Understanding and Using Editing
Here are four consecutive shots from Lars Von Trier’s Dancer
in the Dark (Denmark, 2000)
What do you think is happening in this scene?
You have probably worked out that the shots show a conversation
between a woman and a policeman travelling in a police car. However,
the audience have not seen all of the action in minute detail, they
have been given an ‘edited’ version of the event. Four shots of
action have been shown but this clearly is not the whole picture of
what took place. For example, the viewer does not see how the
characters got to the car, or the car being started. It is just assumed
that the policeman must have started the car, taken the handbrake
off etc. It appears quite natural that the audience can work out what
is missing in this sequence.
Quite how we are able to mentally see the whole picture is unclear
but psychologist have referred to this ability to piece together the
parts to make a whole as gestalt.
Editing relies on gestalt and the audience’s ability to make narratives
out of what they see and hear. When completing practical production
work, you will need to be able to effectively use editing to tell a
story so that audiences can understand the intended narrative.
Gestalt: a theory in Psychology that suggest, even though the
mind only sees the parts, it fills in the gaps to create a whole.
The aims of this factsheets are to:
• provide a general introduction to editing
• explain a range of useful editing techniques
• provide some practical tips to creating a successful narrative in
film and video coursework
The Birth of Narrative Film
In the earliest days of moving image there was hardly any editing.
‘Films’ were footage of actual events, such as a ship pulling into the
harbour or a train passing by. These films did not have much of a
story to them and audiences soon became bored once the novelty
of seeing moving images had worn off. It was not long before the
Lumiere Brothers and the Edison company started to construct
stories through editing filmed footage. In 1903, Edwin S. Porter
constructed a film that told a story from multiple shots rather than
simply being one continuous shot in front of a stationary camera.
He was the first person to use editing as a means of progressing the
film’s storyline and developed many of the transitions that become
common in film-making. Porter was also the first to use found
footage to tell a story that was unconnected with what the footage
was originally intended to portray.
Watch the following two clips:
Clip 1. http://introtoediting.com/kiss.html The Kiss, (dir.
Lumiere brothers, 1896)
Clip 2. http://introtoediting.com/fireman.html Life of an
American Fireman (dir. Porter, 1903)
Identify which one is telling a story through editing.
Can you identify any specific editing techniques that have
An Editor’s Role
Editing Pioneer Sergei
Eisenstein who developed the
idea of juxtaposing images to
Editing has several functions:
• to make a programme the required length and to remove
unwanted material or mistakes
• to alter the sequence of events, to move from one location to
another and to move back and forth through time
• to establish a style of the production
• to move from one person’s point of view to another, to create
relationships between characters or between characters and
• to alter the pace by lengthening or reducing time
096. Understanding and using editing Media Studies
A good editor combines the different audio and video elements of a
film in such a way that the audience are unaware of the technology
and craft involved. Conversely, editing can draw attention to the
artifice of the story. This is done through the transitions used (the
method of moving from one shot to the next) and through the amount
of footage that is left in or removed.
Transitions in editing
The most commonly used transition is the cut, where one shot is
instantaneously replaced with the next. However, editors can use
other modes of moving between shots to create meaning for the
The fade-out is a gradual transformation of an image to black and
this technique is used to suggest time has passed but that the
narrative is continuous. It is extremely common in film trailers and is
often used at an ad break in television programmes or to signify a
commercial break. It could also be used to denote someone going
to sleep or lapsing into unconsciousness if the director has used a
point of view shot.
A match cut, also called a graphic match, is a cut between either
two different objects, two different spaces, or two different
compositions in which objects in the two shots are similar in some
way. This often helps to establish a strong continuity of action by
linking the two shots metaphorically. In Schindler’s List (dir.
Spielberg, 1993) a graphic match is used to link the present, via the
smoke from the candle, with the past, via the smoke from a steam
engine. The flame of the candle may also symbolize that life has
been ‘snuffed out’ and this has a direct link to the Holocaust in
World War II and historical context setting of the film.
Match cut shots from Schindler’s List
A dissolve is a gradual transition from one image to another where
the two shots appear on screen at the same time until one gradually
vanishes. This can create mood and atmosphere. In Citizen Kane
(dir. Orson Welles, 1941) it is used to reflect the death of Kane. The
slow transitions are reverential, eerie and gothic in nature. Using
dissolves can also allow the editor to move from one scene to
Dissolve from Citizen Kane
A wipe is a type of transition where one shot replaces another by
travelling from one side of the frame to another, for example in Lucas’s
Star Wars series wipes were used extensively and became one of
the features that identified the series from other sci-fi texts. However,
nowadays, wipes tend to make a production look old-fashioned
and outdated so are used infrequently.
Wipe from Star Wars
An iris wipe takes the shape of a growing or shrinking circle. This
was a convention of editing in early films but can also be used to
denote an eye, such as in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (dir.
Schnabel, 2007) where the protagonist Jean-Dominique Bauby has
‘locked-in syndrome’ and can only communicate by moving his
Find ten simple images online, such as an old man, a rabbit, a
car, some carrots etc. Rearrange the shots in different orders
and then tell the story of what is happening. How does meaning
change when the shot order changes?
An editor can manipulate time by selecting which footage to include
and which to leave out. The most common form of editing in films
and television is called continuity editing. Continuity editing is the
name given to the editing technique that creates the illusion of
continuous time without showing everything that happens. For
example, if a car journey would take an hour in real life, it can be
reduced to a few seconds of screen time by only showing the shots
that are necessary for the audience to follow what is happening.
This relates to the idea of gestalt discussed earlier. Likewise, an
editor can also extend time so that events take longer than they
would in reality. This is called elliptical editing and its purpose is
to draw attention to the action and heighten tension. This technique
is often used when a bomb is going to explode and the editor makes
a countdown of five seconds last much longer.
An iris wipe in Betty Boo
An iris wipe representing an eye
closing in The Diving Bell and the
096. Understanding and using editing Media Studies
Using your knowledge of editing and transition types, convert
the following story into a storyboard sequence suitable for an
action / adventure film. Consider the types of transitions you
would use, the order of the shots and the length of each shot.
A woman is driving a car. There is a gun on the passenger
seat. A man is in the back of the car. His hands are tied and he
is gagged. He struggles free and makes a grab for the gun.
The woman loses control of the car. They crash into a wall.
The car overturns. As they try to escape a trickle of petrol
moves towards a piece of burning debris. The car explodes.
The frequency at which the editor cuts affects how the scene is
understood by the audience. The more frequent the cuts, the quicker
the scene appears to be. Conversely, the slower the editing, the
slower the feel of the scene. For example in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948)
there appears to be no editing at all as the film is constructed to
appear to be one continuous shot. Though there are edits, such as
when a door closes on the camera creating a black screen, the pace
of the film is slow and deliberate to coincide with the narrative of a
man trying to solve the ‘perfect murder’. The lack of editing gives
the film the appearance of a play and encourages audiences to
focus on the characters as well as creating tension.
It is not just films that use slow editing technique. Music videos as
a form are by their very nature shorter and therefore tend to use
more editing techniques at a much more rapid pace, but they can
also use limited editing techniques as in the case of the band I am
Kloot and their video to the song Proof. This video uses minimal
editing because it suits the content of the song. It focuses on
conveying the emotion of the lyrics through the actor’s facial
expression. This unconventional technique is emotive as well as
transfixing and shows that meaning can be created without rapid
However, the speed at which footage is edited can also add another
dimension to characterisation. In Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting
(1999) quick editing is used to show how Spud is under the influence
of drugs whilst being interviewed for a job. Here the editing from
long shot to midshot and back to long shot creates a schizophrenic
effect which is further compounded by Spud’s frenetic dialogue.
The effect is comical and reflects the disorientated state of Spud’s
Still from Hitchcock’s Rope (1948)
Screenshot from I am Kloot’s Proof music video
A very rapid move from one shot to another without showing a
connecting shot is called a jump cut. It is a dramatic edit that breaks
time and space continuity by drawing the viewer’s attention to the
edit. This technique was popular with French New Wave directors
such as Jean-Luc Godard and was meant to challenge the naturalised
effect of continuity editing.
These two shots from Breathless (dir. Goddard, 1960) are
concurrent but appear to ‘jump’ as the necessary shot to make the
transition appear smooth has been left out deliberately by the
This technique can also add an extra dimension to a character. For
example in Moon (dir. Duncan Jones, 2009) a jump cut is used when
the protagonist, Sam Bell, is nervously searching for a secret room
on this ship. The jump cuts hint that Bell is a clone, that there is
more than one version of him, and this is used to create confusion
for the audience.
096. Understanding and using editing Media Studies
Still from Moon
The speed of editing can also reflect and create atmosphere. For
example, slow editing in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) is used
to tell the audience about an impending disaster, that the earth is
about to be struck by another planet. Here the slow paced editing is
used to signify the pull of gravity as well as show the character’s
descent into depression and misery. It also allows the audience to
gaze at the vignettes that resemble paintings. The editing is so slow
that the movement within the frame is almost imperceptible. The
effects of this super-slow editing are crucial to creating the sense of
imminent death, loss and resignation and these are contrasted against
the previous seemingly happy event of a wedding, which is edited
A montage is a useful way to convey a
story using images without having to
go into narrative detail. In a montage,
a series of short shots are edited into a
sequence to condense space and time
whilst still conveying information. This
is useful when lots of narrative
information has to be put across to the
audience quickly, as is the case in
Disney Pixar’s Up. The whole married
life of an elderly couple is shown to
the audience in a few minutes by using
the symbolic association of ideas
Watch part of the montage from Up (dir. Docter, 2009) which
can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2bk_9T482g
How does the editing show the passage of time? What
information has been conveyed to the audience in this five
Using Editing in Practical Production Work
How you edit your footage will depend very much on what form
and genre you are trying to recreate as well other considerations
such as characterisation, mood, atmosphere and themes and issues.
Editing is designed to tell a story to your audience and the way in
which you tell your story will ultimately be down to how you edit
your raw footage. As well as thinking about the techniques and
transitions discussed in this Factsheet, when you are editing you
should also consider:
Narrative Structure: Does the narrative make sense to the
audience? Is it logical? Are you following the narrative conventions
of the form? It is a good idea to get someone else to watch your
edited footage and ask their opinion. Even if you are trying to go
for a more confused narrative you will need to make sure that you
edit it in such a way as to draw attention to this.
Characterisation: Have you used a variety of editing techniques
to add depth to the meaning of your character? You will need to be
clear about how you want your character to come across to your
audiences before you start editing.
Atmosphere: Have you utilised different editing techniques to
create atmosphere? Does your editing evoke the right kind of mood
for the scene and the text as a whole? Do you want to create a
juxtaposition between the action on screen and the way it is edited?
Think about the Spud interview in Trainspotting, the quick editing
creates a bizarre atmosphere here when set against the formal
interview proceedings. Or do you want to highlight and add more
meaning to the atmosphere, such as in Moon where jump cuts
reflect the maddening claustrophobia of the ship.
Analyse the editing techniques that have been used in texts
similar to the one you are creating before you start any other
planning. Consider the conventional techniques used in the
genre and then think about whether you want to mimic them or
subvert them. If you are using a blog, upload extracts from
texts and write analyses of the transitions used and how time is
manipulated. It is essential that you show you know the key
terms for these techniques and use them appropriately.
Katz, Stephen Shot by Shot - Visualising from Concept to
Screen (Michael Wiese Production, 1991)
Acknowledgements: This Media Studies Factsheet was researched and written by Di Naylor
Curriculum Press. Bank House, 105 King Street, Wellington, TF1 1NU. Media Factsheets
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of the publisher. ISSN 1351-5136