Know the Basics, Part 1

So, after settling into my new routine of school and work again, it’s time to get back to it.  I’m taking a double header of editing courses this semester, just to expose myself to different genres and media so I can develop a style for each – don’t do many music videos in a non-academic setting, for example.  One course is a technical course, one is an aesthetics course.  The best of both worlds.  I was struck by how many people in the aesthetics course described themselves as working editors, but who didn’t know some of the basics of editing.  So, with that, I figured I’d leave the professionalism theme alone for the time being and address some more fundamentals here.  Because it flat out scared me that my fellow students didn’t know some of this.

To keep these short, I’ll present 1 major convention of editing in each post.  Like all rules, there are times when these rules can be broken.  However, it’s important to know why you are breaking them, so that they can effectively fit into the overall rhythm and emotion of your project.  So, to start us off, here’s number 1.

First Basic Rule of Editing: When making a cut, there must be a change of camera angle and size of shot.

What does this mean?  It means that you shouldn’t join shots that originate from the same vantage point, and the type of shot (wide shot, medium, close up, etc.) should vary between takes.  For example: we see a wide shot of a actor as he starts walking out of the frame.  He is walking at a 45˚ angle away from the viewer.  In the next shot, if I seek to continue the action, I would probably look for a medium shot or close-up with the actor walking towards the viewer at a 45˚ angle.

Why?  For a cut to be effective, the audience has to see something completely different in the two shots that make up the cut.  If the size or angle is the same, or very close to the same, the cut looks more like a jump between to identical shots.  Audiences will notice cuts like that.  Walter Murch explains it through an interesting analogy to bees.  If you move a beehive overnight, let’s say 3 miles away, the bees won’t be disoriented at all.  They’ll get to work exploring this new environment and will continue to function just fine.  However, if you only move the hive, say 3 yards, the bees will be fatally confused.  Their surroundings are almost identical, but the hive is missing.  The bees will actually hover where the hive was rather than were it is now.  They don’t realize things have changed.

You want your audience to be like those bees who moved 3 miles.  You want them to just keep going with the flow.  A successful cut is one that isn’t noticed.  That means you need to force their brains to realize a change of context.  We do that by varying the angle and size of shots when we make cuts.  Although that sounds like more work, it’s something our brains do automatically.  We’re not even aware of it.  To see that in action, go watch the shower scene from Psycho twice.  Once, just watch, then watch again and try to count the number of cuts.  When you count the cuts, ask yourself how many you were aware of when first watching.

You can actually accomplish the same thing in a continuous shot if you have a very talented director and DP at your disposal.  To see what I’m talking about, watch the first shot of A Touch of Evil, by Orson Welles.  It’s a beautifully composed shot of at least 3 minutes.  There isn’t a single cut in that entire 3 minutes.  And yet there are changes of shot size and angle throughout, so your brain accepts it as if it were cut.  That wraps up the first big rule of editing.  As with any rule, you can break it, but make sure you’re breaking it for a reason related to the story you’re telling, and not breaking it out of ignorance.  An audience will be able to tell the difference.

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