I hate cut shots

Directors today make cheap choices.

This isn't too long a post. It is about something I could go on at length, but I'd rather stick to what I wanted to say. I watch TV shows and Movies and I keep getting frustrated at how erratically shots jump from one to another. It's cheap and it shows.

I should probably elaborate on this one.

My wife and I have been enjoying the show suits as of recent times. We started it, then dropped it after a couple of seasons, and then picked it up again. Along with that, we are watching designated survivor too. Between these two and some other shows like The Flash, I'm starting to see a trend. One that shows how directors have come up with a way to mass produce scenes of dialog with a minimal turnaround time.

  • Camera focuses on character A. Character A states something.
  • Camera switches focus to character B. Character B replies a quick one liner.
  • Camera switches back to character A. Character A quips.
  • Camera switches to charcter B. Character B retorts.
  • Off camera voice replies to character B's retort.
  • Camera cuts to character C entering scene making quick statement.
  • Camera cuts to character A/B/all of them showing reaction. Some thematic sound plays to emphasise the type of reaction.
  • Scene changes.

I appreciate the constraints under which the teams work with. Especially those working with TV shows. They have a limited amount of time to work with and every second has to count. And this isn't to say that this type of cut is easy to do either. If you want an example of a show that tries to do it but gets it completely wrong, look at Corridor Digital's show for YouTube Red, Lifeline. The pacing is jarring!

But that's not how we should be measuring quality. We can't look at a bar hanging just a few inches off the floor and say "at least it isn't rolling on there". It's lazy and I wish that directors would do something about it. For example, look at this scene:

That's supposedly one of the most loved scenes of Suits. They couldn't even hold the camera for the scene where Louis runs into Harvey. They did that in 6 cuts over 4 seconds! There's no impact (haha) in watching that entire move. It's so empty because our brains don't have time to register emotion while trying to form the continuity between each cut.

Cheap. That is the result of them getting the same shot done maybe a few times, possibly just once, from multiple angles and then stitching it together to remove any appearance of flaws.

The funny thing is, that I was watching Gilmore girls with my wife the other day. And one thing I noticed that was even though it has the same quippy fast paced "got to fit everything in" dialogue that suits has, the camera takes its time between cuts. Characters will travel through an entire dinery or house and the camera holds the shot. The director doesn't feel the need to switch from one face to another.

The end result of that is something where because we watch the entire thing unfold without a break, our brains have a chance to take in the details. The movements between characters. Body language. Little blocks of actions that fill up their words. If the character slams something angrily on the countertop, we've gotten to see the full course of action. All the way from the moment that character picked up the object to pretend to ignore someone else to the moment where they slam it.

It's a different experience.

This isn't to say that there aren't a LOT of cut scenes in Gilmore girls or any other TV show. There are subtle differences though. Keeping the camera focussed on a single character before cutting actually works decently for long scenes of dialogue. Game of thrones used this to great effect. Compare this "one of the greatest scenes" from the show:

There are worlds of differences between the two scenes. But that is a choice. If I could cut that scene the way I wanted to in Suits, here's how it'd probably have gone:

  • The entire first part of the scene, do NOT remove focus from both Donna and Louis. Donna's discomfort at being caught out for lying should be caught entirely. Louis's growing anger at being lied to YET AGAIN should have been caught in full to contrast the two. If I had to pick a cliche camera movement for it, I'd pick the one where Louis steps in closer to Donna and the camera moves closer to keep both characters at the edge of the frame.
  • At the point where Louis brushes past Donna, that's the point at which I'd cut. Louis walking to Harvey's office would be a single steady shot of him walking down while in the background we can see Donna running to her desk to grab the phone. The idea behind filming the entire walk to the office would be to just capture the rage that grows with every step of Louis. The camera would settle just behind Harvey at the moment where Louis enters the office and utters his first challenge.
  • The entire conversation would play out in a similar focus this time with Harvey stepping up closer to Louis to intimidate him. The camera holds position to emphasise Harvey's physical superiority to Louis as well. And it holds it for the entire part where Harvey hits Louis and then throws him into a table. We see Jessica walk in, push Harvey away telling him to go home. Harvey exits, Jessica stands over Louis. Cut to Louis's face. End scene.
  • Also I'd probably cut the music at the very moment that Harvey snaps. Silence can also play a huge effect in emotional scenes.

None of this is to say that I'm a better director. This is just 1 scene and I don't know how my edit would actually look like. This isn't to say that what shows like Suits produce isn't entertaining or engaging. I mean I am binge watching it after all. But the thing is, it's so lazy that it hurts. All I want is some variety. Something that tells me the show is more than dialogue. Something that uses the medium of video for actual impact.

To put it in a simple metaphor, the way the shows are done today feel closer to reading a book rather than actually watching something that was done with the screen and all its possibilities in mind.

I hate cut shots. They are the visual crutch of the television industry today.

Posted on March 21 2018 by Adnan Issadeen