Editing is a selection process. Sometimes hundreds of hours of footage are captured, and we only end up seeing around two hours of it. It’s also a language that has rules. When done badly it can cause boredom or, even worse, confusion.
The importance of editing cannot be underestimated. According to acclaimed film writers David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, the typical Hollywood film has between 1000 and 2000 shots that have been cut together. For action films, that number can climb dramatically to 3000 shots. For this list, I’ve included a clip for a great selection of films that can teach you a lot about film editing. The subsequent text explains the clips, offering insight into filmmaking techniques.
This article has been written in the hope of inspiring you to return to some of your own favorite scenes, in your own favorite films, so that you can deconstruct and analyze how the film’s editing has helped to engineer a perfect cinematic moment.
1. Battleship Potemkin (1925)
The Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin has been paid homage to by both Terry Gilliam (in Brazil) and Brian De Palma (in The Untouchables). The director, Sergei Eisenstein, is famous for creating films that lacked conventional plots and central characters. Instead, his films create highly emotional moments for the audience to latch on to. These moments are assembled in montages that contain juxtaposing images that convey energy and zest.
In Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein is trying to foster the idea of an evil Tsarist government. As a result we’re shown images that the audience will understand and be horrified by: a child getting shot and trampled on, innocent protests being fired upon, a baby’s pram rolling down the steps, oppressive soldiers matching down the staircase, etc.
It’s important to remember that Eisenstein wasn’t trying to reflect reality; the Odessa steps massacre never happened, and the sequence is seven minutes long whereas in real life it’d take less than half that time to run down the steps.
The scene concludes with a stone cherub and lion appearing to come to life (three different shots of both statues in different positions gives the impression that they go from sitting immobile to standing and ready for action). These shots, editing alongside the Potemkin firing on tsarist buildings, convey that it’s time to rise up against the oppressors.
2. Casablanca (1942)
Classical editing must, first and foremost, orientate the audience by creating spatial relationships. This can be achieved quite simply by eye-line matching. In this scene from Casablanca, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Captain Louis (Claude Rains) are both established by having the camera behind Louis’s shoulder viewing Rick sitting on a desk. In the shot, we can see Rick’s eyes looking down at the Captain. After the first edit we’re now looking directly at the captain, so the audience knows that we’re looking through Rick’s eyes.
The scene progresses, during their conversation, by having the camera angle change frequently (yet we always know whose perspective we’re looking from). When the camera shows one character looking at another, and then it shows the counter-shot from the other character’s point of view, it’s known as shot reverse shot. The shot reverse shot technique is a keystone of classical editing.
As the conversation draws close, two new angles are introduced. The first angle establishes that the Captain’s position has changed. The second angle allows for the entrance of a third character (had we simply been given a close up of this third character entering, we may not have known where in the room he’d entered from).
Even though we’re no longer looking through a character’s eyes, we’re not disorientated by the edit. This is because the editing follows the 180 degree rule. From the opening shot, Captain Louis is on the right, and Rick is on the left. This set up is maintained for the entire scene until we see Captain Louis walk out of the office, passing Rick. Once a 180 degree line has been established in a scene, it should never be broken – otherwise it’ll accidentally look like characters have swapped their positions.
3. Psycho (1960)
Effective editing can be very powerful. When audiences first watched Psycho, many assumed that the shower sequence was much more graphic than it actually was. The three-minute scene was apparently shot from 77 different camera angles, and it cuts 50 times. This means that it’s actually quite hard to see what’s going on, so the mind fills in the blanks.
While the scene is relatively tame by today’s gory standards, at the time, some viewers were certain that they’d seen both nudity as well as the knife stab Marion Crane (Janet Leigh).
Psycho’s shower scene also provides an example of how many directors create links between shots by matching them graphically. Here, we see blood draining down the round plughole and we then dissolve into another round image; an eye. We’ve seen her life drain away, and we now know that she’s dead after we’ve seen her lifeless stare.
4. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Some composers will write a score to a fully edited film. Others will present a score to a director, so that a film can be edited to the music. While this is, no doubt, a trickier task for an editor it allows them the opportunity to create a visual sense of rhythm with their edits.
A perfect example of rhythm editing is the final shoot-out in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The music starts out melodic as the shootist’s eye up one another, and their surroundings. Once each character is in position, and ready to shoot, the speed of the edits increases with the speed of the music. Eyes dart from cowboy to cowboy, as each nervously waits for the other to draw. The result is beautiful, rhythmic, and tense.
5. The Godfather (1972)
Al Pacino (as Michael Corleone)
The Godfather (1972)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
USA – 1972
Featuring: Al Pacino (as Michael Corleone)
Where: United States
When: 03 Feb 1972
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A montage takes place in The Godfather, in which a series of assassinations take place in the space of a very short sequence of time. A montage is an efficient way of moving quickly through a story, as you’re able to show a lot of information in a short series of time. Francis Ford Coppola’s masterstroke was to juxtapose this bloody montage with Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) baptism vows, by crosscutting between the two. Michael becomes the literal, and metaphorical, Godfather within the space of two minutes
6. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980)
Raiders of the Lost Ark is Steven Spielberg’s classic action film. In the opening scene, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) accidentally disturbs a set of ancient booby traps while stealing a golden idol in Peru. Once it becomes clear that all is not well, the scene unfolds in frenzy. The temple starts to collapse; doors start falling in; arrows are fired haphazardly; Indiana nearly falls into the abyss; and, to top it all off, a huge bolder starts rolling towards our hero.
Despite these frantic happenings, the editing is coherent. Each shot is cleanly framed so that we can see exactly what is happening in every frame. In fact, the camera is often static – only moving slightly to follow the movement of the main character. Classical action editing relies on the audience understanding what’s affecting the characters. The editing might be fast, but all key events are explained; Indiana Jones grabs on to a vine and we don’t see him slipping until after we’ve seen a close up of the vine coming loose.
The editing also repeatedly cuts on the action. For example, we see Indiana Jones run to the end of a tunnel and there’s then a cut to a new shot of him swinging over a deep chasm. This cutting on the action means that the two separate shots merge together, forming a continuous piece of action.
7. Top Gun (1986)
Top Gun director Tony Scott was selected because of his experience directing a popular Sabb commercial that had its latest car race a fighter jet. In fact, for fifteen years Scott had developed a successful career making advertisements. As a result, he was used to having to get a lot of information across in a short space of time (sometimes just thirty seconds).
Looking at this clip from Top Gun, Scott’s experience as an advert director is clear. The edits from shot-to-shot are fast paced, rarely lasting longer than two seconds, and the emphasis of shots is on characters’ faces and not their full bodies (even in the shots with the characters who aren’t in cockpits). This post-classical style of editing is sometimes referred to as “MTV editing” because it was aimed at audiences that had grown up with watching short stylized averts and MTV popular music videos.
8. Schindler’s List (1993)
One other vital function of editing is to maintain temporal continuity. In almost all circumstances the director will want you to understand where you are in the film’s timeline, and they’ll also want you to understand how quickly time is passing. A dissolve is the standard way to let the audience know that time has passed however; it’s not the only way.
While Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) and Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) are creating the list, the action crosscuts to a completely different scene that gives the audience more knowledge about Oskar’s efforts to procure his Jewish workforce. When we return to the office, not only has this crosscut helped to move the flow of time along, we now know how determined Oskar is in his efforts.
Spielberg also likes to match his graphics when editing so we see Itzhak counting through a freshly typed list followed by a cut to Oskar reading a completed list. This creates a metaphorical link from the start, and to the end, of the list-writing process. Even though the edit is simple cut, we know that time has passed because the two characters are in different positions and the lighting is lower; this isn’t jarring because of the graphic match.
This clip is also a reminder of the power of not editing a shot. When Oskar tells Itzhak to stop working on the list of names, we get a long shot that lasts for two minutes. The camera pans and zooms slightly to follow the action, but the energy has gone from both men so the energy goes from the editing. They’ve worked through the night, and Oskar (Liam Neeson) is also weary from having spent so much money. Furthermore, a very potent speech is delivered by Itzhak (Ben Kingsley) and not having cuts interrupt flow helps to add to its power.
9. Quantum of Solace (2008)
Instead of establishing the geography of the clock-tower that James Bond (Daniel Craig) is standing in, the editing cuts from angle to angle, heightening Bond’s emotional stress. After Bond is attacked, the edit rate becomes even faster.
Instead of having a clean visual of how events are unfolding we’re presented with a series of shaky close ups: guns, faces, the scaffolding collapsing, bricks hitting the screen, a pulley winding and swinging, glass shattering etcetera. Also, there’s very little cutting on the action; instead successive shots offer completely different perspectives.
Fast editing and constantly moving camerawork can be referred to as either “Intensified continuity” or “chaos cinema”. In this style of editing, it’s not crucial for the audience to be orientated, or to clearly understand what’s happening. Excitement is created by stimulating the audiences’ senses as much as possible with dynamic camera movements and frantic editing.
10. The Social Network (2010)
Despite the changes of style in editing for action films, classical editing is still standard for Hollywood filmmaking. This clip from The Social Network shows a conversation taking place between Mark Zuckerberg and a lawyer and the conversation unfolds using the shot reverse shot technique.
Of course, if all film conversations were told using only two angles the scene would look pretty boring. When Zuckerberg notices that it’s started to rain it edits to a point of view shot that allows us to see through his eyes. It then edits to a reaction shot from two of the plaintiff’s just after Zuckerberg first says “no”. Reaction shots often make scenes more textured and interesting as the action cuts away from the main scene, while still showing us important information. The shot that shows us the camcorder is also a cut away shot, which gives an extra flavor to the shot reverse shot format while reminding us that proceedings are being recorded.
As the conversation becomes more heated, we cut to a medium close up of Zuckerberg followed by a medium close up of the lawyer. Closer shots allow for more noticeable detail, and help to capture the actor’s expressions. They are used here so that the audience can understand that the two characters are becoming angrier.
Once there emotions have been established, the scene then edits to a medium shot so that the reactions of the rest of the room are capture (first the defendant’s team, then the uncomfortable looking plaintiffs’ team). It’s a simple conversation, but editing has allowed the audience to absorb all of the nuance and detail of the situation.