Keep It Fresh and Fast with the Overlap (Film Editing)

Cutters, on the whole, are a conscientious lot, but inevitably some are ignorant, some are careless, and some are lazy. The first condition is lamentable, the second correctible, but the third is unforgivable. The lazy cutter cheats not only his director, his producer, and his employer, but he also cheats the viewer. A cutter who cuts "straight across" because overlapping takes more time and greater effort (which it certainly does) puts out a film which falls short of its potential.

Let us take a simple example—our old acquaintance, the exit-entrance cut. Quite a few working editors and almost all amateurs will allow the actor to make a full exit in the first cut and then hold the scene a number of frames more before cutting away. This kind of cutting is wrong on every count, whether technical or aesthetic, for the following reasons:

1. It violates the rule concerning the viewer’s eye movement.

2. It extends a scene which no longer has any meaning or interest for the viewer.

3. It increases the length of the film to no useful purpose.

(1) Has been discussed in depth in the preceding topic, except for one aspect. If the viewer looks toward an incoming cut and no cut appears, he will search the scene still on the screen for what he assumes the filmmaker wants him to see. (Unless he is deceived too often, the viewer will always believe the filmmaker has some reason for everything he puts on the screen.) When his search is rewarded with some footage of an empty set, he will be confused or disappointed, neither of which reactions recommends the cut.

(2) If the viewer is not confused or disappointed, he will simply be bored. It has been many years since a mere picture projected on the screen was considered amazing or amusing. Every part of a film must deliver its message, but the only message delivered by redundant frames of film is that the cutter was inept or too lazy to cut them off.

(3) This is an important consideration that is often a factor in a film’s appeal. A few extra frames may seem to give little cause for concern, and if they appeared only once or twice in a film, this might be true. But there are many cuts which lend themselves to this special kind of carelessness, and when such a fault is often repeated, the total amount of unprofitable film can be considerable.

The most serious aspect of this miscut, however, is its immediate effect on the viewer. A mental "hiccup" of this sort interrupts the flow—hence the pacing—of the film, and pacing is a key factor in raising the viewer’s involvement up to the highest possible level. Obviously, a series of such hiccups, recurring throughout the film, can be harmful indeed.

Let us probe this concept a bit more deeply. Practical filmmakers have long held that the viewer should remain completely unaware of technique—all technique, whether that of the actor, the cameraman, the writer, the director, or the cutter. In art, the obvious is a sin. Some aspects of this principle have already been discussed. Now let us examine a special case.

The setting is a desert road in New Mexico—John Ford country. A stagecoach rumbles toward the viewer and passes through and out of the scene. The cutter allows the shot to linger on the "painted desert" as the dust slowly settles to earth. If the viewer murmurs to himself or to his companion, "What a beautiful shot," we have stayed with the cut too long. The viewer is appreciating our shot, not the film; he has become aware of our cinematic composition, our technique.

However, it is possible to let the viewer enjoy the beauty of the setting as part of the film as a whole. If we start the shot with the same beautiful landscape, the viewer will appreciate it at least as much, but will be accepting it in the context of the story. Most probably, of course, the stagecoach will already be seen in the distance. But even if it cannot be seen, even if, as yet, no action takes place on the screen, the viewer, while reacting to the scene’s beauty, will also be anticipating some action pertaining to the film, looking for the stagecoach perhaps, thus again placing the scene into the context of the film. However, by the time the coach passes the camera, the viewer is ready for a change of scene.

Rule 4: The "fresh" is preferable to the "stale."

If, for some valid reason, a few frames must be tacked onto the end of one cut or the beginning of the next, or if, because of the need for exposition or background establishment, as in the preceding example, a few feet must be added to the end of one cut or the beginning of the next, always choose to place the extra footage at the beginning of the new, or incoming, cut. The reason is obvious, but often ignored.

In the case of the stagecoach scene, the reason for adding the extra footage to the beginning of the shot is easily understood. In the case of the few frames, however, the logic may not be so easily grasped. But the same rule is at work in both instances. Let us return to the exit-entrance cut for our example.

The first cut has played itself out on the screen, and for the duration of the cut, the set, or background, has been in full view. To linger on it after our actor has left the scene is to leave our viewer with "cold coffee." The second cut, however, is fresh to the eye and to the mind, and if it is necessary to add a number of frames before the actor enters the scene, the viewer has, at least, a new setting to examine and integrate, which serves to keep his interest alive.

An understanding of rule 4 allows us to continue our examination of "static" cuts. The simplest and most obvious static cuts are the beginnings and ends of sequences and self-contained scenes.

Rule 5: All scenes should begin and end with continuing action.’

Rule 5 is included not because its dictum is misunderstood or unknown, but because it is so taken for granted that it is surprisingly often forgotten or ignored. It is a corrective procedure, and its message is simple.

The beginning of a scene (this is especially true of scenes at the start of sequences) should never reveal an actor "preparing," or waiting, to act. An experienced director will, as a matter of course, give an actor the opportunity to "get into" a scene well before its usable beginning. If the scene is one of movement, the warmup may be as simple as walking across the set, getting up from a chair or sitting down in one, hanging up the telephone as though a conversation had just taken place, and so forth. The warmup serves to keep the scene "alive" at the point of the cut, to subconsciously suggest to the viewer that he is seeing a fragment of continuing life, not a staged scene with a visible framework.

An inexperienced director or one who "cuts in the camera" will often start his take just where the scene is meant to begin in the edited film, which allows the cutter no room to maneuver. This is especially troublesome if the scene is to be used in a dissolve. The only cure is to cut into the body of the scene, even if it means starting the dialogue under the end of the preceding cut.

A similar problem can arise at the end of a scene if the actor "lets down" immediately after his last line of dialogue, his last bit of business, or if the director is too quick with his "cut." The solution, once more, is to cut away while the scene is still "alive," either by cutting to another player’s reaction, to the "kitchen stove," or to the next scene while overlapping the last bit of dialogue from the shortened scene.

You will be "saving" the director’s film, and your "advanced" technique will probably elicit admiration. It will by no means be the first time that a last ditch corrective measure has been hailed as a creative cut.

Another common cut, seen many times in every film, is the "look off." Here is an example from The Caine Munity:


The "look off" here is quite clear. Less clear, however, is the last word in the writer’s instruction: "Willie and Harding look off, panicked." There are situations where an actor’s reaction to something the audience has not yet seen can be funny or effective. This is not one of them. Obviously, the panic (which is not the way the scene was played in actuality) would come after the shot of the mast.

This cutaway seems quite simple and straightforward, but a good sense of timing is required. The actor looks off, but just how long does he look?

The viewer, as a rule, will not accept the "fact" of a look until he sees the actor’s eyes focus, or freeze, on something offscreen. At that point he too will look off, following the actor’s gaze. By the time his own eyes have refocused, the actor’s point-of-view shot (POV) should occupy the screen. To make the cut, then, we fix the frame in which the actor’s eyes have frozen, add 3 or 4 frames more to give the viewer time to react and follow the actor’s look, and then cut to the POV.

After making 50 or 60 such cuts, the routine will become almost automatic.

In the given example, however, two people look off, which complicates the cut. If they look off simultaneously, there is no problem—the two looks can be treated as one. But, if the two actors have different reaction timing, which is more than likely, where do you cut? Which actor do you follow? Do you cut on the first fixed look, or do you wait for the second?

The not-so-simple answer is another question: Whom is the viewer watching at the moment the cut should be made? If his attention is centered on the actor who looks off first, the viewer will follow his look, and that determines the cut, regardless of what the other actor is doing. However, if the viewer is watching the actor whose look is delayed, the second look now mandates the cut.

Another very common cut is introduced in this example—the POV—in this case the shot of the mast. The length of such a cut is a matter of judgment. If an audience reaction to the cut itself is expected, the cutter will let it run long—long enough, as in this example, to get a laugh started which will continue to build (it is hoped) over the ensuing shot of the actors’ reactions. If the cut is too short, the laugh will die aborning; if it is too long, the laugh may weaken beyond the power of the reaction cut to resuscitate it.

The only rule for such a cut is a paraphrase of Lincoln’s answer to the joker who asked him how long a man’s legs should be. "Long enough to reach the ground," said Abe. The POV shot should run just long enough to deliver its message, and not one frame longer. Never give the viewer the opportunity to say, "All right already!" If the picture it presents is easily read, the cut can be as short as 2 or 3 feet. If, as infrequently happens, the cut is a repetition of an earlier shot with which the viewer is familiar, it might be shorter. On the other hand, if the picture is "busy," with its necessary point of interest somewhat obscured (the mast, with its array of antennae, etc., was such a shot), longer viewing time is needed.*

If the cutter is really "with it," he will very gradually decrease the length of such cuts as the film progresses, even as the viewer’s awareness becomes more acute and he begins to understand the film’s characters, to think and live with the people on the screen.

Another POV shot is the insert—a cut of any inanimate object. An insert containing reading matter requires a special kind of judgment. Since there are great differences in viewers’ reading abilities, a compromise is in order, although the laggard should be favored. The fast reader will gain greater clarity from a second reading; the slow one will appreciate a fully delivered message.

Each cut in the POV category is on its own, its length determined by the cutter’s evaluation of its content. Timing is all. Errors come easily. The POV in whatever guise, insert, object, or scene, seems quite simple, but it can be a severe test of a cutter’s mettle, and it gives the critical observer a good measure of his talent.

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