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

The notion of editing

Søren Kolstrup

1 The notion of "editing".

Most books on film theory describe the phenomenon of "editing", but the word "editing" itself is not always a well-defined, precise notion or concept. Normally the reader is given a common-sense description of the word, followed by a shot-by-shot analysis of at least one specific scene from one specific film, without any real clarification of the notion itself. In fact the notion of editing raises a long series of questions, even though we all know more or less what it means.

How is the notion "editing" to be distinguished from other notions like "montage", "cutting" or "découpage"? How is the whole of this semantic area structured? Does the film theorist's knowledge of Russian and French theory have any bearing on the demarcations between the notions? Has the theoretical perspective of the author any influence? (Is (s)he semiotically oriented or is (s)he a cognitivist?)

To what extent should we proceed with an etymological description? What is the "original" sense of "edit"? If we look up "edit" in commonly used dictionaries (Oxford, Chamber's), we are given a whole range of possible definitions of the word, therefore not only its basic meaning, but also its specific sense in film theory.

There is no trace of this procedure in the books I have chosen for examination.

Is "editing" (and/or "montage") linked to the production phase (the world of the film maker), is it linked to the structure of the film as a matrix for the meaning, or is it linked to the reception, to the interpretation of the viewer? On the other hand, does the author try to draw a distinction within the same phase, i.e. the structure of the film? Or, alternatively, is the theorist content with a loose definition of "editing" followed by the shot-to-shot analyses mentioned?

It is not surprising that many students feel rather bewildered when introduced to the terms "montage", "editing", "cutting", "mise-en-scène", etc.

I have chosen a few quite well-known books within film theory, in order to look at how "editing" is used in relation to associated notions:

David Bordwell: Narration in the Fiction Film (5th ed. 1997)

David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson: Film Art (reprint 1995)

Edward Branigan: Narrative Comprehension and Film (1992)

Noël Carroll: Theorizing the Moving Image (1996)

Bruce F. Kawin: How Movies Work (1992)

Ira Konigsberg: The Complete Film Dictionary (1985)

The Complete Film Dictionary, 1987

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The article on "editing" gives us a clear and easy description of the notion (pp. 98-100). It is a practical description, which focuses on the production aspect, and even more specifically on the film maker aspect, to such a degree that the description becomes a story about the editor's work (p. 99).

The entire process of putting a film together into its final form which includes the selection and shaping of shots; the arrangement of shots, scenes, and sequences: the mixing of all sound tracks; and the integration of all sound tracks with the images. The term "cutting" is sometimes used synonymously for editing, but is too limited since it conveys only a mechanical sense of snipping the film into pieces and reassembling them, without any suggestion of the technical, dramatic, and artistic skills to make the film move effectively and form a total, coherent entity. Nor does the term give indication of the mixing and integrating of sound for which the editor is finally responsible. The independence and individual contribution of the editor will vary according to how much control the director demands over the final product. In the Hollywood studio system, the editor had more control, though sometimes the final editing was determined by the producer or another member of the studio.

The article contains a series of descriptions of types of editing. There is no systematic definition or discussion. What we find is a historical description of the different types of editing, without any etymological explanation.

However, if we look at the article on "montage", things have changed. We find the etymology of the word and five different (historical) definitions. These definitions are far more clear-cut than those of "editing":

The term is taken from French monter "to assemble" and has the following meanings in film:

(1) In Europe, the process of editing a film, of assembling all the shots, scenes and sequences into the final motion picture.

The term [...] has connotations that suggest something more than the mechanical process of editing, that make the process itself appear to be a creative act of assembling the pieces of film, of constructing the work of art from its building blocks with consideration of the film's immediate and total effect.

(2) The process of editing as it was developed specifically by the Russian filmmakers Pudovkin and Eisenstein though even here we have two distinct styles of montage"

(3) Any editing style that seems distinct from the invisible style of cutting developed in the Hollywood studios by being more consciously constructed to achieve particular effects and to control the responses of the audiences"

(4) The process of placing film images in a sequence so those new dimensions of space and time are created (ref Pudovkin)

(5) A technique of editing developed in this country, especially during the 1930's and the 1940's, that condenses time and space (pp. 216 - 17).

These definitions may not be very precise, but they are nevertheless more precise than the definitions of "editing".

It is obvious that "editing" is a general term. It does not need to be explicated, defined or given any historical description. It is distinguished from "cutting", not as a result of any systematic effort to define things clearly, but only because "cutting" is a notion used in the context of production, where there is no agreement as to the use of the term.

A dictionary such as CFD should be broad, it should present all uses of the term, and it may not omit any usage, however questionable, if it is common among film makers.

What about the theorists? They should define the notions. They cannot do what the film makers do, which is just to describe their production procedures!

Kawin, 1992

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The book contains a "Glossary of Key Words" (pp. 539-557) and definitions of the subject matter in each chapter. The glossary focuses on the production aspect of "editing":

The art of selecting, trimming, coordinating, integrating and cutting into projection sequence the shots and/or recordings that will become the film; organizing and assembling a workprint (p. 544).

(1) French for "mounting" or "raising"; the intensive or significant, and often abrupt juxtaposition of shots;

(2) The dynamic editing of picture and sound; see "decoupage";

(3) a series of brief shots or overlapping images;

(4) loosely, film editing in general.

Like the CFD, this book has no etymological description of "editing". The notion is considered to be so commonly known that it has no need of explanation, quite the opposite to "montage", which is felt to be a loan word in need of description or definition.

The main text contains several descriptions of the term, especially the chapter "Within Frames and Between Them":

Shots and cuts make up virtually the entire visual world of film, much as words and their ordering make up the sentence, or a sequence of sentences makes up a book. The general term for what has been arranged within the shot is mise-en-scène. The general term for how shots are joined together is montage (These are two of the most important and problematic terms in film study...) ...the viewer interprets the montage to establish what these separate views may have to do with one another (p. 51).

Thus Kawin seems to reserve "editing" for the production process: "To cut or to edit a film is to join its shots together physically into the order in which they are intended to be projected" (p.49).

This definition is similar to the definition given in the glossary, but it limits the sense of "editing". Kawin draws the delimiting line between "edit" and "cut":

Editing is the art of making decisions about shot length, selection and sequence. Cutting is the act of splicing lengths of film together. To decide how much of a shot to include in a film, and to suggest and manipulate its interpretive matrix by cutting it between two shots, is the job of the film editor (p. 436).

The definition of "montage" is much more detailed. "Montage" is seen as an element of the production process and it is seen as the basis for the spectator's interpretation or reading. "Editing" is thus a general term for a rather simple procedure of putting together; "montage" seems to be a more complex notion and to involve semiosis, the creation of meaning:

As soon as a film is made of more than one shot, editing comes into play. When one shot does not simply follow another, and their juxtaposition has dynamic significance, one speaks not about editing but about montage. The French term for simple continuity editing is découpage: it denotes "ordinary" sequential cutting, where one shot follows another in a linear, easy-to-follow manner. Montage - from the French verb monter, "to ascend, mount or assemble" - denotes the way one shot is mounted next to another, but it has the connotation of an ascending or heightened effect. Montage then is the art of assembling individual shots into a dynamic system (p. 98).

Kawin, like CFD, is bound to emphasize the different meanings of the terms. Kawin might have tried to let "montage" indicate what concerns the structure and the interpretation, and to let "editing" indicate what concerns the production. Instead he more or less tries to let both terms indicate the same phases, giving a more specialized sense to "montage". Unfortunately his definitions give rise to more problems than solutions.

Branigan, 1992

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Branigan, who according to the title focuses on the comprehension (of the narrative), does not give us a description or definition of "editing". The notion remains broad and vague and cannot be used in the context of inference (as opposed to Carroll).

"Editing" is listed together with other notions:

I also believe that many basic concepts (e.g. realism, time, editing, the camera, space, causality, voice, text) should be broken into components and redefined according to their top-down and bottom-up aspects as well as their declarative and procedural aspects. The result will be a new complexity for some familiar concepts, but a better fit with the powers of narrative (p. 118).

Branigan makes no reference to montage, not because French theory is unknown to him (since he has references to Godreault's use of "monstration" and "narration"), but because his aim is only the interpretation of the narration by the spectator, rather than the total production of meaning from shot to shot. This is probably why there is no description or definition of "editing".

There is thus no need for a definition which draws a boundary between "montage" and "editing". What Branigan proposes is a definition that breaks down the meaning of the word into smaller elements.

Carroll, 1996

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Carroll focuses both on production and comprehension in his descriptions of the editing process. There is, however, no attempt to define the notion. It is described and taken for granted as a vague notion to be examined and exemplified instead of being defined:

The material basis of film editing is the cut, the physical joining of two shots. We can easily account for this process with a little chemistry. Of course there is also in-camera editing. To discuss this we have to add some mechanics to our story. But editing involves more than chemistry and mechanics. It is a means of communication within the social institution of world cinema. It provides a means of articulation whose practice enables filmmakers to convey stories, metaphors and even theories to spectators.

Because editing is a form of communication, there has been a perennial tendency in the history of film theory to associate editing with that paradigm of communication, language... To understand editing we must understand it as a form of communication without attempting to reduce it to a model of writing and reading (page 403).

Carroll presents here two aspects or problems: editing as a means of communication, and the false understanding of editing as a language. Editing is a means of articulation in film communication (p. 403). In spite of the title "Theorizing the Moving Image", there is no discussion about editing on television. Carroll is very anxious to stress that even though editing is a means of communication, it is not a language. Obviously he dislikes the import of linguistic theory and terms into the domain of film communication. "Montage" hardly plays a role within Carroll's framework; there are only a few references to the term.

Although the original sense of "editing" belongs to the production sphere, Carroll focuses on editing as the matrix for the spectator's work in comprehending and interpreting: "How do these ideas and attitudes emerge from the flux of images? .... What must the spectator's response be as each new shot is added, if he or she is to comprehend it?" (p. 403). Carroll sees "montage" as something closely related to Pudovkin's theories, thus belonging to the construction principles of film, whereas the aim of his film analyses is to answer this question: "What must the spectator's response be as each new shot is added, if he or she is to comprehend it?".

It is in this context that he refuses to turn to linguistics in order to examine how the coherence and meaning emerge between the shots.

He refuses to make use of linguistic concepts such as "paradigm" and "syntagm". Instead, he seems to think that the principle of inference explains how one shot relates to another. Carroll does not give us a true definition of editing, but he expands the sense of the word and changes it. The production process is removed from the word; only the spectator's interpretation remains.


Narration in the Fiction Film (1985 /1995)

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The index has many references to "editing". In some cases I was unable to find the actual word "editing" on the pages indicated, but they treat editing without using the word. As a matter of fact, the notion is never described nor defined. Here again, the meaning of "editing" is taken for granted; we all know what we are talking about. Bordwell reserves the definitions and the precise descriptions for the central concept of the book "Narration" (pp. xi - xiv), not to mention such notions as "fabula", "syuzhet" or "style".

All we find is a description of "editing", albeit in the light of a text written by Eisenstein: "(the camera) is an instrument for transforming the profilmic event so as to maximize effect. Nor does editing mimic the attention of an invisible observer. Editing as the most palpable stage of montage construction, will often violate verisimilitude for the sake of impact" (p. 14).

As for "montage" we are not much better off, as shown by the quote "editing, usually called montage" (p. 238) , referring, however, to the Soviet theories of the Twenties.

In this book "editing" seems to be a practical term; it is used before any theoretical definition appears. It does not require a definition, in stark contrast to "montage" which is used in discussions by others (Eisenstein, Pudovkin) of the subject matter of the book. Thus it receives both a historical and descriptive presentation.

Film Art (1979/1997)

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Art is different! There are many references to "editing" in the index and many references to specific types of editing. We even get general definition: "the technique that relates shot to shot, editing" (p. 168), and we have a whole chapter giving definitions and descriptions (pp. 270-314), beginning with this definition:

Editing may be thought of as the coordination of one shot with the next. As we have seen, in film production a shot is one or more exposed frames in a series on a continuos length of film stock. The film editor eliminates unwanted footage, usually by discarding all but the best take. The editor also cuts superfluous frames, such as those showing the clapboard (p.18), from the beginnings and endings of shots. She or he then joins the desired shots, the end of one to the beginning of another (p. 271).

After this definition follows a presentation of the different types of joins (fade-out, dissolve, etc.)

Two points should be stressed in this context. Firstly, Bordwell-Thompson do not like making any clear-cut definitions or statements. Here they have been precise, but make the definition smoother (or weaker) by writing "editing may be thought of as the coordination." and not "editing is the."

Secondly, the perspective is the production aspect and not the interpretation.


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We may ask ourselves whether "editing" can at all be called a notion or even worse a concept. Whether it is a notion or concept, it is at least a very elastic one. It is surprising to see to what extent such a basic notion as "editing" can be used in different ways.

All depends on the aim of the author, on his general theoretical position, his attitude to semiotics, to cognition, to linguistics, or to philosophy.

However, it also depends on the focus of the notion; whether "editing" is related to production, to structure or to reception.

Should we regret this lack of precision?

In a way, the answer is yes. If we compare film theory to linguistics, it is obvious that film theory has never reached the same level of conciseness. What film theory offers us is an endless stream of analyses of specific scenes or sequences of film. According to Carroll, editing is a means of communication, but the theory about editing is far from being as precise as the theory about language. This is probably because film theory occupies an intermediate position, between linguistics and art theory or literary analysis. It is bewildering that we have no really precise concept about a phenomenon, which, according to almost all theoreticians, is the most fundamental construction principle in film making.

On the other hand, the answer is no. There is a practical advantage in allowing "editing" to be shaped according to the goals and the point of view of the particular authors, without forcing any author into continuous redefinition.

Greimas' concept of "isotopy" is a very precise theory about the way meaning is established from one sentence to another. Could we hope for something similar in film theory, a true theory about how the meaning emerges from shot to shot, rather than a loose use of inference principles? At any rate, such a task demands an intensive effort and a greater precision in the use of concepts than we have seen until now.


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Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film (5th edition). London:

Routledge, 1997.

Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson. Film Art. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995.

Branigan, Edward. Narrative Comprehension and Film. London: Routledge, 1992.

Carroll, Noël. Theorizing the Moving Image. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kawin, Bruce F. How Movies Work. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Konigsberg, Ira. The Complete Film Dictionary. New York: Meridian, 1985.

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