Dmytryk’s rules of cutting

What You Can Learn from Edward Dmytryk’s 7 Rules of Cutting

Edward Dmytryk is arguably one of the most influential directors in movie history, with over 50 films to his credit. He was nominated for an Oscar for his film “Crossfire” (1947) and worked with big name stars like John Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor, and Humphrey Bogart. But you may not know that before directing films, Dmytryk was a film editor.

In 1984, Edward Dmytryk wrote “On Film Editing,” which stipulated seven basic rules of cutting. He used his own experience to pave the way for future editors. These rules are an excellent resource for New York Film Academy students in our digital editing programs. The examples below will show how his rules are still used in contemporary films today. While the technology behind film and editing has changed since the mid-1900s, it cannot be denied that Dmytryk’s style is timeless.

Rule 1: Never make a cut without a positive reason.

Long scenes have the potential to be “the boring part” of any movie. Nothing is worse than a section that drags on with meaningless dialogue and no action. However, Dmytryk was never afraid of a long shot, stating “a cut should never be made only because the cutter feels the prevailing cut is too long.” In fact, long shots have become more popular in contemporary films. For example, the entire film of “Birdman,” which won Best Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematography, is designed to look like a single shot. Edits are made to carefully support the illusion of a continuous track shot, and are only made in support of the overall stylistic goal.

Rule 2: When undecided about the exact frame to cut on, cut long rather than short.

In order to maintain fluidity in a film, cuts must be as precise as possible — especially in action films where two shots will be fast-paced and must be perfectly timed. The editor must have plenty of film to work with when deciding where to make that pivotal cut. For this reason, the camera will continue to roll for a few seconds after the action is over and before the director says “cut.” Director Quentin Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction” and “Kill Bill”) knew this and so did his actors. That is why they often used to say “Hi, Sally” to the camera while filming to say hello to Sally Menke, Tarantino’s long-time film editor, who edited all of his films until her death in 2010. This is why the cast and crew used to greet her after a long take, knowing that she would see these scenes and cut them for the perfect action sequence. They wanted to give her plenty of extra footage to work with, knowing that an editor will often look to cut long rather than short.

Rule 3: Whenever possible cut “in movement.”

While transitions between scenes will sometimes require a few frames of no action, action is always preferred. A film can be pushed along scene-by-scene if there is an action to keep the audience engaged. For example, the urgency of “Apollo 13” (the 1995 Best Editing winner) is heightened in the scene below. After the flight director (Ed Harris) explains the challenge, the scene immediately cuts to the scientists dumping materials on a table. This movement shot is more urgent than a scene of them sitting and discussing the problem.

Also see the scene below from “American Hustle” (nominated for Best Editing in 2013). The sequence of the characters all going to the event is made as a montage, and each cut goes to a scene of action (i.e. Jeremy Renner lighting a cigarette, Jennifer Lawrence exiting the car, and Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams walking through the smoke). This keeps the scene moving a builds tension to the following scenes.

Rule 4: The “fresh” is preferable to the “stale.”

Dmytryk understood that a film must cater to its audience. Regarding his fourth rule, he said “if it is necessary to add a number of frames before the actor enters the scene, the viewer has, at least, a new setting to examine and integrate, which serves to keep his interest alive.” In the clip from “Titanic” (Best Editing winner in 1997) where Rose first calls Brock, there are quite a few seconds of filming before the camera focuses on an actor. Further in the clip, when the movie transitions to a ship, there is a shot of the ship from afar to show the audience where the film has moved.

This is also particularly true of films by Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox”), which heavily focus on setting.. See the scene before from “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (nominated for Best Editing in 2014). As the two protagonists (Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori) go down to meet the police, there are several seconds of film with no one speaking. This allows the audience to take in the new setting and also shows Edward Norton’s character’s consternation with the arrest.

Rule 5: All scenes should begin and end with continuing action.

The movement of a scene is one of its most important parts. Whether it is a simple transition or a tense action sequence, the actor’s movement must be seamless throughout. For example, if you are showing an actor entering a room, there must be continuous movement from the cut filmed from outside the room to the cut filmed from inside the room. The example below is from “The Matrix” (Best Editing winner in 1999), where the protagonist (Keanu Reeves) must escape his office. The scene is not in one continuous shot, so the editor must create continuity and make the actions look the same throughout each take, editing down the shot so that it looks like the actor never stops moving.

Also see the scene below from “Spotlight” (2015), which was nominated for Best Editing. As Mark Ruffalo’s character goes from the cab to the office, his movements are continuous.

Rule 6: Cut for proper values rather than proper “matches.”

It is important to remember while discussing these rules that Dmytryk was also a director. He understood that the film itself was the most important product. He believed that “the film’s dramatic requirements should always take precedence over the mere aesthetics of editing.” Dmytryk references a scene in his film “Murder, My Sweet” (1944), where a flashing light does not match up between takes. However he understood that the flashing light added to the drama of the scene and decided to leave it in. 

At the end of the day, Dmytryk stressed that the substance of the film was paramount to all of his rules. His techniques are important. However, these rules should be used only to make a film great, not to make a film perfect. In the last line of his book he states, “This book has persistently stressed technique and has urged the pursuit of perfection in its use. But the ‘human situation,’ in all its guises, is what good films are all about, and technical skill counts for nothing if it is used only to manufacture films which have little to do with humanity.”

What have you learned about your own projects after reading Dmytryk’s editing rules? How will you use them in future products to create a brilliant film? Let us know in the comments below.

If you’re ready to learn more about digital editing, check out NYFA’s digital editing programs!