I wrote this essay on the history of film editing for Venice Arts in Los Angeles. It was part of a curriculum designed to help educate a new generation of editors and was funded through a grant by the non-profit, Arts2Work. The essay is based on a series of workshops I taught at the New Orleans Video Access Center. I plan to develop it into a video essay in 2023.
Special thanks to Julia Berghammer-Villarreal, Jillian Godshall and Darcy McKinnon.
WHAT IS FILM EDITING?
Film editing is the art and craft of rearranging moving images to convey an idea or to tell a story. There are some exceptions to that definition, but it’s a good place to start. You can use editing to create an epic movie, a how-to-video, a commercial, a TV series or a social media post.
People often assume editing just means cutting out the bad parts and while that’s partially true, editing is more like construction. It’s more about building than taking away. An editor takes the raw elements of a film (sometimes with a blueprint, sometimes not) and constructs what is hopefully a unified whole that amounts to more than the sum of its parts. Editing can create tension by taking you from the hand of one gunslinger to the eye of another in a split second (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) or it can take you from a bone hurtling through the air in prehistoric times to a spaceship floating through the cosmos (2001). It can also be intimate and dream-like (Queen & Slim).
The Power of Context
But one of its most important aspects is the power of context. Here’s a shot of a flock of birds flying away from an old building. It’s a nice shot, but on its own it doesn’t convey much. Now here it is again in the movie, JFK. The shot takes on much more meaning in the context of the other footage. It’s a substitute for a tragic moment in U.S. history. These aren’t just any birds. These birds are flying away from gunfire at the book depository where a gunman was standing. We didn’t need to see the bullets hit the president. Our imagination filled in the action. The shot could also be interpreted as the visual equivalent of an explosion…or not. Most importantly, the shot can take on several new meanings depending on where it is placed.
Selection - Order - Rhythm
We can break editing down into three components…Selection, Order and Rhythm. Which shots do you choose? In what order do you place them? And how long should they last?
Editing is writing, but with picture and sound. In its simplest form, it’s cutting two shots together and adding music for a TikTok video. At its most complex, it can transform over 100 hours of documentary footage into a compelling 6-hour docu-series by finding just the right moments and putting them in just the right order for just the right amount of time without having a script. It becomes more than clever attention-grabbing cuts. It’s about creating larger patterns, a dramatic structure that has an emotional impact. That’s why editing is often called an “invisible art.” It’s one of the most important stages in the filmmaking process, where 2 + 2 can equal 5.
Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick once said, "I love editing. I think I like it more than any other phase of filmmaking. If I wanted to be frivolous, I might say that everything that precedes editing is merely a way of producing a film to edit."
Anyway, to understand editing, we need to go back to a time before it existed…
Photographs in Motion
The first motion pictures were created in the 1890s, and they were basically just photographs in motion——single shots from a fixed point of view. Subjects included: workers leaving a factory, snowball fight, and of course, cats. The shots seem simple to us, but to people at the time, they were quite astonishing. Legend has it that when people saw this shot of a train projected, they thought it was real and fled the theater. Even if the story is an exaggeration, it stands as a reminder of how novel the technology was at the time.
It didn’t take long for people to get inventive in front of the camera (The Four Troublesome Heads), but the shots ultimately felt like filmed plays more than movies. No dramatic close-ups, mostly just single wide shots filmed in real time. After a while, some early critics even suggested that motion pictures were novelties without a future.
It took about ten years of boxing cats and trick shots before filmmakers thought to film events from multiple angles and cut those pieces together. But before we get into how that happened, early motion pictures can be used to bring up an interesting question.
What makes a movie a movie?
When you watch a documentary, you may be watching a film without a script or actors. When you watch an animated movie, there technically isn’t even a camera. There are many elements that can be removed from a movie, and we would still call it a “movie.”
But you could argue that almost no one wants to watch unedited motion pictures for very long (except for an editor).
Point in case…If I asked you to watch 24 hours of a doorbell surveillance camera, you would probably refuse, but if someone cut together a compilation of funny moments, you might get a little more interested. Andy Warhol once released an 8-hour movie of a single shot of the Empire State Building, and even though it’s in the history books, I’m going to guess that not many sober people ever watched the entire thing. While it would be extreme to say that people go to the movies to see an “edit”, I still think it stands to reason that editing is one of the most fundamental and unique aspects of filmmaking and the editor is one of the key creative collaborators on any film.
One last point. Throughout the history of cinema, there have been several movies that have presented themselves as if they were a single unedited shot. Alfred Hitchcock did it with Rope, but he hid the edits with clever transitions (for the time). More recently, the movie 1917, appeared to be a single shot, but that was only possible with the use of elaborate visual effects. In every case, the filmmakers used editing to conceal the fact that they were editing. Editing is fundamental.
Establishing the Rules
It took filmmakers a decade to discover the editing concepts that we now take for granted. We can see the progression in several key films throughout the silent era. Life of an American Fireman tells the story of the rescue of a woman and her child trapped in a burning building. The film is edited using several shots in multiple locations, but what’s most notable here is that after we see a fireman pull the woman and child out the window, we see the exact same action happen again, from a different angle…in its entirety. It’s not a technique that has been used much since then, but it shows how filmmakers were experimenting with time to understand the possibilities of the medium.
The same year, the same filmmaker made another short film,The Great Train Robbery, in which he tightened things up a bit. The shots are cut slightly faster and the camera moves occasionally, but more importantly we see something which wasn’t common at the time. The film cuts from a storyline at one location to another storyline at a different location—both scenes unfolding consecutively. The seeds were planted for “cross cutting,” a concept that would quickly take root and grow. This is the now commonplace technique of cutting back and forth between related events to build tension or make a comparison. It was something that you couldn’t do in the theater, and its potential didn’t go unnoticed.
In the ensuing years, filmmaker D.W. Griffith would develop cross-cutting and other techniques leading up to the first Hollywood blockbuster, the notorious film, The Birth of a Nation. It’s a movie remembered for many things, including its distorted view of Reconstruction after the American Civil War which glorified the KKK and outraged people even by the standards of 1915. The movie ran for over three hours at a time when most films were not longer than 10 minutes. It employed 18,000 people, 3000 horses and was constructed of thousands of shots. The editing of these shots showcased many of the techniques D.W. Griffith used in his previous short films and his feature would shape how films would be made going forward. One such technique was cutting from a wide shot of two people to a closeup for dramatic impact….a commonplace practice now, but one that had not gained traction at the time. As The Birth of a Nation screened around the world, it also helped crystallize one of the major concepts in editing:
Continuity editing is the style in which a scene is filmed from a variety of angles and distances and then cut together to give the impression of the seamless flow across space and time. You can see it in this conversation from Casablanca back in 1942 and then again in The Farewell from 2019. With continuity editing, filmmakers record multiple takes of a scene from multiple angles. This generally involves shooting a wide shot followed by close-ups and medium shots of each character. It’s called “getting coverage.” The editor then watches the various takes and cuts together the best moments. This gives the audience the impression that not only did all of the dialogue and action occur in one recording, but that the camera was always in the right place at the right time. It’s the most common form of editing for fiction and is used in pretty much every movie and television show to this day. That being said, it’s not the only form of editing.
In the wake of the Russian revolution in 1917, Vladimir Lenin recognized that cinema could be a powerful tool for social and political influence. He wanted to use it to promote Communist values and as a result the world’s first film school, the Moscow Film School was built. Raw film stock was in short supply in the Soviet Union in those days, so students would re-edit shots from The Birth of a Nation and other films as an exercise. The goal was to gain a deeper understanding of film language and what emerged from these exercises was a theory of film editing that focused on how the order of shots impacted the emotional quality of the film. They conceptualized film editing as “building” and borrowed the word “montage” from the French “Monter” - “to assemble.” The Soviet filmmakers were not interested so much in what was happening within the shot (as were the practitioners of continuity editing), but how the shots could be constructed to create a new meaning. This approach is most evident in what is called the The Kuleshov Effect, as theorized by Lev Kuleshov, one of the school’s founders.
The Kuleshov Effect
In this experiment, Kuleshov took one shot of a Russian actor with a rather neutral expression on his face and cut it next to three different shots: A bowl of soup, a child in a coffin, and a woman lying on a couch. When audiences watched the experiment, they were impressed by his acting. They thought he looked hungry when he looked at the bowl of soup, felt sadness looking at the child and lust when looking at the woman. The experiment proved Kuleshov’s point that meaning wasn’t so much inherent in an individual shot but dependent on the images before and after it. This is the concept that explains how the shot of birds flying in the movie JFK took on a more substantial meaning when placed after the assassination of a president.
The potential of juxtaposing shots was expanded upon by filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein who took Soviet Montage to its most extreme by conceiving of each new shot conflicting with the one before it. His was a cinema of stark close-ups, violent edits, and abstract ideas. In Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein tells the story of the crew of a Russian battleship joining workers in an uprising against the ruling class. In the film, three shots of statues of lions are cut together to give the impression that a single lion is rising up. In the context of a pro-revolutionary film, it was meant to compare the working class and the soldiers to a lion waking up out of a slumber.
While we don’t see Eisenstein’s overt symbolism in use much today, it has been used through the decades. Here’s a training montage from Rocky IV where knocking down an opponent while boxing is compared to chopping down a tree. And here’s a scene from a movie named, Lucy , where Scarlett Johansson's boyfriend tries to convince her to deliver a briefcase. A shot of a mouse walking into a trap is cut in to convey that Lucy is also walking into a trap.
Whereas continuity editing aimed to hide the edit, Soviet montage put the edit front and center with a speed and ferociousness unlike anything before. When we do see it today, it tends to be found in the high-pitched editing of thematically related images in scenes like this one from Don’t Look Up.
More often, though, “montage” has come to refer to short highlight reels to convey the passing of time. One of the most common types is the “sports training montage” which can be seen in the evolution of the Rocky films including the recent spin-off, Creed. Here’s Rocky training alone in Rocky I from 1976. Here’s Rocky training with Apollo Creed in Rocky III, and here’s Apollo Creed’s son training under the tutelage of Rocky in Creed from 2015. It became such a cliché in the 80s and 90s that the 2004 movie, Team America, even had a montage training scene about how it was the perfect time in the movie for a training montage.
STYLES OF EDITING
Evolution of Continuity Editing
Soviet montage raised film editing to a fever pitch during the silent era, but all that came to a screeching halt with the introduction of sound. The invention of synchronized sound and the ability to hear people talk on screen was made possible by extremely bulky equipment which greatly restricted camera movement. Instead of cameras filming out on the streets and in nature, production relocated to studios.
Here’s a scene from the 1932 production of Scarface….notice the slow moving camera, the slow cuts. This became the norm for continuity editing and only sped up gradually through the decades. Despite their slower pace, movies in the 1930s started to feel like what we see today and continuity editing became the benchmark for traditional fiction filmmaking. Here’s a scene from the 1983 production of Scarface. It’s in color and widescreen, but the principles of continuity editing persisted 50 years later and continue to do so today.
Before we get into further developments in editing not only in fiction, but in documentaries, and commercials it’s worth noting that while most on-set film jobs were held by men during the heyday of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s, editing rooms were often filled with women. However, it wasn’t because the field was progressive. The male studio bosses at the time thought of editing as a menial craft like sewing. Editing rooms later became more male-dominated, but there have always been several high-profile female editors such as Anne Coats who made this famous cut in Lawrence of Arabia and Dede Allen who cut Jaws. In addition, many of today’s most celebrated filmmakers have female editors. Martin Scorsese has worked with Thelma Schoonmaker for over 50 years, Quinten Tarantino worked on six films with Sally Menke until her death in 2010 and Richard Linklater has worked with Sandra Adair on at least twenty films including Dazed and Confused and Boyhood (for which she was nominated for an Oscar). Many female editors were also behind The French New Wave film movement of the late 1950s and 1960s when the “jump cut” became fashionable.
The French New Wave was a film movement that embraced experimentation while taking advantage of the technological advances with portable film equipment. The filmmakers felt that movies were getting stale, and they were tired of Hollywood’s continuity editing etiquette (Vivre Sa Vie, Breathless). The jump cut broke the rules of editing by allowing edits to break the flow of continuous coverage. While traditional editing would never allow a shot to jump ahead a few frames or seconds and bring attention to itself, The French New Wave films championed the fragmented, nervous energy of the jump cut, not afraid to remind the audience that they were watching a film.
The same advances in technology that allowed the French New Wave filmmakers to use lightweight cameras and sound recording gear also kickstarted a new boom in documentaries. Until the 1960s, it was technically difficult for documentarians to go out into the world and film synchronized picture and sound of people immersed in their daily lives. While there was, indeed, a wide variety of documentary styles up until that point, many documentaries resorted to “Voice of God” voice-over with an all-knowing narrator commenting on the images (Henry Moore).
With the invention of the Nagra, filmmakers were able to film with synchronized sound in places that would have previously been impossible. This led to an interest in realism in filmmaking—variations of which are called Observational Cinema, Direct Cinema and Cinema Verité. In Chronicle of a Summer, people on the streets of Paris were asked if they were happy. For the film Salesman, the Maysles Brothers followed a group of bible salesmen as they traveled door-to-door and entered the homes of potential customers. Their fly-on-the-wall technique refrained from using voiceover or title cards. Scenes were presented without a host or interviewer offering unadorned slices of life.
From an editor’s perspective, this is one of the more difficult types of films to edit and it serves as an example of various challenges in editing documentaries. The Maysles Brothers and others at the time attempted to recreate the seamless flow of a film using continuity editing, but without the aid of a script, multiple takes, and multiple angles. This purist approach has created masterpieces, but is only made possible by a daunting and slow-moving editing process. It stands in stark contrast to the typical approach taken by many television and streaming documentaries today.
For documentaries faced with tight broadcast schedules, it’s not uncommon for a script to be written ahead of time, and then to have a voiceover written to connect interview sound bites. One of the last steps is to cut in images to illustrate what is being said. In between these two extremes are a wide variety of approaches. Some documentaries use interviews, but no narration (When the Levees Broke). Some use only archival footage: (LA 92). And others venture into poetic and non-narrative territory. This film from 1982 primarily uses reverse motion, time lapse and slow motion to show the dehumanizing effect of industrialization and globalization (Koyaanisqatsi). The film would later be an inspiration for this impressionistic portrait of life in rural Alabama made over 30 years later: (Hale County, This Morning, This Evening)
As you may have noticed, the evolution of editing styles is often precipitated by advances in technology. To have a better understanding as to where we are and where things are going, it’s worth having an overview of where things began.
Scissors, Moviola, Avid
The first movies were edited with scissors using tape, cement, or glue to splice the film. One can only imagine how tedious that must have been. In the 1920s, the Moviola, the first commercially successful machine, allowed film editors to view the film on a small screen in the cutting room through a vertically oriented machine. It featured foot pedals that ran the film either forwards or backwards, like thread in a sewing machine. The 1950s saw the advent of flatbed editing machines which provided a more desk-like setting where the film ran horizontally and the 1960s saw the advent of video tape editing which allowed editors to play footage on one machine and record shots on another tape in a linear order. After editing one shot, an editor would fast forward or rewind the tape or put another tape in the machine and then play that section of tape to be recorded. Like editing on film, this method was tedious, but it did force filmmakers to think very carefully before making an edit. By the 1980s, the technology advanced and enabled the fast editing styles of MTV (RUN DMC, It's Tricky)—which was the most fast paced editing the world saw on a regular basis since the Soviet filmmakers in the 1920s. The frenetic style influenced commercials and feature films going forward. Martin Scorsese once commented that the style of his much-celebrated movie, Goodfellas from 1990, was designed to be fast-moving for a generation brought up watching MTV. In this scene, gangster Henry Hill tries to take care of his daily business while keeping an eye on an FBI helicopter that is following him. The scenes move so fast that they almost feel like montages.
The end of the 1980s saw the introduction of the AVID, the first commercially successful Non-Linear Editing system (NLE). Early versions could cost anywhere from $50K to $250k and beyond. It was revolutionary and despite a variety of competitors over the last 40 years Avid remains the most used software for feature films and broadcast TV. The Avid allowed editors to find shots much faster than was possible with film or editing as well as the ability to quickly create multiple versions of a scene. All major software to this day uses a similar approach.
Technique Not Technology
It should be noted, though, that faster and more frequent cuts do not necessarily make for a better scene. This scene from A Fantastic Woman could have been shot from multiple angles but the slow and steady tracking shot with the character leaning into the wind proved to be an effective means to represent how the simple acts of daily life can feel like an uphill battle for a trans person constantly defending their existence.
Here is the rare example where we get to see two different approaches to the same scene. In Force Majeure, the Swedish filmmaker uses a single static camera to film an avalanche near a French ski resort. The audience, like the characters on the screen, feels the urge to run, but the single static shot paralyzes the viewer–conveying a sense of helplessness. By comparison, this 2020 remake (Downhill) with Will Farrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus uses traditional continuity editing and loses some of the anxiety.
The scene serves as a reminder that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Having amazing tools is no substitute for thinking. Having the latest tools doesn’t guarantee you will make a great film and using outdated technology doesn't mean you’ll make a bad film as is evidenced by the Oscar-Winning film “Parasite” which was edited Final Cut Pro 7, a decade after it was discontinued by Apple.
In the early days of digital editing, someone asked director James Cameron (Terminator, Avatar) if the new technology would speed up the process of editing. He responded by saying that “All of the technology in the world hasn’t changed the fact that it still takes nine months to give birth to a child.” Editing isn’t about the software, it’s about thinking, feeling and developing your instincts, a creative process that takes time.
The process of editing is different for fiction, documentaries, commercials, and brand films. Often what’s unique to each form determines both its challenges and its opportunities. What’s great about a 30-second commercial is that you don’t have to keep an audience's attention for very long. What’s challenging is that you only have 30-seconds to convey an idea or emotion. What’s great about a documentary series is that filmmakers have many hours to tell a story. What’s challenging is finding the story and keeping an audience interested for that amount of time.
Editing is Re-editing
Regardless of the type of project, there are a few common threads. If you have ever studied writing, you’ve heard the axiom that “writing is re-writing.” The same is true for editing. Editing is re-editing. An editor usually cuts together a first draft by themself before collaborating with a director, producer, showrunner, or an agency on revisions. The number of those revisions is determined by the type of project, the budget, and the attention to detail of the filmmakers.
How Long Does It Take?
Every project is different, but there are a few generalizations we make. Commercials can take from a week to several weeks in contrast to a documentary series which can be a slow-moving marathon that sometimes takes years. An hour-long fictional TV episode might be cut in one month. Editors are often limited to one week to cut a first draft, a week to work with the director, and one week to work with the showrunner before the cut is handed over for a week to specialists in color and sound. This tight schedule limits revisions and works best with collaborators who have worked together before and know exactly what kind of style and tone is preferred. Feature film editors tend to work four to six months to edit a movie affording them time to reflect and refine. This schedule will be longer for movies with lots of visual effects. They routinely take one to two years.
Know the Footage
Regardless of the type of project there are a few common threads. An editor needs to know the footage backwards and forwards so they can carry out any directions given. For a fiction editor, where sculpting performance is one of the primary goals, this includes knowing the nuances of different line readings. Scenes will be edited repeatedly to tease out the most authentic and engaging performance. For a documentary editor, who typically doesn’t have a script to follow, knowing the footage means connecting the dots between moments and scenes that can build the foundation of a story. Documentary editors have a huge influence on the shape of a story and are increasingly given credit as co-writers.
The day-to-day life of an editor is about trial-and-error. An editor and director will watch a cut and feel that something isn’t quite right. It could be faster, slower, has no punch, it has too much punch, the tone is off, that one line isn’t working…and so on. It’s a continual process of experimentation–guiding the audience's attention, emphasizing, and de-emphasizing different aspects of the material. It’s a process of discovery where finding the right line and putting it in just the right place can make an audience laugh or cry. Editors and their collaborators often look at footage they have seen many times, hoping to see it in a new light, looking for a connection that was previously unnoticed.
A big part of this process of discovery is finding the right “structure” for a story–a term often used in editing rooms. Editors don’t just think about shots and scenes, they also think about the larger building blocks or patterns of an edit—the structure. A scene might feel long at the 45-minute mark, but when moved to the 75-minute mark, the exact same scene might be the most memorable scene in the film…or not. Editors wonder: What if this entire sequence of scenes was moved to the beginning? Would it create more sympathy for the main character? What if this section that was really complicated and expensive to shoot was completely cut from the film? It’s like putting together a puzzle without being able to reference an image on the box. To help with this process, editors often use note cards on a wall or spreadsheets to help them see the larger pieces of a story. In the same way that a single shot can have a different meaning when placed in a new context, a scene or a sequence can also take on a different meaning when placed in a new context.
Visual Effects have been a part of filmmaking and editing since the very beginning (A Trip to the Moon) and every so often there’s an advancement that makes people sit up and notice. One such turning point was the Ikea scene in Fight Club in 1999. Unlike movies, like Jurassic Park, where you would expect to see visual effects, Fight Club announced an era in which visual effects would routinely play a part in movies that were not fantasy or science fiction (Before and After VFX shots). In movies today, a movie frame can become a painter’s canvas where filmmakers can just add a tree (Mindhunter) to a scene like Bob Ross. Editors work closely with visual effects artists and increasingly create visual effects themselves.
We have even arrived at a point where production and post are blending together with the emergence of virtual production. Instead of acting in front of a green screen, actors can be placed in a virtual set enabling editors to cut together scenes that feel like finished shots instead of having to imagine what the backgrounds will look like. (The Mandalorian).
Technology has also allowed for the emergence of remote collaboration which became imperative during the COVID epidemic. Editors and visual effects artists can now be anywhere in the world and collaborate on the same project with a fluidity that has never been seen before.
Perhaps, unlike any previous era, we are at the beginning of a turning point that will produce innovation at a speed the likes of which we’ve never seen before. A.I. is already allowing for techniques that would have seemed impossible not long ago. For the documentary, The Andy Warhol Diaries, recordings of Andy Warhol’s voice were fed into a computer to create a model of his voice which the filmmakers were then able to use to have Warhol read aloud excerpts from his diary.
In terms of imagery, the program DALLE2 which takes its name from blending the name of the Pixar character WALLE with that of Salvador Dali, allows users to create realistic images by simply typing in text on a website. As this type of technology advances, it’s not hard to imagine that for better or worse, shots for movies will be created in a similar manner. Regardless of what happens, editors will need to know the timeless principles of selection, timing and rhythm while also being aware of how advances in technology will change the art form.
© John Brent Joseph, 2023