January 4, 2009

Edit on Action

I've been watching some screener films that have been submitted to one of our local film festivals. It's not the first time I've assisted in selecting films for film festivals and I could probably write a book on things that independent filmmakers should avoid but today I'm just going to focus on one of them because it's an editing issue. And that issue is- when to cut.

When to cut is really the question facing every editor on every cut and it's not one that can be given a single pat answer, but there is one rule that applies to every cut. Always edit on action. I was watching a film submission that included a scene at a poetry reading. The lead character leaves quickly and as she does she pushes through two men standing near the exit. The editor cut back to the poet and then returned to show the two men watching the lead leave the room then turning towards each other and shrugging.

By the time the editor cut back to the two men, the lead had already left the scene so what we see is the two men staring at a closed door, then turning and shrugging. To make this edit flow better instead the cut should have been just as the men are turning to face each other, a moment before they shrug. Instead we are left with 2-3 seconds of them staring at a door. In editing terms 2-3 seconds is an eternity.

By cutting on action- the men turning to face each other- the shot becomes more visually interesting because something is actually happening (minor as that action may be). By cutting earlier we are left to wait and wonder what the purpose of the shot is and what's going to happen. We already saw the lead leave the scene so what are they staring at? Is she coming back? Is someone else coming in? What's happening in that dark corner that we can't see very well that is so fascinating to those men? And yes, a viewer can have all of those questions run through their mind in only 2-3 seconds.

I've tried to enlist a few friends to recreate this scene so I could demonstrate what I'm talking about but haven't had any success yet. Practice it with some of your own footage or watch a TV program or movie, one you can pause and rewind hopefully and see when the cuts occur. You'll see that this is standard- editors cut on action, while things are happening in the shot not while people are standing, staring off into space.

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