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?

The Assassin Cinematography

Immediately, we have no idea what is going on in The Assassin. And to my amazement, by the end, I still indeed had no idea what was going on. But that is not what makes the movie good. It is the never-ending sequence of beautiful shots.

First– the colors were amazing. Right off the bat, the movie is in black and white. This lasts until the title is displayed– a subtle yet clever indication that everything we have seen thus far was a flashback. Afterwards, the movie is an explosion of flamboyant colors. Particularly in the ELS taken outdoors during travel, their bright outfits contrast the natural greens surrounding them. But these color contrasts served more as contrast between their complex way of life vs. the simplicity of nature. There is something comforting and refreshing about witnessing trees blowing in the wind right after listening to some general babble about world domination for fifteen minutes.

Framing and camera movement went hand-in-hand in The Assassin. They minimized cuts (only when the scene changed or greatly during combat). When multiple people in a room were talking, rather than showing a LS of everyone, they used a MS that slowly but surely panned/tilted over to the next speaker seamlessly with dialogue. And the shots would last for several minutes at a time. I have never seen that in a movie before, and to me was by the far the coolest attribute of the entire film (aside from the unexpected, yet badass outro music).

Hsiao-Hsen played around with focus and layers (depth) to the extent that some of the dialogue and plot progression are utterly useless. While the general and his wife spend twenty minutes discussing how much they pity the assassin, the camera is slowly shifting around between translucent curtains and alternating focus on various layers such as candles or, at one point, the assassin herself. This adds an element of surprise that is usually obtained with rapid cuts. Instead, the assassin is slowly focused into view, and you panic nonetheless.

Did the colors mean anything else to you? Were the layers symbolic perhaps? And although most of the shots were smooth, they were still handheld (you can constantly see a slight tremble in the camera movements). Was that a good or bad call for a movie aiming for such beauty?

Loss of Control and Abruption in The Grand Budapest Hotel

A primary, yet subtle, theme in the Grand Budapest Hotel is the idea of Control. For context, the Grand Budapest Hotel resides in the fictional European country of Zubrowska, and the bulk of the story takes place in 1932. Although no real history exists for this fake country, the history of Europe is portrayed accurately instead. This is around the time Fascist (and later Nazi) political parties rose to power, predominantly in Italy and Germany. We even see Zero and Mr. Gustave stopped aboard a train in two instances to be questioned about Zero’s legal documents by Fascist officers. Now how does the rest of the movie apply to this theme? Let us take a look at Mr. Gustave. He has been the concierge of a world-renowned hotel for at least 19 years (that is how long he has been with Madame D). He has everything in order at all times and is constantly busy. Staff members ask questions and immediately get answers. He calls for someone and they appear instantly. He is always on the move, and makes time to visit all of the guests that matter (particularly the elderly women he loves to sleep with). He has everything under control.  Now let us look at his rival, Dmitri. He is a rich and powerful man that always has and always *will* get what he wants. He, too, has total control. The movie is essentially a series of events that ongoingly passes control between these two men that are normalized to having control at all times. Although most loss of control revolves around these two men, many people are seen losing control throughout the film. These shifts in control can always be noted with vulgarity, symmetry, abrupt camera movement, a change in tone, and a change in facial expression (all directed at the camera) simultaneously. Usually, a quick change in tone and facial expression would be expected during vulgarity, but especially stands out in the Grand Budapest Hotel since it contrasts the perpetual calmness of characters and monotoned dialogue throughout the film. Here are a few examples:

When monsieur Jean notices a man choking in the lobby, the camera quickly cuts to a Medium shot of his face, he displays shock, and then worriedly says “shit” before proceeding to run over and help the man. He would lose control as concierge if a guest died on his time. Notice how he is the divider between the two nearly-identical halves of the shot– half of the painting and room keys to each side.

The first time Zero and Gustave are questioned on the train, Zero’s documents are declined and the officer tells him to step off the train with him. When Gustave steps in to assert his control, a fight breaks out. Gustave gets slammed onto the wall, the camera cuts to a Medium shot of his face, and he proclaims “you filthy goddamn fascist assholes” while making a nasty scowl. Notice how there is one soldier and one window to each side of him.

During the distribution of Madame D’s estate, Mr. Gustave receives the Boy with Apple painting. The camera cuts to an Extreme Long shot of Dmitri across the room. Expecting to receive the painting for himself, Dmitri stands up, points at Gustave, and rages out “that fucking faggot!” The symmetry here is apparent with everyone turning around inwards.

While led through the mountains, sky trolley, and finally the church (to unknowingly meet Serge), Mr. Gustave was growing impatient as he had no control over the situation. Finally, when they meet Serge he mentions the second copy of the second will. There is a brief moment of silence until the camera cuts to a Medium shot of Mr. Gustave. He has lost all patience by now and releases a vulgar-filled rant all while making ridiculous facial expressions. Although the symmetry is less obvious here, there are still two cloaked men– one to the left and one to the right.

I think the use of symmetry is intended to emphasize the few differences that are present in the shots as well as the significance of the tone-deviation. In the first two shots, the only differences are the two halves of monsieur Jean’s and Mr. Gustave’s faces. Next, we only have Dmitri and Serge standing in the crowd– one in black and one in white. Then the difference in the church is Mr. Gustave’s and Zero’s attitudes. Zero is waiting patiently while Mr. Gustave is yelling.

All of these changes were present in these instances, but were there times in the movie where symmetry was present, yet shifts in control were not? Or perhaps there were times people cursed, but there was no abrupt camera movement nearby. I would like to see if anyone can find some of these scenes.