cutting on the action

photography and film – facts, ideas, values

FILM TECHNIQUE Cutting on the action [cutting on action]




While trying to write posts on film essays and camera-stylo this is a classic displacement activity. Remember the animal behaviour text books: the three-spined stickleback males have distinct territories. When they confront each other right on the dividing line between each other’s territory in a fish tank, they cannot attack but dip downwards.

Watching The Tall men [Raoul Walsh,1955] starring Clarke Gable, Jane Russell and Robert Ryan on Film4 this week, with half and eye and a third of an ear, it was pleasing to note a classic piece of cutting on the action involving Clarke Gable closing a door, turning through 90 degrees in order to be facing Jayne Russell opening a door to enter the room. I am not sure if that was three cuts or two (i.e. the door shutting  and the turning as cuts or a single shot), but it all looked just right.

The other day I saw another film in which a similar scene looked all wrong – name escapes me. Close up of face looking left, jump cut to close up of same face looking right, in order that another element of the scene could be introduced. The left-right-two-faces-looking-at-each-other felt wrong, let alone looked wrong, just because he wasn’t re-arranged pointing in the right direction. No different from a few notes in a piece of music which shouldn’t be there.  How is it that one off note stands out like that? That’s how the brain is made: it notices little differences.  (Though it also well-attested in all good psychology text books that men in bearskins can walk across the hotel foyer and not be noticed) That’s why it can see the difference between those paired cartoons, where something has been deliberately left out on one of the pair of seemingly identical pictures.

I suspect the reason the cutting on action failed in this case is because a decision was made not to go back to shot[s] they needed to re-film to to make it right*: something that the editor will have seen very quickly and have to tell the director about. It’s not always general incompetence but necessary expediency. Often true for continuity: they know the hair’s not the same length but no one dare ask for the money to re-film it.

* O.k., how many of you noticed the ‘to to’ mistake?



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January 20, 2010 - Posted by | cutting on action, film editing, film [its techniques]

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