The Great And Mighty Cut

film editing

I’ve been fortunate to study under, and talk with, a number of very talented editors—editors for feature films, short films, commercials and documentaries, as well as editors for television, both entertainment and news. While the conversations have progressed through topics like creative processes, workflow, working with directors, etc., the topic of how one shot transitions to another has been fascinating to discuss.

I remember one editor commenting that the power of an editor is deciding when to change from one scene or shot to another. While it’s true that picking which shot or even which take is important, many times shot/take selection is decided for you, either by script or by the director. And, obviously, the timing of an edit is what editing is all about. It drives pacing, it’s critical in comedies, and it’s make or break for many action sequences. Think of the power of that change to bring the viewer a new perspective.

But the power of how the transition from one shot to another happens is often overlooked.

There are two basic ways to make that change: cut and dissolve. In the discussion I mentioned above, the editor stated that if you dissolve, you take away all the power of that cut from one scene to another. A dissolve weakens the change—you give up that power. With a cut, you’re making a strong decision for the viewer.

Applied to writing, I would describe a cut as starting a new paragraph or new chapter. A dissolve, on the other hand, would be just adding a connecting phrase and continuing on.

Recall the presentation slideshows of photographic images you’ve seen. They’re one dissolve after another. While nice and smooth, the images run together. Any “Wow” moments are diluted across the transition.

The power of the cut is an interesting perspective that I keep in mind all the time when I edit. I ask myself if I am using a dissolve as a crutch—smoothing out a scene change that isn’t working.

Most times when I ask myself that question, the answer is yes.

Michael Guncheon is an accomplished editor who has cut a wide range of projects, including music videos for Prince, a documentary on Genesis, and numerous commercials and corporate pieces. A partner at HDMG, a Minneapolis video production and post-production company, Guncheon has written several books on DSLRs and is the author of the Kodak Digital Photo Guide. He has presented his talk on shooting with HDSLRs at Twin Cities Public Television, WGBH in Boston, PBS in New York, the Hollywood Post Alliance and at the annual SMPTE conference in Hollywood.