From Griffith & Eisenstein To Schoonmaker & Beyond: How Editing Has Evolved Over The Years!

By Aditi Patwardhan. Posted on October 19, 2015

Starting off as ‘film cutters’ in the early years after the birth of cinema, today film editors are revered as the key collaborators in the filmmaking process. A series of epiphanies, serendipities, inventions and discoveries in the field of film editing has made this possible in the years bygone.

Cinema at its birth was all about the device and its ability to capture motion. The earliest of films simply recorded day to day events as they took place and all the wonder lay in the machine and the shadows behind the drape. However, as the awe of moving photographs diluted a little, filmmakers started to focus on storytelling through this medium.

Birth Of Editing

Contemporaries like George Méliès in France and Edwin S. Porter in America laid the foundation of storytelling through editing. Instead of showing the scenes as they happened, edited sequence of shots was introduced to create a storyline. The real pioneering figure in film editing however, was D W Griffith who realized that action is fluid. Hence, while introducing invisible cuts by matching action continuity between the shots, Griffith formed the foundation of the theory of editing which is being practiced even today.

The Soviet Discovery

While the invisible editing was quite popular and considered a rule in Hollywood, the Russian filmmakers took to experimenting with the medium. They insisted that the essence of cinema didn’t lie simply in its spatial composition, but also in the arrangement and sequencing of shots. Sergei Eisenstein’s five methods of montage transformed cinema into an experience that could transcend time and space.

Jumping The Cuts - Impact Of The French New Wave

While Hollywood was producing movies under studios and had created an industry out of it, the French New Wave shed the popular editing practices. Godard’s Breathless (1960) broke many rules of film editing, incorporating jump cuts to enhance the effect of the story. Breathless was a film that inspired many filmmakers across the world to experiment with the camera.

Pace Of Editing

As lifestyles changed, so did the editing of films. They became faster to keep pace with time & the modern day pace of lives started reflecting in the editing of cinema as well. The tradition of long shots was replaced by shorter shot lengths, fast cuts between shots and jump cuts that together contributed to boosting the overall speed of narrative. Finally digital revolution took film editing technique beyond the boundary of human errors and limitations. With the help of advanced software, things like previsualization for films yet to be shot and cutting within the frame became possible. CGI, croma keying and VFX have enabled the editor to use his imagination to create sequences as well as to alter the available footage. With the constantly evolving technology, the avenues in front of the editor have become innumerous.

As George Lucas has quite aptly put, editing is visual poetry. It’s not simply about sequencing shots to output a series of shots, but it’s about telling a story in the most appealing and intriguing way. In the end, all cinema is a sum of editing where every single moment in a film is a result of editing.

This excellent documentary 'The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing' by Wendy Apple delves into the history of editing, while also emphasizing its present day relevance. Narrated by the Academy Award winning actor Kathy Bates, the film features interviews of renowned directors and editors like Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Walter Murch, Zach Staenberg, Mark Goldblatt and Thelma Schoonmaker. While presenting an intriguing collage of interviews, narration and clips from movies, the documentary gives a valuable insight into the world of film editing and how it has evolved over years.


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