Along with the breakdown of classical continuity as the industry's sole standard cutting style, the other major stylistic development in recent films has been due to the switch from linear to nonlinear editing systems. This changeover has helped produce an increase in the cutting rate of contemporary film and a bias in favor of close-ups. Edit points occur more rapidly than in films of previous decades, with a much greater profusion of shot changes. Moulin Rouge (2001) exemplifies the hyperactive editing style found in many films today.
Several features of nonlinear systems have motivated this shift. For one, they give editors much greater control over the available footage, with greatly increased abilities to access individual shots and manipulate them more easily in complex editing constructions. But there is a paradox. Editor Walter Murch (b. 1943) ( Apocalypse Now , The English Patient ) points out that an editor working on a linear system may actually come to know the footage better as a result of having to search it sequentially looking for a particular piece of film. Editors on nonlinear systems are more dependent on their notes about the footage and may overlook valuable material because their notes have excluded it.
In addition, the image as viewed on the editor's monitor tends to be of relatively low resolution because of the necessary trade-off between resolution and the computer storage space needed for the digitized video of the film footage. The higher the resolution, the greater the storage space that is needed. The low-res image will tend to bias editors toward close-ups rather than long shots and toward frequent shot changes as a means of maintaining visual interest. As a result, many contemporary films have come to look more and more like television, with quick editing and a tendency to play the story as a montage of close-ups.
What this approach loses is not so much the aesthetic tradition in cinema that developed in opposition to montage, such as the long shot–long take style celebrated by French critic André Bazin and found in such films as La Grande illusion ( The Grand Illusion , Jean Renoir, 1937), Csillagosok, katonák ( The Red and the White , Miklós Jancsó, 1967), Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967), and Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). This style never had much presence in American cinema. Rather, what is vanishing from American film are all of the ways that an individual shot can function as a unit of meaning, through composition, production design, lighting, and the actor's performance as it unfolds in the real time of a shot that is held. An essential component of editing is knowing when not to edit, when to hold the shot. Films of earlier decades routinely exhibit this quality. Many contemporary films do not, and in this respect it can be said that their hyperactive editing style is cannibalizing other essential elements of cinema. When every shot is only a few frames long, the art of the cinematographer, of the production designer, and of the actor necessarily suffers. Sergei Eisenstein always maintained that the point of montage was to overcome the characteristics of the single shot taken in isolation. Ironically, his objective is being realized in the montage style that has emerged with the advent of nonlinear editing.