Movies and Film: Fade In: A Brief History of Editing

Fade In: A Brief History of Editing

As with most other film techniques, editing has evolved over time as the technology and audience expectations change. The following is a brief history of this technique.

Before Editing

Like almost every basic idea about movies, the idea of editing has its precursors. Flashbacks had existed in novels; scene changes were already part of live theater; even narrated sequences had been a part of visual culture from medieval altar triptychs to late nineteenth-century comic strips.

But the very earliest filmmakers were afraid to edit film shots together because they assumed that splicing together different shots of different things from different positions would simply confuse audiences.


Even the middle ages had its version of editing, as this church altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, The Portinari Altarpiece (ca. 1476), shows. The piece gets you from one scene to the next via simple cuts.

"Primitive" Editing

Filmophile's Lexicon

Shot: The basic temporal unit of film photography and editing. A shot consists of the celluloid used from the moment a camera begins rolling on a scene to the moment it stops.

Sequence: A number of shots edited together and unified, either through the plot, the character(s), the time and/or space, or the theme.

However, filmmakers quickly discovered that editing shots into a sequence not only contributed to the audience's sense of tale, but also enabled them to tell more complex stories as a result. You can see primitive instances of editing in films like Rescued by Rover (Great Britain, 1904) and The Great Train Robbery (1903).

Early on the cuts were made in the camera, so that the cameraman would simply stop cranking at the exact end of a shot, and begin cranking again when it was moved somewhere else, or when something else was put in front of it. This kind of editing could allow for some early special effects. In movies he is making at the turn of the century, Georges Mlis stops the camera after detonating a magic puff of smoke in front of his actor, then begins the camera again after the actor has left the stage, making it seem as if the actor has magically vanished.

Griffith and Beyond

Director's Cut

Did you know that the first real film school in the world—the Moscow Film School—was founded as a propaganda device? Lenin knew early on that the cinema was going to be an important ideological tool for communicating ways of seeing the world. Lenin's way—Marxism—was so controversial in the early part of the century that the United States and Western Europe blockaded Russia after that country's communist revolution.

We will read in greater detail about D. W. Griffith's contribution to editing. Here we can just note that, though he did not invent any of the editing techniques he used, he made them emotionally and thematically significant. So much so that he influenced the art of editing worldwide. The Moscow Film School of the 1920s, for example, played his Intolerance (1916) over and over again in order to use Griffith's techniques for the films of its students. One of the most notable of the Soviet directors of this era was Sergei Eisenstein, who transformed the principles of classical editing into something more consciously intellectualized he called montage.

Though the idea of putting together shots to forward theme as well as action—one way of seeing montage—had occurred to other filmmakers before Griffith and the early Soviets, Griffith made it a regular practice and the Russian filmmakers theorized its meaning.

The first rigorous use of the term is by Soviet filmmakers like V.I. Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein, who saw montage principally as a useful propaganda film tool. Montage was a way to put together a number of shots, more or less quickly, in a manner that pointed out a moral or an idea. In Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936), a shot of a faceless, crowded group of men emerging from a subway on their way to work is followed by a shot of a herd of sheep being led to slaughter. There is one black ram in the middle of the herd. We immediately cut back to Charlie emerging in the midst of the crowd: the one black sheep in the fold.

In Editing, Sometimes Less Is More

Some filmmakers chose to minimize editing, seeing it as the "death of 1,000 cuts" for realism. For example, though some documentarists saw editing as a way to make their anthropological visions appear more interesting, others saw minimal intrusion as the more authentic way to go. Other documentary styles emerged in which editorial intervention was minimal, if never entirely absent.

Filmophile's Lexicon

Montage is a confusing term because, like love, it means different things to different people. In Hollywood it most often simply means a number of shots edited quickly together in order to form a brief impression of a character, place, or time. The Madonna musical number "Back in Business" in Dick Tracy (1990) underscores a visual montage of several quick shots of gangsters engaged in various illegal rackets: gambling, robbery, and so on. This montage simply conveys the idea that a lot of illegal activities are going on in a compressed time.

But even in feature filmmaking some directors chose to avoid the manipulation of reality that montage and heavy editing seemed to imply. In the silent era, some American comics such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin often relied on long takes in order to demonstrate that no special effects had been used and the acrobatics of the comedian were not camera tricks but dangerously real events.

In the 1930s, Jean Renoir's films were filled with shots of long duration. The best examples are probably Grand Illusion (La Grande Illusion, France, 1937) and Boudu Saved from Drowning (Boudu Sauv Des Eaux, France, 1932). The subsequent movements most associated with less emphasis of montage are Italian neorealism and the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) and cinma verit.

Second Take

The laws of gravity and insurance prevent most contemporary he-man stars from performing a tenth of the feats the very small Keaton performed, which is one reason that action sequences tend to be so heavily edited. Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger could not—even if they had the skill—have a house fall on them, leap around on top of a moving train, or actually tumble head-over-heels down a hill. The feats that the he-men seem to do in their films are, most of the time, special effects. While also a master of editing effects, Keaton was very careful to make sure the camera continued cranking and focusing on him when he took real chances.

Editing Today

Even in an era of incredibly advanced special effects, some filmmakers are still enamored of the photographic realism in sustained shots. Perhaps the most conspicuous is Jim Jarmusch, who will hold his camera on his subjects for an agonizingly hilarious amount of time.

But the past 20 or so years has also seen the rise of "digital editing" (also called nonlinear editing), which makes any kind of editing easier. The notion of editing film on video originated when films were transferred to video for television viewing. Then filmmakers used video to edit their work more quickly and less expensively than they could on film. The task of cleanly splicing together video clips was then taken over by computers using advanced graphics programs that could then also perform various special effects functions. Finally, computers convert digital images back into film or video. These digital cuts are a very far cry from Mli's editing in the camera.

Director's Cut

The unkindest cut of all: editing and censorship. Films can and have traditionally been censored even after release simply by cutting out anything deemed unsavory. In the first three decades of film, even individual American cities routinely cut out parts of films with overt sexual content or controversial subject matter.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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