April 19, 2011
by Kyle Cassidy, VideoMaker
One of the advantages of living at the end of 100 years of motion picture editing is that we have access to the collected wisdom of many film and television editors.
Every day on TV and in the movies, we see conventions of editing that build upon the hard work and genius of those who have come before. Actually breaking editing down into its constituent parts and figuring out how they work, however, can be very difficult. Although we see so much of it, we don’t notice a lot. Good editing is, for the most part, invisible. A good editor can take an audience from point A to point B, and, when it’s over, we won’t remember how we got there – only that it looked seamless.
A Powerful Technique
One powerful convention of editing is cutting on action, which is a way of preserving continuity and making cuts flow together. It helps you make your cuts invisible and draws viewers into your story. Sometimes called cutting on motion, it is a very useful way to transition between shots, especially shots which may otherwise have nothing to tie them together. One common example is a person walking up to a door and reaching for the knob. Just as his hand touches the knob is the perfect opportunity to cut to a shot of the door opening from the other side. The second shot should have a level of action equivalent to the first. The motion carries us from one image to another.
Very often in moviemaking, we might shoot exteriors and interiors on different days, and the locations might be far apart. Without action tying the two shots together, we have no clues that tell us that the exterior door is the same as the interior door and not the inside of a different house. The action stretching across two or more shots becomes the continuity that carries the viewer from one shot to the next. It tells us that the door opening on the interior is the same one we just saw on the exterior, even if it’s not really the same door. The hand reaching for the handle to open the door is the first part of the story. It carries into the door opening from the inside, which is the second part of the story. Cutting at the point of action, while everything is in motion, makes the edit smooth and less noticeable.
How Does It Work?
Our eyes are drawn to things that move. It’s biological – we can’t help it. In editing, we can use this natural attention to cover up edits – to make things seem like one continual shot, even though the camera angle is changing, from wide shot to closeup, to medium shot, etc. One example that you see all the time is a cut on a head turn. A character turns her head and looks back over her shoulder. If you cut during that head turn, from a long shot to a closeup, and match the action so that it doesn’t look like she’s turning her head twice, the transition from wide to tight will appear invisible.
It’s important to pick a spot in the action that will connect the two shots – like our reaching-for-a-doorknob example. Imagine a scene about football: obvious cuts would be when the player snaps the ball, when the quarterback throws it, when the receiver catches it and when the defensive back tackles the receiver. This doesn’t mean that you have to cut there, but these are natural places to change camera angles.
Don’t be tempted to wait for a pause and then cut, unless you have a good reason. Waiting for a pause will slow down the pace. Sometimes this is necessary, but, for the most part, cut on action while it is happening. If you pay attention when you are watching movies and television, as you should, you’ll notice that editors tend to cut in the first third of the action – one-third of the way through the snap or the pass. The rest of the action will continue in the next shot. Again, don’t forget to match the action, or you’ll get a stutter in the flow of motion that will wake your viewers up like a thrown bucket of cold water.
Matching action is part of what we call classical cutting – the so-called rules of editing, mostly invented by D.W. Griffith way back in the early 1900s and still used today. It means that, when you are cutting between action shots, all moving things (hands, heads, etc.) need to be in the same place at the end of one cut and the beginning of the next shot.
Cut on Action to Time-Travel
You can also use cutting on action to carry the viewer through time. Picture a father throwing a baseball to his son. The father winds up and throws the baseball, but, instead of seeing the expected 9-year-old catcher, the viewer sees a 25-year-old-man in a major league uniform in a big stadium filled with people.
A man riding his bike down a country lane might be thinking of his first bike. You can show a clip of the man on his bike as it exits the scene, then the next clip shows a child on a bike entering the scene from the left. Or you can show a wide shot of the man on his bike, then cut to a closeup of the front wheel of his bike as he travels along his path. Dissolve to a closeup of the boy’s tire, then follow through with a wide shot of the boy.
The continuity of the action – whether it’s the pitch, then the catch, or the closeup of the bike’s wheel followed by the child’s tire – tells us “this is the same person.” The man is the boy grown up, all told in a second, with no need for exposition.
Even if you’re not cutting the fast-paced action of a football game, everyday situations present plenty of motion – people sitting down, turning, opening an oven, walking through a doorway, closing a car door, picking up a napkin. This is all action, and every one provides opportunities for making natural, seamless and invisible cuts. The action itself is a vehicle which holds the continuity between shots. Add this to your tool kit, and use it wisely.
Your homework, as always, is to point at the TV screen and shout, “Look! Cutting on action!” when you see examples. Your friends and family will grow to appreciate it.
Contributing Editor Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who writes extensively about technology.