WHAT IS EDITING?

To understand editing you have to go back to beginning of motion pictures, befoer there was editing. The first movies were single, static shots of everyday events. The Lumière brothers’ screening in Paris of a train pulling into the La Ciotat train station caused a sensation. Shot in black and white, and silent, it nevertheless conveyed a gripping reality for the audience. People leaped from their seats to avoid the approaching steam locomotive. The brothers followed this with a staged comic scene. Georges Méliès expanded on this by staging complex tableaux that told a story. It wasn’t until Edwin H. Porter and D. W. Griffith in the United States discovered the process of editing one shot next to another that movies were really born. Porter also invented the close-up, which was used to emphasize climactic moments. Wide shots were used to establish location and context. Griffith introduced such innovations as the flashback, the first real use of film to manipulate time. Parallel action was introduced, and other story devices were born, but the real discovery was that the shot was the fundamental building block of film and that the film is built one shot at a time, one after the other. It soon became apparent that the impact of storytelling lies in the order of the shots, and cinema was created with Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1915.

Films and videos are made in the moments when one shot changes into another, when one image is replaced by the next, when one point of view becomes someone else’s point of view. Without the image changing, all you have are moving pictures. The idea of changing from one angle to another or from one scene to another quickly leads to the concept of juxtaposing one idea against another. The story is not in each shot but in the consecutive relationship of the shots. The story isn’t told in the frames themselves so much as in the moment of the edit, the moment when one shot, one image, one idea, is replaced with another. The edit happens not on a frame but between the frames, in the interstices between the frames of the shots that are assembled.

Editing is a poor word for the film or video production process that takes place after the images are recorded or created. The better word would be montage. The word used for building something up. Editing implies correcting and trimming, while montage implies assembling. Editing, as we call it it, is not only the art and process of selecting and trimming the material and arranging it in a specific order, but is very much an extension of script writing, whether the script was written before the project was recorded or constructed after the material was gathered and screened.  The arrangement and timing of the scenes, and then the selection, timing, and arrangement of the picture elements within each scene, are most analogous to what a writer does. The only difference is that the writer crafts his script from a known language and his raw imagination, whereas the editor crafts her film from the images, the catalogue of words, as it were—the dictionary of a new language—that has been assembled during the production. The editor’s assembly creates a text that, although a new, never before seen or heard language, is based on a grammatical tradition—one that goes back to Porter and Griffith—that audiences have come to accept as a means for conveying information or telling a story.

Unlike the written language, a novel, or an essay that can be started and stopped at the reader’s whim, video or film production is based on the concept of time, usually linear time of a fixed length. Nowadays, of course, many forms of video delivery— the Web, computer or portable player, or DVD player—can be stopped and started according to the viewer’s desires. Nonetheless, most productions are designed to be viewed in a single sitting for a specified duration.

Film and video are designed to accommodate the temporal rigidity of the theater but with the spatial fluidity and freedom of a novel. Whether it is 10 minutes, 30 minutes, one hour, two hours, or more, the film is seen as a single, continuous event of fixed duration. On the other hand, time within the film is infinitely malleable. Events can happen quickly: We fly from one side of the world to another, from one era to a different century, in the blink of an eye. Or every detail and every angle can be slowed down to add up to a far greater amount than the true expanse of time, or the images can be seen again and again.

Because film and video production are based on the notion of time, the process of editing—controlling time and space within the story—is of paramount importance. This process of editing, of manipulating time, does not begin after the film is shot but as soon as the idea is conceived. From the time you are thinking of your production as a series of shots or scenes and as soon as the writer puts down words on paper or the computer, the movie is being edited, and the material is being ordered and arranged, juxtaposing one element against another, one idea with another.

This process of writing with pictures that we call editing has three components:

1.Selection, choosing the words, deciding which shot to use

2.Arrangement, the grammar of our writing, determining where that shot should be
placed in relation to other shots, the order in which the shots will appear

3.Timing, the rhythm and pace of our assembled material, deciding how long each
shot should be on the screen

Timing is dictated by rhythm—sometimes by an internal rhythm the visuals present, sometimes by a musical track, and often by the rhythm of spoken language. All language, whether dialog or narration, has a rhythm, a cadence or pattern, that is dictated by the words and based on grammar. Grammar marks language with punctuation: Commas indicate short pauses, semicolons are slightly longer pauses, and periods mark the end of a statement. The new sentence begins a new idea, a new thought, and it is natural that as the new thought begins, a new image is introduced to illustrate that idea. The shot comes not at the end of the sentence, not in the pause, but at the beginning of the new thought. This is the natural place to cut, and this rhythm of language often drives the rhythm of film and video. Editing creates the visual and aural juxtaposition between shots. That’s what this book is about: how to put together those pieces of picture and sound.


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