Join Chad Perkins for an in-depth discussion in this video The history of film editing, part of Creating a Short Film: 08 Editing.
- [Narrator] In this movie I'd like to take you back and give you a brief selective history of film editing. Now, I'm really only concerned about the evolution of editing so this will all be really practical. Understanding how things moved forward will help you understand how to cut together your own projects. So this video is less about scholarship and more about being aware of how different styles of editing and the language of visual storytelling itself has evolved over time. Let's first talk about the days before film editing. It's crazy to think about that now, but there was a time when film existed, but film editing did not.
Filmmakers would film things like a train coming into a station and then audiences would just go watch one long take of just that. That was the whole movie. By 1902 people like the Melies brothers, who we'll talk more about in the visual effects courses, were beginning to experiment with very crude cuts. In the legendary short film, "A Trip to the Moon" there are some cuts. Many were for special effects, but some were being used to cut between scenes in the film almost like little vignettes. The editing is very rudimentary, but this idea was somewhat new.
That we could be transported to wildly different places or different times by the edit. Soon after, people like Edwin S. Porter were experimenting with this a little further. Porter actually saw "A Trip to the Moon" by the Melies brothers and was impressed by how the rocket was shown crashing into the eye in this wide shot of the whole moon and then this action was repeated on the surface of the moon. He experimented with these ideas and expanded on them in his short "Life of an American Fireman." In this film, we see one of the first closeup shots.
We also see the beginnings of a sequence here. We have an alarm being pulled, the firefighters wake up, they slide down to their horses and then they leave to put out the fire. Again, it's simple to modern audiences, but this kind of thinking was pretty revolutionary at the time. And they were still working out the kinks with time and when to edit. Like here we see the fire department rushing to the woman and then they rescue her and then after that, we cut to the exterior shot and watch the whole thing play out again from the outside. Now this little hiccup in time's a little confusing to me but this is the birth of editing as we know it.
These are two sequences that are combining to tell a complete story with edits. Some years later in 1915, a controversial filmmaker named D.W. Griffith kinda polished and added to this language of editing. In the epic film "The Birth of a Nation" we see better cuts where the action was matched through the edit. This makes edits more invisible which makes a story just kinda flow. We also see a more elegant use of insert shots. We also see the beginnings of our modern editing language and coverage with master shots and then reverses on each character.
We also see more complex editing as we're seeing what's happening in several different locations and we're asked by the filmmakers to remember all of them. We also see here the introduction of parallel editing where two things are happening at the same time and we cut back and forth between them to build tension. This technique is still used all the times in modern movies like in "Die Hard" when the terrorists storm Nakatomi Plaza. To our modern senses, this is just basic editing. We wouldn't think much of it at all. But at the time it was groundbreaking. "The Birth of a Nation" was also the first kind of big movie.
It introduced the idea of flashbacks, it introduced huge shots to the cinematic lexicon, pioneered night shooting, vignettes, the number of extras, and more. Unfortunately, "The Birth of a Nation" is a horrifically racist film that I personally find difficult to watch. So socially it caused some problems, but technically it really advanced the art of cinema. In the next decade, Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein took things in a completely different direction. D.W. Griffith tried to make cuts as invisible as possible, but Eisenstein made bold cuts that were intended to be jarring.
This iconic sequence from his film "Battleship Potemkin" is so much more intense because of the obvious and distinctive edits. By 1941, "Citizen Kane" proved that this crude language of cinema had become quite established and quite elegant. In 1948, Alfred Hitchcock created a film called "Rope" that had no visible edits. Some say that it wasn't really a cinematic experience because it didn't have any edits, but it still paved the way for movies today like "Birdman" that took this idea to the next level.
In 1960, a French new wave filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard, played with editing in his film "Breathless." This film features jump cuts. As we'll see later, these are edits that just remove spaces which create these kind of jumps in the edit that call attention to themselves. These edits weren't ever part of the planning of the film, rumor has it these edits were just there to get the runtime of the film down, but audiences were impressed with the audacity to make such a bold choice. One critic even suggested that these jump cuts represented how there are times in those lives that are pointless and maybe should just be skipped over.
It should also be noted that sound has played a huge role in the way films are edited. In 1927, "The Jazz Singer" became the first motion picture with synced sound. That opened the door to every great dialogue scene that has come after and opened up a host of new options for the way scenes and shots can be edited together. With all these types of edits or lack of edits, there is a brilliant example of someone that has elegantly used a similar technique.
- Telling stories with edits
- Syncing audio and video
- Matching eyelines
- Knowing when not to cut
- Controlling the pacing
- Controlling emotion with shot size
- Working with audio
- Creating a rough cut
- Creating end credits
- Rendering and output