Less Technology - more Technique

Imagine you saw the world like a film. You watch yourself from afar as you stroll to the pub. In the blink of an eye you are inside the pub - close up - watching yourself enter and scan the room for your friends. You walk to the bar - none of the usual waiting for the idiot in front to order six Mojitos, as a microsecond later you are on your way to your friends' table with a tray laden with beer. OK, so there are some advantages to this scenario, but my point is that you don't see the world the way that we do in a film. I have huge respect for the early pioneers of film-making who realised that you could cut up film - move the viewer's point of view in both space and time – and that the audience would accept it. Indeed, the essence of a good continuity edit is that the viewer doesn't even realise that the transition has taken place.

When all this started, and who was responsible, is a matter of some debate. In 1902, just seven years after the Lumière’s cinema patent, Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès made the famous ‘Le Voyage dans la Lune’ – you’ve probably seen the clip in which the man in the moon gets a spaceship in his eye. Méliès is generally credited with inventing dissolves and other camera trickery but, although Le Voyage has a series of different scenes, and it definitely has a plot, some film scholars attribute the first use of editing to Edwin S. Porter. Porter worked for the great inventor and self-publicist Thomas Edison, making ‘Life of an American Fireman’ and ‘The Great Train Robbery’ for Edison’s studios in 1903. However, it wasn’t until 1915, with the release of D.W. Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’, that the language of editing really took on the form we know nowadays. Indeed, one of the seminal works of theory of film-making by the German psychologist Hugo Münsterberg – ‘The Photoplay: A Psychological Study’ – was written after seeing ‘Birth of a Nation’. In fact, it was the only film Münsterberg saw in his life.

So how come we, the audience, accept all these peculiar translations in space; this unfeasible time travel? The great Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, Cold Mountain etc.) believes that one reason could be that we blink. Every few seconds we perform a 'cut' as our eyes block out the world for a frame or two. When he was editing The Conversation for Francis Ford Coppola, he noticed that he often chose a cut point at the same moment that Gene Hackman blinked - as if Hackman's mind knew, subconsciously, when the shot had finished. Another possibility is that the flow of a film mimics the flow of our dreams – different, but related, images segueing seamlessly – or of the way we remember things – where we tend to edit out the ‘boring’ bits.

There is also some debate that we learn to accept the 'language' of editing at an early age - basically by watching too much telly. This may explain our acceptance of some of the more sophisticated narratives - for example in the film Memento - but it doesn't explain those early pioneers and why their films were credible.

Note that, here, we are talking about narrative film-making, and that mostly means continuity editing – the apparently seamless transition from image to image – rather than the idea of montage, where images are combined to infer meaning based on context – a technique alive and well in music videos. Actually, of course, most work needs a combination of both techniques.


One of the earliest uses of editing in film was to become known as montage, although this isn’t the modern, comfortable, Hollywood use of the term, where images are sequenced to move a story quickly through the passage of time. Early (mostly Russian) montage used rapid, shocking cuts or juxtaposition of images to create meaning from their combination, rather than from the images themselves. In about 1918, the Russian director Lev Kuleshov took some old footage of a famous Russian actor and intercut it with new footage of a bowl of soup, a child playing and an elderly woman in a coffin. Although the actor’s expression never changed (the footage was shot long before the experiment and the actor had never seen the inserts), audiences praised his reactions to the different scenarios. In fact, of course, the audience were making connections due to the juxtaposition of the scenes.

This theme was taken up by another Russian Director, Sergei Eisenstein in his ‘A Dialectic Approach to Film Form’. Eisenstein believed that “montage is an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots” and had five basic types:
1) Metric – a cut is made after a specific number of frames, independent of the content of each clip.
2) Rhythmic – a cut is made on the basis of the rhythm of the images using the visual composition of the shots or, later on, the music or sound content.
3) Tonal – the clip is cut based solely on its emotional content, with the image itself providing justification for the cut. A still lake with a distant mountain implied peace and tranquility, a storm invokes terror and so on.
4) Associational – basically a combination of metric, rhythmic and tonal editing to produce an effect greater than the sum of its parts.
5) Intellectual – a combination of shots to invoke an intellectual meaning, for example intercutting a conversation with a chess game to show the manoeuvring taking place in both.

In contrast to the – often shocking – use of montage editing techniques in early Russian cinema, western (and, particularly, American) film makers preferred to use various ‘slight of hand’ techniques to smooth over the inherent discontinuities of editing. It quickly became the predominant style of editing in narrative film and television and is known as Continuity editing – not to be confused with on-screen continuity which so often fails, for example where the cookie that The Oracle gives to Neo in the Matrix gets half eaten in one shot and then reappears, whole, in the next.

The purpose of continuity editing is to lead the audience through the film giving them the impression that no cuts have been made. It is as if the film was shot in one, continuous take, covering several days, perhaps, and many locations, but with the ‘boring bits’ taken out. In fact, Walter Murch once commented that, at some level, his job as a film editor does come down to cutting out the ‘boring bits’. Of course, how you do that is a matter of great skill and sensitivity.

Continuity Editing

Continuity editing requires the smoothing over of edits in two main areas – time (temporal continuity) and place (spacial continuity). Both require clues to be given – often subliminally – to the audience such that they understand the relocation (in space and/or time) that has just taken place. If we see our hero doing something one day, and then the next scene takes place a week later, we need to be able to tell the audience ‘when’ we are, preferably without resorting to putting up a card reading “A Week Later…”. Similarly, a change of location is often signalled with an ‘establishing shot’ – we may even ‘cross cut’ between two story lines happening at different places and/or times and must do so without disorientating the viewer – indeed, ideally they shouldn’t even perceive the sleight of hand. It isn’t easy, but then that’s why they pay us editors the big bucks. No… wait...

The Modern Approach

Modern editing has evolved from the basic Continuity editing that has prevailed for so long. Whilst the principles of Continuity are generally maintained in narrative work, influences from other genres are beginning to seep into the mainstream.

In 1959, Jean-Luc Godard made À Bout de Souffle (Breathless). Famously, it makes significant use of ‘Jump cuts’ – cuts in which no attempt at Continuity is made, such that an actor will appear to switch or ‘jump’ from expression to expression, or location to location. The film was heralded by the critics as a work of genius (and it is a great film) though Godard’s story of why it has jump cuts in it is a little more down to earth. Faced with a film that was longer than his contract allowed, he simply cut out anything that could be cut out. Because the film had been shot in a documentary style, he didn’t have cutaways to disguise the new edits, so they were left as jump cuts.

Modern music videos tend to demonstrate more of the techniques of Russian montage than of Continuity editing. They will often have the artist in three or more locations and will cut between them based on Rhythmic and Tonal practice rather than any narrative continuity.

Influences such as these are beginning to change the editing of modern films. It is now not unusual to see a film with cross-cutting between three or more story lines, the transitions often considerably more brutal that would have been considered in mainstream cinema even 10 years ago, and Godard’s jump cuts have been copied by many film-makers since the 1960s (for example by Armando Iannucci in ‘In the Loop’). It is difficult to understand why we – the audience – are happy to absorb this deviation from the norm. It’s a testament, perhaps, to the sophistication of modern viewers who have been ‘educated’ by film and television for their whole lives.

So let’s have a look at some of the conventions editors use in continuity editing.

We’ll use this term – Geography – to loosely collect together all of the techniques we use to build the space that the viewer sees the action happening in. Although a scene will sometimes start with a wide shot, encompassing all or most of this space, you still need to ensure that the subsequent tighter shots respect and re-enforce the scene’s geography.

The Line and Screen Direction

The term ‘Crossing the Line’ refers to one of the principles of film geography. Imagine that you a filming a conversation between two people - let’s call them Bill and Ted.

3 Two Shot

In our first close-up of Bill, he is looking at Ted, who is off-screen to the camera’s right.

2 Bill - CU

Bill is, therefore, looking to the right of our frame. When we cut to Ted, who is looking at Bill, he must be looking to the left of frame, or our audience will be confused.

4 Ted - CU

The ‘Line of Action’ is an imaginary line running between Bill and Ted, and the camera position shouldn’t cross this line in order for our geography to be maintained.

1 God's View

This is, obviously, up to the Director to film correctly and, of course, most Directors will get this simple situation correct, but in more esoteric cases mistakes can be made and you may have to look at flipping a shot to avoid crossing the line. In a conversation between several people, maintaining the 3D geography can be a challenge.

Similar to, but not necessarily the same as Crossing the Line, Screen Direction relates to the direction that people or objects travel across the screen. If an actor is seen walking from camera right to camera left in one clip, then in the next he is traveling from left to right, the audience will probably think that he has left the gas on at home and is retracing his steps, which is unlikely to be what the Director wanted.

A common example involves cars. In this country the driver sits on the right of the car – which means the camera is often placed on the driver’s left. When the car’s moving the countryside behind the driver moves from camera left to camera right. If you now cut to an exterior shot of the car driving from camera left to camera right it looks weird – it should drive from right to left. In the frenzy of shooting a car chase, or in documentary filming, this can be forgotten and you’ll need to keep an eye out for it in the edit.

For some film-makers, ‘Crossing the Line’ is a bit like ‘Crossing the Streams’ and will result in the atmosphere catching alight and the Earth spiralling into the Sun. Kubrick did it sometimes though, to create disorientation, and he knew a thing or two.

Creative Geography

Dr. Who straightens his bow tie (“Bow ties are cool!”), slips the TARDIS key from his tweeds and opens the slightly unrealistic, blue plywood door. As he steps inside we cut to the interior which is, of course, bigger than the exterior. We know (as cynical, adult viewers) that the TARDIS on location is a dodgy plywood box and that this set is on a sound-stage in Cardiff, but the continuity of action – with the cut happening at just the right time as the Doctor steps through the door – links the two in our mind and makes us believe this ‘created’ geography. It is amazing how being just a frame off in this timing can destroy the illusion – though not as much as actors who lead with their right foot on location and their left on set… Matt Smith is, no doubt, faultless.

Screen Geography

An important requirement of editing for theatrical release is consideration of the screen size. In any given clip, it is likely that the audience will have their attention drawn to one part of the frame. If the next clip requires their attention to move a long way – remember that they might be sitting quite close to a screen 20 metres wide – it can be very distracting, particularly if it happens repeatedly. At the very least, you’ll have to give your viewers half a second or so to find the new centre of attention.

In the past, television editing hasn’t really had to worry about Screen Geography, but panels are getting larger and larger...


Although most films play with the context of time – using jumps in time, flashbacks and so on – some edits require continuity of time to work. Of course, Creative Geography requires careful temporal continuity and is a sort of superset of ‘Cutting on Action’. Imagine it’s 40-30 and she’s serving for match point. She tosses the ball into the air, her racket swings back and then flashes forward, connecting with the ball as we CUT to the wide to watch the ball flop hopelessly into the net. This Cut on Action is similar to the cut in the Creative Geography edit, the transition must come at the same point in the motion of the racket in both the outgoing and incoming clips. The viewer’s eye and brain is very sensitive to the physics of motion – if this transition is just a frame out it will ‘feel’ odd to the audience, even if they aren’t exactly sure why.

So far we’ve dealt with just a few of the technical requirements of editing narrative films – be they fiction or documentary. In a way, these are the journeyman skills required of any editor, but compelling, emotional films require something more.


Perhaps the hardest aspect of editing is supporting and optimising the narrative. It is often the case that the script doesn’t translate directly to the shot footage, for a variety of reasons. It’s possible, for instance, that a scripted scene isn’t shot – perhaps the budget, schedule or the weather prevents it. Very often, a scripted and shot scene simply doesn’t fit in the narrative structure of the film – but at least you’ll have some ‘deleted scenes’ for the DVD. This has always been the strongest reason why Directors shouldn’t edit their own films – if you spent three days in the cold and rain over a particularly difficult shot, you tend to want to put that shot in the movie, even if it really shouldn’t be there.

Narrative is a difficult subject to discuss in the abstract. In general, films have a beginning, a middle and an end, and scenes also have their own beginnings, middles and ends, but innovative film-makers often break that simple ‘rule’ - your mileage may vary.


Fast cuts don’t mean fast pace. Oh! How many emails am I going to get with that statement? I’ve lost count of the number of producers who have commanded that part of a film should be more ‘pacey’ with the statement “Put more cuts in.” In fact, slowing down the film immediately before action - generating the anticipation of action – creates more excitement once the action begins. In the action sequence, fast paced cuts – if they aren’t carefully assembled paying attention to the Screen Geography – can simply disorientate the viewer (a criticism levelled at the otherwise excellent Batman Begins). Look at Hong Kong Kung-Fu films, or Hollywood movies like The Matrix (which was heavily influenced by Hong Kong) to see action sequences shot in comparatively long takes. The Matrix also makes extensive use of slow-mo to heighten drama during action, as do the products of Michael Mann.

At the other end of the pace scale, the famous ear-piercing scene from Girl with the Pearl Earring is 2 minutes 19 seconds long and has just three cuts in it, though most of the scene is a single, 1’ 24” shot. It has three, monosyllabic words of dialogue – “You do it” – and is the very heart of the film, capturing all the love and cruelty of the (fictional) relationship between Griet and Vermeer. It even features an act of penetration – though perhaps, now, I’m reading too much into it! It is, in my opinion, compelling cinema.


Part of the job of an editor is to support the performance of the actors – or, in the case of documentary, to bring out the characters and comments of the contributors and, if there is one, the presenter. Careful choice of shots can maintain the consistency of a performance or build drama by using elements of different takes. Feature film producers often like to use two cameras, to capture two angles in a single take and hence reduce the number of slates shot. It’s a great cost cutting exercise, but results in half the number of performances the actor can give, and from which the editor can choose.

Break the Rules

An establishing shot (the shot at the beginning of a scene or sequence) only needs to do what it says on the can – establish where we are. People tend to assume that this means a wide shot of the location, but a close-up of an item that is familiar to the audience can be just as effective. In ‘Let the Right One In’ (the original, Swedish, version) the establishing shot for the boys’ toilet in a school is a close-up of the ‘Engaged’ indicator on a cubicle door.

There is a temptation to concentrate on the ‘rules’ of editing – those of continuity, 3D and 2D geographies, timing and so on. Editors want to see each edit perfect. Importantly, though, the film as a whole has to come first. The emotional content of the film, exemplified in the topics of narrative, pace and the acting support, should always outweigh the technical aspects. If you have engaged the audience with the characters and story enough, they won’t notice the odd continuity error - well, unless they are very sad and write the Goofs section of IMDB!

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