• Owen R. Horton


Below, we will discuss the principles of editing a motion picture.

What is Editing?

Editing is the process by which shots are cut and arranged in order to tell the story of a film. Other elements of film-making, such as Acting, Mise-en-scene, and Sound are all present in the other visual and performance arts, but editing stands alone as unique to film.

The logic of editing rests on our desire to form causal relationships between images in sequence. This theory was tested by a Soviet film theorist named Lev Kuleshov, who showed audiences a series of clips juxtaposed with an image of an emotionless man. The clips were of a dead woman, a child, and dish of soup. Although the image was of the same actor making the same face, the audience claimed they noticed slight differences corresponding with sadness, tenderness, and hunger respectively. This is the power of editing.

Spatial and Temporal Relationships

A major responsibility of the editor is to establish spatial and temporal relationships between objects, characters, and events in the film. Editing allows the editor to create a sense of scale, scope, and space by collecting and sequencing images. In many cases, we do not even need to have a complete space in order to film a scene-- editing takes care of the missing space.

An editor also controls the temporal relationship between shots. Most shots occur in a linear narrative order-- following a clear cause-and-effect visual logic. This type of narrative editing needs little description; we understand it intuitively. We are also familiar with other, non-linear styles of temporal editing.

The flashback and flash-forward are both jumps in time that disrupt the linear temporal flow of a film. These jumps represent an interruption of the chronological order of the film. At times, the flashback introduces new information that forces us to rethink our understanding of cause-and-effect; other times, the flash-forward causes us to understand the futility of the current action, as we know where our course ends up.

An ellipsis [...] signifies the omission of time between two shots. the most simple and common type of ellipsis shot is a character getting in bed juxtaposed with the same character waking up. We know several hours have passed, but those moments are left out. At times, the ellipsis can be disorienting because we do not know how much time has passed. In my above example, we assume 6-8 have passed, but what if the character was only able to sleep for 20 minutes?

Finally, a montage is a sequence of edits that condense time into a progression of events. We are familiar with montages from several of our films this semester, but Scarface may be the most obvious example.

Editing Rhythm

The rhythm of a film is under the careful control of an editor. The pacing between a series of shots, dictated by the duration of shots, affects how we experience the visual material. Good rhythm relies on variance-- while 5-to-10 second shots are the typical length, a film composed of 5-to-10 second shots would quickly become boring. One of the masters of editing rhythm was Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone, who used extended sequences to build tension and drama, often balancing them against fierce and explosive action sequences that lasted fractions of seconds. His magnum opus is the final gun battle of Once Upon a Time in the West.

Continuity and Discontinuity Editing

Continuity editing is standard: the sequencing of images and shots makes logical sense. Each shot flows directly from the previous to create a cohesive narrative. Discontinuity is the binary opposite of continuity editing. When assessing the continuity of editing, we need to answer three questions:

  1. Does what is happening on the screen make narrative sense?

  2. Is the screen direction consistent?

  3. Are graphic, temporal, and spatial relationships maintained?

Continuity editing answers "yes" to these questions.

The Master Scene technique is a part of continuity editing. In the Master Scene, we get a longer shot (either establishing/long shot, tracking shot, dolly shot, or long duration shot) that establishes the location from which all subsequent scenes will flow from.

Screen direction is also part of continuity editing. Maintaining continuous screen direction is all about adhering to the 180° system.

Shot-reverse shot is our most common form of screen direction continuity.

Match cuts are when two shots are connected through the editing. Here, we focus on action, subject, graphic, or content matches.

Match-on-action pairs two actions together. Each shot is filmed in a different location, but we connect them seamlessly because of the editing.

Graphic Match pairs two similar-looking objects. The shots connect only in an abstract sense, but allow the editor to juxtapose two separate ideas.

Eye-line cuts are similar to shot-reverse shot cuts, but instead emphasize the subject's gaze as the driving force of the action.

Parallel Editing is a continuous editing technique which documents events happening at two different locations at the same time.


Transitions are we get from one shot to the next. Most films will not call attention to many of their cuts, but there are certain situations which demand a special transition.

Jump cuts are the standard cut between two shots-- nothing special happens here other than the immediate transition between two different spaces or times.

When we want to suggest the passage of time, we might use a fade in or fade out. The screen's movement to black is reminiscent of how we fall asleep.

A dissolve transition is useful when we want to intentionally juxtapose two shots for a brief second, as the first frame dissipates into the second.

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