Editing Structure: Avoid Over-Cutting

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Above photo taken by Jakob Owens. www.directorjakobowens.com Follow IG @jakobowens


Written by Richard D. Pepperman


It has been more than a decade, and while I haven’t kept my mouth shut about it in the classroom (not at all), I’ve not expressed my concerns much beyond East 23rd Street and the walls of the School of Visual Arts. Here goes!

Is there an auto key included with all digital editing programs (it is evidently pressed without release or relief) which robotically cross-cuts in abundance? This (it must be appealing) course of action of exaggeratedly grouping, in a near mishmash, scenes by place, time, and character guarantees instant mediocrity because it ignores context. Surely each and every film cannot endure, let alone flourish, on identical structures.

Cross-cutting, parallel editing and inter-cutting are often interchangeable in their designations, but I think they can be differentiated. Cross-cutting is the joining of two or more scenes without dramatic conclusion in any of them. Often the drama (form, tension, conflict) is derived (primarily) via the editing task itself. Parallel editing is the joining of scenes with each concluding in drama and action, providing the audience connections in time, place and character. Inter-cutting is the joining of shots within a scene: the back and forth, by way of close-ups, medium-shots, and long-shots, between characters in a single place in continuous time.

Over-cutting ‘forms’ seem to have taken hold. I find that I often comment to students that there is something seriously wrong if their projects play as a trailer tempting me to see the film, when it turns out that what I am screening is the film. It is also alarming that such methods frequently (and desperately) rely on voice-over narration and/or plenty of dialogue to keep the viewer from total bewilderment. Is it not ironic that in an age of enormous visual sophistication, moviemaking seems to be moving (back) toward an impersonation – in words and text – of theatre and literature?

I have sat through too many major releases that exhibit a relinquishing of post-production responsibility in the search for a worthy structure. No sooner do these films get underway then the failed strategy becomes evident. Someone quit trying, gave up, and hit that key!

For one thing, and it’s an important thing, the arbitrariness of this overall, and predictable, approach has led to a visibly random assembly of selected shots within individually constructed scenes. Paradoxically, they seem to go hand-in-hand in an age of hands-off editing.

Take a look at a scene. Take note of the selected shots and their ordered construction. Then watch it again without the audio. I think you’ll start to ‘see’ that the images don’t quite work when ambiance, dialogue, music and sound effects aren’t there to assist the ongoing moments.  That is, the shot selection is essentially (and mistakenly) leaning on the words to steer the choices.

Could it be personally gratifying that this modus operandi unveils, with immediate conspicuousness, the existence of an editor? Will the ‘invisible craft’ be replaced by an easily ego satisfying scheme of laborious (labor obvious) storytelling? The fact that such questions come to mind, and how could they not, should provoke reflective apprehension in all filmmakers.

You’ll notice that I haven’t offered examples. This is because I am confident that you can (randomly) select a contemporary film, or a scene, and you’ll find my grumblings to be, far more than less, accurate.

It is vital that a film’s form results from the requirements of story, rather than as a consequence of prescribed and quick shrewdness. The craft of editing is currently suffering visual illogic and an ever-increasing failing in story-showing abilities. Editing is not easy, and it should not be so expected; but it is simple, and remarkably, the splendor of great cinema resides in simplicity.


Richard D. Pepperman has been an editor for more than 40 years. He is author of “The Eye is Quicker” (2004), “Setting up Your Scenes” (2005), and “Film School: How to Watch DVDs and Learn Everything about Filmmaking” (2008). Richard is a proud recipient of the Distinguished Artist-Teacher Award from the School of Visual Arts where he teaches “The Art of Editing.”