Cutting Dialogue Simply Explained Using the TV Series “The Crown” as an Example

Cutting dialogue in film and video
"To speak is to judge. To be silent is to have judged." - Hans Lohberger | © Netflix

We do it several times a day. Often without being aware that we instinctively observe a whole series of unspoken rules: Talking to each other is in every respect more complex than one might think at first glance. Cutting dialogue has it all.

One becomes aware of the difficulty of the cinematic montage of conversations, the editing of dialogue, whenever one has to stage a dialogue scene on the film set. Or when a conversation needs to be edited in the editing room. At the latest then it becomes clear even to the layman:

This article analyzes a dialogue scene from the masterfully directed TV series “The Crown” by showrunner Peter Morgan. This example shows what is possible when cutting dialogues. The analysis focuses on the cut.

The question of whether the director or editor ultimately shaped a scene does not play a significant role here for the analysis on cutting dialogue. Because for the viewer only the result counts in the end. And this one is exceedingly impressive in the visually and eloquently powerful television series about Queen Elizabeth II.

You need to know

  • There are four ways to cut dialogue.
  • First, the camera can capture the view of the person speaking.
  • Second, in dialogue editing, it is possible for the recording to show the listener’s gaze.
  • Third, in dialogue editing, the settings can also have a neutral point of view of the speaker and listener.
  • Fourthly, a view of details (for example, hands) or picture symbols is possible.

Cutting dialogue using the example of “The Crown

As an example of cutting dialogue, we picked a scene from the recently released season 2 of Netflix ‘s “The Crown.” This has been available on Netflix (as well as the previous season) since December 2017.

In the dialogue sequence, which we will break down into its individual settings for this article on dialogue editing, Edward, Duke of Windsor, asks the Queen to be allowed to resume an official position in the British Empire several years after the end of the war. Edward had already been King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for ten months as George V from January 1936, but then voluntarily abdicated the throne in favour of his niece Elizabeth because of a love affair.

Edward is unaware that the Queen has been briefed in detail about his contacts with Nazi Germany during the war.

This sequence from season 2, episode 6, consists of a total of 47 montaged shots and lasts 05:03. In the timeline, the sequence looks like this in screenshots with a view to cutting the dialog:

In the first picture Eduard enters the room where Queen Elisabeth is already waiting for him. In the last shot of the scene, the monarch ends the conversation with her uncle by ringing for a servant to escort Edward out of the hall. How is this now implemented in dialogue editing?

Possibilities for the montage of dialogue scenes

For the montage of a conversation, strictly theoretically speaking, there are four basic options for cutting dialogue. In reality, these are hardly ever realized in only one form by director and editor, but always as a combination and mixed form and in countless variations.

The four basic ways to capture a sequence in picture and sound when editing dialogue are

  1. to take the point of view of the speaker in the dialogue cut and thus to look at the counterpart (the spectator is the speaker)
  2. from the perspective of the listener looking at the speaker (the audience is the listener)
  3. neutral point of view, speaker and listener are both in the picture (the viewer is standing next to the speaker)
  4. or without a person in the picture (symbol pictures, detail pictures, or similar)

Even though the camera represents the eyes of the viewer and almost all films or videos have a clear narrative perspective and a main character when cutting dialogue, experiencing dialogue only from the point of view of the main character and from a subjective point of view is extremely rare. In this case, the dialogue cut in the literal sense is omitted. The cutting of speech gives way to the panning of the camera.

An enormously impressive, even frightening, example of a film told only from a subjective perspective without dialogue editing is the feature film “Son of Saul”, which won several awards in Cannes.

Told only from the point of view of the person speaking, the picture would only show Queen Elizabeth (played to a tee by the magnificent Claire Foy) when the dialogue cuts:

TV series

While the view of the Queen granting an audience to her Uncle Edward (played by Alex Jennings) is as follows in the dialogue cut:

TV series

The neutral point of view presents itself in the dialogue cut as follows (although in this image the person listening, the Queen, is given more visual weight than the speaker):

TV series

The word intersect dialogue says it all: a conversation consists of speech and counter-speech. That is why dialogue used to be called dialogue. The listener becomes the speaker and the listener becomes the speaker. Questions and answers, action and reaction alternate.

Cutting dialogue: Content and narrative perspective

How the montage edits a conversation is determined by the content. Dialogue is no more an end in itself than a scene or sequence is ever detached from the larger whole. In the case of Dialogue Cut, storylines that are superordinate to the individual parts provide the basic direction. This also applies to the dramaturgy and the main character. Editing can visually promote a person to the protagonist. It makes more sense to determine the weighting of the actors based on the story.

“The Crown” is the story of Queen Elizabeth. She’s the main character. She bears the burden of judging her uncle’s request and making the right decision in the interest of her country and the integrity of the royal family. The dialogue cut must reflect this.

This narrative perspective is already emphasized by the beginning and the end of the scene when cutting the dialogue. The Queen, as mistress of the house, is already waiting. Eduard, who has come from exile in Paris, is led into the premises and, accompanied by the camera, has to go to the hostess as a supplicant. Only after he is allowed to sit down and move on to small talk are both people on the same level.

The editing keeps giving the listening queen long moments. The montage thus unmistakably signifies to the viewer, as the dialogue cuts, that the expected reaction of the Queen (who listens to her uncle with stoic composure) is more interesting than the request. We have already learned in the previous scenes that the Queen (and with her the viewer) knows much more about her uncle’s relationship with Nazi Germany than the uncle suspects.

Rhythm and timing

The untrained beginner jumps back and forth between speech and counter-speech when cutting dialogue. Whoever is talking is always in the picture during film editing. The beat of the conversation, the rhythm (American: pace) is given by the tempo of the dialogue.

Director Philippa Lowthorpe and Irish TV editor Úna Ní Dhonghaíle decided to take a different approach to editing dialogue for this dialogue scene. For the most part, they show the other party listening during the dialogue. The video editing may introduce the speaker, but the reaction of the other person, especially in the case of Elizabeth, is more interesting. This is also underlined by the setting lengths.

The shortest setting lasts just 3 seconds and 10 frames, the longest setting stands uninterrupted for over 21 seconds. This sequence with dialogue editing reaches its average editing rhythm of an average shot length of 6 seconds after about one minute. However, in keeping with the content, this is deliberately broken at 3 minutes and 4 minutes in length. Put another way: The scene has a clearly discernible heartbeat that changes several times during the course of events when dialogue is cut.

Camera settings, shot sizes, camera movements when cutting dialogues

The work of the camera contributes its part to the dialogue cutting. It travels with us, pans and additionally directs our gaze through the selection of the image section.

Much like English royalty, the dialogue editing stays true to a worn, classic style. The sequence begins with a half-total and moves to a close-up of the faces. Very important is underlined with a close-up. Undercutting the conversation, as is often done in dialogue editing for CEO videos with B-roll footage, is unnecessary here. It would only distract from the actors’ facial expressions.

The kinship ties between the protagonists are not only emphasized by the dialogue editing, but also by the camera. She does this by keeping the speaker in the frame several times, often just barely (over-shoulder shot).

Number of cameras and setting sizes

There are good reasons for shooting a dialogue scene with only one camera when editing dialogue. How there are just so many good reasons to shoot with more than one camera. No reason against the use of more than one camera should be the additional costs for “The Crown”. The first 10 episodes of the series were estimated to have a production budget of around 80 million.

When editing dialogue, the more cameras, the fewer repetitions a scene needs. The actors don’t have to interrupt their flow for every camera move. But the reverse is also true: with a camera, it is often possible to stage and work more precisely. And it’s also true that master directors like Stanley Kubrick didn’t let the number of cameras prevent them from having a scene repeated up to 40 times.

Our scene at “The Crown” consists of 12 different shots / shot sizes with different angles. When editing dialogue, the analysis of camera locations does not preclude shooting with multiple cameras.

(A mouseover over the image shows the indication of the setting size).

This means that the 12 settings were used several times during the dialogue editing and split into 47 individual parts for the sequence (whereby the dialogue continues seamlessly as sound under the images, of course, and connects the settings).

Dialogue cut summarized

In dialogue editing, content follows form. The message of the scene determines from whose point of view we experience which part of the conversation. A mechanical cutting back and forth between people talking usually indicates a less experienced person with a lack of training in the director’s chair or editing room.

© “The Crown”: Netflix Inc. | Screenshots: filmpulse

This article was automatically translated into English using AI. If you would like to help us improve the quality, we would be happy to hear from you.

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