If you really want to scramble your brain, try cross-cutting a scene like this – multiple locations, multiple characters, across multiple versions of time on multiple levels of a dream. God help the poor editor that faces a challenge like this!
Do’s and Don’ts of Cross-cutting
DO: Consider the purpose of each scene.
Before you start to construct your exciting sequence of cross-cut events, think about how each scene will affect the others around it. For example let’s say you have a bomb timer counting down. Pretty classic device. You’d want to intermittently use portions of this scene as a way of reminding the audience that there is an urgent deadline approaching. This is a basic example but illustrates proper use of the technique.
DO: Use this technique to help with pacing
Cross-cutting is a terrific way to speed things up or slow them down. Each little vignette you cut to can be as long or as short as you want. Just bear in mind that hanging on any given shot for too long could slow down the momentum. Conversely, cutting away too quickly might be confusing for the viewer. You’ll need to use your best judgement.
DON’T: Lose track of where everyone is
Remember that as an editor it’s our job to help the audience understand what’s happening. By cutting away from one scene and focusing on another, it’s important to remind the audience of where they are when you change the scene.
You need to think carefully about when to use your various close-ups vs your wide, establishing shots. Use too many close-ups and the location changes could get confusing. On the other hand, use too many wide shots and the pace will grind to a halt and the constant re-establishing coverage will feel redundant.
DON’T: Cut away haphazardly
The fun thing about this technique is that you can cut in or out of any moment and leave the viewer hanging on the edge of their seat for what will happen next. Just be careful not to cut away haphazardly or randomly. There should be some level of micro-resolution before bouncing to the next scene.
Oftentimes, a great place to cut away will be after a character visibly reacts to something that has just occurred. This prevents the cross-cutting from feeling like a bunch of random shots placed back-to-back and helps to push the human drama forward in the story.
The idea of cross cutting isn’t something new. However, that doesn’t diminish its impact as a powerful editing technique. You can use this tool in just about every genre in pieces of all shapes and sizes – from a full-length action feature to a 2 minute horror trailer. It’s incredibly versatile and worth spending a bit of time to practice.
It’s tempting for editors to always search for the “new feature” or the “latest trick”, but sometimes it’s the classic, reliable tools that we really need to be using. After all, the hammer has been around for a few thousand years…and I don’t see it going anywhere.
I hope enjoyed this and gleaned a few useful editing nuggets. Are there any other topics you’ve been wanting us to cover? Let me know! 🙂