Things are a bit different in this editing column. Instead of talking about tools, let’s discuss the people who use them, specifically, the world’s great editors.
Some of them made their editing mark more than 70 years ago, on movies you may never have seen or heard of until now. Others are probably busy cranking out entertaining and compelling programs while you read this. Taking a moment to study how these editing wizards think and work will give you a greater appreciation for the editing craft. It also might show you how editing can make your videos more entertaining.
How Editing Became an Art
Before the invention of videotape, people used film to tell stories with moving pictures. Editing began as a way to get around the technical limitations of the early film cameras. Back then, cameras could hold enough film to record only three to four minutes at a time. That’s hardly enough to tell a good joke, let alone a good dramatic story. To create a movie long enough to entertain an audience, filmmakers needed a way to connect multiple clips of footage into one long film. That’s why and when editing was born.
Many of the early films were basically stage plays captured and replayed on film. Actors would perform as much of a scene as possible before the film in the camera ran out. Filmmakers would reload the camera, and then cue the actors to finish the scene.
When all the scenes were captured, editors used a splicing block and clear tape to assemble the final film.
Although directors constantly experimented with different camera angles and movements, the overall concept of films in those days stayed very close to the concept of a stage play. Actors provided most of the action in the film, and generated much of the emotional response in the audience. As a result, editing these early pictures was basically a mechanical necessity. Filmmakers needed to get rid of the bad takes or shots, and assemble the good ones into the finished film. It wasn’t until 1925, when Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and his film, Battleship Potemkin, showed the film industry that editing is more than just a necessity. His work showed that it is an artistic opportunity.
Eisenstein’s great contribution to the world of editing is the montage: a series of related images presented in sequence to convey an emotional message to an audience. The best example of a montage from Potemkin is known as the “Odessa Steps” sequence.
The film centers around the mutinous Russian Battleship Potemkin. Near the end of the film, the ship is returning to Odessa. Thousands of people gather at the docks to welcome the sailors and bring them food and clothes. As the ship approaches, we see images of people smiling and cheering. Suddenly, the Russian Military Command marches into the crowd and forces them away from the docks. The crowd escapes down the massive stone Odessa staircase. Eisenstein creates tremendous tension in this scene by cutting together wide shots of the frantic mob running down the steps with closeup short vignettes showing what happens to certain people as they flee.
One such vignette involves a woman pushing a baby in a carriage. She stops at the top of one flight of steps and turns to look behind her at the marching troops. The soldiers fire their guns and hit her. As she collapses, she bumps the carriage and starts it on a teetering journey down the massive staircase. As it rolls, Eisenstein quickly cuts back and forth to a number of images: the woman dying at the top of the steps, the reactions of men and women as they see the carriage rolling, the baby’s face as the carriage rolls, the thin wire wheels of the carriage, and the soldiers as they continue forcing people down the steps.
This rapid-fire cutting does two things: it extends and expands the passage of time, and intensifies the terror of the moment. In the vignette, Eisenstein amplified the intensity of a five-second event with a rapid visual montage.
The Odessa Steps sequence is the climax of the film, and one where nearly every viewer will feel the tremendous tension brought out by montage editing. It remains one of the most studied clips of film ever produced. Many editors agree it was a pioneering moment in the history of editing–one of the first to juxtapose different images together to create a specific emotional response in the audience. You can rent Battleship Potemkin from better video stores. It’s probably filed under Foreign Films instead of Classics, where most movies of it’s age appear.
Refining The Montage
One of the great challenges in studying motion pictures from an editing perspective is that we as an audience don’t know exactly how much creative influence the editor had on the final film. Certainly the editor plays a major role in assembling a film. We’re left to guess, however, which creative and aesthetic decisions were made by the director, and which were left to the editor.
Fortunately, Gabriella Oldham compiled a book in the early 1990s called, “First Cut: Conversations with Film Editors.” She talked with some of the greats from film’s early years, as well as with up-and-coming editors of more recent work. It’s a wonderful resource for learning just how much impact editors have on the final cut of a film.
To help give you a sense of how far editing has come since Potemkin, let’s look at some motion pictures that illustrate editing’s progress in crafting a film. A few of these films were edited by people interviewed in Oldham’s book, and may reveal the reasons why they make certain editing choices.
The first of these films is the epic classic from the 1960s, Ben Hur. The most memorable scene from Ben Hur is the climactic chariot race in which Charleton Heston rides his chariot to victory.
The sequence stands out because it’s a complex, fast-paced, dangerous event that remains entertaining and engaging thanks to outstanding editing. The crew shot and reshot much of the race sequence dozens of times, from as many as ten different angles.
Refining many of the same techniques used in Potemkin, Ben Hur‘s editors John Dunning and Ralph Winters managed to create a sequence that moves very quickly and communicates the intensity and danger of the race.
In the scene, Dunning and Winters frequently cut from closeup shots of the chariots and horses to wider shots in which the audience can see the racers pass various landmarks in the arena. This helps the audience keep track of the different chariots in the race, but still feel its speed and tension. They also made some very clever edits to disguise the shots that used stunt actors. One of the best occurs during lap six, when Charleton Heston and the Roman Charioteer are riding side-by-side down a straight-away. Debris from a chariot damaged in a previous lap sits on the track directly in front of Heston’s chariot. He hits the debris and flips up and over the front wall of the his chariot, and nearly falls off. By quickly cutting together four different views of the action, the editors successfully hid one shot in the sequence where a stunt actor stood in for Heston. It’s a masterful example of editing that preserves the intensity of the moment, and also masks the “tricks” that made it happen.
In Oldham’s book, Dunning says that as he and Winters edited the chariot race sequence, he would think about a person who was seeing it for the first time, and what they would need to see to get the full impact. “You have to go to whatever he’s expecting to see, or what he needs to see to enjoy the sequence,” he says. “You’re painting a picture, you’re trying to involve the audience with that particular sequence, and you have to paint the picture as lucid as you can.”
Modern Editing Magic
In Battleship Potemkin and Ben Hur, the editors created tension by showing a rapid montage of images of the actual event; of exactly what was happening in the sequence. A 1988 film edited by Paul Barnes called The Thin Blue Line illustrates vividly how you can create a very strong sense of tension in a scene without ever showing the audience a complete view of what’s happening.
The Thin Blue Line is a documentary about a murder that happened in Dallas in the early 1970s. It consists primarily of interviews with the suspects, the district attorneys, the investigators, and the witnesses of the crime. Throughout much of the film, Paul Barnes creates tension by using the interviews to describe what happened, and showing the audience only anecdotal or partial images of the events. The pace of the cuts remains quick, as in Ben Hur and Potemkin. The difference in this film, however, is that the audience never sees a complete view of the action.
Barnes and the film’s director, Errol Morris agreed they should avoid showing full shots of anyone’s face, or of any action in the film. They chose this technique because they reenact of the murder several times throughout the film. In each reenactment, a different person involved in the investigation tells his version of the murder story, and Barnes and Morris show the audience a slightly different series of images. By only showing related or partial images, the murder seems even more unsettling and mysterious. It also keeps the audience on the edge of its seat waiting to hear how the statements from the next interview help unravel the mystery.
Barnes also remembers talking with Morris about how to handle the jump cuts that happened when he cut together various interview segments. (Jump cuts are the editing eyesores that happen when you cut two very similar shots back to back. The result is an unnatural “jump” in the action that distracts an audience.) In a prior film that used interviews, Barnes left the jump cuts in the film to increase the tension. In The Thin Blue Line, however, Morris didn’t want jump cuts, so Barnes had to find ways to eliminate them. He covered the jump cuts by inserting quick shots of images related to the interviews. For example, when one of the suspects talks about his whereabouts on the night of the murder, Barnes used a quick shot of the motel sign he was talking about to cover a jump cut. He used pictures of a gun, and of the victim’s autopsy report to cover jump cuts in the comments from attorneys and police officers.
Inserting these short visual elements did more than just prevent ugly editing. It turned the tension and mystery surrounding the murder case up another notch, probably more than if he’d left the jump cuts in place. That made the film more compelling and entertaining for the audience.
Hitchcock’s Editing Twist
Alfred Hitchcock has always had a reputation for putting unusual twists in his films. He put a signature editing twist on his film Rope, starring Jimmy Stewart.
Rope is also a story about a murder. Two former prep school chums living in New York strangle a man, and temporarily store the body in a chest in their apartment. Shortly after the murder, they host a small party and serve dinner atop the chest. Jimmy Stewart plays their former prep schoolmaster who attends the party and figures out what’s happened.
Originally written as a play, the film version of Rope stands apart from typical films and theatrical plays for one reason: it takes place in real time. Where most feature films, and a great many plays, move forward and backward in time at different speeds, Rope‘s story spans exactly the one- hour-and-21-minute length of the film.
Remember how editing began as a way to escape the early limitations of the medium? That’s how Hitchcock used most of the only eight edits in Rope. Had cameras been able to hold more than 23 minutes of film, he’d probably have shot the entire film in two or three takes. Because he had to work within the limits of the technology, he carefully staged the action and camera movement so he could make edits that wouldn’t disturb the passage of time or the actors’ movement in the scene.
Actors and crews spent weeks rehearsing the scenes, which would run between 11 and 21 minutes each. They had to get their performances perfect. If anyone made a mistake while filming a take, they had to start again at the top.
Most of the eight edits in Rope were meant to be hidden. They sneak past many viewers completely unnoticed. You can spot only two obvious edits in the film. One occurs after the opening titles, and serves to start the story. The other happens midway through the film. William Zeigler, the film’s editor, cut from a wide view of a conversation during the dinner party to a closeup of Jimmy Stewart’s pensive reaction as he notices something unusual about one of the two murderers. The cut creates tremendous drama. It forces the audience to wonder what Stewart’s character is thinking, and if he’s caught on to what’s happening in the story. It’s a pivotal point in the film, and the startling cut trumpets that moment perfectly.
What You Can Learn
So, you ask, how can all this movie folklore and trivia help you? On one level, it can show you how to improve editing in your own projects. Battleship Potemkin and Ben Hur are great places to go for insight on cutting action sequences. The Thin Blue Line can teach you a lot about making a compelling documentary.
More importantly, you’ll learn to recognize the editing techniques that make an audience feel tense and rushed, or relaxed and relieved. By mimicking those techniques in your videos, you’ll keep audiences entertained.