Since developing an interest in filmmaking I’ve always had a great admiration for the art of editing. Being able to take the individual parts of a shot sequence and structuring them in a particular way can provoke a various range of emotions within the viewer and help build a desired narrative and feel.
Video editors are often overlooked as their work isn’t always immediately apparent to audiences. In an interview with Variety, editor Joel Cox (American Sniper) explained that “a great edit is the one you don’t see”, meaning the viewer is left to be fully immersed in the film without distraction. On the other hand, there are times when editing can draw attention to itself to help accentuate emotions and atmosphere. Choosing when and how to use these techniques boils down to the intricate art of visual storytelling.
Here are a few of my favourite examples when it comes to the art of editing in film.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
The editing in Requiem for a Dream breaks standard rules to help drive a story of addiction and the reckless desperation and delusion that can come as a result. The cutting style depicts an increasing momentum to the point of losing control and as such the viewers are made to go through the same anguish as the characters. Standard 90 minute films can expect around 600-700 cuts however, due to the choppy and erratic pace, Requiem for a Dream leads to an excess of 2000. At the beginning of the film each scene averages 90 seconds to 2 minutes but by the end they become fleeting moments of jumbled imagery that disorientate the viewer. Other great techniques, such as the Hip-hop montages that represent the drug use throughout the film, quickly represents the buzz each of the characters are getting from their high as they slowly fall into their addictions.
Another notable scene – As Harry and Marion lie in bed together a split screen effect is used to possibly represent not only intimacy but the fabricated closeness between them. See here.
The emphasis of perfect timing is echoed constantly throughout Whiplash. Cuts are in time with the music and suspense is built around punctuality. The music instructor and antagonist, Fletcher, controls the timing of his band but seemingly dictates the tempo of the film by the way he manipulates the protagonist Andrew. Perhaps the most memorable scene see’s Fletcher getting increasingly angrier with Andrew for being out of sync with the band and hurling a chair at him. The editing in this scene helps build the perfect tension that leaves the audience feeling suitably uncomfortable by Fletcher’s terrifying teaching methods.
The emphasis on time becomes an obsession by the end of the movie, with Andrew breaking up with his girlfriend to dedicate himself wholly to practicing his drumming. The final scene show’s Andrew finally earning Fletcher’s approval when he puts on an exceptional drum solo. Again, the editing helps create the scene as fast cuts replicate the energy of the music as well as the change in relationship between the two main characters.
City of God (2002)
City of God is a brilliant film in many ways, not least by the way in which it represent favela life in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. A frantic opening scene of daily life helps introduce us to the protagonist as he is caught between a leisurely walk with his friend and a gang chasing a chicken that has escaped being killed for a meal. The storytelling and editing here help establish many of the film’s ideologies and themes – including the hectic lifestyle that can often lead to young people’s lives being cut short and the need for escape whilst constantly being chased by your surroundings. The chicken is very much a metaphor for the main character Rocket.
There are more than 50 highly visual cuts in the first 30 seconds and these are mostly closeups. This not only adds to the chaotic tone but leaves the viewer with a feeling of claustrophobia, another theme that is synonymous with favela life. Another editing technique, the Kuleshov Effect, is used as the editor cuts back and forth between shots of the chicken and the meal being prepared. This interaction between the two shots helps the audience identify with the chicken and the horror he envisions.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
There are many reasons why Saving Private Ryan is an extraordinary feat of filmmaking, with many critics claiming it to be the most realistic representation of war on screen. The combination of incredible performances on camera to the teams behind the production gave Steven Spielberg the perfect canvas to express his filmmaking prowess. When paying closer attention to the editing we can see a number of great techniques that support this artistic direction, particularly in the opening Omaha Beach scene.
The storming of Omaha Beach at the beginning of the film has been credited with being one of the most accurate portrayals of a WW2 battle. Much of the camera work was shot with the shutter open at 45 and 90 degree angles thus causing a staccato to actor’s movements and an added realism to explosions. Other techniques that added streaking, shakiness and doubling up the frame rate of 12fps to 24fps helped create an uncomfortable and edgy atmosphere that required editor Michael Kahn to craft a story out of footage that no editor had ever been presented with before.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
When I think of Pulp Fiction I think of endless quotes, unforgettable characters and ultimately one of the coolest films ever made. Tarantino is a master of creating entertaining conversation and editor Sally Menke does a fantastic job of editing scenes that would fall flat without the right pace to build tension. Being able to understand the complex chronology of the film whilst also tying in the numerous subplots happening alongside the main story required and editor that could make sense of it all and understand Tarantino’s creative direction. They worked together on many great films including Inglorious Bastards (2009) and the Kill Bill two-parter (2003-2004) until her untimely death in 2010. Many people point to the famous “what does Marsellus Wallace look like?” scene as their favourite but for me, because of the amazing tension the editing builds, I’d have to say my favourite is the one below.