The Hard Cut: Transform the Most Basic Editing Tool

The Hard Cut: Transform the Most Basic Editing Tool

The Hard Cut: Transform the Most Basic Editing ToolEvery single editing platform has this tool: The ability to marry up one clip from one piece of footage with another. I don’t care if it’s Windows Movie Maker or Avid. Every single piece of editing software has the ability to make a hard cut.

A hard cut is when two different clips are married together, no transition, no flashframe, just clip next to clip. This forms a single moment between them. This instant, the two frames dissimilar and yet full of meaning, combine in the mind and move us along in the story. This is a hard cut edit. And when it’s done right, it’s not even noticeable. Done wrong and your audience is running from the screen, wondering who messed with their eyeballs.

And yet, mastering a hard cut and using it effectively is what separates assemblers from artisans.

First off, what’s does a hard cut mimic? Award-winning editor Walter Murch describes hards cuts as eye blinks. Our eyes take in information 100% of the time we’re awake. Every few seconds, our eyes blink. This is partly to our eyes needing moisture. This is not the blink we’re looking for.

Instead, think of when you transition from looking at your computer screen to the artwork on the wall. If this action isn’t accompanied by an instinctual blink, it’s accompanied by something else you probably haven’t noticed: a blur between your screen and the artwork. Your brain disregards the blur as irrelevant information, and you continue looking at the artwork. But why does either the blink or the blur work? The key that makes both seamless is that your eyes naturally keep the focal points of the computer screen and the artwork in the center of your vision.

Here’s is why this is important. The eyes in our heads can see everything around us from what’s directly in front of us, to our peripheral vision. And our eyes automatically center on what we choose to focus on. But eyes looking at video footage are confined within the square of whatever your footage is playing back in, from your NLE to your television, to your smartphone. Inside these squares, the focal point is not always dead center. It is to the side, moves around…in short, unlike in the real world where your focal point is whatever you choose, focal points in video footage are chosen for you by whomever shot the footage.

So what does this really mean for an editor?

If our eyes in real life naturally keep the focal point the same, regardless of a blur or blink in between, then the secret to mastering the hard cut is to choose focal points that are in similar places from cut to cut. The master editor uses each shot’s focal point and it’s movement within the shot to direct the viewer’s eyes to wherever the focal point will be in the next shot. This masterful use of movement and points is aptly called eye-trace. Pay attention to every supercut, montage scene, and b-roll and you’ll see this very thing in action. Cut to cut, overlay to overlay, and transition to transition.

Utilizing eye-trace in your hard cuts is a powerful tool, and can be used in different ways:

  • Keeping eye-trace within the center of the frame allows for faster absorption by your viewer. This technique is particularly useful during a sequence of very quick cuts or action.
  • Eye-trace can direct the eye from one place on screen to another before the cut happens. This is useful when a character or object moves around a frame, changing the focal points from one one side to another.
  • It can be use to direct the viewer where to look next, even if the focal point hasn’t changed to the next shot yet, giving the viewer context to the other objects in the scene and their relationship to other objects.

This last part is incredibly useful, and is frequently seen during conversations between characters in a movie. Character John is talking to Character Bill. John is sitting on the left side of the frame and looks to the right side as he is talking to Bill. The cut then happens and we see Bill on the right side of the frame, looking to the left to talk to John. The 3rd and 4th seasons of Stargate SG:1 often uses this style of conversational cutting to set rhythm and character hierarchy.

Alternatively, this is also used when you see a character look across the frame at an object, and then we see the object in the next cut in the same area where the character’s eyes were looking.

This direction of eye-trace is also used to communicate relationships without words being said. A great example is the famous three-way standoff scene in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. No words are said in the scene, but eyes looking to something directs the viewer to who in the scene they’ll be looking at next. And this use of eye-trace helps us see into the minds of the characters because now we know the relationships involved in the stand-off (For an excellent breakdown and explanation of this, check out this video essay by Max Tohline).

When a hard cut isn’t working, it is frequently due the focal points being in two different places between the two clips. First the focal point is in one place, then suddenly it’s in another. There is either no movement to direct the eye to the new location, or the new location doesn’t land in exactly the same place as either the old focal point, or to where the eye-trace said it was supposed to be. Realigning these areas, either with new footage, moving the in or out point of a shot to help it line up, or doing some fancy manipulation of the frame size on your footage can vastly improve the landing from each focal point. And this improves both the look and the power of your hard cut. In effect, it becomes invisible.

Mastering eye-trace is the key to unlocking the power of the hard cut in your editing. It removes the need for extensive cross-dissolves, flashes, and other transitions to hide an edit point. Your hard cuts can then create a more natural experience for your viewer, putting the power of story back where it should be: in the emotional space of your viewer’s mind.

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