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

Separation or combination of fragments?
Reflections on editing

Edvin Kau

Editing is nothing. Bits and pieces are combined, but the combining itself is an invisible way, an aesthetic principle. It is this nothing that lets us see what is being combined in a certain way.[1]

Parts and wholes

Whether you talk about editing, cutting, montage, decoupage - or assembling for that matter - you must have something to edit, cut, etc. To make combinations, it is necessary to have some parts. And you must have some elements of material to make parts out of. To get the right raw material for the actual putting together you may cut or slice your takes into pieces. The process of combining requires fragmentation of material.

Further reflection on some aspects of this practice may need some clarifying definition of the concepts of 'shot' and 'take'. In the finished film, a shot is the term for the smallest, unbroken series of frames, which has been chosen during the editing process - from a continuous take (the amount of material that has been recorded without stopping the camera). That is: one piece of uncut film. In short, the shot is that part of a take which is actually chosen and used in the finished movie. (Furthermore, this means that if a take is cut into several pieces and edited together with other pieces in a way that separates them from each other, we have to consider them as different shots, if we want to analyze the resulting scene). In order to make the film (audio-visual story, poem, documentary...), the raw material in the form of shots are joined together through the editing or montage process in different kinds of ways: direct cut, dissolve, fade, wipe etc.

Using a few examples, I shall discuss some aspects of the concept of editing and especially what meanings or contents different practices and ways of perceiving them may produce. To do this it will be useful to bear in mind that we may approach the editing practice from two perspectives:

  1. With emphasis on: detailing or making parts out of the material.
  2. With emphasis on: assembling or making wholes out of the material.
The first we may also call separation in general. The second we may call combination in general.

In his brilliant book "Elements of Cinema" Stefan Sharff has a chapter on separation (p. 59-83). His first definition is:

Separation: fragmentation of a scene into single images in alternation - A,B,A,B,A,B, etc. (Sharff, p. 6).

This is in line with what I have said above about shots, takes, separation in general, and combination in general. In the same breath it must be said that Sharff has another, more specific and narrow definition, which he also practices, when he analyzes his examples:

Separation: Shooting people in separate shots who are actually close together. A conversation may be filmed with one person looking right in medium shot and the other looking left in close-up (probably after a two-shot establishing their nearness). A unique tool of cinema which can bring people in closer relation than if they were in the same shot (Sharff, p. 180).

He reserves his concept of separation for scenes with two or more persons talking and listening to each other, filmed and visually told about in a uniquely cinematic language that tells about their intimate relationships. Sharff draws upon both sides of this practice: the fragmentation into details and the assembling of wholes and pointing out the dialectical relationship between them. This is a very clear and only apparently simple observation. In fact it is a very strong conceptual and analytical tool, and I think it is fruitful to use it about editing in general.

Intimate suspense

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Sharff demonstrates his ideas about separation through analyses of scenes from Hitchcock's Psycho and Renoir's Grand Illusion. In Psycho it is the scene where Marion, who has stolen $40.000, is on the run, and has been driving all night, has fallen asleep in her car and is woken up by a cop, who detects her from his Highway Patrol car. In accordance with his definition Sharff is focusing on the intimate relation between shots of Marion and shots of the cop, stressing her nervousness, the tension, and the excitement that results from the montage of slightly different (in composition, angle, and distance) frames of the two characters (Fig. 1-2).

Fig. 1-2. Marion and the cop in Psycho.

Separation can accommodate any given thematic situation, but cinematically its specialty lies in the ability to create intimate relationships between parts seen separately on the screen. This ability makes the element of separation specific in its techno-cinematic laws of structure. Those laws interlock with factors of screen reality. A more realistic alternative to two people talking in separation would be to show them both in one frame. Yet it is the strength of the element of separation that, seen one at a time, those people seem in a more intimate "dramatic" contact. Successfully executed, separation can be one of cinema's most effective devices. The audience is drawn to participate in a controlled fashion in unifying the separate parts (Sharff, p. 7; my italics, EK).

The editing practice of separation, then, has nothing to do with reality or realism. The potential lies in the possibility to bring the separate parts together, creating intimate relations in the special screen reality. Also, Sharff has an eye for the involvement of the viewer's activity. And all this can be achieved through the potential of media specific characteristics of cinema, which I call the ability to record and store "lumps" of space and "lumps" of time and use these to make a special kind of cinematic raw material with which it is possible to create what Sharff calls screen reality.

As mentioned above Sharff concentrates on Hitchcock's construction of psychological tension in the "cop scene" as a result of separation: matching and confronting frames of persons in certain patterns (Fig. 1-2). But to take the point a little further in order to generalize the ideas, as I have suggested, we might pay closer attention to a detail, which slips through Sharff's net because of his focus on the separation series of close-ups. I am thinking of the first cut from the separated faces to a medium close-up of Marion and the cop taken from the opposite side of the car (Fig. 3-4). Sharff does not elaborate on this as another combination, but is satisfied to call it "an ingenious resolution of the separation (...). Multiangular fragmentation starts", this last pattern taking over, as the scene ends with Marion being allowed to drive on.

Fig. 3-4.

But if we consider the principle of interplay between separation and combination[2] in a more general perspective, we notice that, combined with the preceding part of the scene, this cut - the very editing of precisely this shot to the separation series and especially to the cop's face renews the suspense, or more accurately tops it with the release of a moment of thrill: in the foreground between the camera and Marion and at least partly hidden from the cop in the background is her handbag, and we know that the stolen money is in it. In fact, part of the envelope with the money is visible. To get the driver's license the cop has asked for she has to dig between the things in the bag; will the cop discover anything? Precisely on the cue of his question about the license Hitchcock jumps out of the close-up series and its compositions to the medium close-up which (besides the above mentioned composition in depth) is given a special function as "pointer" with a the special and delightful "Hitchcockian touch": not something placed in the centre of the frame or highlighted in other ways, but a detail in a corner or, as in this case, at the very bottom of the picture. Through its position and Marion's eye line the envelope becomes the centre of interest. The risk of as simple an action as finding her license is given visual power through the editing's combination of shots.

Intimate understanding

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The other example is a prototypical demonstration of Sharff's idea. In Grand Illusion a French and a German officer, both aristocrats, have a conversation in a German castle which serves as prisoner of war camp during World War I. That is, the French captain Boëldieu is colonel Rauffenstein's prisoner. But since they are of the same class, they understand each other, and Sharff shows how their "friendly chat" (Sharff, p. 65) with their views on fate, honour, etc. - and intimate understanding in spite of their roles as enemies - is given an aesthetic solution and communicated through what we might call a symmetrical use of separation as editing principle (Fig. 5-8).

Fig. 5-8.

Following Sharff's definition the scene starts with a two-shot followed by separation and closes by returning to a two-shot frame. It is a beautiful case of separation, demonstrating that this editing practice can almost eliminate the sense of distance between characters that a two shot may show. The fact that the characters are not shown beside each other in the same frame (and consequently in a visible distance from each other), but in frames that are edited on top of each other so to speak, brings them visually together and demonstrates the psychological intimacy as a gesture, a cinematographic articulation of space and time.

Combinations of conflicts and correspondences

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It is essential to Sharff to show how purely cinematic means can lead to psychological ends. How editing and the relations between separation and combination can tell stories about characters' psychological states and their relationships. This means that the narrative and its story are dependent on and told directly by the cinematic style.

This is not only true of conversation scenes which are as relatively simply designed as Sharff's examples. Let me mention a few other examples that may take the inspiration from this way of looking at editing a bit further and make it useful in the analysis of more complex variations of editing/separation/combination. In his film Michael (1924) Carl Th. Dreyer has a scene with a famous painter, Zoret, and his protégé, Michael. They have been lovers for some time, but now Zoret has understood that their relationship is threatened by Countess Zamikof; Michael is falling in love with her. Zoret has told that he is going to make a painting with the title "Caesar and Brutus", and from his and Michael's exchange of glances it is clear who Brutus is going to look like.

Fig. 9-13.

After a visit by Zamikof Zoret gives Michael another painting, "The Victory", as a present. This is told in this way by Dreyer (fig 9-13): a long shot from behind (Fig. 9) shows Zoret, who is looking at the painting; Michael enters from the right to say goodbye. Via the painting (Fig. 10) he cuts to a medium close-up of the two men en face/in profile; Zoret puts his hand around Michael's neck (Fig. 11), saying, "'The Victory' is my best painting - I give it to you!" Following this text, Fig. 12 shows a close-up of Michael left and Zoret en face right; Michael looks down, Zoret to the right, saying, "Everything will belong to you, eventually." In the medium close-up in Fig. 13 (corresponding to Fig. 11) Zoret moves his hand from Michael's neck and puts it on his left hand; Michael puts his right on Zoret's and expresses his gratefulness. In a long shot (like Fig. 9) Zoret disrupts/breaks the situation, and goes to the right in the direction of the door out. Another long shot from the opposite end of the room shows them from the back; they say goodbye, and Michael leaves.

The scene is an early example of Dreyer developing a cinematic language using editing patterns, rhythm, and picture composition to move around and close in on his characters. In many scenes we find a development with beginning/distance - middle/intimacy - and end/distance. But at no time you will find a repetition of the same type of shot. For example, a close-up will never be followed by another close-up. With each cut a new step in the development of the scene is taken. Every shot takes us further, but no shot is placed only to get on. The string of frames is one small, complete visual story. In this way a director, in this case Dreyer, is narrating the story tightly, functionally, without unnecessary repetitions, but with great visual variation.[3]

Apart from different ways of connecting shots, like direct cut, dissolve, wipe, and others, Sharff has a special concept for certain ways of binding shots together that he calls penetrations: actions or things which 'penetrates' from one shot to the other. One example would be a person in one shot giving a person in the next something. In this way a cup and the action of giving/receiving may link two shots together. This may also be taken a step further, I think, and it is possible to find such a mechanism in many, more subtle versions. One example we find in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. In her cell Joan is asking to be given the sacrament, and bishop Cauchon is apparently willing to grant her the opportunity; "The church is merciful (... etc.)." But when Joan reaches out and tries to take his hand, he is almost scared and draws his hand away (Fig. 14-15). This is told just by showing Joan's face, her eyes looking in his direction and followed by the next shot, where her hand only just comes into sight in the bottom right corner of the frame, and in which we se Cauchon's reaction.

Fig. 14-15.

Examples of another kind - but still showing editing's potential of bringing separate things together across cuts - can be found in abundance in Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973). The main character, John Baxter, is clairvoyant. From a present situation he can in fact "see" what is happening in other places or even in the future. He is not ready to realize that he has this gift. But the film can demonstrate what is going on when John senses things beyond the ordinary space and time limits of a situation. Already during the first minutes of the film Roeg is telling us about this, using almost nothing else but precisely his way of editing. I shall mention just one example: when his daughter, who is playing outside the house, throws her ball (into the pond in which she is going to drown a few moments later), the action and movements are mirrored exactly in the following shot showing John tossing a packet of cigarettes to his wife (Fig. 16-17).

Fig. 16-17.

The supernatural connections that John has a gift for but won't admit to - the film can quite literally show. In this case Roeg's editing is an incarnation of what is told about this way of "viewing" things. A very subtle way of using editing as part of the cinematic language to combine separate elements.

Editing as style. Style as story telling

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My last example is taken from the Danish television series Matador (Erik Balling, 1978; episode 5, set in 1932). During this sequence we see scenes from three different homes. It is early morning, people are waking up, and some of them are doing their morning gymnastics following a radio programme, in which one of the first Danish radio stars, Captain Jespersen (in a very sergeant-like commanding voice), tried to drill the Danish population into getting sound bodies for hopefully sound minds.

I shall describe the shots, frames and editing in some detail and go a little beyond Sharff's use of the concept of separation (reserved for dialogues and a limited range of visual variation). I do this to reach a wider perspective in my discussion of the relation between separation and combination - that is, of editing - and its consequences for the construction of meaning and screen reality in audiovisual media.

Fig. 18-22. 18-19 are two frames from one shot. The camera moves from close-up to medium long shot, while Maud half awake finds out that Hans Christian has gone to the living room to do his gymnastics.

I. The Varnæs house. (Varnæs is the managing director of the local bank).

Shot 1. Medium close-up of Maud (Mrs. Varnæs). Without opening her eyes she reaches out trying to find her husband, Hans Christian's face, but all she can feel (opening her eyes) is the empty pillow. During this the camera pulls backwards, and the shot ends in medium long shot, while Maud draws her eiderdown over her head, staying in bed to sleep. She is clearly disappointed, and although she can hear nothing, she knows. He's at it again. CUT TO

Shot 2. Close-up of a modern, up to date radio. (Fig. 20). Capt. Jespersen: "Sit down on the floor! (etc. ... giving instructions without stop). CUT TO

Shot 3. Medium long shot of Hans Christian starting the exercise (Fig. 21), following the voice from the radio. The camera near the floor, below table level and shooting him in a direction partly under the grand piano (fig 22). CUT TO

II. Dr. Hansen having breakfast in bed.

Shot 4. Close-up of an older and more primitive radio, a crystal set with ear phones. In the middle of Capt Jespersen's explanations a cut brings us to Dr. Hansen's bedroom. Camera pans right showing part of his body and the tray. The camera's tilt up combined with a short pull backwards reveals the identity of the man sitting in bed eating, but otherwise doing nothing in spite of the captain's orders. When he starts showing his annoyance with the health fanatic, we have a CUT TO

Fig. 23-25.

III. Skjern's getting up.

Shot 5. Close-up of a third radio (better than Dr. Hansen's, but not quite as modern as Varnæs'; Fig. 26) in yet another house; we are now with the Skjern family.[4] The captain's "fitness programme" is carried on through all three parts of the sequence. We hear it continually while the sound quality, the standard of the technical equipment, and the rooms are demonstrating their own story about social positions in the small town. CUT TO

Fig. 26-28.

Shot 6. Medium long shot of Mads Skjern's wife, Ingeborg (Fig. 26). She wakes up and gets out of bed stretching out to look for her husband, who is exercising in the living room next door. To follow her eye line the camera pulls a little away from her and pans to the left. In a long shot through the door we see Mads work out, still in his pajamas (Fig. 28). CUT TO

Shot 7. Long shot of another door opening. From inside the same room as Mads we see the maid looking in wonder at Mads (Fig. 29). Going towards the kitchen she disappears to the left, but a pan left shows her take another glance through another door (Fig. 30). When she turns away to go on with her work Mads appears from the bottom of the frame (Fig. 31). He is still bending and stretching his knees, moving up and down. The camera follows him, tilting down and up one time; while he is on his way to a standing position again Ingeborg arrives from the left and in the extreme foreground of the frame (Fig. 32). Going down again he ends sitting on his knees with an astounded expression on his face (Fig. 33). CUT TO

Fig. 29-33.

Shot 8 . Long shot (like the end of shot 6) showing Mads and Ingeborg through the door (Fig. 34). She is sitting down right in front of him. CUT TO

Fig. 34-36.

Shot 9. Close-up of Ingeborg, "You are going to be a father." (Fig. 35). CUT TO

Shot 10. Long shot (like 8). Mads lowers his arms, "Is this a way to tell it?" Ingeborg gets up with a small laughter, while getting up: "I've always wanted to beat Capt. Jespersen." (Fig. 36). CUT TO

Shot 11. Close-up, slightly from above, of Mads looking up at Ingeborg (Fig. 37) who continues, "He ought to see you now." Camera tilts upwards with Mads, holding the close-up; "Thank you, Ingeborg." (Fig. 38). CUT TO

Shot 12. Close-up of Ingeborg: "Thank you!" (Fig. 39).

Fig. 37-39.

For some shots (12-16) the editing and camera work is pure separation in the Sharff sense, cutting back and forth between close-ups of the two characters. Mads is asking, if she is sure, and Ingeborg assures him that Dr. Hansen has confirmed that she is pregnant. Mads talks about taking special care of her from now on. But in

Shot 16. Close-up of Ingeborg, she replies: "No, that certainly would be a terrible idea!" She starts moving to the right and forward towards the camera. (Fig. 40). CUT TO

Shot 17. Medium close-up in a reverse shot compared to shot 15; with Mads standing to the right Ingeborg is seen from the back moving into the background. The camera follows her in a pan left, in the doorway she tells their son and daughter to hurry up. Pan right as she disappears on her way to the kitchen. Mads now in medium close-up. From the other doorway Ingeborg tells Mads, "And you too. Unless you are going to arrive in that outfit." (Fig. 41-43).

Fig. 40-43.

The important thing to notice in this sequence, in relation to editing of course, is the way some parts are separated (singled out/selected) and combined while others are shown as uncut shots. In other words, what patterns of separation and combination are constructed, and what do they offer the viewer as material for consideration or interpretation? And how are sounds and shots distributed in relation to each other? I shall characterize some of the results I find through the break down of the sequence.

The first three shots (Fig. 18-22) not only show Maud in bed and Christian exercising. The important thing is that her situation and reaction are described in a separate shot, and through the subtle camera movement. She is isolated (and frustrated) in the bedroom; and not only visually: it is only with the cut to the radio (Fig. 20) that Capt. Jespersen's voice is heard. So, both visual and sound editing is about a certain degree of isolation within this marriage.

The scene with Dr. Hansen (a single shot; Fig. 23-25) gives the audience a hint of his life as a bachelor, and he is shown as a contrast to the other two men; one trying to stay in shape on the (lonely) top of the social ladder (Hans Christian; Fig. 21-22), and the other getting in shape to be able to climb and struggle together with his family (Mads; Fig. 28). At the doctor's there is no need to cut in order to show any conflicts at the moment.

At Skjern's all doors are open. Ingeborg can hear the radio through the door from the living room. Still, Mads' activity at this point is separated from the bedroom; this is also shown through the cutting (Fig. 26-27) from radio to Ingeborg, combined with the pan (Fig. 27-28) from her to Mads seen through the door. An even higher degree of connection might have been shown, if a pan from radio to Ingeborg and perhaps even continuing to Mads had been used. But this is not the case. Still, the solution that has been chosen shows another degree of separation than that of the Varnæs marriage. Maud can't even hear the radio, she just knows the reason, why Hans Christian has left the bedroom.

In contrast to this, the radio can be heard all over the Skjern apartment. The maid, too, can hear what is going on, she can even have a look at her boss' morning exercise (Fig. 29-30). (This is something that will change as Mads takes his family to higher steps on the social ladder. The separations, also shown in the setting of their homes, come to resemble the Varnæs way of life more and more).

In this way the audiovisual definition of chosen parts and their connections - or as we have called them: the separation and combinations - characterizes these people socially and psychologically. This, too, is what can be done by editing. Are things and characters shown or brought together through direct cuts , or in pans or other uncut camerawork? The last part of the scene with Mads and Ingeborg shows them in a separation series of shots (like Fig. 38-39) in the strict sense, as defined by Sharff; and in accordance with what I have written about the scene as a description of an "open" home, it is true that their dialogue becomes a peak of intimacy. At this moment "pure" separation is embedded within the larger pattern of separation and combination that I have been trying to develop from Sharff's concept.[5] Principles of editing and details of camera work give each of the three scenes their special internal qualities, and across the sequence as a whole these features are brought together in an interplay of variations which gives the audience further story potentials to play with.

Editing another, artificial world

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Not only during the production process (shooting), but also in putting bits and pieces together in the editing process (that even if they have been filmed as a kind of print from reality, are not reality any more) - films are, in Murch's words, "no longer 'earthbound' in time and space".[6] Murch goes on to say that if "we could make films only by assembling all the elements simultaneously, as in the theater, the range of possible subjects would be comparatively narrow." Instead, he points out : "Discontinuity is King". This is a central fact during film production, the actual shooting, and in the light of the reflections on editing above I would like to stress this fact of discontinuity: Neither in production, nor in result is film material to be confused with, understood as, or interpreted in the same way as the real world we experience in our everyday life. The world of audiovisual media are constructions of meaning. The discontinuity[7] opens up a range of possible combinations in the finished productions, and consequently for the experience of the edited material.

In a number of examples we have seen that editing with its separation, selection, and combination builds even "smaller" dynamics of space and time, and does this in a variety of ways. This, together with Murch's way of foregrounding discontinuity, can serve as a reminder that when working with film theory and analysis it is important at all times to keep in mind that 1) the very material - 2) the production of it[8] - and 3) the result - are drawn or cut away, so to speak, from the continuous time and space of reality.

This is a clarification of the definition of film as art(ificial) product, where the rules or modes of time and space experience in the real world has been suspended. In their place we get: rules of the medium itself. Maybe rhetorics of audiovisual media. Or we might say: possibilities of exploring or finding rules and rhetorics 1) through the practice of cinematic production, and 2) through analytical/theoretical reflection of potentials in the production of audiovisual meaning.[9]

The important thing is not to confuse the way we experience and navigate in the real world with how we understand and interpret film. Fundamentally, editing is one of the things that separates film from any link to the experience of everyday life. You can't cut the world - but it is perfectly possible to cut and edit a film.


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Bordwell, David. Contemporary Film Studies and the Vicissitudes of Grand Theory, in: Post-Theory. Reconstructing Film Studies. University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

Bordwell, Davis & Thompson, Kristin. Film Art (4th edition). New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993.

Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Form. Essays in Film Theory. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949.

Juel, Henrik. Klip. Roskilde UniversitetsCenter, 1991.

Kau, Edvin. Dreyers filmkunst. Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag, 1989.

Mast, Gerald. Film/Cinema/Movie. A Theory of Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

Murch, Walter. In the Blink of an Eye. A Perspective on Film Editing Beverly Hills: Silman-James Press, 1995.

Sharff, Stefan. The Elements of Cinema. Toward a Theory of Cinesthetic Impact. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

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[1] Condensed phrasing of points in conclusions on film style and aesthetics in Kau 1989, "Dreyers filmkunst", p. 383-84.

[2] Another way of discussing selection and combination involves going one step further from the concept of selection; to have something to edit, to combine, first you have to make fragments of raw material, to separate your parts.

[3] See my analysis of Michael in Kau, 1989, p. 87-106.

[4] Mads Skjern has taken just a few steps up the social ladder on his way to become the local "matador", building and expanding his hosiery shop and eventually becoming a manufacturer himself.

[5] This larger scale of combination Sharff would probably call 'orchestration'.

[6] Murch 1995, p. 7.

[7] Discontinuity in this case meaning: not following the unbroken and homogeneous nature of time and space of the real world. And just as it is possible during shooting to make takes in any order of time and space, it is possible to edit them in any order.

[8] For instance the selection of elements of reality to be recorded/filmed in order to become raw material; or drawings (for animations), or computer generated material, etc.

[9] A comment as an attempt to position my own work in relation to what recently has been labeled Grand Theory and met with criticism by people (most prominently David Bordwell and Noël Carroll) representing so-called Post Theory: Grand Theory has been dominated by attempts to develop all encompassing film theories inspired by and subsuming it under frameworks taken from fields like semiotics, psychoanalysis, Marxism, postmodernism, cultural studies, schools of philosophy. After having done research in such areas as philosophical problems of film theory, narration and classical American film style, Bordwell and Carroll in their articles in "Post Theory" suggest that researchers at least for a period leave the grandeur of shaping the medium after ideas about how the human race and the world are to be understood, sociologically, psychologically, culturally, philosophically, politically - as a whole. Instead, they prefer "piecemeal theory" or "middle-level research", taking up more focused problems. This sounds very reasonable to me. What may be a little surprising, is that their "programme" looks like a return to detailed analysis and theorizing that has been going on "behind" the barricades of the grand theorists (and, in fact, instead of a programme we may call it an attempt to stimulate people to do a lot of very diversified research precisely without being restrained by preconceived ideas). In this way I think I can say that although I have been inspired by at least some of the "big guys" (like Metz, the semiologist, or Hjelmslev, or Freud, himself, and others...) almost all of my production exermplifies of what Bordwell calls "in depth inquiry" (Post Theory, p. 29). This is because, in my opinion, it doesn't make much sense to fantasize about grand perspectives, if you don't do your homework and try to understand the aesthetics and the rhetoric of the cinematic language. So, in many places around the world this kind of work has already been going on for many years.

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