle. This often made for a jarring cut, ugly even: but he didn’t care. Pace was more important than elegance, and he liked giving the audience a jolt from time to time.
Since ’60, however, the way audiences understand editing has changed. Editing is a language, and like spoken language, it develops over time. After all, when D.W. Griffith invented the close-up, audiences found looking at a giant disembodied head disturbing. Nowadays we’re more disturbed if there are no close-ups. As for jump cuts: they just don’t shock any more.
What’s easy to forget is that all edits are jump cuts: they jump us suddenly to something else. Most jump us instantaneously to a better position from which to see the next interesting thing, or abruptly switch us to another lens through which to see it. What we call a ‘jump cut’ is merely an edit that jumps us in time to the moment when the next interesting thing happens, without moving us in space or perspective. But in order to know how to jump cut well, you have to know why you’re doing it.
You can see a good example of how and why jump cuts work in the 1998 film Elizabeth. Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) stands in front of a mirror, nervously rehearsing how she’s going to make an important speech to the bishops. She tries out an opening phrase. Tries the sentence a different way. Gets frustrated with herself. Scraps that idea, goes for another.
Sadly I can’t show you the scene itself, but hopefully the collection of short sentences I’ve just written echoes the way in which these jump cuts work: a sequence of small events between which the reader can make connections. Each moment shows us a distinct and different thought, and in each case the thought has a natural beginning and end. String them directly together, removing how Elizabeth gets from one to another, and we get a clearer impression of her developing state of mind. Editor Jill Bilcock cut out the ‘noise’ of those moments when nothing new or interesting was happening.
We also understand from the Elizabeth jump cuts that the queen’s rehearsal is happening over a lengthy period of time. This is another use for the jump cut: telling us that time has passed, but without having to slow down your film.
But a jump cut isn’t simply a time jump; we only call it a ‘jump cut’ if it’s a jump within the same shot. If a continuity edit takes us to a better angle from which to view an unfolding situation, why would we want to jump to a later part of the same shot? The answer must be to show change: to see it occurring, or having occurred. Perhaps a woman, who we saw waiting patiently for a bus, has become frustrated. The man doing push-ups with Spartan precision can now hardly lift himself from the ground.
The trick to cutting a smooth jump cut sequence is to look for self-contained ‘telling moments’ within the shot. They could be lines of dialogue, gestures or even looks. They will usually tell a mini-story of something changing over time. Come in hard on the start of each moment: make the reason why we’re jumping to this new thing quickly apparent. This helps the cut not to jar; we instantly know why we’re being shown this new event. It’s usually best to let the moment conclude, so that we don’t feel snatched out of it. Let it play out, then on to the next thing. When selecting a moment to which you’ll cut, it usually helps if it is visually distinctly different from the previous moment – maybe the actor is looking the other way, maybe they have their hand to their face. This tells us instantly that the cut is deliberate, and not a technical glitch.
Alternatively, you might want to give the impression that the action continues beyond the end of the shot, perhaps we see the start of a phone call. In this case you need to linger with the action just long enough to give the impression that the call is important and that it will continue.
All this being said, you can make jump cuts deliberately jarring if you like – it’s film: you can do whatever you want. But first I’d ask yourself why you would want to knock the audience out of the story, if only for a moment. Is there a danger that you’re more interested in showing off your stylish editing, than you are in telling the tale?
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2014
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge