Because almost every motion picture, television show, and TV commercial is shot with one camera per take, every single shot is separated from every other single shot by time and space. On its most fundamental level, film editing is the art, technique, and practice of assembling these shots into a coherent whole. However, the job of an editor isn’t merely to mechanically put pieces of a film together, nor is it to just cut off the film slates, nor is it merely to edit dialogue scenes. A film editor works with the layers of images, the story, the music, the rhythm, the pace, shapes the actors' performances, "re-directing" and often re-writing the film during the editing process, honing the infinite possibilities of the juxtaposition of small snippets of film into a creative, coherent, cohesive whole.
Film editing is an art that can be used in diverse ways. It can create sensually provocative montages. It can be a laboratory for experimental cinema. It can bring out the emotional truth in an actor's performance. It can create a point of view on otherwise obtuse events. It can guide the telling and pace of a story. It can create the illusion of danger where there is none, surprise when we least expect it, and a vital subconscious emotional connection to the viewer.
A film editor is a person who practices film editing by assembling footage into a coherent film. Film editors often are responsible for pulling together all of the elements of story, dialogue, music, sound effects, visual effects, rhythm and pace of a film. However there are close parallels to the editing process in other art forms such as poetry or novel writing. In the making of a film, the editors usually play a dynamic and creative role.
With the advent of digital editing, the editors and their assistants have become responsible for many areas of filmmaking that used to be the responsibility of others. For instance, in past years, picture editors dealt only with just that--- picture. Sound, music, and (more recently) visual effects editors dealt with the practicalities of other aspects of the editing process, usually under the direction of the picture editor and director. However, digital systems have increasingly put these responsibilities on the picture editor. It is common, especially on lower budget films, for the assistant editors or even the editor to cut in music, mock up visual effects, and add sound effects or other sound replacements. These temporary elements are usually replaced with more refined final elements by the sound, music, and visual effects teams hired to complete the picture.
In the early years of film, editing was considered a technical job; editors were expected to "cut out the bad bits"(Avent, 74) and string the film together. Indeed, when the Motion Picture Editors Guild was formed, they chose to be "below the belt," that is, not a creative guild, but a technical one. This was very helpful to women. Women were not usually able to break in to the "creative" positions; directors, cinematographers, producers, and executives were almost always men. Editing afforded creative women a place to assert their mark on the film making process. Many film editors were women, for example Anne Bauchens, Margaret Booth, Adrienne Fazan and Blanche Sewell. Although not the majority today, women are still part of the field of working editors.
Other films were to follow. Porter's ground-breaking film, The Great Train Robbery is still shown in film schools today as an example of early editing form. It was produced in 1903 and was one of the first examples of dynamic, action editing (the piecing together scenes shot at different times and places and for emotional impact unavailable in a static long shot). Being one of the first film hyphenates (film director, editor and engineer) Porter also invented and utilized some of the very first (albeit primitive) special effects such as double exposures, miniatures and split-screens.
Porter discovered two important aspects of motion picture language: that the screen image does not need to show a complete person from head to toe and that splicing together two shots creates in the viewer's mind a contextual relationship. These were the key discovery that makes all non-live or non live-on-videotape narrative motion pictures and television possible—that shots (in this case whole scenes since each shot is a complete scene) can be photographed in widely different locations over a period of time (hours, days or even months) and combined into a narrative whole. That is, The Great Train Robbery contains scenes shot on sets of a telegraph station, a railroad car interior, and a dance hall, with outdoor scenes at a railroad water tower, on the train itself, at a point along the track, and in the woods. But when the robbers leave the telegraph station interior (set) and emerge at the water tower, the audience believes they went immediately from one to the other. Or that when they climb on the train in one shot and enter the baggage car (a set) in the next, the audience believes they are on the same train.
Sometime around 1918, Russian director Lev Kuleshov did an experiment that proves this point. (See Kuleshov Experiment.) He took an old film clip of a head shot of a noted Russian actor and intercut the shot with a shot of a bowl of soup, then with a child playing with a teddy bear, then with a shot of an elderly woman in a casket. When he showed the film to people they praised the actor's acting—the hunger in his face when he saw the soup, the delight in the child, and the grief when looking at the dead woman. Of course, the shot of the actor was made years before the other shots and he never "saw" any of the items. The simple act of juxtaposing the shots in a sequence made the relationship.
Before the widespread use of non-linear editing systems, the initial editing of all films was done with a positive copy of the film negative called a film workprint (cutting copy in UK) by physically cutting and taping together pieces of film, using a splicer and threading the film on a machine with a viewer such as a Moviola, or "flatbed" machine such as a Kem or Steenbeck. Today, most films are edited digitally (on systems such as Avid or Final Cut Pro) and bypass the film positive workprint altogether. In the past, the use of a film positive (not the original negative) allowed the editor to do as much experimenting as he or she wished, without the risk of damaging the original.
When the film workprint had been cut to a satisfactory state, it was then used to make an edit decision list (EDL). The negative cutter referred to this list while processing the negative, splitting the shots into rolls, which were then contact printed to produce the final film print or answer print. Today, production companies have the option of bypassing negative cutting altogether. With the advent of digital intermediate ("DI"), the physical negative does not necessarily need to be physically cut and hot spliced together; rather the negative is optically scanned into computer(s) and a cut list is conformed by a DI editor.
Assistant editors aid the editor and director in collecting and organizing all the elements needed to edit the film. When editing is finished, they oversee the various lists and instructions necessary to put the film into its final form. Editors of large budget features will usually have a team of assistants working for them. The first assistant editor is in charge of this team, and may do a small bit of picture editing as well, if necessary. The other assistants will have set tasks, usually helping each other when necessary to complete the many time-sensitive tasks at hand. In addition, an apprentice editor may be on hand to help the assistants. An apprentice is usually someone who is learning the ropes of assisting.
Television shows typically have one assistant per editor. This assistant is responsible for every task required to bring the show to final form. Lower budget features and documentaries will also commonly have only one assistant.
The organizational aspects job could best be compared to database management. When a film is shot, every piece of picture or sound is coded with numbers and timecode. It is the assistant's job to keep track of these numbers in a database, which, in non-linear editing, is linked to the computer program. The editor and director cut the film using digital copies of the original film and sound, commonly referred to as an "offline" edit. When the cut is finished, it is the assistant's job to bring the film or television show "online". They create lists and instructions that tell the picture and sound finishers how to put the edit back together with the high quality original elements. Assistant editing can be seen as a career path to eventually becoming an editor. Many assistants, however, do not choose to pursue advancement to editor, and are very happy at the assistant level, working long and rewarding careers on many films and television shows.
One current controversy is that assistant editors are increasingly responsible for planning, managing, and checking the visual effects of a feature film, yet cannot receive credit for it. Technically, this task is assigned to a visual effects editor. However, many mid and low-level films will save money by putting the responsibility on the assistant editor, an idea that makes great sense since the assistant is closest to the footage and the cut. However, the Motion Picture Editors Guild does not allow assistants to receive more than one credit, so they never get credit for the vast amount of visual effects management that they do. (Unless, of course, they give up their assistant credit.)
Another controversy is that although assistants and other editorial staff work on the picture from the first day of shooting to the last day of mixing, they appear almost at the end of the credit roll. They may be on the film for a year or more, yet be placed way behind someone else who worked on the set for a day. The reason for this placement goes back to the early days of film. For much of film's history, credit rolls were not as long as they are now. The tradition established was to list persons in order that they contributed to the film. But about thirty years ago, credit rolls began to grow greatly in length. They may last up to ten minutes now. Assistants appear chronologically in the post-production section, about eight minutes in to such a roll. By contrast, a set PA, who may have worked only for a short time, would appear in the production section, about four minutes in. Picture editors, who have front end credit (at the head of the film or head of the credit roll) are not affected. Recently, the Motion Picture Editors Guild issued a letter to producers, asking that they move their editorial staffs up the credit roll. Owing to strong traditions in studio film policy, and habit, not many features have volunteered to move their editing staffs up.
There are several editing stages and the editor's cut is the first. An editor's cut (sometimes referred to as the "assembly edit" or "rough cut") is normally the first pass of what the final film will be when it reaches picture lock. The film editor usually starts working while principal photography starts. Likely, prior to cutting, the editor and director will have seen and/or discussed "dailies" (raw footage shot each day) as shooting progresses. Screening dailies gives the editor a ballpark idea of the director's intentions. Because it is the first pass, the editor's cut might be longer than the final film. The editor continues to refine the cut while shooting continues, and often the entire editing process goes on for many months and sometimes more than a year, depending on the film.
While collaborating on what is referred to as the "director's cut," the director and the editor go over the entire movie with a fine tooth comb; scenes and shots are re-ordered, removed, shortened and otherwise tweaked. Often it is discovered that there are plot holes, missing shots or even missing segments which might require that new scenes be filmed. Because of this time working closely and collaborating - a period that is normally far longer, and far more intimately involved, than the entire production and filming - most directors and editors form a unique artistic bond.
Technically, continuity is the responsibility of the script supervisor and film director, who are together responsible for preserving continuity and preventing errors from take to take and shot to shot. The script supervisor, who sits next to the director during shooting, keeps the physical continuity of the edit in mind as shots are set up. He is the editor's watchman. If shots are taken out of sequence, as is often the case, he will be alert to make sure that beer glass is in the appropriate state. The editor utilizes the script supervisor's notes during post-production to log and keep track of the vast amounts of footage and takes that a director might shoot.
However, to most editors what is more important than continuity is the editing of emotional and storytelling aspects of any given film - something that is much more abstract and harder to judge. (Which is why films often take much longer to edit than to shoot.) Emotional continuity, and the clarity of storytelling always take precedence over "technicalities". In fact, very often something that is physically discontinuous will be completely unnoticeable if the emotional rhythm of the scene "feels" right. If you were to slow down scenes from many of your favorite movies, you could easily find many minuscule physical differences from one cut to the next, which are completely hidden by the course of the emotional events.
However, if a continuity error is glaring enough (as in the case of the beer glass), and the edit is emotionally necessary, the editor may try to order a visual effect to fix the problem. Such an effect is not "cheating" or unnecessary. As a rule, anything that distracts from the storytelling is worthy of elimination.
A good example of a continuity error is in the film Braveheart with Mel Gibson. In one of the battle scenes you see William Wallace (Mel Gibson) and his army of Scottish rebels charging into battle with the English. At one moment, you see him with no weapon. Then you see him with his claymore in hand. Then again he has no weapon. Then a pick axe. And when he finally closes in on the enemy, you see him draw his claymore from his back. This often goes unnoticed by audiences and it does not cause any real problems. The whole idea of this scene is to show the rebels fiercely charging into battle and this small error, in no way, harms that idea.
There are at least three senses of the term:
Although, strictly speaking, U.S. film director D.W. Griffith was not part of the montage school, he was one of the early proponents of the power of editing — mastering cross-cutting to show parallel action in different locations, and codifying film grammar in other ways as well. Griffith's work in the teens was highly regarded by Kuleshov and other Soviet filmmakers and greatly influenced their understanding of editing.
Sergei Eisenstein was briefly a student of Kuleshov's, but the two parted ways because they had different ideas of montage. Eisenstein regarded montage as a dialectical means of creating meaning. By contrasting unrelated shots he tried to provoke associations in the viewer, which were induced by shocks.
Alternatives to traditional editing were also the folly of early surrealist and dada filmmakers such as Luis Buñuel (director of the 1929 Un chien andalou) and René Clair (director of 1924's Entr'acte which starred famous dada artists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray). Both filmmakers, Clair and Buñuel, experimented with editing techniques long before what is referred to as "MTV style" editing.
The French New Wave filmmakers such as Jean Luc Godard and François Truffaut and their American counterparts such as Andy Warhol and John Cassavetes also pushed the limits of editing technique during the late 1950s and throughout the 1970s. French New Wave films and the non-narrative films of the 1960s used a carefree editing style and did not conform to the traditional editing etiquette of Hollywood films. Like its dada and surrealist predecessors, French New Wave editing often drew attention to itself by its lack of continuity, its demystifying self-reflexive nature (reminding the audience that they were watching a film), and by the overt use of jump cuts or the insertion of material not often related to any narrative.
Edward Dmytryk stipulates seven "rules of cutting" that a good editor should follow:
According to Walter Murch, when it comes to film editing, there are six main criteria for evaluating a cut or deciding where to cut. They are (in order of importance, most important first):
Murch assigned notional percentage values to each of the criteria. Emotion, with 51%, outweighed the combined value of all the other criteria.