Dissolve to Flashback

Flashbacks have long been a common tool for filmmakers to show the audience information or events that happened before the film’s beginning. One classic example of such is in Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film Casablanca. Approximately in the middle of the film, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) has a flashback recounting his time with his old flame Isla (Ingrid Bergman) in Paris, after they unexpectedly meet up again in Casablanca.

The flashback begins in present-day Casablanca, with Rick getting drunk at his bar, with Sam (Dooley Wilson) playing Rick and Isla’s favorite song from their days together. Throughout the “pre-flashback”, the camera is pushing closer and closer to Rick, ending with him filling up the entire frame gazing off into the distance. Then, the scene transitions with a ripple dissolve, into a shot of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, before again dissolving into a shot of Rick and Isla driving, smiling, with the Arc behind them. The audience immediately recognizes that this is a flashback of their time together in Paris, which was only hinted at before. The flashback continues with a series of short scenes of their time in Paris, with several dissolve transitions scattered throughout to show the passage of time. The flashback ends with another ripple dissolve back to the shot of Rick sitting in his bar, with Sam finishing the song.

This sequence raised a few questions for me. Firstly, why is the ripple dissolve transition so naturally associated with a flashback? When people think of their past, their memories do not dissolve, nor do they ripple, so how do audiences naturally realize that they are watching a flashback, as opposed to the next chronological scene in the film? Also, how do dissolves show the passage of time between shots? Can a similar effect be achieved with a different transition? How different would the flashback’s effect be if instead of dissolves (rippled or not), hard cuts were used? Lastly, how is music and sound employed to emphasize flashback? In this example, the song was shown to “bring Rick back to the past”. Would the scene play differently if there was no song playing in the background?

Editing as Art

Editing forms the basis of how we interact on an emotional and visual level with any film.  An editor’s style and choice of techniques decide which characters we side with, how well we are able to follow the plot, and even allows certain thematic elements to seep into the image itself.  Christopher Nolan’s film Memento (2000) is an excellent example of the power of editing.

Throughout the film, his editor (Doddy Dorn) makes frequent use of eyeline matches and POV shots to put the audience in the shoes of the protagonist, a man struggling with his recent loss of short term memory.  We share his confusion and struggle to ascertain fundamental truths about his situation as the editor makes continuous use of sharp cuts to temporally ambiguous scenes.  We as the audience struggle with every sequence to piece together where it fits into the timeline of his life just as he does.

Though Memento plays with the techniques of temporal editing, it falls in line with the modern style of continuity editing within each sequence, obeying the 180-degree rule and the 30-degree rule, ensuring that during the portions of the film in which the protagonist is able to begin to piece his story together, we as his companions can also piece together his life alongside him.  Though the overall plot is muddled by his memory issues which are reflected in the editing, it is never unclear to us who is speaking, where they are located in the set, or their physical distances from other characters.

However, some films abandon with this modern style of continuity all together, seeking to blur the lines between even the characters themselves.  Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013) uses this technique, or lack thereof, to great effect.

In the third act of the film, his editor (himself) begins to entirely dispose of the current “rules” of film editing throughout sequences that become almost impossible to follow.  He frequently cuts to inserts of scenery or random objects as one of the characters speaks, making it difficult to even tell who is telling these stories that become retold repeatedly.  He also does away with the 30-degree rule in most of the sequences which frame both of the protagonists together in conversation, making disjunctive cuts between shots which are only a few degrees apart, sometimes even canting the camera even between shots.  All of these methods combined together act to distract us and rip us away from any hope of following the dialogue between our protagonists, usually making these cuts at the precise moment we have just begun to latch onto the continuity.

The Significance of Editing

In films, we can see the importance of mise-en-scéne and cinematography quite easily because these incorporate everything within the frame that we are focusing on. Does editing hold the same significance as these factors? The characters, the colors, and the props are all bits of information that are relayed to us directly through the mise-en-scéne and cinematography. Editing is defined as “the process of selecting and joining film footage and shots” — Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White, The Film Experience, 168. It is essentially taking different manifestations of cinematography and mise-en-scéne and putting them together. Knowing this, editing takes on paramount importance as it pieces together shots and footage in meaningful ways using cuts, transitions, and other things.

Editing can be broken down into different elements. Each element creates meaning in its own way by changing the way that the film is experienced by an audience. A cut is “the join or splice between two pieces of film” (Corrigan and White, 168). Cuts are the simplest and most common forms of editing and consists of many different types that create feelings about the film or assert an idea. Transitions are the join of two separate pieces of film with the use of some embellishment that also adds meaning to the film. This video talks about different types of cuts and transitions.

Another element of editing is the continuity style. Although it is not necessary or guaranteed, many films use a continuity style in order to orient space and time. They do this to give their film verisimilitude, which “is the quality of fictional representation that allows readers or viewers to accept a constructed [world] as plausible” (Corrigan and White, 180). By having spatial and temporal patterns, the film becomes something that is believable when we are watching it. A common use continuity editing is the eyeline match. A character is shown looking somewhere off-screen, then the camera cuts to another shot with a new subject. As viewers, we assume that the character was looking at what we saw in the second shot. Based on this edit, we can form spatial relationships between characters and objects as well as ideas about the significance of the character’s glance. In this clip from Star Wars: Episode 1, Obi-Wan Kenobi looks at his lightsaber off screen, then it cuts to his lightsaber. This mixed with his obvious desperation, we form an idea that he is planning to do something with the lightsaber to get out of his current situation, which he does.

Editing’s relationship with time is also important for creating meaning in a film. For example, sometimes the scenes of a movie will not be shown in chronological order of the story. When this occurs, typically there will be some sort of external cue through editing. Flashbacks might dissolve in simulating a character’s memory. Some sequences in films are not explicitly located in any part of the story timeline. This ambiguity is sometimes used on purpose for descriptions, psychological depth, and others. Duration also plays a part in the audiences viewing experience. A film tells a story that has its own timeline but is shown only in the runtime of the film. The length of the story and the length of the movie are almost never the same lengths, therefore it is important in editing to manipulate the duration to make the story flow and feel like its happening in its own timeline. This is affected by pace and rhythm. How often movie cuts can be measured by the average shot length (ASL). ASL helps determine the pace of films. Films take on different paces depending on what type of film they are or what kind of feeling they want to give off.

All of these elements put together are very subtle and go unnoticed when discussing the important parts of a film. However, editing creates so much meaning that basically none of the films you see today can exist without it. Not only is it necessary to put together films that we see, it is important in commanding the way that the viewer is seeing the film and interpreting it. What do you think is more important as a viewer, things like mise-en-scéne and cinematography or editing? As time has passed, the ASL of films has dropped. In your opinion what could be the cause of this trend? Is continuity something that you pay close attention to when watching a film?

Utilizing Editing to Create a Mood

Editing is a key stage in the post-production effort of a film.  One of the more interesting aspects of editing that I had never considered was the 180 degree rule.  This is a law of continuity editing that states the camera needs to stay on one side of the action line.  I had trouble imagining how a scene that breaks this rule would appear on screen, so I found a couple examples to analyze below.  The video embedded below is an excerpt from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Kubrick crosses the line three times over the course of a single scene in the bathroom.  These cuts serve to exacerbate the suspenseful atmosphere that the film heavily employs.  Each reverse cut temporarily disorients the viewer; a feeling that is in line with the strange and unsettling conversation that takes place inside the bathroom.

Another example of the 180 degree rule being broken is in Quentin Tarantino’s classic, Pulp Fiction.  The scene in the video below takes place in a diner with Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson, attempting to retrieve his stolen items.  While this scene is also tense, it does have an air of supernatural suspense like the scene above from The Shining.  The camera crosses the 180 degree line near the end of the clip, as all the characters start yelling and tension skyrockets.  Tarantino’s decision to break the 180 degree rule has an important effect on the viewer.  Since the rise of continuity editing in the 1950’s, the viewer now expects scenes to follow that accepted archetype.  Because it is so unexpected, when the camera angle is suddenly reversed, it serves to impress upon the viewer that anything can and will happen.  This editing decision elevates the tension of the scene above what simply the acting and sound can achieve on their own because the audience now believes an outbreak of violence is more likely.


Continuity vs. Disjunctive Editing

Editing impacts the perception of space and time in a film and the way an audience perceives emotion and ideas from a film. One of the most important concepts covered in this chapter is the way editing can either “emulate our ordinary ways of seeing or transcend them.” Editing meant to emulate our ordinary way of seeing things is called continuity editing. In this editing style, each shot has a continuous relationship to the next shot, and it is such a standard in the film industry that certain “rules” are followed to make sure the editing is continuous. A cut is largely unnoticed, and the space and time of the scene are believable and realistic. The following clip shows an example of continuity editing.

This first half of this clip from Titanic (1997) shows a conversation between Rose and her fiancé Cal. It begins with a dissolve transition, to indicate a change in space and time. Next, it follows common rules of continuity editing; an establishing shot shows the setup of the characters seated around the table, and then a shot/reverse shot pattern along with over-the-shoulder shots shows Rose and Cal’s faces as they speak. Reestablishing shots are thrown in to remind us of their orientation, but since the 180 degree rule is never broken, the action remains on one side of an imaginary line and the audience is never disoriented. As Rose and Cal look offscreen at each other, we observe eyeline matches, and the camera often shows reaction shots of Rose as she becomes alarmed at Cal’s anger.

However, as we know, realism and verisimilitude (the appearance of being true) are not always primary concerns of filmmakers. In disjunctive editing, the editing is visible, and attention is called to a cut through jumps in time or space or certain rhythms. The following clip shows an example of disjunctive editing.

This clip from Breathless (1960) shows Michael and Patricia riding in a car, and uses jump cuts, where the action is interrupted by a cut. The camera continuously breaks the 30-degree rule by containing a shot that is not at a position greater than 30 degrees from the previous shot. Patricia is shown doing different actions from similar angles, which draws our attention to the fact that there has been a cut and a jump in time.

Both editing styles succeed in generating emotions and ideas, but they are achieved in different ways. Disjunctive editing calls attention to editing itself to affect viewers, while continuity editing allows other elements to impact the viewer. In the clip from Breathless, the jumpy camera movements enhance the jumpy feel of the movie and enforce the urgency and distraction of petty criminals on the run. In the clip from Titanic, we can feel Rose’s sense of feeling trapped by Cal and by wealth by being able to focus on the characters’ emotions and actions rather than the editing. Furthermore, in the clip from Titanic, cinematography and mise-en-scene are also able to play a greater role in adding meaning to the film; long shots of the table are followed by medium close-ups of characters faces so we can sense their emotion. The wealth of the characters and their way-of-life is shown by their costumes and props.

Is one editing style more effective in adding meaning to a story? Will disjunctive editing become more popular and continue to “break the rules” of continuity editing as audiences crave new and exciting editing features, or will audiences continue to need films to mirror real life so that to a certain degree there will always be editing “rules”?

The Subtlety and Importance of Editing

Most directors believe editing (post-production) is the most important step in the making of a film. Although a shot is what you see, an edit is how you see it. An edit determines the experience for the viewer and entirely navigates the interpretation of a scene. And very often (unless intentionally otherwise), the viewer is completely unaware of this manipulation. They make it subconscious and seamless so that the viewers think they came to their own conclusions themselves.

Lately, especially with blockbuster films, we primarily see continuity editing– the style of editing that promotes verisimilitude and efficient story-telling. It requires little critical thinking on the viewers side and each shot naturally continues off of the last. This editing technique is usually used when editing is not a primary focus for the film’s development, but instead CGI or great acting performances. (This is actually why the Dark Knight trilogy is amazing– it has it all. The first scene that comes to mind is the parallel editing [alternation between two simultaneous strands of action] of this famous scene where The Joker is yelling “Hit me” while Batman speeds at him with the possible intent of actually killing him).


Unexpectedly, continuity editing is hard to uphold. There are several rules for it to maintain “sense.” Most importantly is the 180-degree rule. If the camera is on one “side” of a conversation (determined by an “axis of action” or “line of vision”), the camera must continue to be on that same side throughout cuts unless at some point the camera moves to the other side. Otherwise, it randomly appears as if the characters switched positions.

Slightly less important is the 30-degree rule. It states that the next shot must change in angle by at least 30 degrees from the current. Not only because a pan/tilt could easily replace the small angle cut, but also because viewers notice this and interpret it as almost an accidental stutter/jump in the film frames.

Continuity editing is easy on the viewer, but hard on the director. Is that what makes it the “default” choice? Because over the years, films have become less about creative expressionism and more about eye candy consumerism? And why in movies that are entirely fictional, do we try to maintain the realism of visual perception? Does that not contradict the fictionalism of the movie itself?

Week 3 Reading/Viewing

Here’s an article from American Cinematographer on Robert Elswit‘s lensing of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2008).

Here’s an article about Jack Cardiff, who shot many of Powell and Pressburger‘s films, including Black Narcissus (1948). Here’s an accompanying gallery of images from his films.

Here’s some info about Nam June Paik‘s work of anti-cinematography, Zen for Film (1961).

Clips we saw in class:

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928):


Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948):

There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2008):


Tang Dynasty Art and The Assassin

Traditional Chinese painting usually depicts a large landscape with minimal, if any, human presence. The reasons why are varied: a diminished role of the individual relative to Western culture, Tao-ist emphasis on nature, at one point many of the artists (mostly nobility) were kicked out of the court and only had landscapes to look at anyway. In class we talked about why Hou Hsiao-hsien would have such long and lingering shots on the landscape, with no action or dialogue occurring. I think his choice to include these scenes and let them sit for so long ties the “aesthetic tradition” that Dr. Zinman mentioned to the modern movement of film as a meditative aid. The traditional paintings and these natural scenes are so similar in composition that the relation must be intentional. The extremely wide field-of-view of both traditional painting and The Assassin forces the viewer to evaluate their role in what they are viewing (both the art itself and the environment it depicts. Below are a few examples of traditional painting from during and after the Tang dynasty, as well as some stills from The Assassin.

Tang Dynasy Example
Post-Tang Example


I think the aesthetic similarities are very clear. You’ll notice the poems written near the top of the paintings; the sparse and frequently poetic dialogue in The Assassin serves such a purpose in the movie. An interesting question to arise out of this is, why is Hou Hsiao-hsien emulating this traditional style? The obvious answer is that as part of adapting a 9th century text he will also adapt 9th century visual art.

However, I believe there are political aspects to it as well. The beauty and majesty of the landscapes contrast sharply with the confined (though luxurious) spaces of the Wei Bo court and mansions. The mood and tone of these places also contract; in the wide open spaces of the landscapes we take a break from the scheming and arguing of the court. Hou Hsiao-hsien invites us to step back from politics during the serene nature shots. It is ultimately on top of a mountain, with mist rolling over the peak, where Nie Niang tells her master that she will no longer follow her politically motivated commands.

Another interesting aspect of these scenes lies in the production. Filming of The Assassin took place in both China and Taiwan.  The two nations share a history and culture of which the landscapes in mainland China are a central feature. It must be difficult for Hou Hsiao-hsien to separate these beautiful natural landmarks from the unfortunate political situation that divides them from him. But separating the two is exactly what I think he asks us to do when he lingers on one of the many beautiful natural shots in the movie.

Cinematography in East Asian Cinema

Much of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin focuses on the act of seeing – both in how Yinniang sees the world around her as she weighs whether or not to kill her cousin, Tian Ji’An, and in how we, as the audience, see her character’s struggles through symbol and image. In this vein, it may be valuable to look at some other East Asian works and see how their cinematography reflects this same theme of seeing.

Wong Kar-Wai, a Hong Kong director and member of the Hong Kong New Wave, produced one of my favorite films, In the Mood for Love. The film centers on Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, two neighbors living in Hong Kong in the 1950’s. Mr. Chow’s wife is having an affair with Mrs. Chan’s husband, and we follow Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan as they come to this realization and slowly develop a platonic romance of their own. Against the backdrop of a very socially conservative Hong Kong that frowned upon even platonic relationships between man and woman, we see the duo making a habit of meeting secretly in a rented apartment to simply talk and enjoy each others’ company.

The following two clips are remarkable examples of how Wong Kar-Wai and his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, develop the isolation, loneliness, paranoia and lack of privacy that each character feels through their image composition.

One of the most interesting aspects of the cinematography in both clips is how constrained the characters are in the frame. More often than not, they are framed by hallways and windows, doorways and walls, squeezed into a sliver of the entire frame. It’s claustrophobic, and on top of that, the characters’ neighbors constantly pop into these slivers of space that the characters exist in, adding additional pressure and constriction. Only in the rented apartment, when Chan and Chow are together, do the characters have room to breathe and let down their guard.

In addition, this sense of constraint lends each shot the sensation that we, as audience members, are spying on the main characters – viewing them through windows and mirrors, seeing reflections, hints and images of the characters true selves. As such, Wong and Doyle create this overwhelmingly pervasive sense that the characters are being watched, and we are complicit.

In the framing, Chow and Chan are almost always separated, going through parallel motions in parallel hallways or parallel mirror panes, but irrevocably apart because of the society they live in. And the color and lighting reflect this sense of melancholic isolation. The backgrounds are painted with rich crimson hues, complemented by diffuse lighting and silhouettes trailing each of the protagonists. For as much color as there is in each frame, shadows dominate as well.

All of these compositional elements contribute to how we see Chow and Chan and how we understand their complex emotions and achings for each other without many words being exchanged by either character. While In the Mood for Love is nowhere near as abstracted as The Assassin in how it conveys its story, it is valuable to consider how the tools that Wong and Doyle employ have been used to even greater effect in The Assassin.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien and the Long Shot

In the article, ““We Just Did Long Takes Every Time”: Hou Hsiao-hsien on The Assassin” from filmmakermagazine.com, it is discussed that director Hou Hsiao-Hsien uses the cinematography in The Assassin to really tell the story. It’s not really a secret that The Assassin does not have a completely coherent plot, and that added on top of the average person not having an extensive knowledge of the Tang Dynasty, The Assassin is a bit of a complex movie to follow. However, Hsiao-hsien’s close work with director of photography, Mark Lee, led to some beautifully mastered scenes throughout the movie.

As the title of the article suggests, Hsiao-Hsien and Lee took long shots of almost every scene in the movie unless it was absolutely necessary to change it up (i.e., the fight scenes since the actors/actresses were not classically trained fighters). Most of the changes in depth were done in post production because Hsiao-Hsien and Lee felt that the long shot was the best possible shot for the entire movie and wanted to have that footage for almost every shot.

Hsaio-Hsien also did not want to do injustice to the scenery and locations they shot on, so barely any filters were used throughout post production, and what you see in the long shot is what you get in the long shot.