Editing to me, is the least sexy of the film disciplines. Writing, directing, acting or cinematography are all skills and jobs I can see the joy and creativity in. Editing, on the other hand, is essentially being locked in a room for months on end, going frame by frame through endless reels of footage as you move from close-up to wide shot back to close-up.
Of course certain films and directors are more well-known for their editing styles than others. Take for example, the terrifying scene from Requiem for a Dream, which must surely hold the record for most cuts per second, as we quickly move from horrifying scenario to horrifying scenario.
Take also, the more recent example of Scott Pilgrim , where Edgar Wright, inspired by the tropes of comic books, cuts to reaction shots of characters during key scenes in the movie (normally accompanied by 80s video game sound effects). Actors from the movie have described how Wright would want precisely the right half-a-second shot, with their eyebrow raised ‘this much’ and eyes looking at precisely the right angle. In a film like this, it is the editing, not the actors who are doing the brunt of the work.
Largely, however, editing goes unnoticed by the viewer, too immersed in the story to consider why the director has used a close-up for that part of the scene, and a wide shot for another.
Jean Luc Godard, however, decided to draw attention to his own edits with what became known as ‘jump cuts’. That is, when the foreground of a scene changes only slightly, but in such a way that it is obvious a cut/edit has been made. It’s perhaps easier to see in this clip from Godard’s Breathless:
The first jump cut occurs after about 14 seconds, and there are plenty more after this.
One might ask the obvious question: what’s the point? Surely the idea of cinema is to immerse, and by drawing attention to its own techniques, does something like a ‘jump cut’ not do the opposite?
One can argue for a long time about the reasoning behind a film-maker like Godard, known for breaking the conventions of cinema as and when he pleased. One of the things he does do, however, is force us to question what we are being shown by more conventional film-makers. By drawing attention to the editing in his own film, it forces us to consider the apparently more subtle editing in other works. What purpose is it serving? How long are the shots? What is the camera really showing us? What are we having to imagine is going on around it?
An actor, not quite on their A-game, can be made to look better by only holding on their sad-face for so long, or by making a long stare into the distance look like regret/thoughtfulness/longing/satisfaction/resignation depending on what the previous and/or next shot shows us.
Editing, you see can cover a multitude of sins (as well as perhaps even causing a multitude of sins). The process of weaving together hours of footage is something quite unique to the filmed narratives of movies and television. However, the choices of what to show us, when and for how long can be just as important as story, characters or cinematography.