If you ever make your own film, there is one moment in store for you that I know you will love. It's when you get to the editing room, and you make your first cut.
There's nothing better. It could be the simplest cut in the world, going from a master shot to close-up, or over-the- shoulder to over-the-shoulder, whatever, I promise you, you won't forget your first cut.
Because there's magic in it. Pure magic, the essential magic of filmmaking. All of a sudden there isn't just your world, or the world of the production of the movie -- there's the world of the movie itself. A new world. It's a different reality than the one you imagined, or even the one you shot. Your character moves from here to there, cut to the close-up where the character smiles -- and that's now the truth of that world. The new truth of the story. Even if the master and close-up were shot days apart, they're married together now. That is what did happen, and forever the way it will have happened. You know because you can see it --
The cut makes it so.
The cut is decisive; the cut is final, the cut is mighty and terrible and beautiful.
Time is the currency of film. Each second traded to the audience in exchange for a second of their collective attention, with the hope that the exchange is fair. More than fair, actually, because you want them to keep watching. The objective of the storyteller is to make all those moments valuable; to imbue them with effectiveness and meaning, and avoid moments that are empty and dull -- worthless.
To accomplish this, the best weapon the storyteller has is the cut. The cut is not only the basic film-editing tool, but the mightiest tool of story design as well.
As Bob Seger sings it: "What to leave in... what to leave out."
With the notable exception of ROPE (the Hitchcock film done all in an implied single shot) a film is a condensed representation of reality -- bits and pieces of events strung together, designed to unfold at the pace of the filmmaker.
To do that, you need scenes, of course. And you also need some logic in getting from one scene to the next.
And man, there's the real bitch.
This is one of those topics that filmmakers worry about constantly -- what image to leave on, what's the 'out' line, is the audience involved at this point or are they lost, what's the motivation to go to the next part of the story, what's the first image of the new scene, etc.
But because this is all so hard to pin down, you don't see much written about it. The general rule is 'Begin a scene as late as possible, end it as early as possible.'
But there's a lot more to it than that --
-- so I'd like to offer at least one way of thinking about this area of storytelling. I submit there are two basic kinds of cuts used in films to tell a story.
I've even given them names.
First, there's the STORYLINE cut.
Generally, this is a common, effective and 'safe' cut. It is intuitive to do and easy to watch. The audience doesn't question it, because it's a cut that simply follows, or extends, the existing story.
Best example: when Indiana Jones in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK says, "Truck? What truck!" and then we cut to a shot of a truck, the Ark on board, guarded by Nazis.
The cut works because of the story context. The audience knows Indy wants the Ark. When he learns the Ark is on the truck, and we cut to the truck, and the Ark is there, the audience is comfortably 'on story'. They know why they're seeing what they're seeing -- the truck is Indy's next target.
You could say, then, one quality of a storyline cut is that it occurs within the context story information known to the audience at the moment of the cut.
Another common quality of a storyline cut is that it focuses on an event.
So -- when the big unsinkable ship hits the iceberg, we'll accept the cut that takes us to go see the collision. The cut is justified. Same for when the big ship goes under -- an event is happening, so of course as an audience we need to be there; the coming event, in a sense, forces the preceding cut.
This is no great insight, of course. For the most part, storyline cuts are so intuitive and self-evident they're barely worth bringing up.
It's the other type of cut that's the problem -- which is why it's the title of this column.
I call it the STORYTELLER cut.
Storyteller cuts are treacherous and difficult, even if they are completely necessary... and potentially even more artful and powerful than the basic Storyline cut.
With the Storyteller's cut, you take the audience where you want them to go, where you need them to be for the story to work, rather than building on what they already know. Initially the audience may not know why you've put them there, why they're seeing what they're seeing. They have to trust you -- the storyteller -- that the scene and sequence will eventually become relevant to the overall tale.
One situation where the need for a Storyteller cut comes up constantly: the classic 'cut to the villain.'
In SPIDER-MAN, early on in the story the filmmakers cut to the friend's father dealing with the military. There's really no reason for us to be there in that scene. The problem of the failed test has no relevance -- yet -- to the characters we've met so far, or their issues. We may intuit, if we're familiar with the form, that we're seeing the early stages of the development of our villain (the Green Goblin) -- something is being 'set up.' But in the scene itself, there's no clear indication of that. We have to trust that the filmmakers are showing us a freight train barreling toward our main story, and that eventually there will be a collision.
Ah, but with great power comes the potential for great fallibility.
The Storyteller cut is where a filmmaker (or beginning screenwriter) can really lose an audience.
Compare the first STAR WARS film (A NEW HOPE) with the latest as of this writing (ATTACK OF THE CLONES). The first movie, I'd argue, leans mostly on situational, storyline-type cuts (this-leads-to-this-leads-to-that) which create momentum, interest, and can be followed with clarity. The latter film, I argue, is full of Storyteller-type cuts, and in some cases, not very good ones ('please watch this scene because it will be important later. Now watch this other scene because it also will be important later. Look, they're falling in love, that's going to be important later. Look, they're falling even more in love and now talking about stuff that is for sure going to be important later...')
There's a limit to how much non-situation delivered information an audience can hold, how many Storyteller or 'set-up' type scenes they can endure -- before they start to feel the story has lost momentum, and is stagnant.
Again, this isn't to say that Storyteller cuts are by nature bad. Just the opposite -- they're crucial. The first shot of any movie, by definition, has to be a Storyteller cut. Flashbacks, by nature, are always Storyteller cuts. You could say that most inciting incidents occur after a Storyteller cut. Films like ABOUT SCHMIDT or PUNCH DRUNK LOVE -- which are essentially character studies -- are rife with Storyteller cuts.
At its best form, the Storyteller cut allows the filmmaker to play the orchestra of his story, moving the audience's attention between elements, weaving a spell, bringing it all together according to a master story logic barely sensed but not important, simply because the overall experience works. Think of great filmmakers like Coppola and Kubrick, films like the GODFATHER series or 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY -- these are classic Storyteller cut movies, and they're great.
The trick is to do the Storyteller cuts well... and then move the narrative smoothly into the safety of domino-falling storyline cuts.
Here are a few tips to make your Storyteller-type cuts work:
USE A STORYTELLER
Seems obvious, but why not? There's a logic to cutting in and out of various scenes when the storyteller is there, part of the film, playing traffic cop with the story.(There, you've got an excuse to go re-watch IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.)
CUT IN ON SITUATION
Or to use the classic phrase, 'cut to the chase.' In other words, get away from the boring stuff, re-involve the audience, re-grab their attention with a clear and immediate situation.
Now, I happen to believe all scenes in your screenplay should be situations on some level; I call it 'situation-based writing.' It's where the advice, 'every character in a scene should want something, even if only a cup of water' comes into play. Ah, but that's a whole other column --
For here, it's enough to say the need for a clear situation can be crucial when making a Storyteller-type cut.
Think about it. You're taking the audience somewhere out of the context of the main story (so far). They won't know why they're there. But you don't want to give them time to realize that there's no reason for them to be there... so you distract them (or involve them) quickly into a situation.
In the upcoming film, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, there's a Storyteller-type cut -- the introduction of the Johnny Depp character, Jack Sparrow. We've already met the Will and Elizabeth characters, and started their possible romance, as well as set up the mystery of the pirate medallion. But when we go to the Jack Sparrow character, he has nothing to do with any of that, as far as we know.
So when we meet Jack, we have him sailing into the bay of Port Royal in a rotted-out, falling-apart dingy... bailing water... and the boat literally sinks out from beneath his feet as he steps onto the dock. The sinking boat grabs our interest. It's a clear situation, and even kind of funny; so we enjoy the moment and so don't question the cut. We also establish a bit of the situation of the character: here's a man in need of a ship.
We don't know how this guy is going to connect up with the rest of the film yet, but if the scene works on its own, as a mini-film, then the audience should be willing to go along.
The Disney animated feature ALADDIN uses a Storyteller cut with an strong visual image -- cued by an actual storyteller. At the start of the film, the Shopkeeper character throws stars up into the sky and says, "Our tale begins on a dark night... where a dark man waits... with dark purpose..."
And we then see the stars above a dark unmoving figure on horseback, waiting among the desert dunes. It's an image full of promise and possibility, mystery and even menace, especially given the introduction. The audience is caught up in implications of the image: why is the man waiting? What kind of rendezvous would take place in the middle of the desert, at night? Who is the dark man, sitting motionless on his horse? The image suggests a plot in motion, and the promise of a story makes the audience not even question the cut.
(More obvious examples of this technique can be found in other films -- I'll suggest CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and leave it at that.)
INDICATE THE TRAJECTORY TO THE ESTABLISHED STORY
The early scenes of MEN IN BLACK establish the need for Kay to find a new partner. And we then cut to Jay, played by Will Smith, a New York cop out doing his job.
So there's a little bit of a storyline cut going on there -- if we're smart, and paying attention, and especially if we've seen the poster, we know that Kay needs a partner, and Jay looks like a pretty good candidate.
But it's really more of a Storyteller cut -- hey, audience, keep an eye on this guy, he's going to be important to the story. Then some mystery gets thrown in... the person Jay is chasing seems superhuman. Then the person is revealed to be an alien --
And that's where the trajectory becomes clear. It doesn't even matter that the reason the alien is being chased has to do with what will be the larger story. The presence of the alien at all indicates to the audience a trajectory to the main story. We saw Kay deal with aliens, and now Jay is dealing with them -- the two men are linked, and that's enough to justify the scene.
USE AN UMBRELLA
Some stories take place under the logic of a situational umbrella -- for example, a war story like SCHINDLER'S LIST. No matter what scene you cut to in the context of the world at war, with the overall situation implied, the audience will fill in a relevance, and accept the new scene as a facet of the overall story.
A story umbrella can be a theme, or a topic, or a subject, and used effectively to organize a film. Two words: CITIZEN KANE.
START A PARALLEL-STORY WITH ITS OWN STORY VALUE
Ensemble films (I always think of AMERICAN GRAFFITI, AMERICAN PIE and AMERICAN BEAUTY as my examples) have a huge built-in advantage in terms of structure: with several stories happening at once, it's much easier to leave one scene and go to another.
As stories happen with different characters, there's a built-in logic to the cuts: 'Now something interesting is happening here -- whoops, now something interesting is happening over there.' What seem to be Storyteller cuts (cutting to a scene that has nothing to do with the previous scene) turn out to be Storyline cuts, but among a separate ongoing storyline.
By the way -- this illustrates one of the inherent difficulties with single point-of-view stories. Consider THE WIZARD OF OZ, or one of the films we worked on, TREASURE PLANET. When you're restricted to a single point of view, you can't cut away to a second or third storyline -- the point of view restriction won't allow it. So you have to try to tell your story -- and effectively compress your story -- using events solely along your main storyline. Which means, for the most part, using storyline cuts only. It's more challenging to tell a story this way, but the restriction can result in some very inspired and elegant solutions.
USE STORYTELLER CUTS EARLY
The Storyteller cut seems to work best in setting up a tale. For the most part, a working film has few if any Storyteller-type cuts from the start of Act III to the end.
There can be reveals, of course, payoffs to set-ups that are related to the main story. But think of it like a game of chess -- a pawn can certainly be revealed as a Queen, for example; but you can't just dump a bunch of new pieces onto the table and expect the drama of the previous set of pieces to stay intact.
MAKE YOUR POINT
If the audience is clear on the point of a scene, it's a lot easier for them to justify having seen it --
Meaning, you can always cut to someone getting killed.
Hey, may not work in the overall structure, I'm just saying you could do it, and in the moment of the cut, the audience would buy it. Because at least it's clear why they're watching the scene.
Clarity of scene, in my opinion, is one of the failings of ATTACK OF THE CLONES. With the love scenes in particular, it wasn't clear even what was happening, why what was happening was important -- or why we were seeing those particular moments at that particular point in the story.
An audience wants to make connections between scenes, and will work to do so -- but if you don't give them enough story to begin with, they may fail.
MAKE A PROMISE
In direct contrast to the above, sometimes the point of a scene can remain obscure -- but a promise is made to the audience that something more is coming. Rather than clarity, it's the mystery of the scene that involves an audience.
We used this technique repeatedly in our GODZILLA screenplay, making Storyteller cuts to weird shit happening: the meteor hitting earth, cows eviscerated by mutant bats, and Godzilla inexplicably on the move, etc.
Of course our script was never filmed, so there's no telling if this would have worked.
I can think of an example of where it was done, but done poorly: the film 2010, where an exchange was repeated throughout, "Something's coming." "What?" "Something... wonderful!" Yes, a mystery was indicated, but as the film progressed, there was so much repetition and so little movement toward an answer, after a while, it just got annoying.
For a better use of the technique, let me suggest SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and leave it to the reader to see how well it works...
Let me emphasize -- I'm not saying there's any real usable formula to doing any of this.
In fact, as you design a story, I'd advise you to forget all of these guidelines; most of what needs to happen falls in the realm of story instinct. You want your impulse on where to be in a story to become second nature.
The most I'll say is that it might be effective to train yourself to consider, instinctively, these types of questions:
- What is the arresting visual image to start this scene, one that will quickly involve the audience?
- What is the essential story point of the scene, and how clear has it been made?
- How can the story point be conveyed in the most interesting manner -- using character?
Like with all these columns, treat this one like a fish that's too small to keep. Undo the hook, toss it back into your murky subconscious, and move on...
In the course of writing this column, I happened to see the film ADAPTATION. I highly recommend the film for anyone who is a fan of storytelling. It's marvelously accurate in its depiction of screenwriting -- and brilliantly show the differences between the Storyline cut and the Storyteller cut.
Nick Cage plays a dual role -- screenwriter Charlie Kaufman trying to adapt the book ORCHARD THIEF, and his twin brother, who is trying to write his first screenplay. The Kaufman character, the pro screenwriter, disdains all the usual Hollywood story formulas and narrative devices, leaving him adrift as to where to start, where to go, where to take the audience and why. That character is trying to write a Storyteller movie, and it's driving him crazy. In hilarious contrast, his twin brother is writing a lurid tale of kidnapping and murder, a psychological thriller with a twist; a straightforward narrative with clear storyline cuts; he even reads Robert McKee's "Story" for help. In contrast to Kaufman, writing his screenplay is a breeze.
What's great is the movie itself demonstrates each technique -- at times, taking us where Kaufman wants us to go, following theme, or character; then at other times dropping into a more traditional narrative, demonstrating what his brother is trying to do.
The film has nothing at all to do with Storyteller or Storyline cuts, of course, but it's a delight to watch the movie in those terms. Check it out.
Personally I have more trouble ending scenes than starting them off. There's usually a logic to beginning a scene -- a key event has happened in the world of the story, and you need the audience to 'be there' in order to experience it.
But where's the logic in leaving? If something interesting has just happened to you, the common impulse would be to pause and explore it, to linger; to think about it, get reactions, examine the ramifications, etc. Map out a strategy on what to do next. That's what would happen in real life, but we know movies don't work that way.
There's an intuitive answer: cut out of a scene to the next scene by making the next scene more interesting than the one you're leaving. And so there's a logic to the cut, and the audience will be happy to go along.
Fine in theory, but pretty tough to pull off for an entire movie. And if you can't always cut to something more interesting, how do you justify the cut away at all?
Because you must, you absolutely must avoid the dreaded 'unmotivated cut,' where you take the audience away from a scene where they want to be, and put them into a scene they don't care about, where they don't want to be, impatient to get back where they were or just 'get on with it.'
So -- once your scene has done what it needs to do, the problem is how to get away.
It's a problem you will face repeatedly in your storytelling life.
There are solutions. I will say right off, some seem to work better than others.
The worst -- the absolute worst, which I advise you to never use -- is to have one of the characters say, "Well, it's been a long day. Let's get some sleep." Particularly when they're standing over a gunshot-riddled body, or they've just cut down a phalanx of space aliens, or the vampires have yet to be identified and killed.
Sure, it does the job of cueing the audience, "Nothing happening, folks, move along, nothing to see here" but it does so by inventing a disastrous off-screen movie scene of people sleeping without a care in the world. (So much for any tension you've managed to build in your story up to that point!)
Some techniques are better --
Implied travel often seems to work. When you know the character has to move from one place to another, and that it's going to take a while, it's a great excuse to cut.
Another: when a character embarks on what promises to be a long speech or a boring task. When he starts digging that trench, it's a great excuse to cut away, or at least cut to later.
Oddly, characters starting to have sex are treated the same way -- but that's another column.
I noticed watching the latest Harry Potter film (CHAMBER OF SECRETS) an 'interruption' technique that worked to end scenes -- although they used it so often it came very close to starting to not work, it was right on the edge.
If you watch the film again, notice how many times they ended a scene with an indication of an event just off screen -- a scream, water gushing out of somewhere, a character running up and saying, "Come quick, you have to see this!"
I suspect the way they got away with it so often was the school castle location -- plenty of stuff going on just around corners or in other rooms.
In any case... the best way to end a scene, I submit, is to recognize that while a scene is interesting, there's often a particular part of the scene is the most interesting. This goes back to hitting the main story point of a scene with power and clarity.
Once that essential point of a scene has been made, once you've made clear to the audience that the story point is made, the 'scene interest' plummets -- and so the audience will accept a cut to the next scene which, by comparison, will be more interesting, and they'll accept the cut.
So here I'll take my own advice, since the 'point of this scene' has been made, and I can feel interest plummeting. And man, I'll tell you, that next column, boy oh boy, is it something to see --