Monday, October 19, 2009

Story Vault: Know Your Cuts

Yesterday, on Sky Arts Book Show (or possibly last week's show and I was watching a repeat), host Mariella Frostrup interviewed screenwriter Christopher Hampton. He recalled one of his earlier lessons in screenwriting from David Lean, where Lean would insist on knowing how the last image of one scene would flow/compliment/match (or mismatch) to the next scene. It taught Hampton a lot about transitions, and how to make them work in a script.

Here's my take on the subject: Know Your Cuts. Originally posted 11th April 2006.


Back in the day, I was an assistant in Channel 4’s comedy department where my bosses developed, commissioned and worked on some top shows that included Spaced, Ali G, Smack the Pony, Chris Morris, Comedy Lab etc. One of the shows in the comedy stable was Chris Evans’ TFI Friday, the hit entertainment show to kick-start your weekend every Friday at 6pm.

The problem with the show was that it was live and due to the carefree presenting style of the host, some of the guests would be very drunk and use language wholly unsuitable for its pre-watershed slot. And so, after a heavy rap on the knuckles from the ITC (Independent Television Commission), and a fine, TFI Friday was recorded ‘as-live’ on Fridays at 5pm for its broadcast at 6pm. The reasoning behind this was so the show could retain its spontaneity but any rude words or inappropriate content could be cut out before transmission.

As an assistant in the department, one of your duties was to edit the bad language from the show. Every Friday at 5pm, you would toddle down to 124 Facilities in Channel 4’s HQ on Horseferry Road, sit yourself in an editing booth with the Duty Lawyer and jot down timecoded references to anything untoward. Then during the ‘ad breaks’, you would feverishly try to edit the offending item before the next part of show began, and have the tape ready for broadcast. This often led to some hair-raising shouts and panics as once, a runner literally got our edited tape to MCR (master control room) with only seconds to spare!

Some assistants expressed reluctance at this editing task, usually shared on a rota, but I loved it. I had sat in editing rooms before and watched an editor/director assemble their footage but this was my first experience of actually choosing which shots went where to ensure ease of continuity. Basically, what it came down to was not just jotting down when the bad language was said but you also had to keep an eagle eye for any suitable cutaways that would help the editor when he was chopping out the wayward f**k. And so cutaways and inserts became the routine.

What I didn’t realise then was that this was essential and basic training when it came to screenwriting. Someone once told me ‘know your cuts’ in your script and I didn’t know what he meant. An editor-friend reiterated this advice when she bemoaned the quality of scripts she received, and how she and the director would tear their hair out in the editing room trying to generate the required pace and momentum from scene-to-scene.

‘Know your cuts’ refers to the pace, rhythm and tempo of your story but specifically, the key transitions from scene-to-scene. In other words, try not to end a scene on a piece of flat drama or loose end because it will only leave the next scene to trudge and work hard to apply its dramatic interest on the audience. The pace will be too even and sluggish, making the script a difficult and detached read.

Some basic tips to ensure smooth transitions and clever cuts include using the same SOUND that ends the previous scene to carry forward the beginning of the next. MATCH-CUT an image to a similar image (this is done all the time, everywhere, just sit down in front of the TV for 20 minutes and you’ll see loads). JUXTAPOSE SOUND and/or IMAGE from one extreme to the other, if applicable and appropriate for dramatic effect.

The interesting aspect of this technique is that when you apply it into your script on a conscious level, say in your first draft, the energy and momentum of actually writing the story becomes heightened because of the smooth links from scene-to-scene. In other words, attention isn’t flagging and the story is moving along nicely. It’s not necessary for EVERY scene to run this way but it can prove extremely useful to be aware of this technique, especially when you’re a spec writer no-one’s heard of and you want an anonymous stranger exec to like your script.

Whenever I read a script that did it smoothly and effectively, I always made reference to it in my report. It shows good awareness of craft as well as having the talent to use it wisely within the story, and it makes for easier reading.

Now, what if I cut out the third paragraph and replace it with the second last paragraph so that the post reads shorter and more to-the-point…and… CUT.



Mutt said...

An excellent read! I shall soak this up like the proverbial sponge.

Where would us young writers be without you and others like you, eh?

Danny Stack said...

You're very welcome, Mutt. Happy to try to answer any questions, too...