No mistakes allowed

A couple of years ago, my good friend Laura gave me a birthday present. A present she thought might inspire me, but she wasn’t sure. It was Movie Mistakes by Jon Sandys. It is the book version of moviemistakes.com.

I think that this sort of site/book is a back-handed compliment to the art of editing. The kinds of mistake listed here are the ones you can guess: continuity (cigarettes jumping from hand to hand, getting longer and shorter between shots, food vanishing), anachronisms (visible edges of sets, visible crew) and many more.

I think that most contributors to the site and readers of the book think that the film makers managed to make these films without knowing the mistakes they were making, and that they would have fixed them if they knew. I guess that over 90% of the ‘mistakes’ found were well known to the people on set and to the editorial team.

The trick is to know what people are going to notice. There’s no point spending extra time and money fixing things that will only be spotted my the 0.1% of your audience who will be stepping through your film a frame at a time. As long as you know where people will be looking, you can have almost anything elsewhere in the frame – people aren’t going to see it. Also, if the emotion created by the writers, director and actors is compelling enough, the audience will forgive anything.

There are many elements that help make the edit between two shots invisible: consistency of emotion, the story advancing with the next piece of information, the rhythmic timing of the edit (the edit at that point feels ‘right’), knowing that if something vanishes that the eyes of the audience need time to find the next point of interest in the scene, that the composition of the shot on the screen doesn’t cause a jump cut (cutting to a shot that is too similar to the previous one), that people or objects in a scene don’t jump to a different position in the 3D space of the scene (continuity problems).

In In the Blink of An Eye by Walter Murch, he lists these elements in the same order as elements to consider when choosing when to cut and what to cut to. He gives (slightly arbitrary) percentage priorities to each element to show their relative importance: Emotion (51%), Story (23%), Rhythm (10%), Eye trace (7%), shot composition (5%) and 3D continuity (4%).

This shows that the emotions engendered by performance is worth more than all the other elements combined. That means, preserve the emotional line above all else. Neophyte editors take most pleasure in finding elements in each take that let them do continuity matches. According to experienced editors, continuity is the element that will be least noticed by an audience.

Cut for performance, not continuity.

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