It’s a bird… it’s a plane… it’s … the motivated edit? It’s a powerful editing technique, but to execute it well, you must consider the final edit when you plan the first shot.

One of our favorite words when we talk about editing is ‘conventions.’ You’ve read it in our mag or on our Website before, we’re going to use it again today and this won’t be the last time we return to this term. We sometimes refer to the conventions of editing as the grammar of the edit. And of the many types of editing grammar we talk about, the motivated edit is one of our most common staples.

The motivated edit, though having a single definition, comes in many flavors. In its most basic form, a motivated edit is one that alludes to something not in the frame and then cuts to that item or event. You see it all the time in horror films: a woman is standing in a spooky place all alone and then hears a startling sound. She spins her head around and sees nothing. The sound then comes from another area, and the soon-to-be victim jerks her head in that direction. Eventually, the viewing audience gets to see the object of terror, usually along with a loud, startling sound. The scene in which the second person is killed in the recent vampire film, 30 Days of Night (2007), is a perfect example.

If you accept that any edit breaks the illusion of continuity, then we put forth that the motivated edit is one of the least jarring forms of transition. For this reason, it is used often in Hollywood-style narrative filmmaking. In fact, many call the Hollywood style of editing ‘continuity editing’ – the editing that is least noticeable to the viewer. The general rule or, more accurately, convention in Hollywood is that the viewer should not notice a single edit during a ninety-minute film. If there is an edit every seven seconds on average, that’s close to 800 edits in an hour and a half. Quite a feat to have all of these breaks in continuity go unnoticed.

A man and woman talk while holding mugs


Another ‘flavor’ of the motivated edit is the ‘shot/reverse shot’ technique of cutting. You usually use this in conversation scenes. A good example of the shot/reverse shot can be seen in part one of the well-produced online drama Quarterlife, which you can find on YouTube or its sponsor, MySpace (or Search for Part 1, and you’ll find the action/reaction cutting at the one minute and fifty-nine second point, when Debra (Michelle Lombardo) walks into Dylan’s room (Bitsie Tulloch) while she is video blogging, and they have a short conversation.

This is so common in Hollywood and on television that I challenge you, our reader, to find a show or film that doesn’t use this editing method. It is usually composed of two over-the-shoulder shots of two people facing each other. The editor cuts back and forth from one person to the next as they talk or react to the other’s comments. Some people also call this edit ‘action/reaction’ cutting.

Not What It Appears to Be

We recently saw a more tangential yet creative form of the motivated edit in a British sitcom called Spaced. In episode 1, the main character, Tim, is detailing the life history of other main character, Daisy. As he lists the main events, the editor has cut in clips showing that the details are not as glamorous as they appear ‘on paper.’ We hear Tim state that Daisy’s best friend’s name is Twist, and that she “works in fashion.” The image we see is of a woman putting a suit in a bag at a dry-cleaning store.


You can find another great and hilarious example of this form of motivated edit in David O. Russell’s film, Three Kings (1999). Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) asks three of his soldiers if they would rather be back at their day jobs instead of acquiring a large amount of money in a less-than-honest mission. As the camera dollies in on the GIs (played by Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze), the film cuts to short clips of each of them working their day jobs. The shots are not only funny but foreshadow various events that will occur later in the movie. If you haven’t seen this film, we highly recommend it. This example is in chapter 5 of the DVD, at 14 minutes and 38 seconds.

Low Budget Trick

While we’re on a tangent, here’s a little trick pertaining to the motivated edit where the ‘edit’ never happens. You could call this the motivated un-edit. This trick is the low-budget solution to big-budget effects. Something happens out of the frame, but we never cut to it. For example, a car speeds to the edge of a cliff, and the driver jumps out. A group of bystanders turns to watch the vehicle shoot off the cliff, all following with their eyes and looks of surprise. In unison, their heads follow laterally until ‘the car’ leaps off the edge. They then run to the edge themselves and stare down to where the car would have crashed at the base of the cliff. We hear the impact and explosion. An orange flash illuminates the faces of the observers as they flinch, which seals the deal. This could also be someone planting a bomb and running away. The audience hears the explosion detonate as a gust of wind and an orange flash hit the bomber’s back as he or she flees. The high-budget hard-to-produce explosion scene never takes place, yet the motivated shots imply that they did, and the viewer watching the movie understands the story just the same.

There you have four examples of the motivated edit. If you want your videos to look like the works of the pros, watch their examples, and learn the conventions they have been following for the last one hundred-plus years of filmmaking. The motivated edit is one of the smoothest cuts you can use, but you most likely have to plan on it in your pre-production and make sure you shoot it properly. So study your dialog, look over your script and draw it into your storyboards. Your audience will appreciate your filmmaking skills.

Contributing editor Morgan Paar is a nomadic producer, shooter and
editor currently teaching high school video production.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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