You’ve Got to Have a Reason (Film Editing)

The first two basic rules of cutting are as follows:

Rule 1. Never make a cut without a positive reason.

Rule 2. When undecided about the exact frame to cut on, cut long rather than short.*

Cuts should be conceived on the big screen, but they can be made only on the Moviola. To put it more simply, based on his viewing of the assembled material, the cutter decides where he wants to change angles, where to move into a close shot or cut back to a long shot, and where to cut to a reaction or a response. But on the big screen the film flashes by at 24 frames a second, a cut takes only 1 frame, and a cutter can hardly spot the exact frame to cut on in this infinitesimal i. space of time. * Therefore, the cutter must view his film on the Moviola, where he can start, stop, run forward, or run backward as quickly, as slowly, and as often as he wishes. He must be able to stop on the proverbial dime, and he often needs to. In short, it is on the Moviola that he finds the exact frame to leave one scene and the exact frame to enter the next.

The word exact is stressed because I believe that the proper cut can be made only at a single point. Obviously, cutting three or four frames to either side of the hypothetically "perfect" cut will make a difference of only 3/24ths or 4/24ths of a second—hardly enough to bother a viewer who consumes 5/24ths of a second to, literally, blink an eye. But why be l/8th of a second off target if you can be perfect? Beyond this purely ethical consideration, when making an "action cut," three frames too much or too little on one side or the other can effectively spoil the match.

Now, to expand on rule 1: This rule may seem obvious, but the key here is "positive reason." I have known cutters who felt that if they allowed a scene to rim more than a certain arbitrary number of feet without a cut, they were not doing their job. But a cut should never be made only because the cutter feels the prevailing cut is too long. "Too long" is a very elastic measurement. A cut can be too long at 1 foot and not long enough at 500 feet.

In Broken Lance, I shot two scenes that ran about 10 minutes, or 900 feet, each. (One-thousand feet is as much film as the average 35 mm magazine will hold.) One scene was played by Spencer Tracy and Richard Widmark, the other by Tracy and E.G. Marshall. These three were great actors who could "hold" an audience as well as anyone in films. Also, in both instances, I used a moving camera and moving actors; i.e., the camera could move from a long shot into a close shot and back again as the scene progressed, and the actors could move from a full shot into a close-up when greater intensity was needed.

In the finished film, both scenes played at full length without a cut. The scenes were so tight and so dramatic that intercutting would not have helped in the least. I had, of course, made a "protection" take for each scene,but neither one was needed.

I have also, in certain action or montage sequences, used cuts as short as six frames, or one-quarter of a second. It took just that long, and no longer, for the cuts to deliver their total messages.

As a sequence is being cut, the cutter should know where a particular setup most effectively presents the information needed for that particular part of the scene. In other words, he will stay with a shot as long as that shot is the one which best delivers the required information and cut to another shot only when the new cut will better serve the purposes of the scene, whether because the size is more effective, the composition is more suitable, or the interpretation is superior.

One cuts to a close-up, for instance, to enhance a response or intensify a reaction. Deep feeling—emotion—is usually best expressed through the eyes, and the closer the shot, the more clearly the emotion can be seen and felt by the viewer. However, cutting to a close-up when no enhancement of emotion is called for is not only wasteful, but tends to diminish the value of subsequent close-ups when they are legitimately needed. The overuse of any effect diminishes its true worth.

There are other, though infrequent occasions, when similar emotional intensity will play better in longer shots. In Mirage, Gregory Peck enters Walter Mathau’s office and finds him strangled to death. After a brief momerit of shocked inaction, Peck vents his grief and rage through violence, smashing furniture and throwing a chair through a window. Obviously, this scene played best in a series of wide shots, where the full range of Peck’s righteous anger could be given full play.

In short, as long as the scene is playing at its best in the selected angle, leave it alone! The only reason for using another cut is to improve the scene.

Rule 2 may also seem obvious, yet how often have I seen it violated! Every cut is the result of a conscious decision, hard or easy, and as any psychologist can testify, making a decision can be a traumatic experience. The more options available, the more difficult are the decisions. I have often seen an inexperienced cutter agonize for hours over a single cut and regret it instantly when the cut was finally made, feeling sure that one of his other options was preferable.

The rule that applies in school examinations also applies, logically enough, in cutting: The first immediate and instinctive choice is more likely than not to be the right one. Experience will eventually teach a cutter exactly where to make his cut the first time around, and the decision will scarcely make a blip on his mind, but if there is any doubt as to how many frames should precede or follow a reaction, let us say, it is wiser to leave the cut a little long. Trimming a cut down to proper size at a later run-through will prove to be simple—and much, much more neat. Splicing a few frames back onto a scene which has been lopped short makes "jumpy" viewing, and a cut full of such amendments makes proper visualization difficult and perceptive judgment impossible.

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