Unit 16: film and editing techniques
Editors are crucial to the filmmaking process. Editing can make or break a film and editors have to – painstakingly – go through every minute of footage: decide what scenes to keep, what to cut, what visual effects should be used, what Audio effects should be used, create a smooth and flowing narrative and to discover and edit- or remove- any king of factual, grammatical and typographical from the film.
The genesis of film editing began with – what is believed to be – the first ever motion picture. In the December of 1985, the Lumiere brothers, exhibited their a selection of their single-reel films to the viewing public. One of the most important examples of special effects used in film are the effects used in the short film ‘A trip to the moon’. It’s not the first example; but it is arguably the most important. It’s a film of many tricky edits, directed by George Melies- often affectionately known as the cinemagician. Melies’ was a noted illusionist and employed his skills in his films. The most important effect he perfected was the ‘stop trick substitution effect’. Melies claims to create the effect by stopping the camera and changing the: set or characters to create an effect of instant transition. In ‘A journey to the moon’ the effect is used in the third act; when smoke is activated the camera is stopped, the actor leaves the set and the camera resumes rolling- giving the impression that the character disappeared in a puff of smoke.
Another film which has had a plethora of influence on the modern day filming at large, is ‘Battleship Potemkiv’. This film is equipped with the some of the greatest large scale battle set pieces of all time- effectively helped by the impactful score. It’s also a film which uses the basic tools of cinema and some of Eisenstiens greatest cinematic rules. The use of montage as a visual storytelling technique is astounding and has influenced many action films.
Of course in the days of Melies and the Lumiere brothers they were held back by linear editing. Linear editing is the process of editing and modifying images and sound in a predetermined manner. Sequentiality is key in linear editing. In linear editing it is essential that you own a VCR- other a similar device to play tapes, it also requires handling the raw footage that you film and can be long and arduous- but it is notably cheaper than non-linear editing. It was the only form of video editing; until the early 1990s. Non-linear editing is the process of editing recorded film through digital software. It didn’t really get it’s advent until the early 90s, yet it only took it a decade and a half to- almost- completely replace the form of editing that came before it. However it’s not hard to see why, non linear editing is named as such because, unlike linear editing, non linear editing allows you to edit chunks of a film at will with little inconvenience, whereas if you wanted to edit using linear methods you can’t easily build a program out of sequence or in separate chunks. The only way to change a previously made edit is to perform a new edit over the old one. If the new edit should happen to bigger than the old one than you’ll cover up a bit of the next scene on the tape. Though non linear editing used to be the more expensive of the two, but with the advent of the smart phone and basic computers, digital editing software is now available- cheaply- to anyone who wishes to seek it.
Creating special effects is not the end of video editing however. Another big part of editing is presenting a cohesive narrative in the context of a visual medium. Editors employ a number of skills in order to do this. It is crucial that an editor keeps a constant narrative flow throughout their work. To tell a story an editor must first understand the complete context behind the story: the themes, the genre etc. If the genre is a horror movie, the editor will look to use the most frightening, isolating and tight camera shots as possible. An editor may also use cross cutting to build tension in a scene; an example of this technique in effect would be the first Jaws movie, where the scene oscillates between the shark’s POV and a wide angle shot of a woman swimming in the sea. If, however, an editor is editing a comedy then they may want to include a laugh track. Or in the case of animation- for example in Tom and Jerry- the editor needs to make sure all the audio matches the action on screen. Fundamentally film editing determines the structure and pace of the story. Another example of using camera shots to tell a narrative can be found in the film independence day. The director purposefully uses certain camera shots to further the theme of the story. For example in one scene a woman is standing in a crowd- yet the camera isolates her, singling her out- shortly thereafter she dies. Everything about that scene builds foreboding: the shots, the music, all adds up to an impressive CGI heavy scene where the woman and a crowd of hundreds- perhaps thousands- die.
Another technique that film makers and editors can utilize is the 180 degree rule. This technique is usually used to show a conversation between two people- though their can be more than two people in the conversation. The basic idea is that using this technique you can use midshots, close ups and big close ups simply by moving the camera around while the two – or more- actors exchange dialogue. The best way to do this is to create a figurative straight line between the two subject- called the axis of action. Using this axis: you need to keep your camera on the other side of the line. The camera cannot move more than 180 degrees around the characters.
Another technique that an editor has to do is maintain continuity throughout the film. Continuity is essentially making sure that a continuous level of detail is maintained from scene to scene throughout the film. A good example of continuity can be found in the Star Wars movies; particularly the fight scenes. The original trilogy had exceptional level of detail, so maintaining continuity throughout is a wonderful feet and demonstrates incredible attention to detail. A bad example of continuity can be found in the third act of: The Avengers. One example of Avengers poor continuity would be in this one scene: where one of the main protagonists is shot and clearly bleeding, later on- about 5 minutes in movie time- any sign of the wound previously received is gone. Keeping good continuity can increase the immersion of the audience. Bad continuity just serves to take the audience out of the moment, which can prove disastorous for a film- see any Uwe Boll movie for an example.
Another technique that the editor can use, as a story telling mechanic, is ellipsis. An ellipsis is a term used to describe the time that passes between an interesting/relevant scene to the next interesting/relevant scenes. This is a tool which is hard to misuse. Most films are capable of utilising this tool effectively- without having to explain how much time has passed between each scene. Aliens is an excellent example of ellipsis being used effectively. About two days occur during the course of the film and every scene flows so easily past each scene. A bad example of ellipsis can be found in ‘batman: the dark knight rises’. The biggest complaint of that movie is that a good three months passes between the second act and third act. What made this a problem is that it is never clear that amount of time had passed which led to confusion from the audience. This confusion may have something to do with the latter film having a convoluted plot, while the plot of Alien is fairly straight forward. In which case the screen writer can be blamed for the poor effort as well.
One technique that an editor can utilise- if the resources are available- is the Leitmotif. The Leitmotif in film terminology is essentially assigning a piece of music to: a character, a place or an idea. This can be seen in a few famous films. One such series of films is the Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’. Certain music is used when certain characters or settings are on the screen. This can be effective because the audience can then make a mental connection to the music and the character; always expecting to see one when they hear the other and vice versa. Like in Psycho whenever ‘Norman Bates’ shows up as his alter ego a certain sharp music is used to increase tension.
If their is anything an editor should not do it is overuse certain effects. They should make their editing clear and have a point but they shouldn’t overuse certain effects. J.J. Abrams is notorious for constantly using lens flare in his movies- to the point where spoof trailers are made of his movies actual trailers filling the screen with lens flare. Another example of over use of certain editing effects can be seen in the star wars prequels. The scene wipe is used for almost every transition, it gets noticeable and annoying very quickly.
Walter Murch is a an editor famous for his work on ‘Apocalypse now’. He once said: If you have to give up something, don’t ever give up emotion before story. Don’t give up story before rhythm, don’t give up rhythm before eye-trace, don’t give up eye-trace before planarity, and don’t give up planarity before spatial continuity.” Walter Murch used this creed to edit all his films, though it might not be a rule that you want to use, it’s difficult to deny it’s effectiveness when used by Murch.
In summary an editor is the one of the most influential people when working on a film. The editor has a lot of responsibility and needs to maintain a constant knowledge on all of the new techniques and conventions- and of course technology. An editor should always have a reason for cutting or adding something, whether it’s using certain camera angles, attaching music to characters, using certain lighting or effects etc. Everything should have a purpose.