Video Editing: Cutting Between Focal Lengths

In video editing there are two basic kinds of cuts. Those that seem seamless and those that feel disorienting, known as jump cuts. There are two basic ways to create seamless cuts in scenes. One is to change the camera angle and the other is to change the focal length.

Cutting between the Focal Lengths

When we refer to changing the focal lengths we're talking about lens changes. Movie scenes are shot from different angles with different lenses used for the wide, medium and close up shots. These lenses give us the frame size we want with depth of field that makes the image feel layered. So cutting between the focal length really means cutting between the various shot sizes. Perhaps we start the scene with a wide shot so the audience can gain an understanding of the spatial relationships between everything in the scene. We then cut to a close up from the same angle as the wide shot of the actor talking so the audience's attention is focused on what they're saying. 

Cutting between the focal lengths can be difficult because it presents two opportunities for jump cuts to occur. First of all, in order for a cut between focal lengths to work, there needs to be a considerable difference between the frame sizes. A wide shot cutting to a slightly closer cut will appear weird where as a wide to close up cut will work. There must be a significant change in the focal lengths for the cut to appear natural.

The actor's actions also need to be the same in every take for the focal length cut to work. If the actor's hands are resting on a table in the wide shot and are then up in the air when we cut to the close there will be a jump cut. A jump cut occurring during a cut on the focal length will make your audience disoriented and should be avoided. 

The Importance of Continuity

If you're shooting your own indie movie with little money then things can get very hectic on your set. Your crew members will be working very hard having to do the tasks that normally five people do on a high budget professional set. Despite how hectic things are, it's a good idea to assign someone to the job of script supervisor. A script supervisor is always watching the monitor for the director. They keep a close eye on the details occurring on screen so that everything will match in the editing. Hiring a good script supervisor (or giving a friend free food to be one) will help reduce the problem of jump cuts due to actor's actions in editing. It's a wise investment.

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