Edward Dmytryk, a once-blacklisted film-noir director in the ’40s and ’50s, wrote a book in 1984 called On Film Editing, in which he describes seven rules of cutting film. These guidelines have been upheld by some as a standard for film editing, but editing is so complex, convoluted, and at times downright subjective, that sometimes rules can be broken. Of course, as with most arts, one must know the rules in the first place in order to break them responsibly.
Dmytryk lived in a time when film editors hand-spliced celluloid. Over the decades, we’ve gone from Moviolas to Steenbecks to NLEs, so it’s a good time to review Dmytryk’s rules and assess whether they’re still relevant in an age of 4K video files shot to solid-state memory cards and edited on computers.
Rule One: Never make a cut without a positive reason.
“The only reason for using another cut is to improve the scene.”
It is unwise to cut film adhering to arbitrary principles, such as keeping all shots under a certain length. Dmytryk argues that every cut must be made at a precise and perfect moment, and improve what the scene intends to communicate to the audience.
Some scenes require no editing at all if the composition and camera movement are strong enough to carry the scene. Other scenarios, particularly action and montage sequences, require constant cuts in order to work. If another shot doesn’t make emotional truth clearer or capture the action more appropriately than the current shot, then by all means, do not make a cut.
Modern-Day Take: Nowadays, our minds are utterly Google-brained, and our attention spans are a fraction of what audiences had in Dmytryk’s time. We require more cutting in general, and cuts are often made simply to keep the scene from getting “boring” or “stale.” Thus, cuts should be made even if they don’t necessarily improve the scene. Our audiences often need the cut simply to hold their attention. So this one is not as true today as when Dmytryk wrote it in 1984.
Rule Two: When undecided about the exact frame to cut on, cut long rather than short.
“Splicing a few frames back onto a scene which has been lopped short makes ‘jumpy’ viewing, and a cut full of such amendments makes proper visualization difficult and perceptive judgment impossible.”
This one is just the most basic common-sense rule there is. When cutting filmstrip, it is much easier to trim a bit of excess than to splice more on to increase duration. Dmytryk adds that the first instinctual decision regarding where to make a cut is usually the right one; however, you may still want to cut a little long in case you’re out of touch with your instincts.
Modern-Day Take: In today’s NLEs, you can remove and add frames again at will, with no consequence. Rule #2 has thus been rendered irrelevant.
Rule Three: Whenever possible, cut in movement.
The concept here is that during movement of any kind, be it a man sitting down on a barstool or a woman sipping a martini, cut in the midst of the action so as to mask the cut. The goal is seamless editing; when a subject is in the middle of an action, the eye will not perceive the cut as prominently as when a subject is still. There is a precise moment at which to make the cut: near the dead center of the action. For the man sitting down on the barstool, you would most likely want to cut at the point of contact between the man and the stool. For the woman sipping the martini, you want to cut directly in the middle of the sipping motion.
Mastering this timing will not only make your cuts appear seamless, but will also strengthen the scene itself in what it intends to communicate.
Modern-Day Take: This rule absolutely still applies as much as ever. Certain things will never change, and how the eye perceives motion is one of them.
Rule Four: The fresh is preferable to the stale.
“In art, the obvious is a sin.”
In order to maintain the invisibility of technique, a film editor strives to avoid boring, confusing, or disappointing the audience with a poorly managed cut. However, it is possible to jar the viewer from the context of the story with even the most well-intentioned cut. If your shot contains action that exits the frame, don’t linger on it, even for a couple of frames. If you do this and fail to overlap to the next action, the viewer has no new information to feed on, and therefore lapses out of the comfort of the story. Because of only a few frames, your viewer is now examining your set design or lighting. This is exactly what should be avoided.
This rule is somewhat in opposition to Rule #2, but I take this rule to mean that if you have an option between a fresh angle or take, or the same one you’ve been using in the scene, opt for the new one.
Modern-Day Take: In an age of democratized media creation, with affordable cameras, media storage, and editing options, there should always be an abundance of fresh content to choose from when editing any video. And with our aforementioned very short relative attention spans, modern audiences need the fresh content over the stale stuff more than ever before.
Rule Five: All scenes should begin and end with continuing action.
“Subconsciously suggest to the viewer that he is seeing a fragment of continuing life, not a staged scene with a visible framework.”
This is the concept of the director shooting scenes with heads and tails and the editor subsequently chopping them off. It is entirely unnatural to begin a scene with an actor doing nothing, preparing to act. Not only does it break the invisibility of the craft, but such an error unravels the pacing of the work, causing far greater problems in the long run.
A scene should begin as an actor walks into the frame, or picks up a telephone, or washes dishes, or cleans his sword, or performs some other action. A scene should end with the actor walking out of frame, or slamming down the telephone, or breaking dishes, or plunging his sword into an orc, or performing some other (but not necessarily opposite) action. This serves to hasten the pace and ensure that the viewer is not bored by getting ahead of the action.
Modern-Day Take: This rule seems similar to Rule #3, but rather than using actual visual motion to hide a cut, this one is more about storytelling — how to maintain the flow of a story and suspend the audience’s disbelief. It’s as true today as the day Dmytryk wrote it.
Rule Six: Cut for proper values rather than for proper matches.
“The film’s dramatic requirements should always take precedence over the mere aesthetics of editing.”
Often enough in production, the action between takes and different angles will not match up. Some of the culprits are beyond even the tightest control: the length of a lit cigarette, the timing of flashing city lights, the movement of arms and legs during emotionally commanding scenes. While this is no concern at all when you leave a shot alone, this lack of continuity becomes extremely problematic when you need to intercut frequently between different shots.
Dmytryk advises that continuity be damned. In a crisis such as this, cut to match the emotional truth of the scene, so as not to cheat the audience of the experience. Even if the action doesn’t match at all, the viewer will be more inclined to follow the emotional flow of a scene than its technical shortcomings. It is likely that most continuity errors in films are not due to lazy errors on the editor’s part, but instead result from decisions to use the strongest emotional performance.
Modern-Day Take: This still rings true, as well. And it makes a real case for jump-cutting — which, in a classic cinematic sense is frowned upon, but often best emphasizes emotional truth over continuity.
Rule Seven: Substance first — then form.
“Technical skill counts for nothing if it is used only to manufacture films which have little to do with humanity.”
At all times, Dmytryk argues, an editor must strive to improve the emotional power of a film. He felt at the time of the text’s publication that both students and teachers miss this point, believing that technically proficient editors created by institutions that fail to address the necessity of substance and value in the art of filmmaking are scarcely film editors at all.
Modern-Day Take: This final rule has more to do with the nature of the content you’re working with than how the edit is handled. Simply put, the substance of the story itself is more important than how you choose to tell it. Still true today? Debatable.
Have your own thoughts on how relevant Dmytryk’s rules are to editors today? Share them in the comments below!