Early history of Editing techniques

D.W. Griffith

David Llewelyn Wark Griffith was a pioneer in the film industry and is considered the “father of film” by Lilian Gish.

A quote from the American Masters website (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/d-w-griffith/about-d-w-griffith/621/) describes some of D.W. Grifiths early work and achievements in the film industry.

During his five years at Biograph, Griffith took the raw elements of moviemaking as they had evolved up to that time — lighting, continuity, editing, acting — and wrought a medium of extraordinary power and nuance. Early short films such as A CORNER IN WHEAT (1909), FIGHTING BLOOD (1911), and UNDER BURNING SKIES (1912) show the hallmarks of Griffith’s style already emerging: crosscut editing to build tension, acute observation of details to heighten reality, and the use of the camera as a vehicle for expounding his views on society.

D.W. Griffith’s most famous production was the 1915 silent epic The Birth of a Nation which was about 2 families in the Civil War/reconstruction-era America on opposite sides (Pro-Union Northern Stonemans and the Pro-Confederacy Southern Camerons). The film was a commercial success however it received a lot of criticism for racism.

D.W. Griffith was responsible for many innovations in the film industry including:

Classical Cutting- also known as continuity editing is a style of editing that is characterised by the sequence of shots is determined by a scene’s dramatic and emotional emphasis rather than physical action. In other words it was the basis for modern editing that we see in all our films today. A classic example would be the scene in the Good, the Bad and the Ugly when the 3 main characters are preparing to shoot one another and the camera cuts between the 3 of them to heighten tension.

Close-up- first used for psychological reasons. These shots contain the actors shoulders and head in the frame and not much else of their body. An example of this would be the infamous scene in the silence of the lambs when Hannibal Lector is being interviewed in his cell by detective Starling and he tells her that he ate someone’s liver.

Parallel Editing– Multiple scenes taking place at the same time in the film’s continuity but in different locations, this technique is used to heighten tension and creative emotional responses with the audience. An example of Parallel Editing (or Cross cutting as it is also called) is in the DW Griffith film “Birth of a Nation” when the black Union soldiers are raiding a house and there are some women and children are hiding in the basement, the Confederate army has been warned of the raid  and they are on their way to save them. It constantly cuts between scenes to heighten tension as the Union troops get ever closer to discovering the women and children and you don’t know how far away the Confederate troops are. Another few examples include: “Star Wars: Revenge of Sith” when Order 66 is given and all the Jedi are slaughtered across the Galaxy; In Alien the scene when Kane is exploring the Alien ship and Ripley and a medical officer on the Nostromo are warning him to get out because its dangerous.

Eisenstein and the Soviet Montage

The montage is a series of seemingly unrelated shots one after the other (this is called Juxtaposition) the film makers could create an illusion of the passage of time as well as other effects such as visual metaphors and manipulate the audiences emotions and understanding. One of the most famous examples of the montage is the Rocky training sequence which is in every Rocky movie. Here is the link to the one from Rocky 4. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bu00RiPjaa4

The famous Russian film maker is one of the most influential film makers in history. He was famous for his innovative use of editing to create stories. He had 5 styles of editing called:

1. Metric

2. Rhythmic

3. Tonal

4. Over-Tonal

5. Intellectual

Metric: This is a style of editing designed to manipulate the length of a shot create a sense of pace and sometimes emotional response. Example 2 videos of the same length are shown yet the way the videos are edited will give the audience an impression of how long or short they are (e.g lots of fast cuts would make you think it was going by quickly and create tension, whereas something with a slower pace usually feels longer and more relaxing. Although you can alter the content to create a different atmosphere.). A classic example of this technique being put into practice is the Classic “October” by Eisenstein himself. here is a clip from the film.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0QAjpeosgU

Rhythmic: This a type of editing where the pace of the editing conflicts with the pace of scene. For example a scene could feature a crowd panicking and running but the editing could be really slow which would highlight what’s going on in that particular given scene. In contrast you could also have a slow sequence but the editing could make appear faster. The best examples of these practices can found in another of Eisenstein’s classics called “Battleship Potemkin”.

Tonal: This type of editing is defined by the emotional tone of the scene and that effects the editing. For example a scene with a happy tone will have a lot of quick cuts whereas a sad moment would have longer shots with cuts that coincide with the slower rhythm. The scene of John Coffey’s execution is an example of Tonal editing although there is not much music the length of the shots really heightens the sad tone as the gentle giant John is about to be executed for a crime he did not commit.

Over-Tonal: This type of editing is a combination of the styles of metric, tonal and rhythmic montages to draw the audience in and provoke an emotional response from them.

Intellectual: This is a combination of shots which are created with the purpose of creating a visual metaphor. The following clip is a perfect example of this practice. In the sequence it shows all the forms of government that oppress the populace in some form or another.

Motivated editing

A motivated edit or motivated cut as it is also known, is when the scene cuts to another scene or object that was not in the previous frame. This is done in a discreet manner so as not to come off as jarring to the audience or break the illusion of continuity. Motivated edits are usually justified by narrative means such as in Flashbacks, to create a sense of tension and reverse shots.

You see it all the time in horror films: a woman is standing in a spooky place all alone and then hears a startling sound. She spins her head around and sees nothing. The sound then comes from another area, and the soon-to-be victim jerks her head in that direction. Eventually, the viewing audience gets to see the object of terror, usually along with a loud, startling sound. The scene in which the second person is killed in the recent vampire film, 30 Days of Night (2007), is a perfect example.


Shot/Reverse/Shot technique

This is a film technique in which one character is shown talking to another character (usually not in the same shot) and then the other character is shown looking back at the first character. Since the characters are shown facing opposite directions the audience will believe the assumption that they are facing one another. An example would be the scene from Heat when Robert De Niro and Al Pacino share a conversation at a diner.

Here is the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oTNNjRuqbE

Great scene from a great movie.


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