We often get so immersed on the film we are watching that we forget it is, in fact, a film. This magical feeling is achieved thanks to film editing,
an art that is generally left aside, however, when a film is edited correctly we are completely absorbed by the story and enchanted by the performances that we are unable to catch those minuscule gaps between shots. After pioneers of cinema all around the world began to experiment with storytelling and film editing, from Eisenstein to Godard or contemporary examples like Nolan, the doors of cinema opened to new grounds. In this article, we will make a journey through time to analyse the best examples of film editing to understand the evolution of this art form.
Let’s begin with the already named Eisenstein and his famous methods of montage. In words of Eisenstein: montage means combining illustrative shots – single in meaning, neutral in context – into intellectual contexts; i.e. combining two neutral images to illustrate a third. He stablished five different methods of montage but we will focus on his most acclaimed, the rhythmic montage (also referred to as continuity editing), by using the renowned Odessa steps sequence in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925).
In rhythmic montage, the shot length is dictated by structure of the overall sequence. A famous example of this type of film editing montage is the shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), where the quick and jarring pace of the scene creates a feeling of suspense in the audience. The scene from Eisenstein’s film has had such an incredible impact that it has been parodied and referenced in many other pieces as well, for instance, Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987). To improve your own films, create a specific rhythm in order to convey a desired feeling in the audience: dread, angst, suspense; choose wisely the timing of your shots and piece them together in a creative way.
The Soviet theories revolutionised the ways stories can be told, however, decades later, other film movements like the the Nouvelle Vague expanded the canvas of film editing by experimenting with the pre-established limitations. A key example from the French New Wave of how narrative and storytelling were enhanced through film editing and experimentation is Godard’s Breathless (1960). Godard implemented innovations in film editing such as the jump cut, a sudden cut between shots that resulted in commotion in the general audience who was familiarised with Hollywood’s film editing style, traditional and continuous which created a sense of realism.
Godard’s experimentation with film editing was groundbreaking and influential. The reasons behind this choice are diverse, but could be related to the effect of urgency it creates on the spectator as it breaks the sense of continuity of the film causing the spectator to be more attuned with the story, or maybe it was an attempt to capture a realistic view on life itself which does not always flow smoothly, but rather in a confusing, discontinuous way. To further improve your own projects, don’t be afraid to experiment and remember: rules are made to be broken. Subvert your audience’s expectations with unusual techniques and experiment with the possibilities of film editing.
The Nouvelle Vague started a wave of creativity and experimentation with film editing which would influence all Europe, and specially the new talents from the New Hollywood post-Hays code. One of those new talents from the New Hollywood era is the auteur Francis Ford Coppola. In his epic war drama, Apocalypse Now (1979), he perfectly conveys the turbulent psyche of Captain Willard by using film editing techniques along sound design production.
In the very first sequence of the film, opened by The Doors, the sound of a ceiling fan’s blades slowly dissolve into the disturbing sound of a helicopter flying across the jungle in Cambodia. The film editing is combined with sound design to convey a certain mood in the scene which helps to transition between sequences while adding more layers of complexity to the characters. Near the end of the film, the film’s editor, Walter Murch, employs another film editing technique of montage, the parallel editing.
On one hand, we witness Kurtz’s assassination, while on the other hand a water buffalo is sacrificed. This film editing technique can draw different meanings and obvious parallelisms between Kurtz’s death and the sacrifice of the buffalo. Finally, we get another dissolve, this time of Kurtz’s body floating in the water thus creating a feeling of detachment from his death whilst suggesting the possibility of his death being part of Willard’s deranged mind. These techniques can greatly improve your own scenes by suggesting new meanings to the spectators, therefore making your film much more interesting by being creative with your shots and film editing.
During the next decades, other films used film editing techniques to enhance the telling of their stories. One of the most memorable stories of cold-blooded murderers in Hollywood is that of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). The chilling performance of Anthony Hopkins wouldn’t be as iconic as it is today without the tension built in the climax of the film, all due to the cross-cutting editing technique. Here, we see shots of FBI agent Sterling chasing after Catherine to save her from Hannibal mixed with shots of Lecter preparing to kill Catherine.
This film editing technique builds tension in the spectator as the two narratives, happening at the same time, are mixed together in order to maximise the suspense in the film’s climax by making Catherine’s ending uncertain. To enhance your own narratives, you can order your shots from two different events happening at the same time to generate a response in your audience, specially convenient in genres like horror or thriller.
Finally, one of the milestones of cinema that combined revolutionary film editing and storytelling which influenced later films such as the controversial Irréversible (2002), the film that placed Christopher Nolan as one of the most promising directors of our time, Memento (2000).
Memento experimented with modern film editing techniques which greatly enhanced the film’s narrative, its most important being the reversed chronological order in which the story is told, with some scenes even being shown in reverse motion, which helps the audience to get a glimpse of the life of the protagonist. On the other hand, other techniques like the freeze frame (another non-linear film editing technique) forces the spectator to literally stop to piece together the mystery of Leonard’s past while also allowing the audience to empathise with the protagonist by seeing the world through his eyes. Furthermore, the freeze frame creates a feeling of suspense and anticipation as well, specially in moments when the character is in a threatening situation.
Summarising, the film’s editing techniques are essential part of the storytelling as they help the viewer to create a sense of empathy with the main character while building tension and suspense which, overall, enhances the cinematic experience Nolan offers. Memento teaches us how important film editing techniques are to complement other fundamental aspects of the film (narrative, performance, storytelling, …). Remember to use a variety of these techniques to enhance the viewing of your audience and create an unforgettable and distinguished experience.
This is the end of our journey through some of the greatest examples of film editing techniques used in Hollywood films, hopefully, you are able to include some of them in your projects and achieve an impressive result. Who knows, maybe you can also influence and revolutionise the industry with new visionary techniques.
Who are the best proponents of film editing ? That’s a debate for another time. But here’s an interesting piece on the subject
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