Film editing is part of the creative post-production process of filmmaking. The term film editing is derived from the traditional process of working with film, but now it increasingly involves the use of digital technology.
The film editor works with the raw footage, selecting shots and combining them into sequences to create a finished motion picture. Film editing is described as an art or skill, the only art that is unique to cinema, separating filmmaking from other art forms that preceded it, although there are close parallels to the editing process in other art forms like poetry or novel writing. Film editing is often referred to as the “invisible art” because when it is well-practiced, the viewer can become so engaged that he or she is not even aware of the editor’s work. On its most fundamental level, film editing is the art, technique, and practice of assembling shots into a coherent sequence. The job of an editor isn’t simply to mechanically put pieces of a film together, cut off film slates, or edit dialogue scenes. A film editor must creatively work with the layers of images, story, dialogue, music, pacing, as well as the actors’ performances to effectively “re-imagine” and even rewrite the film to craft a cohesive whole. Editors usually play a dynamic role in the making of a film. Sometimes, auteur film directors edit their own films. Notable examples are Akira Kurosawa and the Coen brothers.
With the advent of digital editing, film editors and their assistants have become responsible for many areas of filmmaking that used to be the responsibility of others. For instance, in past years, picture editors dealt only with just that—picture. Sound, music, and (more recently) visual effects editors dealt with the practicalities of other aspects of the editing process, usually under the direction of the picture editor and director. However, digital systems have increasingly put these responsibilities on the picture editor. It is common, especially on lower budget films, for the assistant editors or even the editor to cut in music, mock up visual effects, and add sound effects or other sound replacements. These temporary elements are usually replaced with more refined final elements by the sound, music, and visual effects teams hired to complete the picture.
Film editing is an art that can be used in diverse ways. It can create sensually provocative montages; become a laboratory for experimental cinema; bring out the emotional truth in an actor’s performance; create a point of view on otherwise obtuse events; guide the telling and pace of a story; create an illusion of danger where there is none; give emphasis to things that would not have otherwise been noted; and even create a vital subconscious emotional connection to the viewer, among many other possibilities.
Early films were short films that were one long, static, and locked-down shot. Motion in the shot was all that was necessary to amuse an audience, so the first films simply showed activity such as traffic moving on a city street. There was no story and no editing. Each film ran as long as there was film in the camera.
The use of film editing to establish continuity, involving action moving from one sequence into another, is attributed to British film pioneer Robert W. Paul‘s Come Along, Do!, made in 1898 and one of the first films to feature more than one shot. In the first shot, an elderly couple is outside an art exhibition having lunch and then follow other people inside through the door. The second shot shows what they do inside. Paul’s ‘Cinematograph Camera No. 1’ of 1896 was the first camera to feature reverse-cranking, which allowed the same film footage to be exposed several times and thereby to create super-positions and multiple exposures. This technique was first used in his 1901 film Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost.
The further development of action continuity in multi-shot films continued in 1899-1900 at the Brighton School in England, where it was definitively established by George Albert Smith and James Williamson. In that year Smith made Seen Through the Telescope, in which the main shot shows street scene with a young man tying the shoelace and then caressing the foot of his girlfriend, while an old man observes this through a telescope. There is then a cut to close shot of the hands on the girl’s foot shown inside a black circular mask, and then a cut back to the continuation of the original scene.
Even more remarkable was James Williamson‘s Attack on a China Mission Station, made around the same time in 1900. The first shot shows the gate to the mission station from the outside being attacked and broken open by Chinese Boxer rebels, then there is a cut to the garden of the mission station where a pitched battle ensues. An armed party of British sailors arrive and defeat the Boxers and rescue the missionary’s family. The film used the first “reverse angle” cut in film history. The scene continues with the sailors
James Williamson concentrated on making films taking action from one place shown in one shot to the next shown in another shot in films like Stop Thief! and Fire!, made in 1901, and many others. He also experimented with the close-up, and made perhaps the most extreme one of all in The Big Swallow, when his character approaches the camera and appears to swallow it. These two film makers of the Brighton School also pioneered the editing of the film; they tinted their work with color and used trick photography to enhance the narrative. By 1900, their films were extended scenes of up to 5 minutes long.
Other filmmakers then took up all these ideas including the American Edwin S. Porter, who started making films for the Edison Company in 1901. Porter worked on a number of minor films before making Life of an American Fireman in 1903. The film was the first American film with a plot, featuring action, and even a closeup of a hand pulling a fire alarm. The film comprised a continuous narrative over seven scenes, rendered in a total of nine shots. He put a dissolve between every shot, just as Georges Méliès was already doing, and he frequently had the same action repeated across the dissolves. His film, The Great Train Robbery (1903), had a running time of twelve minutes, with twenty separate shots and ten different indoor and outdoor locations. He used cross-cutting editing method to show simultaneous action in different places.
These early film directors discovered important aspects of motion picture language: that the screen image does not need to show a complete person from head to toe and that splicing together two shots creates in the viewer’s mind a contextual relationship. These were the key discoveries that made all non-live or non live-on-videotape narrative motion pictures and television possible—that shots (in this case whole scenes since each shot is a complete scene) can be photographed at widely different locations over a period of time (hours, days or even months) and combined into a narrative whole. That is, The Great Train Robbery contains scenes shot on sets of a telegraph station, a railroad car interior, and a dance hall, with outdoor scenes at a railroad water tower, on the train itself, at a point along the track, and in the woods. But when the robbers leave the telegraph station interior (set) and emerge at the water tower, the audience believes they went immediately from one to the other. Or that when they climb on the train in one shot and enter the baggage car (a set) in the next, the audience believes they are on the same train.
Sometime around 1918, Russian director Lev Kuleshov did an experiment that proves this point. (See Kuleshov Experiment) He took an old film clip of a head shot of a noted Russian actor and intercut the shot with a shot of a bowl of soup, then with a child playing with a teddy bear, then with a shot an elderly woman in a casket. When he showed the film to people they praised the actor’s acting—the hunger in his face when he saw the soup, the delight in the child, and the grief when looking at the dead woman. Of course, the shot of the actor was years before the other shots and he never “saw” any of the items. The simple act of juxtaposing the shots in a sequence made the relationship.
Film editing technology
Before the widespread use of non-linear editing systems, the initial editing of all films was done with a positive copy of the film negative called a film workprint (cutting copy in UK) by physically cutting and pasting together pieces of film, using a splicer and threading the film on a machine with a viewer such as a Moviola, or “flatbed” machine such as a K.-E.-M. or Steenbeck. Today, most films are edited digitally (on systems such as Avid or Final Cut Pro) and bypass the film positive workprint altogether. In the past, the use of a film positive (not the original negative) allowed the editor to do as much experimenting as he or she wished, without the risk of damaging the original.
When the film workprint had been cut to a satisfactory state, it was then used to make an edit decision list (EDL). The negative cutter referred to this list while processing the negative, splitting the shots into rolls, which were then contact printed to produce the final film print or answer print. Today, production companies have the option of bypassing negative cutting altogether. With the advent of digital intermediate (“DI”), the physical negative does not necessarily need to be physically cut and hot spliced together; rather the negative is optically scanned into computer(s) and a cut list is conformed by a DI editor.
There are several editing stages and the editor’s cut is the first. An editor’s cut (sometimes referred to as the “Assembly edit” or “Rough cut“) is normally the first pass of what the final film will be when it reaches picture lock. The film editor usually starts working while principal photography starts. Likely, prior to cutting, the editor and director will have seen and/or discussed “dailies” (raw footage shot each day) as shooting progresses. Screening dailies gives the editor a ballpark idea of the director’s intentions. Because it is the first pass, the editor’s cut might be longer than the final film. The editor continues to refine the cut while shooting continues, and often the entire editing process goes on for many months and sometimes more than a year, depending on the film.
When shooting is finished, the director can then turn his or her full attention to collaborating with the editor and further refining the cut of the film. This is the time that is set aside where the film editor’s first cut is molded to fit the director’s vision. In the United States, under DGA rules, directors receive a minimum of ten weeks after completion of principal photography to prepare their first cut.
While collaborating on what is referred to as the “director’s cut”, the director and the editor go over the entire movie in great detail; scenes and shots are re-ordered, removed, shortened and otherwise tweaked. Often it is discovered that there are plot holes, missing shots or even missing segments which might require that new scenes be filmed. Because of this time working closely and collaborating – a period that is normally far longer, and far more intimately involved, than the entire production and filming – most directors and editors form a unique artistic bond.
Often after the director has had his chance to oversee a cut, the subsequent cuts are supervised by one or more producers, who represent the production company and/or movie studio. There have been several conflicts in the past between the director and the studio, sometimes leading to the use of the “Alan Smithee” credit signifying when a director no longer wants to be associated with the final release.
Continuity is a film term that suggests that a series of shots should be physically continuous, as if the camera simply changed angles in the course of a single event. For instance, if in one shot a beer glass is empty, it should not be full in the next shot. Live coverage of a sporting event would be an example of footage that is very continuous. Since the live operators are cutting from one live feed to another, the physical action of the shots matches very closely. Many people regard inconsistencies in continuity as mistakes, and often the editor is blamed. In film, however, continuity is very nearly last on a film editor’s list of important things to maintain.
Technically, continuity is the responsibility of the script supervisor and film director, who are together responsible for preserving continuity and preventing errors from take to take and shot to shot. The script supervisor, who sits next to the director during shooting, keeps the physical continuity of the edit in mind as shots are set up. He is the editor’s watchman. If shots are taken out of sequence, as is often the case, he will be alert to make sure that that beer glass is in the appropriate state. The editor utilizes the script supervisor’s notes during post-production to log and keep track of the vast amounts of footage and takes that a director might shoot.
Methods of montage
In motion picture terminology, a montage (from the French for “putting together” or “assembly”) is a film editing technique.
There are at least three senses of the term:
- In French film practice, “montage” has its literal French meaning (assembly, installation) and simply identifies editing.
- In Soviet filmmaking of the 1920s, “montage” was a method of juxtaposing shots to derive new meaning that did not exist in either shot alone.
- In classical Hollywood cinema, a “montage sequence” is a short segment in a film in which narrative information is presented in a condensed fashion.
Lev Kuleshov was among the very first to theorize about the relatively young medium of the cinema in the 1920s. For him, the unique essence of the cinema — that which could be duplicated in no other medium — is editing. He argues that editing a film is like constructing a building. Brick-by-brick (shot-by-shot) the building (film) is erected. His often-cited Kuleshov Experiment established that montage can lead the viewer to reach certain conclusions about the action in a film. Montage works because viewers infer meaning based on context.
Although, strictly speaking, U.S. film director D.W. Griffith was not part of the montage school, he was one of the early proponents of the power of editing — mastering cross-cutting to show parallel action in different locations, and codifying film grammar in other ways as well. Griffith’s work in the teens was highly regarded by Kuleshov and other Soviet filmmakers and greatly influenced their understanding of editing.
Sergei Eisenstein was briefly a student of Kuleshov’s, but the two parted ways because they had different ideas of montage. Eisenstein regarded montage as a dialectical means of creating meaning. By contrasting unrelated shots he tried to provoke associations in the viewer, which were induced by shocks.
A montage sequence consists of a series of short shots that are edited into a sequence to condense narrative. It is usually used to advance the story as a whole (often to suggest the passage of time), rather than to create symbolic meaning. In many cases, a song plays in the background to enhance the mood or reinforce the message being conveyed. One famous example of montage was seen in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, depicting the start of man’s first development from apes to humans. Another example that is employed in many films is the sports montage. The sports montage shows the star athlete training over a period of time, each shot having more improvement then the last. Classic examples include Rocky and the Karate Kid.
What became known as the popular ‘classical Hollywood‘ style of editing was developed by early European and American directors, in particular D.W. Griffith in his films such as The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. The classical style ensures temporal and spatial continuity as a way of advancing narrative, using such techniques as the 180 degree rule, Establishing shot, and Shot reverse shot.
Alternatives to continuity editing (non-traditional or experimental)
Early Russian filmmakers such as Lev Kuleshov further explored and theorized about editing and its ideological nature. Sergei Eisenstein developed a system of editing that was unconcerned with the rules of the continuity system of classical Hollywood that he called Intellectual montage.
Alternatives to traditional editing were also the folly of early surrealist and dada filmmakers such as Luis Buñuel (director of the 1929 Un Chien Andalou) and René Clair (director of 1924’s Entr’acte which starred famous dada artists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray). Both filmmakers, Clair and Buñuel, experimented with editing techniques long before what is referred to as “MTV style” editing.
The French New Wave filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut and their American counterparts such as Andy Warhol and John Cassavetes also pushed the limits of editing technique during the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. French New Wave films and the non-narrative films of the 1960s used a carefree editing style and did not conform to the traditional editing etiquette of Hollywood films. Like its dada and surrealist predecessors, French New Wave editing often drew attention to itself by its lack of continuity, its demystifying self-reflexive nature (reminding the audience that they were watching a film), and by the overt use of jump cuts or the insertion of material not often related to any narrative.
Vsevolod Pudovkin noted that the editing process is the one phase of production that is truly unique to motion pictures. Every other aspect of film making originated in a different medium than film (photography, art direction, writing, sound recording), but editing is the one process that is unique to film. Kubrick was quoted as saying: “I love editing. I think I like it more than any other phase of film making. If I wanted to be frivolous, I might say that everything that precedes editing is merely a way of producing film to edit.”
- “Rule 1: NEVER make a cut without a positive reason.”
- “Rule 2: When undecided about the exact frame to cut on, cut long rather than short.”
- “Rule 3: Whenever possible cut ‘in movement’.”
- “Rule 4: The ‘fresh’ is preferable to the ‘stale’.”
- “Rule 5: All scenes should begin and end with continuing action.”
- “Rule 6: Cut for proper values rather than proper ‘matches’.”
- “Rule 7: Substance first—then form.”
According to Walter Murch, when it comes to film editing, there are six main criteria for evaluating a cut or deciding where to cut. They are (in order of importance, most important first, with notional percentage values.):
- Emotion (51%) — Does the cut reflect what the editor believes the audience should be feeling at that moment?
- Story (23%) — Does the cut advance the story?
- Rhythm (10%) — Does the cut occur “at a moment that is rhythmically interesting and ‘right'” (Murch, 18)?
- Eye-trace (7%) — Does the cut pay respect to “the location and movement of the audience’s focus of interest within the frame” (Murch, 18)?
- Two-dimensional plane of the screen (5%) — Does the cut respect the 180 degree rule?
- Three-dimensional space of action (4%) — Is the cut true to the physical/spatial relationships within the diegesis?
Murch assigned the notional percentage values to each of the criteria. “Emotion, at the top of the list, is the thing that you should try to preserve at all costs. If you find you have to sacrifice certain of those six things to make a cut, sacrifice your way up, item by item, from the bottom.”-Murch
According to writer-director Preston Sturges:
[T]here is a law of natural cutting and that this replicates what an audience in a legitimate theater does for itself. The more nearly the film cutter approaches this law of natural interest, the more invisible will be his cutting. If the camera moves from one person to the next at the exact moment that one in the legitimate theatre would have turned his head, one will not be conscious of a cut. If the camera misses by a quarter of a second, one will get a jolt. There is one other requirement: the two shots must be approximately of the same tone value. At any given time, the camera must point at the exact spot the audience wishes to look at. To find that spot is absurdly easy: one has only to remember where one was looking at the time the scene was made.
Two Editing Tables