In Editing, Sometimes Less Is More

The French word for staging is mise-en-scene. But when applied to film the term mis-en-scene is ambiguous. For some it means all the visuals elements including what is seen on the set and how the camera portrays the scene. For others it means the emotional tone of a film.

But there is another meaning of mise-en-scene ”“ a one-shot, one-edit scene. A perfect example is illustrated in the 1948 Hitchcock film “Rope.” The story is adapted from a play that takes place in one room. In the film, both the subjects and the camera move to create the dramatic emphasis and pacing you would normally achieve by setting new camera positions and editing.

Each shot in this film lasts for ten minutes, the amount of film in a film movie camera which was true in 1948 and today. To make a close-up, Hitchcock either had the actor move closer to the camera during the shot or he dollied the camera into the actor. It’s interesting to see how he gets from one ten-minute reel to the next. In one of these transitions he has the character walk in front of the camera just before the film runs out. The actor’s dark suit fills the frame like a fade to black. The next ten-minute shot starts with the same black suit. You don’t notice what is technically a jump cut because the darkness from the suit fills the frame. The dialogue continues without interruption and the actor walks away from the camera, revealing the scene again.

The Art of Film & Video 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

The film is remarkable as a directing exercise. It works because the actors and camera crew rehearsed their movements over and over again. Every detail was meticulously planned in typical Hitchcock style. The only editing required was to cut the entire Reel #1 to Reel #2 for a total of seven edits in the film. Rent the film or watch it below and see if you can discover Hitchcock’s methods. He proved he could construct an entire film in the mise-en-scene style, but it’s worth noting that he never repeated it.

Robert Altman’s 1992 “The Player” opens with a credit sequence superimposed over a no-cuts, 7 minutes and 47 second-long tracking shot that is expertly choreographed. The shot is an homage to Hitchcock’s “Rope” as well as to Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” both of which are mentioned in the shot. “The Player” is a satire about Hollywood. In addition to the stars of the film, Altman convinced some 60 Hollywood celebrities to appear as themselves in no-pay cameo roles. This is a film that will delight filmmakers. See the opening scene of “The Player” below:

While mise-en-scene is an unusual way to minimize editing, some documentary directors choose minimal editing because they feel it makes a film more authentic. In feature filmmaking, the early comic films from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin had long-running shots. The actors wanted to prove that there were no special effects or camera tricks. The stunts they performed were real and dangerous.

Today’s action movies are done with lots of editing, special effects, and stunt doubles who look like the protagonist and risk their necks instead of the high-priced star. The protagonist in modern films rarely risks life and limb as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin did.

Characteristics Of Discontinuity or Montage Style Editing

Music video editing is just one genre where Discontinuity or Montage Style editing dominates. This editing style is also seen in feature films, TV commercials, Internet videos and much more. Where classic continuity editing had rules to follow, the alternative, non-traditional styles have characteristics:

  • Rhythm, pace and mood are more important than story.
  • Violates the rules of continuity.
  • May be used to convey authenticity or to create alienation.
  • Shaky cam, jump cuts, lots of close-ups, Dutch camera shots (tilted shots.)
  • Editing and production is visible rather than invisible. The editing calls attention to itself. Fast cuts. Digital effects. Cameras and lights are visible. Actors address the camera. Does not implicitly ask the viewer to suspend disbelief.

This style of editing, because it is not following a story line, has a different purpose. The shots, the sets, and the pacing are all contributing to a mood or a feeling.