Welcome to little Hollywood, our stop on the road to the land of cinema dreams.
In the following article, we’ll introduce you to both basic and advanced knowledge that is essential to video editing. We’ll be paying especially close attention to the question of how one goes about turning raw video footage into impressive movie scenes.
All you need to give your footage that special Hollywood feel is video editing software, such as Movie Edit Pro, and a few creative ideas.
The term “take” has several different meanings. On the one hand, it can refer to shots of a subject which are filmed from various perspectives. But it can also refer to shots with slightly different details (such as the lighting or background elements).
In any case, takes are variations on shots which provide you with a wealth of options when it comes time to start editing. Having more to work with during the editing process is good for your movie and is highly recommended. In order to keep track of your footage later on when you’re going through it for editing, it’s absolutely necessary to be able to tell which takes are which. This means being able to know at a glance if the footage you’re watching is a repeat take or a different shot. This is what clapperboards are for.
You should film your subjects from lots of different angles and using different arrangements. If you can, it’s best to film several different takes so that you’ll have plenty of material to choose from later on.
From Takes to Scenes and Sequences
When you edit a movie, you’re essentially moving through a structural diagram from bottom to top. First you cut the takes out from the raw material and begin piecing scenes together step by step, cut by cut. Cuts are transitions between shots.
The next category above the takes are the scenes. A scene is a meaningful unit in filmmaking. It normally consists of material that belongs to a single location and time continuum, but doesn’t necessarily have to be shown in an unbroken fashion. Scenes normally consist of several different shots.
An instance of dialogue, for example, will normally be shown using multiple shots that alternate between showing the speaker, the listener, and both together, while the audio tracks plays uncut. These elements are combined to form a dialogue scene.
A change of scene in a movie represents the introduction of a new meaningful unit. The transition between the last shot of the current scene and the first shot of the next scene is typically different— and more noticeable—than the transitions that take place between shots within a single scene.
In what follows, we will show you how to make the right choices when trying to decide between the unlimited range of options when it comes to piecing scenes together. When we say “right,” we mean two things here: firstly, this means editing your footage in a such a way so that it corresponds with the way most viewers perceive movies and what their expectations are. Essentially, how to make a movie that someone can understand and that can get recognition from viewers. On the other hand, we’re talking about editing in accordance with your own feelings and intentions. Editing is a crucial element of cinematic language. It’s how you choose which cinematic “sentences” to use in your message. As the director, you’re the one who’s speaking. You get to choose what you want to say.
Cuts and Transitions
Editing—a cut—causes time, locations and perspectives to change. The continuity of what’s happening in the movie is interrupted. But there are ways to make these cuts inconspicuous for the viewer. This is known as “continuity editing.”
Continuity editing isn’t about creating actual continuity, but about giving the viewer the impression of continuity by using cuts that he or she is unaware of.
On the one hand, you need to find the right spot to make a cut (e.g. define what sections of material should be used). The starting and ending points for each shot need to be defined separately. On the other hand, you need to decide where one shot ends and the next begins, that is, where the transitions between individual shots should go.
Transitions take the viewer from one shot to the next and in doing so create a narrative context, anticipation, and suspense. The question as to where you should cut a given shot always depends on the shot that follows it.
The issue of how long to make a shot can also only be addressed once you know how long the preceding and following shots are.
By assigning lengths to your shots in relation to each other, you create a cinematic rhythm which allows you to control the dramatic effect of how the story is being told. Once again, it comes down to context. And while this might seem like a vague explanation, there’s no need to worry. There are more specific answers to the question of how and when to make cuts that have been developed throughout the course of cinematic history.
Editing professionals are in disagreement about whether these are universal laws, recommendations, or even totalitarian pretension. But we don’t need to concern ourselves with this ongoing discussion. The classical rules of editing are the result of many years of professional editing work. Learning about these principles can only enhance your technical skill. So, where should you make cuts? We’re going to focus on the two most important principles here:
Cutting on action:
the first principle is to always cut mid-action. For example, if you have a close-up and a long shot of a person lifting a glass and drinking from it, you want to cut in the middle of the movement, that is, when the subject is lifting the glass.
The idea behind this principle is to make the cut as inconspicuous as possible. The viewer can already anticipate the end result of a movement as it’s happening. He or she already knows that the glass is going to arrive at the subject’s mouth. So, the viewer is aware of the narrative arc of the action, so to speak. Making a cut in the middle of the action results in a transition which is less noticeable for the viewer, as opposed to cutting after the action has been completed and introducing a new, unfamiliar arc.
No empty frames:
Shots should be cut before the subject has left the frame. Unless you have a special reason for doing otherwise. You can, in fact, transition between scenes and sequences using empty frames in order to bring the arc of suspense to a conclusion. But empty frames should be avoided within individual scenes.
Both of these principles are basically variants on the same theme: scenes should function as narrative units. An empty shot or completed action tell the viewer that the narrative arc is coming to a conclusion.
Enough about where to place cuts, let’s talk about combining shots. How should you arrange adjacent shots? Again, there are some classic solutions to this problem.
Shot Reverse Shot
Shot reverse shot is the easiest, most frequently used and most effective editing technique in the business.
Imagine a person on the street who is entering a building. They approach the door and open it. Upon entering, a reverse shot cut is made to show the same person from the interior perspective as he or she closes the door behind them, takes off their coat and hangs it up. Editing these two shots together creates the impression of a natural sequence of events. There’s no doubt as to whether the interior space the person has entered—the one we see in the second shot—is indeed the same space behind the door the person entered in the first shot. Although, in reality the two space are most likely unrelated.
Or consider a dialogue in a movie: you see and hear a close-up shot of an actor speaking, yet suddenly you’re shown the face of the person listening to the speaker as he or she continues talking. You’re actually being shown something that has no direct relationship to what you’re hearing—a motionless face. Without requiring an explanation, the viewer understands the new, silent mug to be that of the person listening. Without continuity editing, the shot of the listener would be understood simply as some face. The reverse shot is what turns it into the face of the listener and subsequently gives cinematic meaning to his or her facial expressions. Perhaps the expressionless face
suddenly reacts to what the speaker is saying: a display of attentiveness, skepticism, or even rejection…
The entire plot of the movie is built cut for cut upon meaningful sequences such as these. The viewer automatically places the edited scenes into a cinematic context. Shot reverse shot is just one of many editing techniques, some of which are variants of it.
Other Editing Techniques
Editing is primarily about creating a narrative context out of unrelated shots.
In this case, the edited shots share a causal relationship. The second shot cannot be understood without the first shot. Example: A man gets into an argument and then leaves the room in the next shot, slamming the door behind him. Or someone aims a revolver and pulls the trigger. In the next shot we see someone fall over dead.
Two story lines or events are shown in parallel. The editing cuts back and forth between the two. By gradually shortening the scenes, suspense is generated, leading to a climactic point. Imagine a flight passenger talking to the person sitting in the adjacent seat. Meanwhile, a family drives to the airport. Both of these sequences can be stretched out and interwoven. Shortening the time between cuts creates a sense of increasing suspense.
Arranging scenes in such a way so as to create an association between them. However, this association is not directly mentioned or shown. Example: A man is playing the lottery. In the next shot, he’s shown at a car dealership looking at expensive cars.
The results of actions which cannot or should not be shown are replaced with visual analogies. Examples: A child is born, but instead of seeing the actual painful birth, we are shown a blossoming bud. Or two lovers are rolling around in bed, and the replacement shot is of exploding fireworks.
Highly contrasting shots are editing together using contrast-cutting, for example, to draw the viewer’s attention to an opposition or contradiction. Example: A tourist is shown on a beach. In the next shot, we see beggars. Contrast-cutting is often used at the end of a long, subdued scene to wake the viewer up and tell them that the main plot is now moving forward. Imagine an actor looking pensively at a photo. In the next shot, a train suddenly enters a station with a thunderous roar.
This is where two shots are juxtaposed because they have certain formal aspects in common (e.g. the same imagery, colors, shapes or movements). Examples of this could be a pair of red pants and a red rose, a soccer ball and the globe, defenestration and falling feathers. The perhaps most well-known example of formal juxtaposition in film is in the opening scene of Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in which the ape throws the bone into the air, and, in the next shot, we see a satellite orbiting earth as a continuation of the movement presented in the first shot. Meanwhile, four million years have gone by. In this example, it becomes clear how editing can be used to generate meaning: the two shots have but a single movement in common. The editing, however, sets in motion a search for context, a relationship between the two (e.g. that the use of bones as tools marks the beginning of the rise of man, the ultimate expression of that developmental process being the age of space exploration).
Certainly you’ve heard of this one, too. It’s evening, the subject is reading a book in silence when suddenly the hectic sound of voices and a ringing telephone are heard. And before you have time to ask what all the racket is about, another scene—this time at the police station—has begun. This technique is sometimes called “acoustic brackets.” This effect can be created by having the soundtrack start playing before
the accompanying visuals are shown. In this case, the audio and video tracks are offset.
Finally, we have the jump cut—an editing technique that goes counter to all the others we’ve mentioned so far. Its primary purpose is actually to interrupt the sense of continuity. Jump cuts are meant to irritate the viewer by making them aware of themselves. There are many ways to achieve this effect, but in each case, the cut is experienced as a jump. Jump cuts are considered a modern technique and are used ubiquitously (e.g. even in personal portraits in which an interview is shown in a chopped-up fashion by means of quick cuts).
The 180-Degree Rule
If you’ve ever seen a movie in which a character is shown walking from left to right through the frame and then, in the next shot, suddenly from right to left, what you’re seeing is called “jumping the line.” It’s irritating and makes it difficult to know where the character is going.
The line that has been jumped is called the “axis.” The axis is an imaginary line that cuts the space in a scene in two halves. The side of the line where the camera is located features an equally imaginary half circle that is defined on the one hand by the position of camera itself, and on the other hand by what’s happening in the scene. Hence the name “180-degree rule.” The 180-degree semi-circle provides the viewer with spatial orientation, much like his or her field of view or a stage.
The 180-degree rule says that shots may only be juxtaposed if they are shot within the semi-circle.
An example: Two characters are talking and looking each other in the eye. In this case, the axis is defined by the directions in which the characters are looking. The camera can show both actors in profile, at a frontal angle, or, in extreme cases, it can take a frontal shot of one actor from over the shoulder of the other at the very limits of the axis. (This is known as the “over the shoulder shot” and is very popular, since it connects that outside perspective of the viewer with that of the character.)
Each of these shots can easily be juxtaposed. However, once the camera crosses the axis, the characters switch places in the frame. The character who was left in the frame will now be on the right, and vice versa. The line has been jumped.
Jumping the line is a problem which first appears during editing. If the axis is crossed in a continuous, uncut shot, then the line hasn’t been jumped at all. The axis has simply been moved, and the viewer can reorient him or herself on account of the visual continuity.
The axis is typically set by the direction in which the actor is walking or looking. A new axis is set when the actor turns to look at something different, to walk in a new direction, or when something new is introduced into the frame from the outside. In this case, the 180-rule can be broken because the viewer’s orientation—and with it, the axis—has been changed.
Finally, a question of formality: should cuts be soft or quick and painless?
Fades tell us how two shots are connected. So-called “hard cuts” are the standard in movie-making and are actually marked by the absence of a fade. They’re a clean and simple connection between two shots—no frills, no effects. Quick and painless.
Some scene transitions also use dissolves and soft fade-outs and fade-ins. Dissolves are gradual transitions from one image to another.
Dissolves are the standard for slideshows, since the images in them tend to be still shots. Dissolves are meant to announce the arrival of the coming cut and make the transition easier on the viewer.
Normally, filmmakers want to establish a continuum, and this means creating transitions that are as inconspicuous as possible. Fades, by contrast, tell the viewer that a scene change is about to happen. They draw attention away from the continuity and towards the transition.
Fade-outs create an even more powerful transitional effect in which the end of a scene is faded out and followed by a black frame before introducing the next scene (often preceded by a fade-in). The fade-out gives the viewer a chance to catch his or her breath and prepare for what’s to come. It’s comparable to closing your eyes for a long time, the start of a new chapter in a book, or a closing theater curtain. For this reason, the fade-out usually marks the end of an entire chain of related scenes in a sequence.
There are of course other powerful fades that are used in movies. Sometimes the last frame of a scene flies off in a spinning motion or is slowly transported away from the viewer into a tunnel. However, you should use transitions like these sparingly since they distract the viewer from what’s going on in the movie.
The editing table in Hollywood has been replaced by the computer for years now. It’s much more efficient and comfortable to move virtual scenes around on a monitor with a video editor and a mouse than to cut and tape everything by hand. Movie Edit Pro is the perfect video editing software solution for bringing video projects to life. Try it out for free here.