The Movement of Pictures
The Visual Story
One of the most fundamental, and often unrecognized, aspects of filmmaking is editing. Editing in film is the underappreciated but absolutely necessary art of assembling shots of a film together in a way that most powerfully emphasizes the theme and emotion of the story.
What is film editing?
This element, when done well, may go completely unnoticed, but film editing is the cutting and splicing together of a finished film. This part of filmmaking comes in post-production and blends visuals and sound together to create a final cut or version of the film.
Known as the ‘invisible art’, a film editor helps to complete the director’s vision of the movie as well as adding their own creative input to the film.
Film editing is just as important to a film as an editor is important to a great novel. The editor of a film can help set the pace and atmosphere of the film through the careful selection of shots and splicing them together as well as combining sound and scoring to these shots.
While editing in film began as a literal cut-and-paste process where editors spliced film by hand and glued it into a new place, the art of film editing has evolved just as the technology of filmmaking has.
An Ancient Form
Gerald Mast, a renowned author, film historian, and professor, described movies and film as a kind of new ‘hieroglyphic’ language because this art form relies heavily on imagery to produce emotion within the audience and relay a story.
The visual aspect of film is the content and the order of the images presented. What we see on screen and how we see it – meaning in what order, from what perspective, etc. – is an integral aspect of this new form of storytelling, even if the use of images to tell a story is not new, as Mast points out when mentioning hieroglyphs.
Consider the start of cinema and silent film. These early movies captivated the audience and were able to tell full stories with a wide range of emotions from fear and suspense to wonder and romance through the use of the images on the screen alone.
Film editing is the manipulation of those visual images and means to tell a story while combining sounds and scoring.
The editor of a film is concerned with how best to place shots beside each other to form a continuous story, how fast the movement between shots is, and how these elements impact the audience.
A New Artform
The blending of visual images, sound effects, and scoring is part of a film editor’s role in production. How best to time music to the action on the screen and when to employ the power of silence are techniques that can lend emotion to a film, and they are techniques that editors use to not only evoke that emotion but help fulfill the vision of the director and producers of the film.
Editing in cinema is primarily concerned with 2 technical aspects – fluidity and continuity. These elements ensure that the story is consistent and that the passage of time is properly displayed in a way for the audience to understand.
This careful editing for heightened emotion, continuity, and fluidity may not be noticed when watching a film, you may only see a seamless transition from one shot to the next, but that just means the editor has done their job well.
There are also types of editing that a film might utilize, these are Classical, Associative, Radical Continuity, and Dialectic Editing. Each of these techniques helps to emphasize the emotion of the film as well as build a reality and perspective for the audience to step into.
Fluidity of Action
One of the most critical technical aspects of a film editor’s job is fluidity of action. This term refers to the careful selection of shots to be used in the final cut of a film based on how well they flow together or maintain a unified sequence of action.
When filming a movie, each scene is shot multiple times, which means that the film editor has many versions of the same scene they must choose from and piece together. The editor decides which scenes, or even shots within a scene, can be placed together in the most powerful way to evoke emotion or place the audience in a specific mentality.
When piecing these shots together, the editor must be consistent in their fluidity of action. They must be careful that, when putting one shot beside another, the actions of the actors are not repeated and lighting and color are consistent across takes. The angle of the camera in each shot is something that a film editor must also consider and ensure is consistent across takes.
The fluidity of action also involves accurate placement of scoring and sound effects. If the orchestral climax comes before the long-awaited romantic reunion, the audience will not have the same emotional response and may notice only the jarring discrepancy.
What is Continuity?
Have you ever watched a movie and noticed an actor’s hair change from one shot to the next? Or maybe the coffee they were holding in their right hand is suddenly in their left hand?
After a film is shot, the many different versions of scenes are given to a film editor who must then decide how best to place each and every shot next to each other. Continuity is the technical aspect of a film editor’s job that’s concerned with them placing together different shots while maintaining consistent space, time, and sequencing.
Suppose in one shot, an actor is holding a cup of coffee, and the next time the camera pans to him he is no longer holding that cup of coffee. In that case, it can be disorienting and take the audience out of the carefully crafted illusion of reality.
The editor must ensure that, when piecing together shots of film, they agree with each other spatially and chronologically. Continuity ensures that the audience can be fully immersed in the director’s vision. For that emotional immersion and a successful suspension of disbelief, continuity must be ensured from shot to shot so as not to disorient or confuse the audience.
While fluidity is concerned with consistency in lighting, angles, and the motion of actions onscreen, continuity is concerned with maintaining the consistent placement of objects, actors, and the actions or positions of the actors from shot to shot.
Continuity Editing: Pulling A 180
For the budding film editor or the budding film critic, there are a few rules of thumb to know in order to enhance your own recognition and appreciation of film editing.
The first rule is known as the 180 Degree Rule. This rule states that in a dialogue between 2 characters where the camera is cutting back and forth, it is important to keep the spatial relationship accurate.
If there’s a window to the right of one character, in a shot of a character sitting across from them, the window can’t also be coming from their right side. This rule imagines an axis on which the camera is rotating 180 degrees called the crossing line.
Try to pay attention to the next onscreen conversation you watch. Do the position of lights and props follow the 180 Degree Rule? Are there any examples in a film you can think of that break this continuity editing rule?
Continuity Editing: It’s All In The Eyes
Another rule film editors follow to maintain continuity is eyeline match editing. During a conversation between 2 characters not both on-screen at the same time, each shot of a character must match where the other character is placed in their view.
For example, a child talking to its parent will be looking up, but the parent must be looking down when they’re on screen in order for the eyeline to match.
While it may seem subtle, these elements of continuity help maintain the audience’s engagement and ensure a vision of reality is maintained in the film. While you may not notice an eyeline match done right, you definitely would if it was done wrong.
Another example of an eyeline match is in a film cutting technique. This is a shot of a character looking at something offscreen, then a shot of the object of their gaze. The object of their gaze is usually shown through the eyeline and perspective of that character so that the audience experiences the shot just as the character does.
This technique helps focus the audience on the object of the character’s attention.
The Movement Of Time
Movies can be limited in their ability to convey information to the audience. This visual form of storytelling cannot always inform the audience about the passage of time or the specific location where a story is taking place, which is why a film’s editor will make use of specific shots.
A shot of a plane taking off from a runway may not seem significant, but it helps the audience understand the physical movement of the characters as well as the passage of time. Similarly, a shot of sunset or sunrise is an easy way to convey the passage of time to the audience as well.
These establishing shots are chosen specifically by the film’s editor to help keep the movement and momentum of the plot but also inform the audience about the passage of time and the movement of the characters.
Classical Film Editing
Most films you see will utilize classical film editing. This is the consistent movement of long to medium to close shots to provide movement to the action of the plot while maintaining and heightening the emotion on screen. This technique is one of the oldest and most widely used.
This fluid movement of wide to narrow shots helps the audience to establish location and time and then eventually hone in on smaller, more specific actions and emotions. This type of editing is a smooth, seamless style of editing focused on maintaining the emotional and logical progression of the film.
Classical film editing also utilizes action and reaction shots where the editor shows action on screen and then quickly cuts to show the actor’s reaction to that emotion. This type of editing cements an emotional connection between the characters on screen and the audience as the character’s reactions in turn become the audience’s reactions.
While associative editing is focused on splicing shots next to each other based on their ideas or themes, classical editing is concerned with seamlessly maintaining the emotion and logic of film.
Associative Film Editing
The artistry of film editing comes in how an editor can manipulate the emotional impact a film has on its audience by carefully placing shots next to each other. Sometimes, an editor can place 2 contradictory or separate images next to each other in order to emphasize a specific emotion or idea, this is called associative editing.
Have you ever been watching a movie and, at the magical first kiss moment, the camera cuts away to a shot of fireworks? These 2 images when placed side by side emphasize the passion and raw emotion of each other. This was a specific choice by the editor to connect these 2 images because of their thematic significance, not necessarily their direct connection to each other.
The Kuleshov Effect
This film editing phenomenon of 2 separate images being able to convey more emotion or meaning than one individual image is referred to as the Kuleshov Effect.
In the early twentieth century, Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov created this film editing effect where a montage, or series, of separate images were placed next to each other. By placing a carefully curated selection of images or shots next to each other, Kuleshov discovered that the overall theme or meaning was more readily emphasized than in a single image alone.
Most montage film sequences are a way for the film’s editor to condense a series of images or shots to show the passage of time or quickly give the audience information. The Kuleshov effect is one of the first montage editing techniques utilized.
The Kuleshov Effect demonstrates a unique phenomenon wherein the audience can derive more meaning from 2 separate shots or images than a single shot. Splicing a shot of a first kiss with a burst of fireworks can evoke more emotion in the audience than a single shot of a kiss.
Another film editing technique is known as radical continuity or discontinuity editing. This technique describes a technique where the editing is done in such a way that it is radically discontinuous, either in its use of long takes or radical in its subjectivity.
A long take is a take in which the action and movement happen in front of the camera live during filming. This means the action is portrayed without the use of shots being spliced together later on in production. This single take means much of the editing and passage of time is happening in real-time in front of the camera.
A short take is the most commonly used shot where a director will shoot the same scene multiple times to ensure that, in post-production, the film editor has a variety of shots to splice together.
The use of a long take in a film is called radical continuity as the audience experiences these sequences similar to the way they experience reality, as one continuous series of events or conversations. This technique draws the audience into the film and allows them to experience and react to the unfolding of the events of the story in the same way and time the characters are.
Film editors and filmmakers can use specific techniques to heighten the emotional impact of a film and draw the audience deeply to a specific perspective or viewpoint. Radical discontinuity is a technique used to heighten the subjectivity of a shot.
This is when all the shots are edited together to emphasize the viewpoint or perspective of one character-specific. When emphasizing subjectivity, there does not have to be any long takes and the experience of time and place is limited to one subjective perspective.
This editing technique is sometimes called ‘visible editing’ and usually calls attention to itself, making the audience aware of the break in time or subjectivity of the shots.
A common example of this type of editing is the jump cut. This editing technique jumps to another point in time from one scene to another, purposefully drawing the audience’s attention to the break in time and the fact that there is time or information not being given to the audience, since the film is limiting the audience’s experience to one specific perspective.
Dialectic Montage Editing
Dialectic montage editing is a montage film editing technique. This technique places contradicting images next to each other in order to emphasize or draw attention to an idea or theme represented by them while heightening the discontinuity.
This type of montage is similar to associative editing in that both montage techniques are tying a series of images together according to their themes or ideas. However, dialectic montages emphasize the discontinuity in the sequence images.
This type of editing uses juxtaposition or contradiction to emphasize a theme or sometimes a political or social ideology. The concept behind this editing technique is that some themes cannot be fully explained or understood with a single image alone and, by placing juxtaposing images beside each other, the audience is able to infer more of the theme or idea being conveyed.