The invisible edit takes many forms and can be tricky to spot. If an edit is truly invisible, the audience will never even know that it exists. Invisible edits are used to string multiple shots together, creating the illusion of a single, uninterrupted take. This single shot is not limited to one long take but can be used to transcend location and time. There are numerous ways to create an invisible edit, and just as numerous are the thematic reasons to employ them.
A continuous moment
One of film’s great abilities is its power to capture a moment in time. The invisible edit makes the continuous moment possible, especially when it’s not technically possible to shoot the resulting scene in a single take. Some stories are better facilitated by one continuous shot with no visible edits interrupting it. The continuous moment lets the audience buy into the illusion that what they are observing on screen is unfolding in real time; there is no assembly taking place and only the orchestration of a compelling story. The invisible edit allows this to happen.
Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” is a venerated cinematic example of the invisible edit. The entire film was shot and cut to appear as one continuous long take. More recently, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Academy Award-winning “Birdman” features a similar accomplishment. To shoot a film in one continuous take would require a superhuman effort in choreography and endurance, nevermind the technical hurdles that would have to be cleared. Instead, these films employed a variety of creative production and post-production techniques to captivate the audience.
While “Rope” and “Birdman” are incredible feats, there are many other examples of the invisible edit that don’t consume the entirety of the film but are instead limited to a single sequence shot.
The sequence shot is simply a sequence within a film that is contained within a single shot.
The sequence shot is simply a sequence within a film that is contained within a single shot. Excellent examples of the sequence shot are the opening scenes of Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” and Robert Altman’s “The Player.” Sometimes this is done as a practical effect, entirely executed in the camera. Other times, the sequence shot is assembled in post-production, utilizing several different techniques.
Change in setting
Another use of the invisible edit is to signify a change of time occurring in a given location. The “Harry Potter” films did this quite frequently to convey the passage of time during the school year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The camera would pan off of the characters in a scene and move onto a feature of the castle or castle grounds. The audience would see a change in weather as the camera held the shot. Eventually, characters in a new seasonal wardrobe would enter the scene. This signaled to the audience that a great amount of time had passed, all within a single shot.
In a similar way, an invisible edit can be used to signal a change in location. Picture a character having an epiphany about someone else in another location. The camera then whip pans off to who they were thinking about. Here, an invisible edit is used to transition between two locations in a single shot.
Finally, there are times when a change in location or change in time isn’t necessarily literal. Instead, the change in perspective prompted by the invisible cut is thematic in nature. A change in perspective for the audience is often used to show either a contrast or comparison between two subjects.
Two ways to hide your cuts
There are two primary methods for hiding a cut: the whip pan and camera occlusion. A whip pan is a camera pan occurring at a speed fast enough to create motion blur. It’s one of the simplest and most reliable ways to create an invisible edit and can be done using practical effects. In production, one shot is finished with a whip pan and the corresponding shot is started with a whip pan in the same direction at approximately the same speed. The editor is then able to cut the two shots together, often using a subtle cross-dissolve for a more seamless cut. This same effect can be simulated in the edit bay by an editor carefully animating motion into their clips and skillfully using blur effects to create a simulated whip pan.
Another popular technique for creating the invisible edit is to use the physical elements of a scene to obscure the camera for a moment and placing the edit within the resulting camera occlusion. Hitchcock used this technique throughout “Rope.” For a matter of frames, a character would move in front of the camera. Then, once the lens was obscured, the cut would be made. To the audience, it appears as a simple passing in front of the camera. To the editor, it’s an invisible edit.
Camera occlusion can be a creative technique as well, not just a simple distraction. One of the most common ways to achieve the invisible edit is to tilt the camera up to the sky then, as the camera tilts back down to reveal a different location.
Try it out
Some of the most powerful edits are the ones that are never seen. Part of the joy in being an editor is in making the impossible possible, and the power to make visible invisible.
Chris “Ace” Gates is a four-time Emmy Award-winning writer and video producer.