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Hum 3: Film Principles
Fr. Rene C. Ocampo, SJ/Bong S. Eliab
Second Semester, 2001-2002
Humanities Division
School of Arts and Sciences
Ateneo de Davao University

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Fr. Nicasio Cruz, S.J.


 It took a long time to discover the importance of imaginative editing in films. In the beginning, the film was considered as one continuous whole and not an assemblage of fragments. For instance, the French film-maker, George Melies and his American counterpart Edwin Porter, set their cameras in front of the action and let them record things as they happened.

 But it was Edwin Porter who made a bold step towards the art of editing when he inserted a previously shot footage within a larger film. And In 1915, David Griffith, the Father of American Films, discovered that only part of the action was needed to be shown onscreen, so In his film Birth of a Nation, In the sequence where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Griffith made no effort to show the whole action at one time from beginning to end. Instead the film cut from

 1 the President as he sits down in his box with his wife to

2 the bodyguard outside the box to

3 the President taking his wife's hand to

4 the play to

5 the assassin preparing for the kill

 This marked the beginning of film editing.

 Meantime, in Russia, Sergei Eisenstein discovered that if two unrelated images are placed next to each other In a film, e.g. a weak looking general and a strutting peacock, a third meaning emerges from the two Images taken singly. In the movie October, Eisenstein juxtaposed Kerensky, a Russian general, a weak leader, and a statue of Napoleon, thus saying something about the character of Kerensky visually. This marked the beginning of visual symbolism In film. Eisenstein also explored and experimented with the method of shortening the shots in an edited sequence with precision so that each shot became slightly shorter than the one before it -leading to a high pitch of excitement or suspense.

 By 1925 Eisenstein and another Russian film-maker, V.I. Pudovkin had developed another principle of montage.

 Montage is the process of creative editing whereby the images derive their meaning from juxtaposition with other images. Eisenstein explained that the continuity of a film should be created by a series of shocks and conflicts and that it Is the splicing of the images that produces the conflict.

 Montage can also be used to compress time: for example:

1 a man emerges from a cab

2 walks to the door of a building

3 he enters the lobby

4 he presses the elevator button

5 he waits

6 he enters the elevator

7 he ascends to the fifth door

8 he enters the hall and proceeds to his office

 The film-maker need not show all of these shots; by simply showing the man emerging from a cab, then, cut to him as he enters the building and finally cut to him pushing the door of his office, the audience watching his sequence or three shots will assume that the actor has gone through all the intervening steps.

 Montage can also be used to produce the opposite effect--the expansion of time:

 In the famous "Odessa steps" sequence In the movie Battleship Potemkln, made in 1925, Eisenstein shows a force of Russian soldiers marching down the steps of Odessa

slaughtering the citizens who have gathered there. By constantly moving back and forth from the Russians descending the steps, to the reaction of the terrified people, Eisenstein actually expands time. In other words, the running time of the film is much longer than it would take the Russians In "real time" to descend the steps. Eisenstein's use of montage during the Odessa steps sequence provides an important insight into the nature of the film experience: the use of time and space is very different from time and space as normally perceived. Eisenstein's purpose is not to depict the actual time realistically, but in portraying it dramatically. By elongating time, he has succeeded in heightening the drama of the incident. This is another way of saying that time varies in its dramatic intensity. And In this respect, it Is a matter of common sense to devote more film time to the more dramatically important events and less to the insignificant.

The filmmaker should also anticipate the audience's response to a shot and, in most instances, fulfill its expectations.

 For example:

a. Two characters are seated across the room conversing. Suddenly, one makes a surprising, rather serious accusation on the other. The audience naturally wants to view the other person's reaction. Therefore, the next shot should be a close-up of the other person's face.

b. Two characters are walking down the street engrossed in conversation; then cut to a close-up of an open manhole. The audience will begin to anticipate one of the men will fall in. This does not mean that the filmmaker will have one of the characters fall in, for he could just as easily have a worker rise up in the manhole, just at the right moment to provide a stepping stone. But the point is that the film-maker has to make some use of the manhole to justify that previous close-up. Otherwise cut out that close-up.


Since the average audience is not aware of precisely what is involved in the editing of a film, the effect of bad editing will be to make the audience feel ill at ease or bored, even though the story may be inherently Interesting, and the camera movement and direction satisfactory and the photography breathtaking.

It is often said that good editing should pass unnoticed: this may not be a gross oversimplification, but the grain of truth in it is evident. Even if the editing is of a moreovert nature, if it is successful, it will be the total effect of the film, rather than that of the editing which comes over. Moreover, the good editing becomes remarkably satisfying to the editor: the pleasure of seeing a cut working really well-or a sound effect or mix-can be quite out of proportion to its actual importance in the film (the editor must, of course, retain his sense of proportion).

 The nature and extent of the editing will differ according to the nature and extent of the script.  At one extreme: in a totally scripted industrial or instructional film, the editor may have to follow a prearranged script sequence exactly; his job reduced to finding suitable cutting points in the shot material, then, doing the mechanical preparation of the soundtrack and master.

 On the other hand, if the script is imprecise, the film is impressionistic in character, the editor may have far reaching decisions to make about the best way of using the available footage; the editor's job, in some cases, may well be equivalent to post-scripting the film.

 The editor is also called the film unit doctor. It is part of the editor's job almost always of making the best of the shot materials that, for one reason or another, have not come up to expectations. Occasional poor camera work or exposure may have to be disguised, or cheated or retaken shots may have to be ordered to overcome a sequence that just won't cut as intended. Or a scene may have to be rearranged slightly at the editing stage because all the hoped for footage has not materialized. All the heartaches and thousand natural shocks that film is heir to must be healed in the editing room.


Editing is the process of selecting, arranging, and juxtaposing of materials in order to bring forth or reveal a subject or event in the most dramatic manner or effective way. 

Their arrangement of shots is the key to the construction of an artistic film. The popular concept of editing as mainly "cutting'. i.e. reducing the length of film footage produced by a non-selective director. has never had much basis in reality. The process of editing entails more than preserving continuity or just cutting away the excess.

The editor is concerned with the:

a)      the time element

b)      the rhythm and pace, and

c)       the visual and aural relationships in a film.

Let's take a look first at two very general stylistic approaches in the art of editing:

(A) continuity editing and  (B) dynamic editing.


This stylistic approach portrays the action of a story or sequence in a realistic manner, i.e. the emphasis is on the creation of a smooth continuous flow of events. It can be likened to the experience of the theater; its story, it movement and dialogue tend to proceed in a predictable continuous line. This style of editing makes use of long, uninterrupted stretches of action with either a) static camera, e.g. the kitchen scene in Kramer vs Kramer or with b) camera movement e.g, the fight scene between Hayes and the Turkish informer in Midnight Express.


This style disregards realistic spatial relationships in order to concentrate in the drama of the action. It is also known as parallel action: dealing with two different but related actions occurring simultaneously, e.g. the audition sequence in Fame. It is also called "the pursued and the pursuers", like the car-train chase in The French Connection. The moving back and forth of the camera between the pursued and pursuers has no counterpart in normal spatial relationships. The emphasis is on relational contrasts. Often this form of editing can give rise to responses that are more in the eye of the beholder than in the film itself.

An experiment was made to show that it was the juxtaposition of shots, rather than their inherent value, that created the meaning.

They took a shot of an actor (close-up) with a completely natural expression. This expressionless face was juxtaposed with a series of shots, a bowl of soup, open coffin, a baby with a ball. The audience "saw" him expressing longing with the bowl of soup, grief at the loss of a woman, and joy at the sight of the baby.

Today, it is rare to see a film-maker create an entire film which is exclusively devoted to one of the editing techniques --more typically, the two styles are used in combination to help a create a logical rhythm to the film itself.

A. Element of Time

As we view a film we are momentarily under the influence of the film we are watching. In two hours, one film may cover a lifetime, another, only ten minutes, another film time coincides with real time.


Goodbye, Mr. Chips spans 60 years in the life of a British school teacher and while the film is in progress, we feel 60 years are going by. The award-winning French short film Incident at Owl Creek ex pans the action of a split second (the moment a man is hanged) into a 3O-minute motion picture. High Noon coincides with real time, 10:30 to 12:00 noon.


The Editor, therefore, in effect, controls time. He can expand a scene that an action supposedly taking place in one minute will feel like half and hour. And he can, by means of fragmented flash- cutting, compress one hour's action into a minute.

An excellent example of the editor's total control of time is the editorial architecture of the final sequence of Bonnie and Clyde. An ambush is prepared for the capture of Bonnie and Clyde. Clyde, seeing a truck stalled on the road, gets off his car to assist the old driver. The action at this point seems to proceed at a snail's pace because of many detail shots. The basic action if allowed to run without interruption, would happen quickly and briefly. The intercuts are the bushes behind which the police are hiding. shots of trees, of faces etc. Finally, just before the climax, there is a superb extension of time --the exchange of looks between Bonnie and Clyde, held just a beat or two long suspending the audience for what seems to be an eternity. This is followed by a fusillade of gunfire that goes on and on. Nothing in the sequence takes place in a realistic time duration . Everything is done for effect. Throughout the sequence, the film editor contols time on an absolute scale, accelerating or retarding it to achieve a desired end.

Two ways of controlling time:

a. by expanding or compressing the normal time of an action thru the use of intercuts and detail shots

b. by using optical effects, e.g. transitional devices, to link scenes and sequences. Transitional devices:

1. fade in and fade out

2. lap dissolve or melt

3. superimpositions

4. flips and wipes

It is the editor who selects and designs these optical effects and who must decide how each pair of scenes will be altered by the optical effect that joins them.  Every optical effect has its own effect on the pace of the film; e.g. long, slow dissolves usually retard film time. Flips and wipes usually speed up time.

Dramatic Time is structured by the demands of plot, characterization, theme and other features of story development. Events, for example, of very large scope such as the Napoleonic war Vs. Russia will best be portrayed via dramatic time in no more than a few hours, like the version of War and Peace. The life of Christ is told in three hours in Jesus of Nazareth. Typically, when an event is represented in terms of dramatic time, much is omitted. A viewer need not see all the phases of an action in order to identify it to form part of an aesthetically satisfying whole.

Physical Time is used when a film attempts to show all the phases of an action or event. Very few films are made via physical time. E.g. Cleo from 5 to 7 (Agnes Varda, 1962) gives a two hour account of the life of Cleo, a prostitute, on a certain day, nothing more, nothing less. High Noon refers to a filmic structuring of events at the same rate at which they would occur in reality.

Affective Time: events are ordered so as to have certain effects upon the audience's subjective sense of time. Thus, some scenes, depending on the order and pace of events, will be made to seem slow moving, others to fly by. This is where slow motion is utilized for effect. Note the effect of slow motion sequences in The Natural, especially in the last home run.

B. Rhythm and Pace

Every film contains internal and external cadences. Indeed, these cadences or rhythm impart to a film much of its quality and character.

Internal Rhythm:

In addition to the mood of the film and the impact of the actor's performances, every scene has an inherent quality of movement -an internal rhythm, be it quick, staccato, lazy. Some scenes may seem very slow, like the opening scene of Cries and Whispers; some impart a feeling of fast movement, like the car-train chase in The French Connection. Internal rhythm depends on the pace of movement within the shot, the rhythm of the cutting of the shot, and the rhythm of the sequence itself.

External Rhvthm:

External rhythm largely depends on the length of time a shot or scene remains on the screen. The physical length of a scene is not necessarily related to its apparent time on screen. (A static shot e.g. opening scene of Cries and Whispers will appear far longer on screen than a shot of identical length which contains subject and camera movement). 

Rhythm is decided through the evidence of the editor's eyes, not thru physical measurement. "Does it feel right?" Rhythm also depends on the ability to judge when a particular shot is dead, i.e. when the content of the shot has been exhausted and its stay on the screen is no longer necessary. A shot overstaying its welcome on the screen will inevitably interrupt the rhythm of the film by boring its audience, even if only for a fleeting moment. It is often possible to feel visual "beats" flowing thru successful editing --beats not necessarily regular in time, as in music, but giving the impression of being related one to the other to form a continuing and necessary progression with hiatus or slack period. Finally, film rhythm is something that must be felt, and feeling for it is acquired only through experience and thought, combined with innate sensitivity.

C. Audio-Visual Relationships:

In film editing there are three important relationships to be considered: image to image relationship, image to sound relationship, sound to sound relationship.

Image to Image:

Every scene is affected by the scene that precedes or follows it. For example, look at the effect of the scene upon the scene of the ff:

 shot 1: close-up of a man smiling

shot 2: close-up of a gun going off

shot 3: a body of a man falling

shot 4: close-up of another man with a sad face

 If the shots are edited in the order 1,2,3,4 they tell a story of a happy man shooting someone who is then mourned by a 3rd man. Hence, the ordering of the shots determines the audience's reaction to what is seen. Suppose we change the order to 4,3,2, 1, the reaction of the audience will be different.

 In a well-edited film, we are never aware of the cuts themselves. We sense only the continuity of the film as a whole. Thus, we are often unaware that our emotional response to a scene is  carefully conditioned by the preceding scene. As each shot leads inevitably to the next, it imparts an emotional and intellectual "memory" or "memories" that often change the values In the following scenes.

 The editor, therefore, has complete power to change the character and purpose of the scene. Since there are no immutable laws governing his choices, the editor transcends the boundaries of time and space to achieve the desired effect.

 A birthday party, for instance, can be given a somber overtone by a cut to a cemetery, where a casket is being lowered to the ground. It is not necessary to know whose funeral or casket it is. The shot is simply an effect shot.

The effect shot makes a comment and achieves a desired result. If the funeral shot is used with a realistic script (the woman being buried is the mother of the celebrant), the shot will change the character of the party scene. We become angry or ashamed at the participants and the very gaiety of the party becomes depressing. If the editor chooses to run the entire party scene before proceeding to the funeral scene, the party will retain its inherent gaiety until the funeral. If, however, the funeral and the party are intercut, a shot of laughter followed by a shot of gloom, the party will be destroyed by the funeral shots.

Hence, the relationship between image to image is a prime factor in editing. It is through this relationship that communication is achieved and the mood of each sequence is established.

Take the famous example of the baptismal sequence in The Godfather: Michael Corleone (AI Pacino) stands as sponsor for his sister's son's baptism. But what is happening in Church is not as interesting as the brilliantly edited, violent ritual of revenge that Michael has set in motion outside. And when this twofold godfather answers the ceremonial response: i do renounce Satan and his pomp." it has assumed an ironic meaning.

Image to Sound:

Every sound affects the audience's reaction to what is seen. Every image conditions the audience's response to what is heard.


Let's take a simple scene of a man walking down a city street. This scene can become a tense, nerve-wracking experience by the addition of confused loud traffic noise. Or it can be an exercise in isolation and loneliness if all the natural sounds are removed and we hear only the sound of the wind and his footsteps.

The opening scene in Fellini's 8112, the hero is caught in his car in a traffic jam, bumper to bumper. By using silence, Fellini presents the scene as a nightmare.

In Lawrence of Arabia, the sense of loneliness and alienation conveyed by desert images is heightened immeasurably by the soft, monotonous sounds of the wind. In turn, the desert images impart to the sounds a vividness that makes the audience aware of even the subtlest noises coming from the unseen and off screen sources.

An imaginative editor does not rely exclusively on sounds that are already a part of the synch track; he adds sounds that have no direct visual cues but that serve to enrich the scene.

Current editing techniques make use also of overlap sound cut i.e. sounds accompanying one scene overlap with the preceding or following scene. This technique is used to change or enrich unrelated visual images; to link action from scene to scene; to heighten the pace of the film.


In the movie, Tire Graduate, Benjamin's (Dustin Hoffman) meetings with Mrs. Robinson are juxtaposed with his idle, almost parasitic life by the swimming pool at home. The images flow into one another without the traditional optical connecting devices, like fade in or dissolve. Like, when Benjamin, lying by the pool, gets up and walks into the cabana, as he crosses the doorway, he is walking right into Mrs. Robinson's bedroom.

In another scene, Benjamin hoists himself out of the pool onto a rubber raft, as he makes this move, a cut is made and he is rolling on top of Mrs. Robinson's bed.

The traditional editing process is each picture cut is generally accompanied by a sound cut. But in The Graduate, the editor permits the sound of the outgoing scene to extend briefly into the incoming scene. The sound affects the new scene by sustaining the intellectual and emotional overtones of the scene in which it belongs. This deliberate mismatching of sound unifies, in impact and idea, a sequence that would otherwise consist of disparate elements. The imaginative use of sound/image relationships successfully contrast Ben's comatose existence at home with his emotional affair with Mrs. Robinson.

 In the 1930 and 1940 films, the relationship of image and sound was relatively unimaginative and mechanical. TODAY, the creative film editor, thru skillful and imaginative use of image and sound relationship, adds richness to the finished film.


Editing as Instruments of Impression:

Editing is not merely a method of juxtaposing separate scenes or pieces, but It Is a method that controls the "psychological guidance" of the spectator.   There are special methods that have as their aim the impression of the spectator: contrast, parallelism, symbolism, simultaneity, leit-motif (reiteration of the theme).


Suppose it be our task to tell of the miserable situation in Smokey Mountain, the story will impress the more vividly if associated with images of the palatial residences in Corinthian Gardens, forcing the viewer to compare the two contrasting images/actions all the time, one strengthening the other.  The editing of contrast is one of the most effective, but one of the commonest and most standardized, of methods, and so care should be taken not to overdo it.


This method resembles contrast, but is considerably wider.


In Spielberg’s Color Purple, a scene occurs as follows.

Whoopi Goldberg is going to give Danny Glover a shave (in America), the scene shifts to Africa, where a couple of African children, a boy and a girl, are going to be initiated into the adult world by having their cheeks carved with a knife.  The scenes cut back and forth between the two actions.  In this instance two thematically unconnected incidents develop in parallel by means of the knife in one scene and the razor in the other, while the action of chief protagonist, Whoopi, approaches its climax.  The image of the knife/razor is ever present in the consciousness of the spectator.


It is a visual metaphor. In the final scenes of the film Strike the shooting down of workingmen are intercut by shots of the slaughter of a bull in a slaughter house. The editor, as it were, desires to say just as a butcher fells a bull with the swing of a pole-ax, so cruelly and in cold blood, were shot down the workers.  This method is especially interesting, because, by means of editing, it introduces an abstract concept Into the consciousness of the spectator without use of any dialogue.


In American films especially, the final scene is constructed from the simultaneous rapid development of two actions, in which the outcome of one depends on the outcome of the other.

Ex. Jurassic Park, the scene where the boy, caught high up in the fence, was afraid to jump, while Laura Dern was about to push the button that would bring back electric power, that could send him to Kingdom Come.

The whole aim of this method is a purely emotional one, and nowadays overdone to almost the point of boredom, but it cannot be denied that of all the methods of constructing the end hirtherto devised it is most effective.


Often it is interesting for the director especially to emphasize the basic theme of the scenario.

For this purpose exists the method of reiteration. Its nature can easily be demonstrated by an example.


In an anti-religious scene that aimed at exposing the cruelty and hypocrisy of the Church in imply of Czarist regime the same shot was several times repeated. A church bell slowly ringing and superimposed on it, the title. "The sound of bells sends into the world a message of patience and love." This piece appeared whenever the scenarist desired to emphasize the stupidity of patience, or the hypocrisy of the love thus preached. Also, in Color Purple, the mailbox is shown repeatedly to reinforce the lack or absence of communication between Whoopi Goldberg and her sister who now lives in Africa. In The Natural, the lighting becomes the leit-motif, signifying the inherent natural power of Robert Redford at his bat.

(Edited by: Bong S. Eliab 2001 for Film Principles Course, Ateneo de Davao University)


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Ateneo de Davao University
12 December 2001