Crossing the line 

23 April 2023 tbs.pm/78906

Wood Norton Hall

Wood Norton Hall. Courtesy of W. Stephen Gilbert

 

On the Facebook group called Memories of Working at BBC Television Centre, there is a lengthy and affecting thread about the lamented Wood Norton in Worcestershire which, for many years, was the BBC’s technical training centre (it was previously a stately home and is now a hotel). It’s not only the loss of the facilities that is roundly regretted and deplored, it’s the loss of the training. Those who have entered the industry this century have very little opportunity to benefit from practical instruction. Mostly they learn on the wing, working as unpaid interns and runners.

The lack of training is evident in the product. Very few of the younger directors, producers, cinematographers and editors now employed in film and television have a comprehensive grasp of film and television grammar. Older hands see this all the time. For instance, who among present programme and movie makers knows the phrase “crossing the line”? It refers to a particular understanding of the way shot composition and editing works.

 

This schematic shows the axis between two characters and the 180° arc on which cameras may be positioned. When cutting from the left arc to the right arc, the characters switch places on the screen.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Created by Grm wnrCC-BY-SA 3.0

 

It’s a simple enough matter – until you are constructing a sequence in which a great many members of the cast are talking to each other, where a sophisticated grasp of it is necessary – but lacking the fundamental knowledge damages the work. The “line” in question is, in the first example, the eyeline between protagonists. If one person, in addressing the other, is looking to left of camera, the other should look to right. That “reads” to the viewer as two people addressing each other.

But if, to take the reverse shot, the director moves the camera beyond the two actors and turns it around and shoots in the opposite direction, the only shots that will go up for editing will have the actors looking to the same side of the camera. The director will have “crossed the line”. This is disorientating for the viewer who is no longer sure whether the second person to speak is looking at the first or looking elsewhere.

The same principle applies to shots of travel. If a pedestrian or a horse or a vehicle is seen to pass from left to right in a shot and then the planned cut is to the same traveller in a different part of the journey, the motion still needs to be from left to right, otherwise the viewer will assume that we have been transported to the return journey. The line has been crossed.

Jump cuts are now standard in film and television editing. Of course they can work well, especially when done intentionally to have a particular effect – and indeed audiences have grown used to them and generally know not to be thrown by them – but standard grammar dictates that you should never cut from one character in a scene to the same character in another scene. You should buffer the cut to avoid an effect that distracts the viewer. It’s as well to pick up such buffering shots – an establishing view of the location, a cutaway of a prop or dressing detail, a shot of another player in the scene – so that there is an option to prevent an unwanted jump cut, but if the director doesn’t know to do that, those options are reduced.

Such practical knowledge as this may be picked up randomly by aspiring directors, but to have had it systematically taught ensured that earlier movies and teledrama were not overwhelmed by hectic, disorientating montage as so much contemporary storytelling now is.

 


 

  • W. Stephen Gilbert has been been an indexer, journalist, editor, critic, interviewer, reporter and essayist on both sides of the Atlantic and in all UK national broadsheets and dozens of periodicals from populist to academic, as well as a television producer and script editor of both drama and documentary for the BBC, Channel 4 and independent production houses.

 

You Say

1 response to this article

Jonathan Ferguson 25 May 2023 at 3:27 pm

BBC Wood Norton still exists. I can’t speak to the extent or quality of the training but they still have two training buildings and two studios at least. Various posts on FB, Twitter and Instagram showing staff still being trained there.

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