Tom Cross: Understanding The Cuts

Tom Cross

Tom Cross is an amazing editor who I think is one of the best editors we have right now. Someone who understood rhythm, pacing and perspective like no other. As a recently graduated film editing student myself, basically meaning I won’t get a job anytime soon, Tom Cross is the one editor who I can say, “Someday I’ll be able to look at the rushes as he would and make magic”.

Also, unlike our other articles, which are more like reviews like the one Benthunglo did on Shirkers or Reply 1988. This is also not like my interpretation of the story itself, like what I did with Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfather. This is more about understanding why Tom Cross chooses to cut in certain places or instances and how that affects the whole story. If you want to delve into the world of editing, please proceed.

So anyway, let’s dive into my personal interpretation of Tom Cross as an editor and his films. Also, warning, SPOILERS AHEAD!

Skip Introductions

So who is Tom Cross?

Tom Cross is an American television film editor who began his career as an assistant editor in 1997. His contributions are insurmountable to many films like We Own The Night (2007), Crazy Heart (2009), The Switch (2010) and the Primetime Emmy Award-winning drama series Deadwood. His breakout film was in the year 2015 with the film we all know and live, Whiplash. Whiplash won several awards, including Independent Spirit Award, BAFTA and the Academy Award for his editing work.

Tom Cross talking on the mic
Tom Cross

Tom Cross Achievements:

Tom Cross already has accumulated a number of awards for his editing over the years, some of them are:

2018First ManDamien ChazelleCritics Choice Award for Best Editing
22nd Hollywood Film Awards Hollywood Editor Award
Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association Award for Best Editing
Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Editing
Nominated – Satellite Award for Film Editing
2017HostilesScott Cooper
2017The Greatest ShowmanMichael GraceyCo-edited with Joe Hutshing, Jon Poll, Michael McCusker, Robert Duffy and Spencer Susser
2016La La LandDamien ChazelleBFSC Award for Best Film Editing
CFCA Award for Best Editing
COFCA Award for Best Film Editing
Critics Choice Award for Best Editing
HFCS Award for Best Editing
Gold Derby Award for Best Film Editing
OFTA Film Award for Best Film Editing
OFCS Award for Best Editing
WAFCA Award for Best Editing
Nominated — Academy Award for Best Film Editing
Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Editing
Nominated — ACCA Award for Best Film Editing
Nominated — ACE Eddie for Best Edited Feature Film – Comedy or Musical
Nominated — EDA Award for Best Editing
Nominated — ICP Award for Best Editing
Nominated — INOCA Award for Best Film Editing
Nominated — LAFCA Award for Best Editing
Nominated — Satellite Award for Best Editing
Nominated — SDFCS Award for Best Editing
Nominated — SFCS Award for Best Film Editing
Nominated — SFFCC Award for Best Editing
Nominated — Sierra Award for Best Film Editing
Nominated — SLFCA Award for Best Editing
2015The Driftless AreaZachary Slusser
2015JoyDavid O. RussellCo-edited with Alan Baumgarten, Christopher Tellefsen and Jay Cassidy
2014WhiplashDamien ChazelleAcademy Award for Best Film Editing
BAFTA Award for Best Editing
CFCA Award for Best Editing
COFCA Award for Best Film Editing
Gold Derby Award for Best Film Editing
HPA Award for Outstanding Editing – Feature Film
Independent Spirit Award for Best Editing
ICP Award for Best Editing
INOCA Award for Best Film Editing
IOMA Award for Best Editing
Nominated — ACCA Award for Best Film Editing
Nominated — ACE Eddie for Best Edited Feature Film – Dramatic
Nominated — Critics Choice Award for Best Editing
Nominated — EDA Award for Best Editing
Nominated — ICP Award for Best Editing
Nominated — OFCS Award for Best Editing
Nominated — PFCS Award for Best Film Editing
Nominated — SFCS Award for Best Film Editing
Nominated — SFFCC Award for Best Editing
Nominated — WAFCA for Best Editing
2014Time LapseBradley D. King
2012Any Day NowTravis Fine
2010The Space BetweenTravis Fine

He has achieved quite a lot as an editor, but we will only be concentrating on 2 of his films. Namely, Whiplash and The First Man through this article.

Musical Films Introduction

According to Wikipedia, Musical film is a film genre which they interweave songs sung by the characters into the narrative, sometimes accompanied by dancing.

The songs usually advance the plot or develop the film’s characters, but sometimes, they serve merely as breaks in the storyline, often as elaborate “production numbers.”

Singin' in the Rain
Singin’ in the rain 1952

We can say that Musical Films as a genre is something which will happen regardless of how we feel. I mean, think about it, acting is the key component of films outside of non-fiction. And telling a story in the form of singing is something that exists literally everywhere. Add a bit of action and movements to the stories and you have the art of acting while singing.

So that’s basically Theatre, and documenting this act is what we call filming. Sadly, sound recording as a technology was still at its infant stage when combining with film. Back then, sync sound seems like a daunting task even though sound recording already existed since the 1800s. So when we were finally able to combine sound and film, musical theatre suddenly became musical films.

The sound of music
The Sound of Music 1965

Over the years, we have seen many, many maaaaaaany musical films like Sound of Music, Singin’ in the Rain, and many great titles we all love.

Whiplash and Tom Cross

Whiplash is a film which rightfully bagged Tom Cross for an Oscar award for best editing. Known for its action pack style of editing on a musical film is simply beautiful.

We know the film is heavily inspired by boxing films, mainly Raging Bull (1980). These films have fast cutting on action, which emphasizes the actions and the intentions of each action. But also, in the film itself, we also get other slower and softer cuts to emphasize other feelings like romance, sadness, disappointment, and other emotions. This style of editing and cuts follows how the characters feel and act, namely Andrew Nieman and Terence Fletcher. This makes it feel like they are controlling the cuts. It gives more emphasis over their controls over each other’s tempo and of the film.

How Tom Cross Introduces Characters:

Andrew Nieman

The first shot is a dolly in towards Nieman as he is playing the drums. This is especially important to the whole rhythm of the film as we see Nieman practicing to his own beat and not to anyone else’s. Well, this is until the introduction of Terence Fletcher, who became Nieman’s teacher.

Tom Cross introducing Nieman
Intro shot of Whiplash
Terence Fletcher

The introduction of Fletcher made it abundantly clear that Nieman’s life or rhythm was about to be hijacked or controlled. The first ever cut of the film is the moment when Fletcher appeared. We also see Nieman stopping his playing and started following the directions of Fletcher. Fletcher demands authority and Nieman willingly gave it to him.

Tom Cross Fletcher
Other Characters

Throughout the film, the other characters like the father, Girl Friend, etc aren’t emphasized as they’re not as important to the story. But the editor uses the same formulae of editing for their scenes as well.

Tom Cross: Nieman with his Father
Nieman with his Father

Tom Cross editing Conversations

The different conversations throughout the film all show how the characters try to assert their dominance over one another by downplaying the other person and to follow their rhythm/pace. Some of the more important conversations are that of Nieman and Fletcher, Fletcher and his ensemble, and Nieman with his girlfriend.

Tom Cross: Nieman During a conversation
Nieman during a conversation
Nieman with his girlfriend Nicole:

We basically divide the conversations with his girlfriend into 3 important parts. The moment where the film introduces us to the girl and how he asked her out, his first date, and how he broke up with her. The fact that there was nothing in between further proves the point that she didn’t really matter. The director and the editor felt that, although the girlfriend is important to understand Nieman better and to push his character forward, she is not as important as the music he plays.

Tom Cross: Nieman Asking his GF out
Nieman asking his Girl out the first time

We can also point it out that on the first date, the editor didn’t really cut according to the image but rather according to the feeling. We can see this with regard to the continuity problem. Nicole and her actions didn’t match from one cut to the next. But since it was so well done that no one noticed the continuity problem. The editor did so to further push the feeling of awkward silence and also the feeling of them opening up to each other.

Tom Cross: Nieman's first date
Nieman in his first date

In the second meeting where they broke up, we can see the cuts are way sharper and more rhythmic following the pacing of Nieman, showing how he controls the situation and how sure he is about his decision. This subconsciously gives us that feeling that Nieman is totally in control of the situation, regardless of whether he is right or wrong.

Tom Cross: Nieman breaking up with his gf.
Nieman breaking up with his GF.
Nieman with others

Other than the many conversations with his father, one conversation that stands out is when he had the family dinner. Here we can see how other members of the family look at his aspirations as a musician in comparison to his other relatives. He was being ignored and almost insulted as his achievements were overshadowed by that of his counterparts.

Tom Cross: Nieman and his family having dinner
The Family Conversation

Here we see the editing suddenly changes to emphasize Nieman’s perspective when he made the rude comment. Suddenly, the rhythm of the scene changes to that of Nieman’s pace. Everyone who was all going on their own rhythm now find themselves talking to the rhythm of Nieman. This is possible because of the way they edited the scene to emphasize Nieman’s pace over anyone else’s.

Tom Cross: Nieman finally trying to take back the pacing
Moment Nieman said something rude which changes the pacing of the scene
Nieman with Fletcher

The conversations between these two characters are the focal points of the film, which makes it so enjoyable to watch. Since the very start of the film, we see how Nieman is playing his drums at his own pace until Fletcher appeared. We can immediately see how Fletcher asserts his dominance over Nieman. This remains so throughout the show until the very last part of the film. We also know that Nieman does not follow anyone else’s rhythm throughout the film other than Fletcher.

Tom: FLetching who always had the control of the pacing.
Fletcher always controlling the pace of the film

The famous “Are you dragging or are you rushing?” scene beautifully shows this. From the moment Fletcher told Nieman to come at 6am and Nieman waking up at 6:03 am shows how Nieman was actually dragging to keep up with Fletcher. Even after the “losing the file” situation and Nieman taking over as a core member, Fletcher noticed how Nieman found his rhythm and quickly brought in a 3rd drummer to further push Nieman to perfection. This is also to show him he still controls the rhythm of the film and, with it, Nieman.

Tom Cross Pacing skills

Musical Editing in Whiplash

Although this could have been explained under the ‘Conversations of Nieman and Fletcher’, it seems this part of the film needs to be delved deeper as a category of its own.

The way they have done the editing has always been a back and forth between the two. Sometimes it would seem Fletcher is controlling the pace of the film and conversations and others when Nieman is in control. As we mentioned before in the intro of Fletcher, until Fletcher appeared, Niemen’s pace never needed to change and so there wasn’t any cut at the start of the film. It wasn’t until Fletcher appeared that the first cut in the film appeared. Basically showing that Fletcher is the one who controls the pace.

Tom Cross introducing Fletcher
Introduction of Fletcher and changing the rhythm of Nieman.

We see that Fletcher controlling the whole pace with the rushing and dragging scene. But this changes when Nieman lost the file and had to replace the 1st drummer and won the competition. Here we can see Nieman starting to control the pace of the film and the cuts start to emphasize Nieman over other characters. Fletcher noticed this and got a third drummer in order to “earn the spot”. Although it can be said that Fletcher just want to push his students further, but the cuts seem to show that he wants to show that he still controls the pace of the film, which also means the cuts.

Nieman taking control the first time
Nieman taking control of the rhythm for the first time only to lose it again to Fletcher later.

In the final scene, we can really see the back and forth between Nieman and Fletcher and, as mentioned before, we can really see the almost combating style of editing between the two . Both trying to take control of the situation, firstly with Nieman starting the last song with the solo drum and the 3 shots from the same angle going closer and closer to Andrew, telling the viewers to look at him and follow his rhythm. As we move forward, we can see the hand gestures of Fletcher trying to grab hold of the situation again by trying to control the band and the music. 

Nieman taking the rhythm into his own hands

As mentioned before, this film being inspired heavily by boxing films. We can really see it at its greatest in this scene, where the cuts are almost like attacks from both sides against each other.

The final battle between Nieman and Fletcher

The moment when the music should have ended, and the lights went out, the cut a moment before shows Fletcher clutching his fists which signalled the end of the song but the shot goes on and focuses on Nieman rather than Fletcher further showing that this time, the pace belongs to Nieman. 

Nieman winning the battle

At the last few minutes of the scene, we see how Nieman is finally able to get at his own pace and then see him connect to Fletcher through the eye contact. After this part of the film, the cuts are now almost in equilibrium in the sense that both are not attacking each other anymore but working together to push the music to the next level. 

Nieman and Fletcher finally acknowledge each other as equals and pushes for the next level.

The First Man

This is the 3rd film working with Damien Chazelle. This is also the first one which is not a musical or at least a music driven film like the other two. 

As mentioned in the many interviews, although both Chazelle and Cross are big fans of space movies like 2001, they clarified that they didn’t want that style of filmmaking. They wanted to show the raw and gritty side of the first landing. Like how a rocket is basically a tiny tin-can where the astronauts sit on top of a massive fuel tank pointing straight into the unknown of space. How they achieved to give that feeling will be the point of discussion later in this article. 


They shot the film in a way where the director wanted genuine feelings and camaraderie between the actors. So 2 weeks before the shoot, the director got all the actors and with no directorial directions, started shooting. These clips, when viewed by Cross and Damien, gave them the idea of giving this film a documentary/Cinema Verite style to the film. We can really see this kind of filmmaking and editing style throughout the film.

Neil Armstrong with Karen

“a lot of the shooting was documentary-like. He had two weeks of rehearsal footage. Before he started principle [photography], he got together Claire Foy and Ryan Gosling and the children, in full hair and makeup, in a fully dressed set of their house, so that the kids could get used to the cameras. But also so they could play house and get used to each other. That was stuff he did to help the actors. It was also material that we ended up using for a lot of domestic scenes. That stuff was completely unscripted and improvised. So in a lot of cases, I had as close as you can get to actual documentary footage.”

-Tom Cross

What is Cinéma Vérité Editing:

A style of documentary Filmmaking, invented by Jean Rouch, inspired by Dziga Vertov’s theory about Kino-Pravda and influenced by Robert Flaherty’s films. It combines improvisation with the use of the camera to unveil truth or highlight subjects hidden behind crude reality. Although this can still be biased, it is still the closest we can get to the truth. At least to the truth of the director.

Chronicle of a Summer, Jean Rouch

Harlan County (1976), a good example of Cinema Verite where we can see how Barbara Kopple is very sympathetic to the miners. But she never actually tried to give the same sympathy to the mine owners. To her, this story is about the miners and that they are right and the mine owners are the ones who are wrong. To some, this version of the story might not be true and has a lot of bias, but to Kopple, this tells more truth than any other version.

Harlan County 1976, Barbara Kopple

We can clearly see the editor and the director chose the shots according to this story. The story that they’ve envisioned and cut accordingly.

First Man Edit

In the film The First Man, most of the domestic part of the film is shot with this style where the actors and kids were told about what they were supposed to be and they act it out with mostly improvisation. Even though this was not supposed to be part of the cut and was supposed to just let the actors to get used to being a family. There are several clips that still made it to the final cut and gave the film a more personal touch.

Cross, when he saw the dailies, thought to himself how these imperfections could be used to move the audience more than any perfect clean shot would. 

“Damien really wanted me to look at a lot of classic cinema verité documentaries from the 1960s and ‘70s. He had me look at films by Frederick Wiseman, like High School. He had me look at Gimme Shelter by the Maysles. At D.A. Pennebaker movies and Robert Drew movies, Primary and Crisis. He wanted me to get used to the shooting [style], but also the rhythms and the cutting patterns. So what that means in terms of what you see — unlike Whiplash and La La Land, which have very clean, precise cutting — Damien wanted it to feel messy. He wanted it to feel cinema verité. That meant that the things that you might normally cut out of a movie — like finding focus and snap zooms and messy camera moves — those visual moments were things that he wanted to preserve.”

-Tom Cross

Damien Chazelle’s approach to space filmmaking and Tom Cross’ editing:

Chazelle’s approach is to show how it would be to travel to space in the 1960’s. The things that come to his mind are grimy, dangerous and seem like something out of a mechanical age rather than a space age of filmmaking.

“He wanted to show how messy everything was. How dirty and submarine-like spacecrafts were. And certainly to show how claustrophobic these things were”

-Tom Cross

He also mentioned that the film Saving Private Ryan is more of an inspiration than other actual space films like 2001: Space Odyssey.

He was able to make the audience feel this way through the way that the film was shot and also, how the shots were chosen and edited. Cross took the liberty to choose shots of which push this narrative of how scary and dangerous those cockpits are. That, along with the sound, makes the space scene phenomenal.

What makes the film so well done is the way the film progresses and the selection of shots, especially in the cockpit, where a lot of the shots are POVs which makes us more invested in the space flight. Making them POVs got us the viewers feel as though we’re the ones in the cockpit rather than just observing the event. By the end of the film, we almost feel like we are also facing the danger along with Neil Armstrong. 

“He was really inspired to try to give the audience a “You are there” feeling. For all of the mission scenes and all of the spacecraft scenes, Damien wanted to have a certain sort of visceral brutality in those scenes. He really wanted me to lean into the subjective and the POV. He didn’t want to just present a launch, he wanted the audience to experience a launch.”

– Tom Cross.


After watching and dissecting and proposing theories over and over again, we can highlight a few points regarding Tom Cross’ style of editing, which we were gathering from the two films that he has done and is highly acclaimed for. 

Tom Cross is one editor who can really push the emotions and the intensity of a scene. He does this by pushing the viewer to lean towards a character in terms of attachment and once he has accomplished this, makes sure to give that character a really tough time. This makes it that much more impactful to the viewers who are naturally empathizing with said character.

He has done this over time and time again, whether we are talking about who dominates the pacing and the almost combative attacks made by cuts in Whiplash or the intense building up of the space flight scene in The First Man. We are first shown how dangerous and claustrophobic space the pilots had to stay in and finally making us almost feel scared for the character and even ourselves because of the constants POVs of Armstrong.  

One of Tom Cross’ strongest point or style which puts him above most other editors is his ability to be able to mix different editing styles from various genres into a film which is not necessarily the genre the style it is supposed to be. Like the way Whiplash moves away from Musical style and towards a more fighting/combative style of editing, which makes the film that much more intriguing to the viewers and throwing the audience into a whirlwind of emotions. 

Again, we see how he masterfully used clips that are not even supposed to make the cut in The First Man to give more intensity and making each blur, movement and mistakes into an array of emotions. Incorporating Cinema Verite style of editing which is mainly meant for documentaries into the fiction film which gives more depth and attachments to the characters by making us feel as though we’re watching what is happening in real time and not a remake of a situation that happened more than fifty years ago. 

Finally, all these things that Tom Cross has been able to do to his films has only elevated what can be done on the screen and will only push cinema further and further in terms of skills, styles and sheer ability of an editor in his contribution to filmmaking.  

Bandame is a Film Student Graduate from Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute who specializes in Editing. So unlike his other write-ups like his explanation of Serial Experiments Lain, this may have some merit to it. Anyway, please support the website by following us on our social media, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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Links and Sources:

Musical Films, Tom Wiki Cross, Musical Films, Music History, This Guy Edits Youtube, Scriptmag, Blog, Providecoalition, WilliamDickersonFilmaker, PremiumBeat, TheTitleMag, Cined

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