In the study of narrative, editing refer to the way sound and images are assembled to tell a story. Editing is an artform and filmmakers carefully consider the sequence and pace of shots in their film, agonising over how it will contribute to the story and engage audiences. “The essence of cinema is editing,” said director Francis Ford Coppola. “It’s the combination of what can be extraordinary images of people during emotional moments, or images in a general sense, put together in a kind of alchemy.”
Before you can start discussing editing, it’s important to understand basic terminology.
Cross cutting. Cutting back and forth between two events occurring simultaneously.
Cross dissolve. In editing, a fade from one image to another.
Cut. A basic edit when shot is replaced by another.
Cut in. In an edited sequence, ‘cut in’ refers to a shot that shows part of the action in detail.
Cut away. In an edited sequence, ‘cut away’ refers to a shot edited in that is unrelated to the action.
Fade in. The screen is black, a shot gradually appears. This often signifies the beginning of a sequence.
Fade out. An image gradually fades to black. This often signifies the end of a sequence.
Jump cut. A cut between two shots where the camera position moves only slightly but the subject moves considerably, making them appear to jump across the screen. This editing techniques is often used to condense time.
Match cut. A cut or dissolve between two visually similar images. One of the most famous examples of this is in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when Stanley Kubrick cuts between a shot of a bone flung into the air by an ape and a shot of a satellite orbiting earth.
Montage. In Hollywood films, a montage is a short sequence that shows the condensed progression of time.
Parallel editing. Cutting between two scenes that are occurring simultaneously.
Shot reverse shot. Cutting between two characters who are looking offscreen in different directions, creating the impression that they’re talking to each other.
Wipe. A transition that wipes from one image to another.
When studying a film, it’s a good idea to pay close attention to editing. When does the director choose to cut and why? Does the director use particular stylistic techniques like montage or jump cuts? What effect does the editing have on the audience and how does it contribute to the narrative?
Of course, visual editing is only one part of equation. Filmmakers also think carefully about the sound mix. Sound editing also makes an important contribution to narratives. Why are some sounds more prominent than others? How do ambient sounds contribute to the atmosphere of a film? How do sound effects contribute to storytelling?
When you’re watching a film for the first time, the full effect of sound editing is not usually apparent. Returning to the film and only listening to the audio is an effective way to draw your attention to the importance of sound editing.
WRITING ABOUT EDITING
When you’re studying a narrative, remember that editing makes an important contribution to storytelling and audience engagement and that filmmakes think very carefully about the editing of their film. When analysing the use of editing in a scene, think carefully about every cut and transition. How does it contribute to the story? How does it engage the audience? Sometimes directors will choose to linger on a particular shot rather than cutting away.
At the beginning of Let Me In, for example, there is a conversation between the main character’s mother and her estranged husband. Throughout this entire sequence, director Matt Reeves doesn’t cut away from Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who is sitting at the dinner table in the background of the shot. The scene is about Owen and his emotional response to his parents’ separation and this sustained shot helps to convey this to the audience.
When you’re writing about editing, don’t forget to listen to the sound mix. Studying scenes without vision is a great way to draw attention to the important of sound editing. What can you hear? What sounds are emphasised? When does the music become louder and why? Like every aspect of a film, the sound mix is not normal or natural, it has been carefully constructed to help tell a story and elicit an emotional response from the audience. When you’re writing about the sound editing in a sequence, be specific about the volume of sounds in relationship to each other and how this contributes to storytelling and audience engagement.
Here are some example of how you might write about editing in narrative films.
In the opening sequence of The Grey, director Joe Carnahan uses editing to establish that Ottway(Liam Neeson) is depressed. As he walks into a busy bar, the sound of fighting and heavy metal music dominates the sound mix. When he sits down, the cacophony fades out and is replaced by eerie, mournful music as the camera lingers on Ottway’s distraught expression. Carnahan cuts to a close up of a woman laying in bed, then back to a shot of Ottway sitting in the bar. “There’s not a second goes by when I’m not thinking of you in someway,” Ottway’s voice over says. Carnahan uses another flashback, showing Ottway and his wife in a loving embrace. This use of sound editing and flashback contributes significantly to the sense that Ottway misses his wife.
In Misery, director Rob Reiner uses editing to create suspense and increase audience engagement when Paul Sheldon sneaks out of the room that he has been imprisoned in. The suspense in this scene is largely achieved through the use of parallel editing. After Paul discovers that the telephone doesn’t work, Reiner cuts to a shot of Annie as she is leaving the store in town. The pace of editing increases as the scene progresses. By showing the parallel action, Reiner plays on the audience’s anxiety that Paul is going to be caught out of his room by Annie, increasing the suspense and audience engagement. In the kitchen, James Caan winces in pain as he climbs out of the wheel chair. Reiner cuts to a shot of Annie driving home. He cuts back to a shot of James Caan as he claws his way across the kitchen floor. Here, the use of sound editing is particularly important as Paul, and the audience, hear the sound of Annie’s pick up truck pulling onto the gravel driveway. Reiner cuts to a shot of the car as it approaches the house. Here, the pace of the parallel editing increases significantly. The dramatic score by Marc Shaiman dominates the audio mix. Reiner cuts back and forth between James Caan, who desperately claws his way back into the wheelchair, and the approaching car. The pace of the editing increases as Annie starts walking up the footpath and Paul desperately wheels himself back into the bedroom, Reiner cutting back and forth between the wheels of the wheelchair and Annie’s approaching feet. Throughout this sequence, both parallel editing and audio editing, contribute significantly to the suspense in this scene.
In X2, director Bryan Singer uses editing to establish Jean Grey’s telepathic and telekinetic abilities. Early in the film when she is taking students on an excursion to a science museum, there is a close up of Jean as she turns around, hearing a series of voices which begin as whispers that gradually increase in volume and intensity. This use of sound editing helps to establish that Jean is telepathic. She looks around, confused and clearly a little disoriented. Singer cuts between a series of point of view shots and an extreme close-up of her eyes. As her disorientation increases, the pace of editing becomes faster and the camera movement more erratic. Singer cuts away to television screens that start flickering, then back to Jean who’s clearly unsettled by the onslaught of voices. This clearly demonstrates how a range of media codes contribute to characterization in the film. Jean’s telepathy and telekinesis is established using a combination of visual editing and sound editing.
THE ART OF EDITING
If you’d like to find out more about the art of editing, it’s worth watching The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing which looks at the history of editing and features interviews with famous directors like Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino as well as big names in editing like Walter Murch and Pietro Scalia.
It’s also worth checking out the following films that have all won an Academy Award for Best Film Editing in recent years: