A Couple of Formatting Questions - Complications Ensue
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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Q. The more screenplays I read, the more I realize that, while there are conventions and trends, there is no single way to make formatting decisions. One thing, I have noticed is that transitions like 'cut to:' are rarely in scripts nowadays. Do you use them regularly or just to emphasize a cut or specify a certain kind of transition? I've used them, but only out of convention--scripts seem much more readable without them.

Also, most of the scripts available are shooting scripts, sometimes even with omitted scene markers in them. Frustrating when you want to see a writer's original intent, obviously. Other than that, what are some other principle differences between a shooting script and a writer's final draft?

Is the process different in movies and television?
CUT TO: seems to have gone out of fashion, because it is, strictly speaking, redundant. Of course you cut from one scene to the next. I used to use CUT TO: to indicate a big jump (in time, or characters), as opposed to following one character continuously from an interior to an exterior. But I don't do that any more because no one else does.

Shooting scripts have scene numbers. Later drafts have changed lines indicated by asterisks on the right hand side of the page. Scenes that have been cut are indicated by OMITTED. I would be too put out about that. The writer's "original intent" isn't as important as his final intent. A good writer is trying to tell his story as effectively and efficiently as possible. That often means cutting scenes when you realize you don't need them any more.

The only way that movie and TV scripts differ are the act breaks. TV has act outs (see my book CRAFTY TV WRITING for an extensive discussion), and each new act goes on a new page.

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11 Comments:

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By Blogger Nicholas, at 2:14 PM  

Yeah, I rarely use "CUT TO" myself, unless I really want to emphasize the transition in a "hanging of the lantern" kind of way. I read a script recently, one for an upcoming TV Pilot, in which the writer used it after every scene. It got really obnoxious really quickly. How he didn't get yelled at for it is beyond me, because all it really does now is up one's page count. Perhaps that is what he was trying to do? Using it after every scene could easily add an extra eight pages to a script.

By Blogger Nicholas, at 2:15 PM  

I never bother with CUT TO either. From the dozens of scripts I've read, the most prevalent transition signposts seem to be "SMASH CUT TO" and "DISSOLVE TO", both of which I've personally used in my scripts. However, I'm not sure if these are only used in shooting drafts. Should I avoid those in future?

By Blogger Will, at 7:47 PM  

Will, you may use SMASH CUT TO: if you can tell me how it is different from a CUT TO:, given that all cuts are instantaneous.

DISSOLVE TO: is denigrated because people don't seem to use the dissolve much any more. It's a bit cheesy.

I used MATCH CUT TO: because it means something.

I also use HALF DISSOLVE, though quite rarely, when I want two images on the screen at the same time.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 9:52 PM  

Interesting distinction between the DISSOLVES, I never knew that.

I've always understood "SMASH CUT TO:" to be a cut that 'interrupts' a scene at a point at which the viewer wouldn't expect it. Sometimes scenes A and B might be stark contrasts in tone to make a lasting impression. I use this transition sparingly, though, as I find it difficult to determine when to use it.

By Blogger Will, at 8:17 AM  

I recently wrote a spec episode of How I Met Your Mother and was surprised to learn that they use "CUT TO:" at the end of every scene. I'm thinking maybe it's a sitcom convention? (This was my first sitcom spec.)

By Blogger Seth, at 9:02 PM  

I assume a writer does not number the scenes his/herself, but this is done later in the process?

Same with 'omitted'?

By Blogger avlan, at 8:43 AM  

I used a lot of CUT TO in a short film I wrote. The whole film takes place in one room so I used CUT TO to indicate that the next scene in the same room was a move ahead in time. That will be clear on the screen because of jump cuts, so I had to write it into the script that way.

But yeah, that's the only time I've ever used it.

By Blogger Emily Blake, at 11:14 AM  

Harlan Ellison, commenting on his own use of it in his original version of the Star Trek episode City on the Edge of Forever, referred to the term 'smash cut' as "a scenarist's mickeymouse", since a cut is a cut is a cut. He noted that he used it deliberately anyway, to imply a particularly jarring transition.

By Blogger Stephen Geigen-Miller, at 1:01 PM  

To be honest, I've used SMASH CUT. I see it as implying a sting on the soundtrack to emphasize the suddenness of it.

I also see SMASH CUT as implying a lot of material is cut out in between. E.g. the classic "Gilligan": Gilligan says, "There's no way I'm wearing a red dress and dancing the samba." SMASH CUT TO: etc.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 2:24 PM  

As for the comment about the writer's original script vs. the shooting script, I bet most writers prefer the former because we want to see what sold, not what got shot long after the writer cashed her check.

By Blogger Chris, at 2:31 AM  

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