Composing for Cutting


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I'm curious about composing shots so that when they are cut together the viewer's eyes stay focused in one area of the screen, vs. racing around to find the next shot, in other words, match cut or semi-match cuts.

Example, using rule of 3rds: actor A, CU, eyes near top 1/3 horizontal line, offset to camera left facing right, cut to next shot: actor B, CU, eyes top 1/3 horizontal but on camera right causes viewers to ping pong left to right... now if the two actors are closer (lets say this is a 2.39:1 aspect because it's the most difficult, for me!) then it's possible the eyes line up horizontally and are on the same approximate vertical axis so that when cuts occur there is little to no viewer ping pong activity. I know this might seem picky, but to me it seems like a nice ability to use whenever appropiate.

Daniel Arijon's book, "Grammar of the Film Language" mentions this as well as some writings by some old time editors. Viewer eye movement on a huge screen vs. a TV is quite a bit different so the TV is relaltively immediate while the Large screen requires search & recoginiton time.

I can understand the need to use contrast in shot structure so some sequences flow like glass while others are abrupt and seemingly discontinous.

The normal coverage process doesn't seem to account for this but I know some directors story board and spend much time on these considerations.

Do you or others (cinematographers & directors, editors) take this into consideration while framing and planning shots?

Any tips?

It depends on the director in terms of how important that stuff is to them. I think it's important -- things like matching focal lengths, eyelines, etc. -- TO A POINT. I like the feel of close-ups in a scene being shot with the same lens, for example, unless for an effect.

I hate it when people get overly fanatic about matching because then you are starting to think mechanically, not artistically. If it feels right to shoot the reverse angle CU in a dialogue scene slightly tighter or lower or more imbalanced, or more (or less) frontal, etc. then go ahead. Don't be tied down to "rules" too much.


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OK, your answer sounds practical. I was wondering how mechanical it should get! Thanks! :D

How do you usually go about getting coverage for a scene, let's say it's a 2 shot, in a room.

The norm seems to be an establishing/ wide shot, a master scene ( bookend) 2T singles/reverse, OTS & reverse, CU & reverse, inserts & cutaways. This could get old if used too much I would think. :?

Do you have a typical approach and then vary off it?
Sort of depends on the blocking for the scene, how the actors move and where they look. Yes, wide master, overs and singles are standard coverage fare -- while one is always trying to think of more original ways of covering a scene, this classic approach certainly accomplishes a lot of things, mainly giving you options in editing later as to how tight to play certain moments.

Camera moves can combine some of these, like dollying from a wide to an over, or from an over into a CU. Actors can be staged to move closer or farther too. Conrad Hall was always good at figuring out interesting angles to play a scene that was not typical coverage, trying to find an evocative image that covered a lot of story needs.


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So the standard approach is the standard because it simply Works! makes sense... it reminds me of 3 act story structure, why use it? ...because it works. :D

So what sets apart great cinematographers and directors from the average?

Lighting, camera composition and blocking?... I read your impressive list of your favorite cinematography/films and I was wondering what they all have in common besides they're really good.
I'm not sure if there is a commonality between my favorites -- I like a wide range of styles and I'm responding to different things, from sheer beauty to the perfect marriage of style and story, etc. If there is anything I tend to be biased towards, it's towards movies that seem controlled, i.e. the obvious product of an artist as opposed to a mere recording of reality. Doesn't mean I don't admire great works of realism, like "Battle of Algiers", but I tend to also see those as an implementation of a strong style that serves the story. I like subtlety and I like boldness; perhaps what I like less is blandness, a certain generic quality to the lighting and composition. Of course, someone else may argue that those visually non-descript films are actually good examples of the "invisible" style that is the hallmark of classic narrative cinema.

Doesn't mean I like style for style's sake, unless there is a sense of fun behind the endeavor; slick but empty images tend to bore me quickly, or at least, they don't linger in the mind.


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What I hear you saying is that you like a film that has a view of reality from it's own unique perspective. It may not be real, in the sense of objective reality, but it's real in the sense of subjective reality, kind of like seeing the world through the eyes of a child. The film manifests this view by it's use of lighting, camera position, movement, color, sets, blocking, music, mes en scene, etc.

Is this correct? you like the subjective view more than the objective (scientific instrument) view.

I would think this is what makes films interesting, a personal view. How often and in what other ways can we see inside someone elses reality? Maybe film helps us do that, it expands our ability to be alive and emotional experience something outside of our normal realm of possibilities.

The earliest stories told in the flicker of a fire about the struggles with saber tooth tigers using cave drawings, to today's story of space ships and time warps, we eagerly devour these tales especially when the storyteller tells it with a special interpretive twist that makes the reality of it even better. :wink:

This is where the art kicks in and it gets fun!
I'm not sure objectivity is even possible, even for a documentarian. I like realism as a STYLE but I don't think it has a monopoly on TRUTH. Emotional honesty is more important than photographic reality.

Or as Lawrence Olivier used to say (paraphrasing): "The most important quality for an actor is SINCERITY. Because if they learn to fake that, they can fake anything!"

Certainly I will sometimes adopt what I call the "objective" camera angle, i.e. not from a particular character's point of view. Stylistically, "objective" movies tend to observe group behavior without often assuming to view of a single character throughout and how they feel about the others ('The Godfather" is somewhat in that style, not just Michael's story) while "subjective" movies (most famously Hitchcock's) tend to be locked into the perspective of the main character. It's somewhat easier for objective movies to deal with bigger social issues like politics because they aren't as wrapped up in following the emotional responses of a single character to specific events that only affect them.


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This had me really laughing! "...Lawrence Olivier used to say (paraphrasing): "The most important quality for an actor is SINCERITY. Because if they learn to fake that, they can fake anything!" :D I'll have to remember this one!

Given that animation brings the audience to emotions of joy, laughter, fear, sorrow, etc... as well as live action does, I wonder how these images practice the Method. :?

Of course whatever the actors need so they feel comfortable is fine with me and I respect & support it. Once again, it appears to be the case of, if it works then it works, so use it!

Question: Interpretation of the script so far seems to be the one key talent one needs for directing. So far that is where I believe the bulk of effort should go. This translation of words into images seems to be a mystery of some sort. Some are able to envision it better than others so the pictures tells the story effectively, (like in a silent film). These imaginations end up in storyboards, overhead diagrams & a shot list, and then the director & cinematographer are still free to further interpret the story while on set.

What thoughts, advice, insight would you offer about this?

Am I correct about this being the core challenge, are storyboards and such the most effective way to provide for an efficient shoot, etc...?

Also, I have a DVX100 and I've been trying figure out the ASA of the chip inside. I have a Spectra Pro Incident Light Meter and just got the DVRack with the Wave Form Monitor & Vector Scope, it is also suppose to give a true calibrated montior image. An article in 2002 American Cinematographer magazine said the ASA is around 320, but when I use this setting the blacks are too milky, too overblown I stop it down till it looks! :shock: ideas?

Thanks for your wonderful answers so far, they have been very helpful.

Perhaps your shutter is not at 1/48th? Because it's about 320 to 400 ASA at 0 db with a 1/48th shutter, more or less. But in CineGamma mode, you're supposed to underexpose a little more since it is not using knee compression so maybe that's what you're noticing.

I'd say that the most important quality a director needs is the ability to get people to trust them with their money! No money, no movie. That's why there are so many incompetent directors out there -- the only skill they have is getting the funding. As Richard Crudo, ASC once said, "there are only two entry-level positions in Hollywood: PA and Director."

That aside, there are probably three primary skills a director needs up front: (1) good taste in all things; (2) ability to judge performances; (3) ability to understand and analyze a story. Just below that, I'd say ability to work with others effectively and lead them, ability to think visually, ability to think in terms of editing, ability to multitask, etc. I think Gordon Wills, ASC once said that good taste was a prerequisite for any artist because you can't go anywhere without it.


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Thanks on the ASA/ISO/EI. Video seems to be a mystery on this CCD chip sensitivity because some say it's 640, 800, etc... you got me! I'll play with it and test, test, test. I just wish I could use a meter and know I'll end up getting consistent 18% zone 5 grey shot by shot.

I love the joke about entry positions, there's probably a lot of truth to it. I'll have to use that one also!!!

Directors with good taste, good performance judgement, good analytical & social skills....that's a tall order. But I guess if they are asking for investor money....they better have it. I've heard that assertiveness in Hollywood wins out over the artisitic who tend to be more shy or quiet. While that's a cynical view, maybe there is some truth to it. Maybe the salesman personality is able to establish an environment of trust more often than others so the money is extended and production takes place more frequently.

Question: I've noticed in many shots by all sorts of cinematographers that the foreground is dark & muted while there often is a small bright light, i.e., open door with light coming through in the distant background. So the overall picture appears as a dark frame with a distant bright spot to attrack and pull the eye. Too many student films seem to be overlit and not use this approach.

Is this to create as sense of 3D depth in a 2D world?
What do you call this sort of lighting arrangement?

Question: Shooting video vs. film, is there a great difference in lighting sets, the amount and quality?
If the budget is the same, the lighting will be similar for film or video if you want the same look. Video cameras at 0db are in the same sensitivity range of most high-speed film stocks. The main difference will be in how you compensate for video's more limited ability to handle overexposed areas.

Framing bright against dark, dark against bright, in layers, is basic cinematography when you want to achieve a feeling of 3D depth in a 2D medium. You could call it "chiaroscuro" maybe. It's also good to have somewhere in the frame a pure white and a pure black reference to give the image a full tonal range, or else it can look flat and muddy.


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Northfork shot Question: There is one scene (Tombstone on the hill) when the camera is overlooking the valley below and then the camera pulls back through the Men in Black, first one on each side then more... excellent shot, I had a real reaction to that one. How did you do that...was that a crane used for the pullback?

Good work!
No, that was just some track going right up to the edge of the cliff, with a lot of stuff to stop the dolly when it rolled back to the begining position (thank god it wasn't a push in!) I got nervous everytime we rolled the dolly back to the first position at the cliff edge, since I was the one operating. We just dollied back, revealing the men on each side of the frame.

I like that sequence because it looks good and was a good example of planning and coordination. That lookout spot was off of the highway about twenty minutes north of our locations; we rushed over near sunset and set-up Shot #1, the dolly move pulling back to reveal the men, then we removed the dolly & track and I backed up farther and put the camera on the ground on a sandbag and did Shot #2, the headstone with the men walking past (we luckily discovered that we could start all six men behind the headstone off-camera). Then for Shot #3 we rushed the camera over to a crane parked to one side and did the extreme wide shot as the men walk to their cars. So we got these three great shots all as the sun was setting.

Trouble was that it was a two-page dialogue scene with six men and we didn't cover any of that! So two weeks later, on a low hill at sunrise, next to our catering truck and trailers, we shot the reverse angle on the dialogue in two shots, each covering three of the six men. It was our last day with all six actors so we had to shoot it then; luckily the weather sort of matched what we did at sunset before, partly cloudy.

This was a good example of the benefits of storyboarding a scene carefully.


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how rigidly should storyboards be followed given that often when I am shooting some of the best shots I get I think up on location in the moment? With a story board doesn't that eliminate a lot of creativity? Is a shotlist apt? Because if you're on a schedule, it probobly doesn't account for shots you might think of on set, it would only apply to those already planned out. How much flexibility is there in a schedule for on the fly shots? Thanks.
There's no "rule" that you have to follow a shot list or storyboard (unless you are working for a commercial agency or doing efx shots.) Storyboards and shot lists are just memory devices so you don't forget your good ideas. That's all. OF COURSE if you have a better idea on the shooting day, you go with that and not the storyboards.

It's not like one method makes better movies than the other; it's just that your ability to THINK up a shot or imagine it is different under the pressure of a shooting day versus when you are off the set and have more time to weigh and balance different ideas. Sometimes it's good to be under pressure though.

If you have a generous schedule and budget, there's less need to storyboard or shot-list if you'd rather just find the shots on the day. And if you're a really experienced director on a faster shoot, you probably are skilled enough to think on your feet and make good decisions right on the spot. But if your schedule is tight and your experience is minimal, then pre-planning makes more and more sense.


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I just finished doing all of the camera work for one of my friends shorts-who directed. He didn't really direct though, so I took charge. Now, this would have been okay, but I didn't know what he wanted, and as it turned out he wasn't very articulate about what he wanted, and didn't really know what he wanted either. So then when we got to the editing room, the individual shots were great, but they didn't cut well together. In your experience, how as a cinematographer can you avoid this issue. Have a good director? A shotlist definetely would have helped (learned good lesson). Do you talk to your editor before a shoot? Are there any formula's for coverage to pretty much effeciently and effectively get total coverage? Thanks. I definetely learned some good lessons on this shoot, but I hope you can help me learn some more.
Hopefully you and your director have an idea of what you want before you ever show up on the shoot. If not the actual shots themselves, at least a concept for how to approach the shots and editing.

You need to exercise your imagination, not only into how the image looks but as to how the scene cuts "I imagine a wide shot at this point and then cutting into a close-up here with a slow push-in, then cutting to their hands, etc."

You should be able to see the scene play out in your head like a movie. Then you'd write down those shots. Now you've got a list of how you'd see the movie CUT, i.e. you're pre-editing the movie.

But the point of coverage is to also allow options in the editing room, so you need overlapping shots. For example, maybe you only saw cutting to the wide shot a couple of times but when you shoot it, you play out most of the scene in that shot as a master. Same with the close-ups, etc. so there are options as to when the cutting point might be. But you are working from an artistic concept for how you think the scene MIGHT cut as a guideline because you won't have time to cover every conceivable angle and decide later how to cut the scene, plus that's a boring way to direct a movie.

Obviously whether to go wide or tight or move the camera is motivated by the emotion of the moment and what story points you are trying to make. When you read a script, you can often tell what shots will be needed.

If the script says "she notices the spider crawling on her arm and she freezes with fear, afraid to move. She begins sweating, wondering what to do..." Well, obviously an extreme wide shot isn't going to be very effective in telling these story points except maybe to show at one moment that no one is around her to help. Obviously there will be a POV shot showing the spider, tight close-ups of her face, etc.

But if the script says "the truck smashes into the shack, emerging from the other side and drives off of a cliff" you're probably not going to be doing tight inserts so much as wider shots to show the action.

It's all about COMMUNICATION of ideas and emotions to the audience and how to do that in the most effective manner.


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David, how can i get the popular look we see in many car commercials where everything is almost black & white but has a silvery type look also?
Kurosawa once said that directing was making sure everything in front of the camera was the best possible, and then shooting it in the best way possible.

If you want an image to have a silvery b&w look, FIRST you try and get it to look that way in front of a camera and THEN find photographic and post tricks to enhance that look.

It sort of depends on what you think "silvery" means. I tend to think of it as contrasty with deep blacks and bright whites, with very little color -- like a silver object would look. In car commercials they would do this with post color-correction (adding contrast, darkening the blacks, lowering the color) but it helps if the shot itself had that look (like a silver car on an overcast day driving on wet, black asphalt.)