Editing is an essential part of making any film or video. As Francis Ford Coppola says, “The essence of cinema is editing. It’s the combination of what can be extraordinary images of people during emotional moments, or images in a general sense, put together in a kind of alchemy.”As you will see in the following articles, it can be impossible to separate the editing from the directing. In fact directing and editing a film or video are often performed by the same person. As Anthony Woller wrote in “American CinemeEditor,” “An editor need not be a writer, but he or she must know story structure; he need not be a cameraman, but he must understand pictorial composition and the compatibility of angles; he need not be a director, but he must feel the actors’ performances and the dramatic or comedy pacing as surely as the director.”

The Art of Editing
Part 1

Introduction & The Genesis of Editing Styles 

Part 2

Hollywood Style Continuity Editing & Characteristics of Continuity Editing

Part 3

Soviet Filmmakers Advance Editing & Eisenstein

Part 4

Talking Pictures & Hollywood Style Editing – Who is really in charge?

Part 5

Documentary Editing – Where Is the Truth?

Part 6

Emerging Alternatives to Continuity Editing: The Director Becomes Editor & The French New Wave

Part 7

In Editing, Sometimes Less Is More & Characteristics Of Discontinuity or Montage Style Editing

Part 8

Does Non-Linear Editing Change Style and Art? & The Cuts Get Faster

Part 9

Influence of Music Videos & Non-traditional Editing Comes to Television and the Internet

While the art of editing may not be fully appreciated by the movie-going public, it is well recognized in the industry. The Academy Award for Film Editing is an annual award. Nominations for this award are closely correlated with the Academy Award for Best Picture. For the last few decades, every film chosen as Best Picture has also been nominated for the Film Editing Academy Award, and most of the Best Picture Oscar winners have also won Oscars for Film Editing.

With the rise of digital non-linear editing systems, in 1999 the award name was changed to Academy Award For Best Editing.

The Genesis of Editing Styles

The earliest films were not edited. They were continuous shots typically made from one camera position. The mere fact that they showed motion on a screen was a marvel in itself — moving pictures! Eventually filmmakers realized their unedited films could benefit greatly from editing — cutting out some parts, moving shots around, changing the length and positions of shots. By re-arranging and manipulating different shots an editor could create a story sequence. This changes the impact of the film.

Editing has been called “the invisible art” because if it is done skillfully, the viewer doesn’t notice the editor’s work. The story, the visual effects or the mood carry the audience and even when viewed by skilled filmmakers, the story and mood can overwhelm the viewers’ ability to see the editing. The art of editing creates the magic.

Edwin S. Porter is the first American filmmaker to edit his films. Porter’s “Life of an American Fireman” in 1902 is considered the first edited film. The techniques used in this film were better applied to his next film “The Great Train Robbery” (1903). Click here to view “The Great Train Robbery”

This film used several new cinematic techniques such as cross cutting, double exposure, and camera movement. Cross cutting between two or more scenes is an editing technique which allows the audience to see what is happening in more than one place at the same time. This technique has become a standard that is used in many great films of today.

Editing was pushed forward even more by D.W. Griffith. His 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” used camera and story-telling techniques that would become the standards for feature films. The film was very popular, but was racist and controversial. His next film “Intolerance” sought to show the dangers of prejudice.

Griffith began by directing hundreds of short, mostly one-reel films that established what we know today as the grammar and language of film. The work was a partnership with cinematographer Billy Bitzer whose work contributed to many of the innovations which were credited to Griffith.

Griffith edited close-up and medium shots in a way that shaped and emphasized the emotions of a scene. His precise use of close-ups creates the emotional peak in many scenes. His editing style in chase films created excitement by intercutting between the chaser and the victim. As the chase scene progressed his cuts become shorter and shorter which builds suspense thanks to the art of editing.

As an example watch “The Lonely Villa” (1909).

See how the suspense builds from the intercutting of the three different groups of characters. Griffith successfully used his technique of intercutting in a number of films. But his contributions to filmmaking go far beyond editing techniques. He had almost single-handedly invented the art of modern cinema. D.W. Griffith has been called “the father of film technique,” “the man who invented Hollywood” and “the Shakespeare of the screen.”

Of all the storytelling crafts, directing and editing have the most influence on the final product. Naturally the script, cinematography and acting make major contributions to the final effect of a film. The editor, cinematographer and actor all work for the director.

Griffith used real locations to heighten the drama. He began taking his production company to California every winter so they could film in summer-like conditions and avoid the harsh winters of New York. In one of his early trips he discovered a small village called Hollywood. It was a pleasant-looking place. The townspeople were friendly and enjoyed having a movie company filming in their town. And so began the film capital of the world.