Editing describes the relationship between shots and the process by which they are combined. It is essential to the creation of narrative space and to the establishment of narrative time. The relationship between shots may be graphic, rhythmic, spatial and/or temporal.
Filmmakers and editors may work with various goals in mind. Traditionally, commercial cinema prefers the continuity system, or the creation of a logical, continuous narrative which allows the viewer to suspend disbelief easily and comfortably. Alternatively, filmmakers may use editing to solicit our intellectual participation or to call attention to their work in a reflexive manner.
Graphic matches, or match cuts, are useful in relating two otherwise disconnected scenes, or in helping to establish a relationship between two scenes. By ending one shot with a frame containing the same compositional elements (shape, color, size, etc.) as the beginning frame of the next shot, a connection is drawn between the two shots with a smooth transition.
The first clip below, from Hitchcock’s Psycho, takes place just after a woman is brutally stabbed to death while in the shower. As her blood washes away down the drain with the water, the camera slowly zooms in on just the drain itself. A graphic match cut is then utilized, as the center of the drain becomes the iris of the victim’s lifeless left eye.
The next clip, from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, is generally considered to be one of the most famous match cuts in all of film. As a primitive primate discovers the destructive powers of his newfound technology, the femur of a deceased animal, he tosses it high up into the air. Thousands of years pass in a single moment as a close-up of the bone cuts to a long shot of a satellite orbiting the earth, thus showing the vast technological advancements made over the past millennia.
Rhythm editing describes an assembling of shots and/or sequences according to a rhythmic pattern of some kind, usually dictated by music. It can be narrative, as in the clip from Woody Allen’s Bananas below, or, a music video type collage, as in the second clip from Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. In either case, dialogue is suppressed and the musical relationship between shots takes center stage.
In Allen’s Bananas, the use of a vaudeville-esque tune recalls Charlie Chaplin and early cinematic comedy. Like Chaplin’s characters, Fielding Melish’s actions and adventures continually result in humorous misadventure. In the sequence below, he heroically expels two thugs from a subway car. The length of the shots is determined by the quick tempo of the piano recording: as the villains’ abuse of innocent passengers reaches a climax, the shots become shorter and shorter. The quick editing builds suspense before the hero unpredictably rises and throws them off the train.
In the next sequence, from Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, the only logic connecting the shots is that provided by Bow Wow Wow’s song, “I want candy”, and a few graphic matches. The sequence is a hallmark of Coppola’s style – interweaving period decadence and frivolity with a contemporary youthful exuberance – which is also distinctively feminine.
The Establishing Shot or sequence serves to situate the audience within a particular environment or setting and/ or to introduce an important character or characters. The establishing shot is usually the first or the first few shots in a sequence, and as such, it must be very efficient in portraying the context. Typically, establishing shots are Extreme Long Shots or Long Shots, followed by progressively closer framing.
Quentin Tarantino introduces his film Inglorious Basterds, with an extreme long shot of the countryside, suggestive of rural France. It is followed by a medium shot of the dairy farmer, who will dominate the first scene. One of the man’s daughters is also shown, first in a medium shot and then in medium close-up, hanging clothes. Moreover, the sequence establishes the central conflict, with the arrival of the German motor cars, shown in POV shots from the perspective of the farmer and his daughter.
Oliver Stone opens his film W. in the opposite manner. From an extreme close-up, a combined zoom out and pan reveals George standing in the middle of an empty ballpark.
The final clip, from the conclusion of the Japanese psychological thriller, 2LDK (“2-Bedroom Apartment”), is another example of the establishing shot composed in reverse order. This sequence shows an incremental expansion of the frame (in multiple shots) to include elements beyond the dead bodies and eventually the entire city of Tokyo.
Shot/ Reverse Shot
Shot/Reverse Shot is an editing technique that defined as multiple shots edited together in a way that alternates characters, typically to show both sides of a conversation situation. There are multiple ways this can be accomplished, with common examples being over the shoulder shots, angled shots, left/right alternating shots, and often a combination of the three.
In the first clip below, from Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa, we see a standard over the shoulder SRS. This, combined with eye-line matches between the two main negotiators shows how focused each is on the other. The over the shoulder technique allows the viewer to see the facial expressions of each character while listening or speaking. More importantly, the over the shoulder technique creates a sense of space between the characters greater than the actual distance between them. This keeps the frame from being uncomfortably cramped, and also shows the distance between the characters’ different standpoints.
The second clip is from director John Dahl’s Rounders. There is a bit of an experimental aspect to the SRSs in the clip. As opposed to the clip above, the SRS technique is used to distort space in such a way that we observe less than there actually is. In reality there is an 8 or so foot table separating the characters: the SRS lessens this to a point where the scene seems almost intimate. We see the characters alternating left and right sides, which is a standard ploy of continuity editing. Again, eye-line matches are used to show how intensely each character is focusing on the other.
Spatial Continuity: 180 Degree System
In an eye-line match, a shot of a character looking at something cuts to another shot showing exactly what the character sees. Essentially, the camera temporarily becomes the character’s eyes with this editing technique. In many cases, when the sequence cuts to the eye-line, camera movement is used to imply movement of the character’s eyes. For example, a pan from left to right would imply that the character is moving his/her eyes or head from left to right. Because the audience sees exactly what the character sees in an eye-line match, this technique is used to connect the audience with that character, seeing as we practically become that character for a moment. Each of the following sequences is from No Country For Old Men, directed by the Coen Brothers.
In the first clip, five eye-line matches are shown in a sequence that’s only a minute long. The first of these contains movement from left to right, mocking Llewelyn’s motion as he walks up to the dead body. We then see relatively still eye-line matches as Llewelyn looks at man’s face, and then at the gun as he picks it up. The next eye-line match is shown as Llewelyn opens the briefcase of money, which contains a slight zoom. This zoom is not necessarily used to mimic Llewelyn’s eye movement, but rather his thought and emotion, as the sight of all the money understandably “brings him in.” The Coen brothers decided to use so many eye-line matches in this sequence and in the rest of Llewelyn’s journey so that the audience would come closer to experiencing what he was experiencing.
In the second clip, portraying Anton’s unfortunate car ride, we see multiple eye-line matches once again. The first and last eye-line match simply follow Anton’s eyes as he looks at the road while driving. We also see another eye-line match of Anton checking his rear-view mirror; in this match you can gain an appreciation for how perfect the angle is, mimicking exactly what the character sees. With these eye-line matches, we feel almost as if we are driving the car, which makes the crash all the more disturbing. As illustrated in these two sequences, and throughout the rest of the movie, the Coen brothers wanted us to gain perspective on both Llewelyn and Anton. Through this, we gain a better understanding of the relationship between the hunter and the hunted, one of the film’s major themes.
Cut-in and Cut-away
This sequence, taken from Tarantino’s Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) provide an examples of the cut-in. Cut-out or away is the reverse, bringing the viewer from a close view to a more distant one. The sequence opens with an extreme long shot of the area’s landscape, a high-angled tracking shot (probably via helicopter) –giving us a wide panoramic view of the area. A cut suddenly transports the viewer somewhere within the landscape to a medium shot of character lying on the floor in his room.
Continuity editing: The Match on Action
Match on Action is an editing technique used in continuity editing that cuts two alternate views of the same action together at the same moment in the move in order to make it seem uninterrupted. This allows the same action to be seen from multiple angles without breaking its continuous nature. It fills out a scene without jeopardizing the reality of the time frame of the action.
In the first scene above, Peter Jackson uses matches on action to give the chase a sense of dynamism. The viewer can never assume what is going to happen next, as the scene is constantly shifting. He uses a very complex version of match on action, jumping from close ups to far away helicopter shots and back without a pause. It is almost dizzying, yet thrilling at the same time. Be sure to keep your eye on the white horse; this is the character we are following and although hard to see at times it is present in every part of the clip.
The second scene is from Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky IV. Here we see a different, simpler style of matches on action. The camera stays at relatively the same level, with few zooms in or out. The matches on action are used to keep the fight realistic looking, as well as to keep a certain character in focus/the center of the screen.
The final sequence gives us a Point-of-View shot from the angle of the “Genji” warrior (shown in white) to the “Heike” gunman in red as he is shot to the ground. In this sequence, we also have an example of continuity as the Heike man first falls to the ground and we cut to him closer up on the ground in the same position. This Heike warrior is first shown standing up; though he is very small, you can see him in the distance. After the Genji warrior takes aim and fires at him, you notice him drop in the background towards where the Genji warrior has his gun aimed; the match on action comes as the camera cuts to him falling down.
Parallel editing is a technique used to portray multiple lines of action, occurring in different places, simultaneously. In most but not all cases of this technique, these lines of action are occurring at the same time. These different sequences of events are shown simultaneously because there is usually some type of connection between them. This connection is either understood by the audience throughout the sequence, or will be revealed later on in the movie. The first clip is from No Country For Old Men directed by the Coen Brothers, and the second is from Batman: The Dark Knight directed by Christopher Nolan.
In this first clip, we see parallel editing used primarily to add suspense to the situation. At first, the intervals between showing Lewelyn and Anton are relatively long, but as they shorten later on in the sequence, additional suspense is added. Just as we see in the previous clips from the film, there are many eye-line matches shown for both of the characters. This combination of parallel editing and eye-line matches for each line of action allows the viewer to practically experience both sides of the event first-hand.
The second clip offers a different kind of parallel editing in the use of sound. The basement of criminals contains only diagetic sound, but as the sequence cuts to the police raid, the voice of the man on the TV carries over, becoming non-diagetic sound. This created the effect of the man practically narrating what we see occurring with the police. In this way, parallel editing can be used not only to add suspense but also to narrate a line of action with another line of action.
Th following sequence is an example of superimposition. Superimposition refers to the process by which frames are overlapped, either mechanically or digitally, in order to achieve a layered transition. Japanese cinema sometimes uses traditional “kanji” calligraphy superimposed over standard film in several ways; the first of these being to illustrate a famous quotation or religious koan (a phrase chanted to bring about enlightenment), such as this example in which Tarantino says the Japanese proverb, “life is all about goodbyes” (サヨナラだけが人生だ) with the same words superimposed over the screen.
In this sequence from Sukiyaki Western Django, the calligraphic message provides an example of the fade-in. The style used in “Sukiyaki Western Django” is reminiscent of filmmakers such as Kurosawa, who used this archaic writing technique to embed a sort of traditionalism into his media. All in all, this effect has the added value of reminding us that though we are watching a Western, there is a Japanese component that underlies all the events of the film, and we cannot forget this in sight of the lush mise en scène that encompasses the entirety of the piece.
ALTERNATIVES TO THE CONTINUITY SYSTEM
Long takes are simply shots that extend for a long period of time before cutting to the next shot. Generally, any take greater than a minute in length is considered a long take. Usually done with a moving camera, long takes are often used to build suspense or capture the attention of audience of without breaking their concentration by cutting the film.
The opening scene from Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump follows a feather blowing carefree in the wind, eventually landing on the foot of the protagonist who proceeds to pick it up and place it in his suitcase. This scene acts as a metaphor for the whole movie, as the feather represents Forrest. Just as the feather blows around for what seems like forever, just going where the wind takes it until it eventually lands in a safe place, Forrest seems to just blow aimlessly through life, going wherever life and fate may take him with out too much consideration of his own, until he eventually lands in a happy place.
The next long take is from Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption. A white bus is seen driving up the street towards a long building. As the bus turns to drive around the building the camera goes straight over the top of the building to reveal the vast expanses of Shawshank Prison. Hundreds of prisoners in the yard are all seen walking in the same direction, seemingly toward the same place. As the camera makes it to the end of the prison yard the bus returns to the frame, meeting a group of guards at the same spot all of the prisoners had been heading towards.
This long take sequence, from Scorsese’s Mean Streets, shows Charlie (Harvey Keitel) in a state of barely coherent drunkenness. The sequence was accomplished by attaching a Steadicam to the actor’s body in such a way as to continually frame his face in close-up in spite of his uncertain movements. The position of the camera serves to capture the disorientation and estrangement of the character as he stumbles around the crowded bar. The red color of the image, together with the absurd musical accompaniment, helps to render the atmosphere of a seedy night club.
A Jump-Cut is an example of the elliptical style of editing where one shot seems to be abruptly interrupted. Typically the background will change while the individuals stay the same, or vice versa. Jump-cuts stray from the more contemporary style of continuity editing where the plot flows seamlessly to a more ambiguous story line. An example of this editing style can be found in the following clips from Capote (2005).
Associative Editing or “Montage”
The following clip is taken from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. This unique combination of shots shows a marble lion reacting to the sailors’ rebellion in the harbor. In the context of the story, the ship opens fire on Cossack reinforcements sent to quell its revolt. Eisenstein integrates lions sculpted in various postures to suggest that all of Moscow is awakening to the people’s cause. The sequence requires the viewer to interpret, to “read” the metaphor inherent in the statues and to derive a meaning from their presence in the diegesis.
Montage also describes the approach used in commercial cinema to piece together fragments of different yet related images, sounds/music, often in the style of a music video. The following sequence, from Pretty Woman (1991), is an example of the hollywood style montage. The film, starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, shows the main character Vivienne as she transitions from a scantily-clad, unrefined hooker, into Edward’s elegant, poised and well-dressed companion. The soundtrack plays over the background as snippets of various clothing and body parts are shown. In the concluding frame of sequence, the final product, the “new Vivienne”, approaches the camera in a white, tailored outfit and a ladylike hat.