Smooth Cutting—The Ideal (Film Editing)

Film is a deceptive art—in many ways. Its collaborative nature is axiomatic, yet more than in most art forms, that collaboration is hidden from the audience. In a good film, the whole will always be greater than the sum of its parts. Every honest filmmaker strives to make a film which so enthralls the viewer that he lives and breathes only with the beings on the screen. If that viewer, during his first look at the film, is critically conscious of the sets, the photography, the acting, the director’s "touches," the "brilliance" of the dialogue or the musical score, the good director knows he has come up short of perfection. A film’s first viewing should evoke emotional, not critical, reaction. Nothing so warms the heart of the director of a dramatic film as an audience which sits quietly for minutes after the end title, digesting lingering thoughts and emotions, gathering itself for the return to reality.

This lack of eclectic awareness, or of technical appreciation, is especially true of editing. The finer the cutter’s technique, the less noticeable is his contribution. And this oversight persists. No nonprofessional viewer will remember the cutting, even in post viewing analysis, since most cuts are specifically contrived to pass unnoticed. If the film is well shot and well cut, the viewer will perceive it as a motion picture which seems to flow in continuous, unbroken movement on a single strip of film. At times, even if a film is not well shot, an extremely clever cutter can still shape it into a smooth, continuous narrative.

So the good cutter finds satisfaction in the appreciation and applause of those of his peers, associates, and superiors who are aware of the travail and brain beating he undergoes to arrive at a result which few will notice. Humility is one of the cutter’s strongest characteristics.

The conditions which make "smooth" cutting possible do not all arise spontaneously in the cutting room. The ideal of invisibility is achieved through a series of steps. The first, and one of the most important, can be taken only by the film’s director.

Many directors have little understanding of the needs of the editor. Strange to say, some of our best directors have exhibited shortcomings in this area. Even stranger is the fact that such shortcomings have not noticeably diminished the quality of their films, at least not to the average viewer. On careful analysis, even a good many of our "classics" display tortuous transitions, improper "screen direction," and unimaginative composition. Does this prove that expertise in any or all of these areas is nonessential? By no means.

What it does prove, or at least indicate, is that there are many facets to any film, and all of them need not be first rate for that film to have audience appeal. A good film can be badly photographed on inferior stock (e.g., Open City) and still be a hit. A good film can survive a mediocre score or even sloppy editing if the indispensable major elements are present in strength. The only sure stiflers of appreciation and enjoyment are badly written stories, careless dramatic structuring, inadequately developed characters, and funereal pacing.

None of this is meant to imply that a director may lightly ignore the "minor" essentials. But if he does, someone will have to cover for him—and that someone is the film editor. Cosmetic applications, however, rarely equal competence at the source, and a film made by a director with limited cinematic knowledge will always fall short of its true potential, even though its faults may be cleverly concealed.

As the director plans his setups for a scene or sequence, he should anticipate where key cuts will be made, at least in cutting from one master setup to another. This means, for instance, that at the point of the cut there should be a marked difference in size, or angle, or number of characters (or all three) between the two setups. If the first setup shows, let us say, four players at full height, the next setup should not show the same four actors at the same full height from the same point of view. A close similarity in two contiguous cuts will guarantee a cut that "jumps," i.e., is noticeable to the viewer as a change of scene.*

It may seem illogical, but a decided change, e.g., cutting from the four shot to a close shot of one of the group, will make a smooth, unnoticeable transition, especially if the close shot shows a reaction or response to something said or done by another member of the group. However, the incoming cut should not present a point of view that will interrupt the flow of the scene, thus distracting the viewer and losing his attention.

Perhaps the greatest sinner of all is the "clever" director who "cuts in the camera." The phrase, which can be used in several contexts, usually signifies that the director, in any particular "take," shoots only that portion of the scene which he expects to use as one complete cut, whether it be an action in a full shot or a reaction or single line of dialogue in a close-up. This technique is used in the false belief that it saves film, time, and money, or because the director fears the cutter will play fast and loose with the material if given too many options. The technique is self-defeating for two reasons:

1. It depends on sticking to strict "story-boarding" or cutting to script, thus "setting" the film prematurely and obviating any opportunity for later improvement or enhancement.

2. It is clearly bad directional technique, since it affords the actors little or no opportunity to ‘ ‘get into the scene" and results in superficial, often stiff, performances.

A close relative of the director who "cuts in the camera" is the director who ignores cutting and shoots long master shots, "theater style," with little or no coverage. Although this kind of shot can be advantageous on rare occasions, most extended scenes need proper coverage for dramatic emphasis or constructive deletion.

Ernst Lubitsch, certainly one of the great directors in Hollywood history, once made this fatal mistake. He shot a dramatic scene in a single master shot, allowing for no cutaways, considering it completely satisfactory as it played. The preview audience failed to see it his way. Severe pruning was called for, but no protection setups had been shot. The entire scene had to be refilmed in a number of setups at considerable labor and expense.

Even if the director feels that a particular scene plays at its best in a single setup—and almost every director has resorted to this technique at one time or another—basic wisdom demands that he protect himself against the occasional mis-judgment. Such protection (the actual term used in this context) is cheap insurance and is obtained by a simple procedure, one known and used for more than half a century. In cutting room jargon it is known as "cutting to the kitchen stove." Translated, it means that a shot of one of the players involved in the scene, an observer outside it, or even some inanimate object on the set (or location) can be used as a cutaway from the master scene if it is later decided that a deletion in the scene is desirable. Such a shot, made on the spot, will take relatively little time and will disturb the schedule and the budget far less than if it has to be made at some future date.

The truth is that every good director who has risen from the cutting ranks and who feels secure in his cutting concepts still "protects" himself liberally. He knows better than anyone how often additional cinematic values can be supplied through the cutting process.

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