The Kindest Cut of All

In the beginning, there was the cut. The usual editing conventions dictate that most of your transitions should be cuts. Let’s step away from the transitions palette for a while.

The very first person to ever edit any kind of moving picture undoubtedly started by simply removing something they didn’t like from the flow of images.

The cut was born. And it was good. Very, very good. Because the cut is the heart of all editing.

It’s a way to remove the dull — to juxtapose one scene against another — to shorten time — and generally keep your movie, video or any other form of communication from committing the most cardinal sin of all — boring your audience.

The key, of course, isn’t in simply making any old cut. It’s in positioning the cut “precisely” so that it best accomplishes your editing goal.

Understanding the Cut

Look at Figure 1. It’s a visual representation of two streams of video. Video A is currently playing in the timeline, and at Point X the figure shows a cut to Video stream B. But beneath even this simple cut, is a remarkably complex set of decisions.

Each of the two streams are moving at 30 frames a second. So even if you’re adjusting a cut within one second on each stream, you have 30 frames to choose from in the incoming video times 30 possible cut frames in the outgoing video. That means there are 900 different ways to precisely position this single edit! Now clearly, that much precision isn’t necessary for most editing tasks — but it does help us to understand that editing is a precise craft when practiced at it’s best.

And if an edit only affected the two clips themselves, then things would be simple. But in reality, many editing actions a clip can cause changes that potentially “ripple” through your entire video.

Adding even a few frames to the “head” or “tail” of an edit will either “push” all the content before or behind that clip downstream. (See sidebar: Ripple & Roll)

Cutting on Action

Video is all about action, so a good way to learn about good cutting is to examine cutting on movement. Imagine we’ve been hired to videotape a sales demonstration of a new product — the Billco Monster Peeler. We have a master shot of the pitchwoman explaining how the product works, and cutaway close ups of the product in action.

In the master shot our spokeswoman says: “There’s nothing like the extra efficiency of the Monster Peeler for those “hard to peel” items – like watermelon! Somewhere during that line you want to cut to the close up of the product in action. But where? If you cut early in the scene, – say just before the spokesperson says “extra efficiency” the cut “anticipates” the action and you’ll “punch up” the efficiency message. If you cut just prior to the product name “Monster Peeler,” you’re emphasizing the brand name and the product directly — nothing wrong with that!

But if you hold the cut until near or even after the end of the line, You’re emphasizing your audiences’ likely surprise that the product can actually peel a watermelon! Which is best? Well, which do you want to do? If the client wants the “efficiency” message highlighted, the early cut is probably best. If they are trying to burn the “brand name” into the audiences’ awareness, the “middle” cut is called for. And if the goal is to keep the audience watching and go for pure entertainment value, then telling the pitch-person to punch up the “like Watermelon!” and hold the cut so that you don’t reveal the visual surprise until the last second.

These three examples show three different “good” approaches in one simple cutaway scene. There are plenty of bad places to cut as well. Cutting too early before the spokesperson is fully established. Cutting too late after the watermelon gag is stale can kill the joke. Cutting without thinking about the messages being delivered (random edit placement) — are all ways an unskilled editor can rob even a simple cut of it’s potential power.

So as you can see, all “cuts” aren’t necessarily simple. There are good, bad, and mediocre edit points even in an example this basic. Learning to find the best ones is what the craft of editing is all about!

Final Thoughts

The key concept in all cutting is that you’re putting a break in the current flow of images. In order to make cuts smooth and maintain your program’s flow (if that’s your goal) you need to place your cuts where they make the best sense for your audience. That means not interrupting actions, dialog or movements in ways your audience can’t accept.

If you watch well edited movies or TV with a critical eye, you’ll find that good directors often cut on actions, they cut in anticipation of things the audience expects to happen, and they seldom interrupt their flow by cutting in the middle of a word or movement unless the action they’re cutting to is a natural extension of what they’re cutting from.

What makes movies, video and other streaming content so powerful is their ability to lightly “hypnotize” us into suspending our disbelief and focusing all our attention on the imagery being presented, literally trapping our consciousness and engaging us in the presentation?

In that context, a well-placed cut becomes invisible. In other words, when your audience completely misses the fact that there was a cut, you are definitely getting the hang of all of this editing stuff!


Contributing Editor Bill Davis owns and operates a video production company.

Sidebars:

Ripple & Roll

Most current editing software has facilities for both of these editing options as a part of their toolkits. In Roll editing, as you drag your tool along the timeline, you simultaneously extend one clip while shortening the other. So the edit affects only the transition point between the two clips themselves, nothing else up or downstream from the edit.

In a ripple edit, as you drag your tool along the timeline, you extend or shorten one clip while keeping the "edit point" of the other clip constant. So ripple editing moves not only the clip you've selected, but also all the clips upstream from that clip as well. Ripple editing is very useful, but be careful! Particularly when you're editing against a fixed soundtrack like a music video — a ripple edit can fix one problem — but throw everything else "down stream" off the beat.

The Cut as Tension Builder

In life, we link movement with expectations. If there’s a hand reaching for a doorknob, for example, we expect that the next action that will be the door opening and the person entering the room. Cutting from an exterior to an interior at the reach makes sense. Cutting to the interior of an airplane wouldn’t make sense, but sometimes you want to momentarily confuse your audience.

If the hand reaching to the door is the killer threatening the family at home, and the cut to the airplane interior is to the hero, miles away stuck in an airplane, the “disjointed” cut may add some needed dramatic tension to the story. The bottom line is the best cut is one that successfully helps your story.

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