Audiences have learned to speak a visual language since the advent of cinema. If audiences of early film were to be shown a contemporary films it is likely that they would be disorientated. This is to say that editing in film has evolved drastically over the past century and that our own visual language has evolved along with it. Film makers like George Méliès, Alice Guy, Edwin S. Porter and D.W Griffith consistently developed the editing process changing the way films were made. Early film mimicked theatre before it matured into its own unique form of storytelling.
Early film makers would compose an all-encompassing long shot only cutting when changing scene or often making use of jump cuts merely out of necessity rather than to aid the narrative. Jump cuts are used today when a director wants to create the feeling of time passing or make the audience uneasy. The Lumière Brothers and George Méliès films couldn’t be further apart. Not only do they differ between fantasy and reality but also in how these film makers made use of the editing process. The Lumière Brothers used nothing but jump cuts that appear from splicing together film strips taken by a camera in a fixed position. The only time the camera moves position is when cutting to a new scene. One of the few instances the Lumière Brothers made clever use of editing was in Demolition d'un Mur (1896). Where Louis Lumière showed audiences a wall being demolished before showing the action in reverse.
Méliès on the other hand established a set of visual conventions and editing techniques that were important and unique to films as a medium. With a background as a theatre owner and an illusionist Méliès enjoyed the visual trickery possible in film. Although Barbe-Bleu (1901) like the Lumière Brothers uses static long shots throughout the entire film. Méliès does however use dissolves to transition between scenes rather than cutting directly to the next scene. The dissolve is done by using a double exposure in the transition from one piece of film to the next. The transition is still used heavily in contemporary films today and often is used to show the passing of time. Using the dissolve helped Méliès to cut from one scene to another without jarring the audience as much as a hard cut would. This editing technique illustrates how the development of editing processes helped make film more intuitive for the audience.
Although Méliès films can be viewed as narrative films they are undeniably more about spectacle than the narrative. Tom Gunning refers to this as the ‘Cinema of Attraction’ and many theorise that the Cinema of Attraction is still evident today with the latest CGI and IMAX enticing audiences to go to the cinema. In Barbe-Bleu (1901) Méliès developed editing techniques such as the substitution splice technique. This editing technique was done in camera. The camera operator would stop filming while something was added, removed or altered and then filming was resumed. Méliès discovered this technique when his camera jammed filming one day. When he later reviewed the clip a bus he had been filming suddenly transformed into a hearse. Méliès uses the substitution splice technique in Bluebeard to have the devil character disappear into smoke. Méliès also made use of multiple exposures. This technique involves having more than one exposure and superimposing the exposures onto a single frame. This allowed Méliès to create the illusion of ghosts floating in the air and giant keys dancing.
Although Méliès reuses the same editing techniques in Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) he uses faster cuts during the descent of the rocket back down to Earth with four cuts taking place in a twenty second span the scene stands out from the lengthy shots throughout the rest of the film. By quickly cutting Méliès makes the scene more intense whether done intentionally in this instance or out of necessity we later see directors make use of this editing technique. Quick cutting has become a common convention in modern action films. Interestingly Robert J. Flaherty has a similar scene in both Nanook of the North (1922) and Man of Aran (1934). In both films the characters are attempting to catch food. In Nanook of the North the Inuit wrestles with a walrus while in Man of Aran the islanders struggle to catch a basking shark. However in Man of Aran Flaherty cleverly uses fast cuts in rapid succession to heighten the tension and make the scene more dramatic than that of the Inuit and walrus in Nanook. Méliès also makes use of the direction match in this scene with the rocket falling down and exiting the frame at the bottom before cutting and showing it entering from the top in all four of these cuts. The direction match is taken for granted in film today but was an essential innovation to editing techniques that helps to add believability and realism to film worlds so that audiences could focus on the narrative without getting disorientated.
The following year Edwin S. Porter released his film The Great Train Robbery (1903). The film was another monumental leap forward as the developments Porter made to the editing process changed the way films were made forever. Porter uses editing to heighten the tension of the robbery by using cross cutting. Cross cutting involves cutting between two events in different locations taking place at the same time to build up dramatic intensity. The final shot of the film is also a mid-shot of the Justus D. Barnes firing at the audience. Porter understood that this would be more threatening as a mid-shot rather than a long shot. Cutting between various shots to create dramatic intensity is a visual convention that has become commonplace due to editing techniques.
D.W. Griffith is credited with establishing a set of visual conventions that have become common due to the development of the editing process. It was Griffith that really established film as a medium setting up many of the visual conventions we know today. Rather than seeing film as a silent version of theatre Griffith saw the unique potential film offered for telling stories. Rather than simply cutting between a series of long shots Griffith interwove wide shots, long shots, mid shots and close ups. In doing this he was able to convey complex narratives.
To this day film makers still use the visual conventions and language laid down by Griffith. Rather than using the camera as a stationary viewpoint like the directors that came before him Griffith understood the power of film and increased the drama and intensity by moving the camera into and around the scene telling the audience where to look. Griffith understood the power of the close up, mid shot and long shot and how each of them change how the audience perceive the narrative. Griffith established the visual conventions of film that we know today.
Griffith made regular use of the match cut. This made cutting between different camera positions seamless when it would otherwise have disorientated the audience. When using the match cut properly or cutting ‘on action’ directors could mask that a cut had even take place. This allowed audiences to become more invested in the story. Griffith also ensured that when looking at one another the actor’s eyelines were in sync. This helped the audience feel like the characters were genuinely interacting with one another in a real space. Griffith’s innovations to the editing process have become visual conventions so common today that we take them for granted. We are so used to match cuts, direction cuts and eyeline match that we can instantly spot a scene that fails to conform to these conventions.
Griffith also understood the power of sequential images and developed the technique of associative editing also known as the Kuleshov effect. Associative editing allowed Griffith to create a collection of apparently unrelated shots but when put into a sequence create an emotional response from the viewer. Griffith could show a characters point of view looking at something and then cut to a reaction shot. This also allowed viewers to create a connection with the character.
Although the cross cut is used earlier by Porter in The Great Train Robbery (1903), In An Unseen Enemy (1912) Griffith uses cross cutting to even greater effect. In this film Griffith cross cuts between three plotlines all taking place simultaneously and then ties them all together at the climax. Without the ability to build up the dramatic intensity by cross cut between plotlines a story like this would be impossible to tell. This illustrates how the developments of editing changed the way films were made.
We can see a clear difference between the films made during the advent of film and those made later on as the medium began to mature. The early films are clearly created in the shadow of the theatre and borrow many of the theatres conventions. They use lengthy stationary long shots to show all of the action and struggle to convey even simple narratives. However with the development of the editing process and the establishment of a set of visual conventions film makers discovered the new mediums potential for telling narratives. They learned that using direction cuts, match cuts and eye line matching they could create believable realities that the audience could immerse themselves in. They made use of developments in the editing process and took advantage of transitional effects such as the dissolve that allowed them to create the feeling of time elapsing and cut without jarring the audience. They discovered that through the use of these editing techniques such as cross cutting and associative editing they could convey complex narratives, cutting from shot to shot showing the audience what they needed to see and delivering the story picture by picture rather than using a single all-encompassing static long shot with only jump cuts made for necessity rather than furthering the plot.