Does Non-Linear Editing Change Style and Art?

Non-Linear editing is done on a computer and offers “random access, non-destructive editing” of the source material, including video and audio. There are a great many advantages to Non-Linear Editing. Two of the biggest are cost and speed. Sony Vegas Movie Studio is a powerful example of this. The program is powerful enough to edit a feature film including special effects and audio sweetening and it costs only $80!

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

While Standard Definition video can easily be edited on an older computer, editing HD video requires a fairly powerful computer. It no longer makes any sense to consider editing film the way we used to do it – by literally cutting and pasting pieces of film. Those who shoot film today, have it transferred to video and then edit it on a Non-Linear Edit system.

See What’s the Best Editing System for a complete description of modern editing technology.

The Cuts Get Faster

While it is very powerful, efficient, and affordable compared to linear editing of film or videotape, non-linear editing has probably contributed to fast-cutting editing styles that seem so prevalent today. Consider the modern movie trailer. Very fast cuts with an overpowering sound track. The cuts are so fast you can’t really see the composition and art of individual shots. It’s a crescendo of shock and awe, almost like being in a war zone. Film scholar Matthias Stork has called this sensory overload Cinema Chaos.

See the trailer for “The Bourne Ultimatum.”

In “The Bourne Ultimatum'” (2007) the average shot length is 2 seconds. When you combine that fast editing style with “shaky cam” shooting, the sensory overload is too much for some people. Roger Ebert received so many letters about the editing style of the “Bourne” movies that he published them in his column entitled “The Shaky-Queasy-Utimatum.”

Here’s part of a typical letter:

“While we liked the story line, and the acting was great, the constant cuts every few seconds, herky-jerky hand held camera work, and pointless pans and zooms were all a terrible distraction. Somewhere in that movie were some great action scenes, but one could barely make out what was going on. You should warn your viewers about movies like this. They should be rated MS, for motion sickness.”

Movies that have such a short average shot length diminish the art of the cinematographer, the production designer, and the actor. On the other hand “The Hurt Locker” (2009) won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. It is all hand held and mostly fast cuts.

Fast cutting has been around for quite a while. Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Psycho” (1960) has a famous fast-cutting scene in the shower which is one of the best known scenes in cinema history. As Hitchcock later said “everything was so rapid that there were 78 separate pieces of film in 45 seconds.” Most of the shots are extreme close-ups.

More recently “Moulin Rouge!” (2001) has a can-can scene that is very fast cutting. There are many more examples. The edits in Hollywood films today seem to be faster than in the past. “Psycho” only used fast-cutting in one scene and it made that scene and the film highly effective.

Fast cutting has become an almost a gratuitous effect as entire films use the technique in an attempt to make the films high powered without relying on superior storytelling. Nevertheless, there are many skillful examples of fast cutting such as the famous chase scene in “The French Connection” (1971) which won an Academy Award for Best Editing.

There is even software and a web site devoted to measuring the average shot length in feature films. It’s called Cinemetrics. Here are some Average Shot Lengths (ASL) of various films:

  • “Citizen Kane” is 11.4
  • The screwball comedy “His Girl Friday” is 15
  • “Pulp Fiction” is 7.9
  • Computer-animated action-comedy superhero film “The Incredibles” is 2.5.
  • Raiders of The Lost Ark is 5.3