Cutting on Action

It’s no coincidence that many of the most capable Hollywood directors have worked in a cutting room. The editing suite is the best place to learn how to shoot! When you try to join two shots you really learn how you should have shot them in the first place. One very basic rule is to cut onwards not backwards on action. If you have a mid shot of someone talking about grasshoppers and he holds out his hand to show one, cut to the close-up as he moves his hand. But cut from the wider shot a few frames before his hand stops, and to the close up a frame or so before his hand comes to rest and it will look OK. The rationalisation is that the viewer takes time to realise he’s looking at a new shot, and somehow expects visual time to have moved on too. It really is a rationalisation, but it works. Experienced film editors often cut two or three frames before the beat on a music sequence for exactly the same reason.


And that brings us to the problem of timing. When do you cut? I said earlier that you should cut on action if at all possible. If you’ve got a mid shot (that’s just down to the waist remember) of a chap and he stands up, you need to cut wider to see (or show the viewer) where he’s gone. The correct timing here is just when his head threatens to leave the frame. Or more simply; when his bottom leaves the seat. Other cuts follow a similar principle: from the mid shot at the desk to the close up of the book just as he begins to write; from the same mid shot to the door just as he turns in response to the knock; from the two shot of the men in the doorway back to the chap at the desk as one raises the gun and points it at him etc. Each time you’re faced with a decision about where and when to cut just think “where would I be looking if I were actually there?”

Think in Sequences

I’ve said you should regard each shot as a word. In the same way you can think of each a sequence of shots as a sentence in our story-telling analogy. Try to think in terms of sequences, and not in single shots. Even the simplest story can be improved by thinking in sequences. How about a man writing a letter. If you just took a mid shot of him at a desk, the viewer would be tired of the picture after about eight seconds or so. But you’ve also got a close-up of the pen on paper; a close up of him as he scratches his forehead trying to think of the best phrase to use; a shot of the pen being dipped into the inkwell (well tell him to put away his ball point pen, it’s not as pretty as a quill!); a close-up of the clock as it strikes ten (forget the mouse); the blotting paper being applied; a two shot as the maid comes in with the afternoon tea; a close-up of the teapot … and so on and so on and so on.

The Master plus Cutaways

Which shot is the Master?
Each sequence can be broken down into a master shot and cutaways (cut-ins would be a more precise term, but modern usage says cutaways). The master is usually the most difficult or complicated shot of the sequence, or the one that can”t be repeated easily. In the letter writing example it would probably be the two shot with the maid. The master shot is almost invariably done first, then the easier shots, then the very easy ones, etc. 
In an interview situation, the master is not the two shot, but the shot that can”t be repeated – the single shot of the interviewee. He isn’t an actor; he won”t be able to repeat his answers, so you shoot him first. Then maybe you do a two shot (remember the over shoulder two shot?) of the interviewee listening to the interviewer; a reverse one featuring the interviewer while he repeats his questions, then an MCU of the interviewer pretending to listen to the answers…. Does it all sound like a stream of lies? Well television is all lies! But it should be lies carefully contrived to be as near the truth as possible.

The Camera always lies – so Lie Creatively

Whenever you turn up on any location, people change. They don”t act normally when there’s a camera around. So don”t be afraid to stage manage things. For instance, consider a piece about the price of gold. You need a fairly lengthy piece to demonstrate the willingness of people to regard gold as an investment as well as ornamentation. You could try taking some shots of a few shops selling gold, some close-ups of jewellery, some footage of the bank vaults and some of the precious metals section of the commodity exchange. 

It’s OK, but how about stage managing it? Ask a friendly jeweller to help (it’s all free publicity, so he”ll jump at the chance), and set up a whole sequence featuring a couple buying an engagement ring. No, of course they”re not a real couple, they probably haven”t met before, they”re actors, or friends, or perhaps employees of the gold dealer! You can have a two shot of them walking along the street; a long shot as they stop to look in the dealer”s window; a cutaway of the “Sale – special offers” sign; a tight two shot as they see something they like; close-up of the tray; another close-up of the price tag; a close-up of the guy reacting to it; a close-up of the girl smiling sweetly; a close-up of him squeezing her hand; back to the tight two shot as she drags him off in the direction of the shop”s door. Wow, that’s ten shots and they haven”t even got inside yet! See if you can work out a similar scene in the shop. Now work out which shot is the master for both the interior and the exterior – which shots are essential and which you could manage without if you ran short of time or there was rain or something. Because things do change. They change all the time. And time is always a problem on location. But don’t worry too much about it at the moment – worry about planning. That’s where half an hour spent in thought can save you days later on. For one thing you can avoid crossing the line! What?