P:O.V. No.6 - The Art of Film Editing

Film editing - a hidden art?

Vinca Wiedemann

When we watch a film, most of us have great difficulty in consciously perceiving the editing. Of course we know that every time there is a shift from one image to another, it is an edit, and we know that editing in general has to do with the establishing of rhythm in film. But we are often not sure of the concrete function of editing, and likewise of the contribution the editing process makes to the final film.

Therefore it is difficult for us to define what we mean when we discuss film editing in a specific film; when we try to categorise the different functions of film editing, we tend to mix up the issues.

For a film editor it is a cause for frequent amusement and/or irritation, that film reviewers are never able to point out the editor's contribution. If a film is described as very effectively cut but otherwise long and boring, the editor knows that the film may have contained conspicuous transitions of scenes that were invented during the shooting or in the scriptwriting, but that the editing was ineffective or even sloppy.

On the other hand many editors tend to ignore the fact that the concrete process of editing is not identical with film editing in general, and that film editors are not the only ones to contribute to the editing of the film.


The phenomenon of editing deals with all aspects of filmic rhythm - from the transition of one image to another or the detailed musical rhythm in a small sequence of edits, to the most general balancing of pace and rhythm in the overall narrative structure.

Major aspects of the editing of a film are created outside the editing room. The editor may be primary contributor in some areas of the editing, but the scriptwriter, the photographer and of course the director are also involved in determining the editing of a film.

Editing is a means of expression, with its own language. This language is created in the editing room as well as in the script writing process and on the set. And the editing usually works best if it is completely integrated with the other means of expression used in the given film.

The creative decisions that are made in each phase of the process of filmmaking have an influence on the editing process. When the script is being written, the scriptwriter creates the psychology of the characters and their mutual relations and actions as integrated parts of the dramatic structure of the film: the overall structure, the chronological order of events and the development of the plot. The scriptwriter works to incorporate the physical surroundings as a means of expression for the characters and the plot. Take, for example, a typical cliché such as the ticking of a clock: instead of simply letting the editor insert a "tick-tock" on the sound track, the scriptwriter can integrate the clock as part of the action by letting one of the characters look at the clock to see what time it is, and the clock may even become a dramatic tool in the development of the plot (a programmatic demonstration of this is seen in Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers.)

On the set, many of the cinematographic effects that were invented in the script are carried out, and new ones are inspired by the physical environment and its visual and auditive potential.

The director decides where to use the master shot technique (master shots and close-ups for each character, the foundation for cross-cutting) and where to use the sequence shot technique (where the action of a scene is covered by a single shot until a new shot takes over the action that follows). Also the staging of scenes is often combined with the making of a storyboard in order to foresee how the individual images will fit together.

When the shooting starts, the manuscript is embodied by actors, locations, design, etc. This process has an influence on the story that is impossible to predict, and which often contradict the original intentions of the script.

It may be an actress that doesn't quite possess the seductive charm that the scriptwriter had imagined. It may be a beautiful sunset that turns into a miserable grey rain. Or it may be a dialogue that looked good on paper, but sounds artificial and literary when played by the actors.

It is one of the director's central tasks on the set to deal with this chaotic reality and to strive to recreate the script's original intentions in this: a "second writing" of the film. How well the director has succeeded on the set, becomes obvious in the editing room.

Not until the editor begins to assemble the different images of the film, is it clear whether - and to what degree - the intentions of the script have survived the shooting.

Typical problems that emerge in the editing room are, for example: 1) lack of different kinds of continuity; 2) cases where the emotional intention of a scene is not realized: you don't laugh at what was intended to be funny, or you laugh at a scene where you were supposed to cry; 3) the audience lacks information necessary to understand the relations between the characters or the action; or 4) the narrative creates expectations that are not fulfilled by the story as it evolves.

Such problems might not arise from the quality of the individual scenes, but from the fact that there are too many of them or that, when assembled, they do not produce the necessary dramatic flow.

It is the task of the editor to structure the build up every single moment of a scene and put those moments together into a whole with all the possibilities involved in the scriptwriting and the shooting - this can be a lot (if the story structure gives many possibilities to reverse the order of the scenes, or if the scenes contains cross cutting), and this may be little (if the scenes are built up by sequence shots or if the narrative development can be seen in the development of props).

In any case, the editing creates the flow and energy in the scenes and builds the scenes into sequences. This (re)creation of the general narrative structure is the "third writing" of the film.

Only rarely is it possible for the audience to determine whether an edit was conceived in the script, on the set or in the editing room. It is a common belief, that most montage and dialogue editing is conceived in the editing room, whereas most continuous action editing and transition between scenes are created in the script, not to mention the fundamentals of the overall story. Of course that is more often true than not. Yet there are many examples of the opposite.

As a result of the "final cut" problem, Alfred Hitchcock was reknowned for his ability to shoot exactly the footage he needed for dialogue editing. He wanted to be sure that the producer couldn't cut the film in a different manner than Hitchcock intended. In Denmark, Erik Balling was known for the same method of shooting all his footage for Olsen Banden, and in Sweden it took Ingmar Bergman's editor less than 5 weeks to edit Fanny and Alexander, because so many editing decisions were taken in advance.

George Roy Hill's Slaughterhouse 5 contains a complex story structure with a lot of transitions in time and space, and for these transitions the film uses an associative form of editing which is carefully constructed in the script and on the set. Yet the film editor Dede Allen explains, that many of the transitions didn't work - primarily for narrative reasons. Therefore she had to invent new transitions in the editing room, searching in the material for visual and associative connections that could be used to create the new transitions. In the finished film it is almost impossible to distinguish the preconceived transitions from the ones that were created in the editing room.

The overall narrative structure of a feature film is of course primarily conceived in the script. But during the editing it often happens that you cut out some of the characters or some of the subplots. And an often used "emergency tool" in the editing room is to insert a narrator or character voice-over. In some of Woody Allen's scripts, the ending of the film is briefly described with the words: "To be shot". He wants to edit the film before he decides how the film should end.

In documentaries you very often have a totally different working method, where you create your narrative structure in the editing room. A radical example of this is Claude Lanzmann's Shoah.


Another reason it is difficult to point out the editing's contribution to a specific film is that the audience simply doesn't notice it. It may notice spectacular transitions from one scene to another, or of course the edits that were meant to be noted - such as Jean-Luc Godard's jump cuts in Breathless - but in many cases the editing works as do overtones in sound: you react to them, but you can't really perceive them.

Walter Murch, the editor of Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, pursues an editing style that is imperceptible to the audience.

During The Conversation he noticed that when he had a close-up of Gene Hackman and was going to decide how long he should hold it; how long it could sustain his interest, he would try to imagine what the character was thinking, and when he wasn't thinking the same thought anymore, he would cut. Murch found out that very often Gene Hackman blinked where Murch decided to cut.

Murch began to use the blink as a tool to determine how long to keep a shot on screen: when he edited a dialogue sequence between two characters, he would imagine that he was a third person watching that scene, and he would try to duplicate in the editing what that third person would do. As long he was thinking one particular thought he would usually not blink. But when the thought came to an end, he would blink and shift to another.

He realised that the purpose of the blink was to isolate images or thoughts on either side of the blink, and that the blink in that sense was a kind of mental punctuation mark.

So he came to see the cut as the equivalent, in filmatic terms, of the blink in human behavior.

Consequently the film can be seen as a series of thoughts, and the editor is helping the audience by determining how long each of these thoughts are; how long the audience is going to think about any given thing.

And ideally the audience would never notice the editing of such a scene, because they would blink simultaneously with the cuts.


Storytelling in film constantly deals with breaking and creating continuity, as all films are based on fragments of reality (constructed or real).

It is obvious that if you want to explain World War II in 90 minutes, you have to be very precise in what direction the camera is pointed, and when it is turned on. The challenge to the storyteller begins in the creation of sufficient continuity throughout the film for the spectator to feel that he is watching a continuous story and not disconnected fragments, and as to Walter Murch, the best tool in overcoming the problems of discontinuity is to imitate human perception and to let the imagination of the spectator become a co-narrator.

The brain will always strive to combine two separate informations, and the wider the gap between the two informations constructed by the filmmaker, the longer connection the brain will be forced to construct. (Of course the gap can be too wide and the connection fail. The audience will then perceive the fragments and they will likely lose their sense and credibility.)

If a cut is made in the time-continuity the audience will always try to imagine what happened in the meantime. There are numeruous historic film anecdotes about scenes that people recall with pleasure, but which only took place in the minds of those self-same people and not actually in the film.

The fact that the audience will always make up a good story in such situations, Murch bases upon an experiment where a person was looking through a kind of stereoscope that separates the view of the two eyes. A portrait was put in front of each eye, but it was the portrait of two different women. The person looking through the stereoscope would perceive one image of a woman. But what image? In the brain the two portraits would fuse into a third. A face that did not exist in reality, but only in the mind of the person - a pure figment of the brain.

If the person afterwards was told to estimate/appraise/value the looks of the three women (the two real and the figment), the person would always pick out the figment as the most beautiful!

Murch concludes that the human brain has a sort of aesthetic selection and an imagination that reality will never be able to match. And consequently the best narrative is the one that is created in the spectator's own mind. The film ideally works as a starter for the human fantasy, and the narrative gains thereby a first-rate partner and can benefit from this infinite co-poetic potential. The task of the filmmaker is to create gaps as wide as possible in every aspect of his storytelling and thus making the audience the other half of the narrator.


When filmmakers hear how theorists describe "the process of film creation," they are often amused: it always sounds as if every step of the process is carefully planned and constructed. The filmmakers know how accidental or circumstancial filmmaking really is, to say nothing of how unaware most filmmakers are of their reasons for doing what they do, when they work. I think most film editors will recognize Dede Allen's description of the editing process:

When I start cutting a movie, I always cut with ambivalence. I have a definite intention, a definite starting point: the dramatic function of the scene;. the psychology of the characters, etc. But when I become absorbed in the material, I suddenly see all the possibilities the material contains. The unexpected. Intended and unintended possibilities. I can't help wandering into the material. I milk the material for all the small possibilities I see in it. A look, a smile - after the director has said "cut!", an unintentional juxtaposition of two images. Afterwards I form a general view again. But it is in the ambivalence, in the collision between the general strategy and the pleasant distractions along the way that constitutes editing as art; the true life of the film.


Walter Murch visited The Danish Film School in 1985, and in 1987 Tómas Gislason interviewed him for The Editing Symposium at The Danish Film School.

Dede Allen visited The Danish Film School in 1997.