Narrative Storytelling and Editing Techniques

In the textbook reading for this week, there is a discussion regarding the nonlinear chronological ordering of scenes in a film. The example of Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) provided in the textbook provides an especially strong example of the various ways editing techniques can build upon the narrative storytelling in the film.

As mentioned in the book, the opening sequence of the film consists of a montage of scenes that follow the narrator’s description. The narrator’s status (omniscient vs. restricted) is not immediately clear to the reader, as the shots alternate between an extreme closeup of two people and scenery related to Hiroshima after the nuclear blast. The usage of montage in this sequence supports the non-linear narrative by fluidly transitioning from shot to shot without regards for conceptions of time.  It also disorients the viewer as the characters and plot are portrayed in this disjointed fashion from the very beginning of the film. This style of non-linear narrative is particularly intriguing to me in this instance with how it ties into our understanding of narrators and sound. It’s not entirely clear where the narrator’s voice is coming from due to the extreme closeups, nor is it apparent how she is recollecting the events of Hiroshima. I believe sequence also ties into the “Cinema of Attractions” reading through the usage of montage, as the scenes of Hiroshima have no narrative content, but simply serve as a visual display of the damage wrought by a nuclear weapon.

Later in the film, I found this initially disorienting combination of cutting between current time and flashback montages particularly effective, in a way that could not have been accomplished in a traditional linear narrative fashion.

If the viewer had not been introduced to this style of editing in the opening sequence, the editing here could be mistaken for a cross-cut between two present-day cities. However, given the established style of non-linear narrative in the film, this scene can be understood as a series of flashbacks while the protagonist realizes the similarity between her current situation and her first love.

Week 4: Reading/Viewing


Setting the Pace with Editing in “City of God”

“City of God” is a Brazilian crime film released in 2002 which tells the story of the emergence of organized crime in Rio de Janeiro. It has received worldwide critical acclaim and has been nominated for several awards for best cinematography and editing. The scene I found fit this week’s subject was the opening one that sets the stage and setting of the film. A link has been posted at the bottom of this blog.
In the opening scene we get a very special set of edits in the form of fast paced, and fast-moving cuts. The first 1 minute of the scene simply shows a chicken being slaughtered for food but in this minute, we get several, short and fast cuts (nearly 7 cuts in the span of 4 seconds). In these cuts the camera moves back and forth between a live chicken, a butcher’s knife, a dead chicken being plucked or filleted, a knife being sharpened, a couple of customers and preparers, weapons on the table etc. The fast pace of this one-minute sequence tells the reader that the story takes place in a large bustling city, where everything is moving fast, work needs to be done quickly, and everything occurs in a neighborhood that is poor. The sequence is supposed to build the “hype” for the setting, getting the heart rate elevated to match the pace of the setting.
The next one minute of this scene goes into a chase for one chicken that seems to have escaped. The are lots of cuts and camera movements as the views switch from preparing food in a poor neighborhood to chase of escaped poultry. There are several camera shots showing again, the fast pace of the city setting, the suspense of the escaping chicken, one of the towns folk giving orders and finally the children of the neighborhood in pursuit. Close-shots, long-shots, crane-shots, tracking and chasing shots along with several instances of match-on-action editing when rounding corners or jumping from builds, make for a very artful and ridiculous chase scene.
Lastly there is the final 30 seconds of the scene where the main character has the chicken corned and the kids who where chasing it tell him the catch it for them. Suddenly a police squadron shows up on the opposite end of the road and both sides draw weapons. It is in this scene where a very peculiar camera trick shows. I would usually call this a 180 degree cut, with the main character at it center, but instead of using cameras to cut between the view of the children and the police the main character acts like a pivot and the camera revolved around him and we see the two sides ready to fire. This edit sets up one of the most important themes of he movie: “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If he stands still, he’ll be killed in the shoot out. If he stays still, he might be targeted as a suspect to gang violence and might be killed by the police. If anyone knows what this is really called, I’d really like to know what you think. At the very end this camera rotation is used to jump back to his past as a child and I’m very interested to know what the edit is.

The Emotion of Dialogue as Communicated in Casablanca

In Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film Casablanca, a heavy emphasis is placed on the emotions of interaction between characters, especially Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman).  This is carried out largely through the shot/reverse-shot pattern, wherein the shot is cut back and forth in tandem with the flow of dialogue to show the characters as they speak.  In his article “For the Sake of Conversation:  On shot reverse shot,” ( Mott emphasizes the significance a character’s reaction to their counterpart’s words can have in producing a desired emotional response.  Rather than simply shifting directly between the faces of the speakers, a shot can linger on one character to show the audience how they react to what they hear and see.  This can be seen in the final moments of the film (clip shown below), as shots follow Ilsa’s speaking and listening to Rick.

As their goodbye builds to its iconic finale, the shot transitions from a close-up showing the temporary lovers in the frame together to a shot/reverse-shot sequence (1:07).  The scene is meant to emphasize Ilsa’s response to Rick’s goodbye, and this transition allows the shot to remain heavily focused on her face as she comes to realize the finality of his words.  Interestingly, the transition also has the effect of isolating them from one another as a visual representation of their approaching reality.  Through this and other such stylistic decisions, the dialogue editing in Casablanca effectively emphasizes the words spoken between its characters and the emotions that motivate them, which may help explain its position as one of the most referenced screenplays in American cinema.

Editing to Show the Conflict Between Isolationism VS Interventionism

Casablanca begins with an info dump bringing the audience up to speed with the events of the Second World War thus far and how the city relates to the plot. This then cuts to an establishing shot of the market in Casablanca and cuts to establish the deeply foreign and somewhat hectic nature of the setting. This mood is further enhanced when the film cuts to scenes of the usual suspects being rounded up by the Vichy police. When the single resistance fighter flees the police, the film cuts to him being shot in front of a propaganda poster of Marshall Petain, the leader of Vichy France. The film further cuts to the fighter’s papers with a prominent Cross of Lorraine, symbol of the Free French movement. This sequence artfully establishes the overarching narrative of the conflict between the Free French and the Nazi’s with their Vichy collaborators.

This narrative is established on a smaller scaled when Ugarte, who is fleeing from the police, grasps Rick and begs for Rick to help him. The shot focuses solely on Ugarte as he is being dragged away, with no cuts to Rick’s face as the action occurs. Rick’s face is only shown with muted expression in reaction shots after Ugarte has been pried away, as if to show his hardhearted indifference. This visually shows Rick’s neutrality and this neutrality is driven home by the line “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

The more literal aspect of Rick’s internal conflict, his romance with Elsa is conveyed through a bit of elliptical editing and some brief scenes in Paris. The early love scenes with Rick and Elsa riding in a car have dissolve transitions, conveying a long passage of time and adding to the slow moving and lighthearted atmosphere of preoccupation Paris. This slow pace gives a sense of the importance of the time spent together. The early shots contrast with quick pace of the cuts and action in the establishing shots of the German invasion when the occupation of Paris is imminent, conveying the urgency of the situation and the shock of Rick and Elsa’s separation.

In Rick and Elsa’s final scene, this lingering conflict is resolved. Whereas Rick and Ugarte had no shot reverse shot dialogue, Elsa and Rick have significant cuts from one another with long close up takes on Elsa’s face to show her reactions as Rick convinces her to leave with Laszlo. Close up shots of Rick’s face are used only when stating particularly impactful lines. Spatially, the two are close, indicating a lingering intimacy between the two. The editing is used to show that Rick has fully taken a side, both literally his personal conflict and in the larger metaphorical conflict as well as to resolve his romance with Elsa.

To drive home the point, the film cuts to Captain Renault commenting on Rick’s choice, eyeline matches him looking at a bottle of “Vichy Water,” cuts back to Renault pondering, and then cuts to the bottle being dropped into the waste basket and Renault kicking the basket over.  (starts at 1:06).

How else is Rick a metaphor for the United States pre-Pearl Harbor? How does the film use Rick as a proxy for the conflict between personal wants and duty to a greater cause? How is editing used to convey Rick and Elsa’s reconciliation in Casablanca?

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?

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?