I reread a couple of books from my childhood in the past few months. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, 1961, illustrated by cartoonist Jules Feiffer is a sly, humorous book for both children and adults that’s rife with wordplay, number play, and artfully disguised life lessons.
It’s the quintessential road trip /life journey fable: Milo, the depressed 10-year-old main character, hooks up with a literal watch dog and they meet a lot of earnestly quirky, delightfully named characters and have various experiences in a welter of different lands.
For always remember, that while it is wrong to use too few, [words] it often far worse to use too many. Faintly Macabre, page 68.
In Dictionopolis Milo encounters Faintly Macabre, a Which, in a dungeon. She relates her history: For years she was in charge of choosing which words to use on which occasions. She became exasperated at people’s carelessness with words and grew stingier and more restrictive about which words, if any could be used. Eventually, no one could say anything and she received a life sentence (my word play – a hat tip to Juster). As a result, the Which explains to Milo,”…today people use as many as words as they can and think themselves very wise for doing so.”
It’s easy to apply the Which’s words to screenwriting: Avoid using too much dialogue when a look will do – film is a visual art and audiences grasp meaning swiftly from a short glance or glimpse.
It’s also easy to apply the Which’s words to editing: Too many unmotivated cuts – cuts put in for the sake of cutting – make a scene “cutty” and worse, they sap the life and meaning from the scene. MTV falls into this trap all too often – visuals are cut in to cover the music and the song’s impact diminishes with every subsequent phrase.
FIVE REASONS NOT TO CUT
It’s much more important to learn what not to cut. That’s the hardest thing for any young editor starting out; it was for me.
Tom Rolf, A.C.E., Taxi Driver, The Executioner’s Song, New York, New York, and Jacob’s Ladder among many others
1) You think you should
Never cut arbitrarily. Remember: motivation, motivation, motivation. So what affect does an unmotivated, unwarranted cut have? It bogs the show down, particularly if there are a lot of unnecessary shots edited in. This can put the show off kilter and distract, annoy, or possibly lose the audience.
2) You think you shouldn’t — the shot’s sooooo beautiful!
Don’t stick with a shot due to its stunning scenery or camera work. When the locale has been established, the moment made, the information conveyed, it’s time to move on.
Yours truly worked on a TV show where the plot centered on a teenage boy learning to drive. The opening shot of the show, a master shot, included a long pan of a junkyard from which I cut out at an appropriate place. The director, for his cut, insisted I stay on the shot until it panned past an upturned wheel. To him this symbolized the whole show: the kid and his first set of wheels. Nice concept but I got it from the director, not the footage. The producers didn’t get it either. The wheel went out and we all explained why to the director.
3) The shot took the crew a whole day on their bellies to get. It’s expensive. It took months of negotiating and planning. It must go in.
No way. This is what you’re paid for: to be detached from the location shoot or a spectacular performance and to tell the story in the most polished, well paced fashion possible. You don’t want to drag the audience down with shots that say, show, or do nothing for the story or subject. In Film Editing Nuts and Bolt, editor-author Film Guy puts it bluntly; “Basically the audience could care less what you had to through to bring off a scene.” The effect of cutting in unneeded footage drains the vitality from your film and the patience of your audience.
4) The director printed the shot, it must be used
Nothing doing. Again, if the shot slows the story down or doesn’t add crucial information that could be gained more smoothly and engagingly, leave it out. However if the director asked to see the shot cut in, unless you two have a long-standing relationship, you probably should cut it in. It’s often better to try and make a cut work and let the director see that it doesn’t, than to merely say it doesn’t work. Yes, a picture, even a miscut, unnecessary one, can be worth a thousand words. And your job.
5) You’re the editor. You’re supposed to make cuts
You don’t get paid by the cut. You get paid to shape the material into the most moving, breathtaking show possible. If a scene plays in the master, leave it. Too many edits can be the sign of a novice editor and look cutty. “If in doubt, leave it out” should be your mantra.
So when and why should you make a cut? I’ll talk about the five reasons to make a cut in my next post.
Editing & screenwriting, Editing practices, Editor’s role