Editors join shots using a variety of optical transitions. These serve narrative, dramatic, and emotionally expressive functions. The most common transitions are the cut (which creates an instantaneous change from one shot to the next), the fade (during which one shot fades completely to black before the next shot fades in from black), and the dissolve (which overlaps the outgoing and incoming shots). Cuts are the most frequent transitions, and typically indicate an uninterrupted flow of narrative information, with no breaks of time or space. Dissolves and fades, on the other hand, may be used to indicate transitions in time and space.
Other optical transitions are available but are used infrequently, and some have become archaic in that they were more common in earlier periods of cinema. The iris was used throughout silent cinema, and the wipe in early sound film. George Lucas (b. 1944) regularly uses irises and wipes in his Star Wars films in order to evoke the visual qualities of early cinema (one source for the films being the old cliff-hanging serials that moviegoers saw in the first half of the twentieth century). Editors may also create split screen effects, putting several shots on screen at once by splitting the image into small windows. This technique enjoyed a brief vogue in the late 1960s and 1970s ( The Thomas Crown Affair , Junior Bonner , Twilight's Last Gleaming ). It has been revived in recent years ( Timecode ) and can be found in the films of Brian De Palma (b. 1940).
As noted, parallel editing and crosscutting are building blocks of narrative, and they enable editors to control time and space. Indeed, this control of time and space is Miklo one of the key functions of editing. Editors may use continuity cutting to create a stable and reliable spatial geography onscreen, or they may break continuity to undermine spatial coherence, as in films such as Straw Dogs (1971) and Gladiator (2000).
With respect to time (i.e., the duration of an event onscreen), editors may expand it by using devices such as slow motion, or by increasing the number of cutaways from a main line of action or increasing the number of shots that are used to cover the action. In either case, the screen time of the event stretches out. During the Odessa massacre scene in Potemkin a mother with a baby carriage is shot in the stomach, and Eisenstein prolongs the moment of her agony by covering the action with numerous shots and then editing among them. The result is that it takes her a very long time to collapse to the ground, and this duration is a function of editing rather than the actor's performance. Conversely, editors may shrink or contract time by leaving out portions of the action. Jump cuts are an obvious and aestheticized way of doing this. The more common method, however, is to employ a "cheat." In Vertigo (1958), James Stewart has to walk down a very long chapel corridor in order to reach the bell tower, where an important scene will occur. It would be tedious to show him walking the length of the corridor. A judicious cut telescopes the action in a way that is imperceptible to the viewer.
Editors employ cheats all the time, and they routinely do many other things that viewers never notice. They may flip shots to get a proper eyeline match or screen direction, make the action move backwards (when Jack Palance mounts his horse in Shane , it's the dismount shot played in reverse), or solve problems in the continuity or blocking of a scene's action by using cutaways to move things around.
Editors also help shape the actors' performances, and in doing so they help create the dramatic focus of a scene. An editor's decision to play a line of dialogue with the camera on the speaker will inflect the scene in one direction, whereas the decision to use a reaction shot of another character while the line is spoken will give the moment a different tone and emphasis. Film viewers are typically quite unaware of the extent to which editing intersects with film acting. Viewers may attribute to the actor much that results, in fact, from editing. If the editor elects to respect the performance, he or she may work with the master shot, allowing the performances to unfold in the relatively unbroken time of unedited shots. On the other hand, if the editor goes to coverage, building a scene with cutaways, inserts, and switches in camera position, then the editing is subtly reworking the performance. Examples include trimming the ends of shots to tighten an actor's apparent psychological reflex or to make him or her seem to jump on another character's line, or dropping inserts into the action to draw out the length of an actor's pause.
Lou Lombardo's seminal contribution to the history of editing is his work on The Wild Bunch (1969), directed by Sam Peckinpah. The complex montages of violence that Lombardo created for that film influenced generations of filmmakers and established the modern cinematic textbook for editing violent gun battles. Lombardo didn't originate the essentials of this design. Dede Allen's editing of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) furnished an immediate inspiration, and Allen's work in turn was modeled on Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) and Sergei Eisenstein's general approach to montage. But it was Lombardo, working under Peckinpah's guidance, who created the most elaborate and extended design and set the style for other filmmakers.
Peckinpah shot the film's violent gun battles using multiple cameras, and Lombardo took this footage and wove it into complex collages of action, meshing multiple lines of action by intercutting them and mixing normal speed action with varying degrees of slow motion. The editing is audacious and visionary, as the montages bend space and elongate time in a manner whose scope and ferocity was unprecedented in American cinema. Working without benefit of today's nonlinear editing systems that facilitate the control of huge amounts of footage, Lombardo created a final cut that contained more edit points than any American film in history to that time. Making this achievement more impressive yet is the fact that The Wild Bunch was Lombardo's first substantive feature film. Prior to this he had worked on television (editing Felony Squad , where he tried integrating slow-motion and normal-speed footage) and had edited the feature The Name of the Game Is Kill (1968).
Lombardo continued his partnership with Peckinpah on The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), where they experimented less successfully with edits combining normal speed and accelerated action. Peckinpah wanted to use Lombardo again on Straw Dogs (1971), but Lombardo was by then busy editing Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), one of five Altman pictures that he cut (the others were Brewster McCloud , The Long Goodbye , Thieves Like Us , and California Split , 1974). Though his work for Altman was less trendsetting than that for Peckinpah, the partnership with Altman lasted much longer, and Lombardo found the perfect visual rhythms for Altman's wandering and diffuse audio style.
Lombardo was also a very effective editor of comedy ( Uncle Buck , Other People's Money ), with Moonstruck (1987) being a particular standout. The superb comic timing of that film is due to Lombardo's editing as much as to the fine direction by Norman Jewison and the sparkling performances.
Lombardo's career was cut short by a stroke in 1991, and he spent the last decade of his life in a coma. But he had left an indelible mark on modern cinema with The Wild Bunch .
The Wild Bunch (1969), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), Moonstruck (1987)
Lobrutto, Vincent, ed. Selected Takes: Film Editors on Editing . New York: Praeger, 1991.
Weddle, David. If They Move … Kill 'Em!: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah . New York: Grove Press, 1994.
More extreme examples include using close-ups that have been lifted from other action but that seem to work best in the new context. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), editor Sheldon Kahn (b. 1940) took some footage of actress Louise Fletcher (b. 1934) in conversation with the film's director, Milos Forman (b. 1932), lifted a piece of her expression from this footage, and used it in a scene where her character looks archly at the film's hero (Jack Nicholson). It worked in the scene but, in reality, it was not a moment in which the actress was acting. The surrounding material of the scene, organized by the editing, effectively recontextualized her expression. George Lucas used editing to completely rework his actors' performances in the recent Star Wars film, Attack of the Clones (2002), to the point of cutting and pasting eye blinks and lip movements from one scene to the next.
These considerations suggest that the term "invisible editing," as critics have selectively used it to describe the cutting style of classical Hollywood cinema, is a naïve description. In fact, nearly all editing is invisible editing because the vast bulk of what the editor does, the myriad ways that editing transforms the raw footage of a shoot, remains subliminal and imperceptible to viewers. Some films call attention to their editing style by virtue of aggressive montage or jagged, discontinuous cut points ( Easy Rider , Don't Look Now , Moulin Rouge ), and it is this kind of filmmaking that scholars and critics commonly posit as the alternative to the "invisible" style of classical Hollywood. But such a dichotomy of Hollywood and anti-Hollywood editing styles is too simplistic. It minimizes the numerous ways that editors on every production work "below the radar," creating effects, emphasis, and continuity in ways that do not advertise themselves as editing.
Shooting on digital video now makes it possible to create a feature film in one shot, without any traditional editing (as in Russian Ark ). Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) once tried to do without editing by making Rope (1948) as if there were no edits between shots. But these superlatively designed films are aberrations from cinema's essential nature, which is, and has always been, an edited construction transforming the realities of what has existed before the cameras.
Dmytryk, Edward. On Film Editing . Woburn, MA: Focal Press, 1984.
Murch, Walter. In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing . Los Angeles: Sliman-James Press, 1995.
Oldham, Gabriella. First Cut: Conversations with Film Editors . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
Ondaatje, Michael. The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film . New York: Knopf, 2002.
Prince, Stephen, and Wayne Hensley. "The Kuleshov Effect: Recreating the Classic Experiment." Cinema Journal 31, no. 2 (Winter 1992): 59–75.
Reisz, Karel, and Gavin Millar. The Technique of Film Editing . Boston: Focal Press, 1983.