Film cutting is dead. Long live assembly! (Part 1)

Films must not be cut

Checklist for the Perfect Film and Video Briefing
Checklist for the Perfect Film and Video Briefing: Template for Sponsored Films

Film cutting is dead? According to Hitchcock, the duration of a feature film is defined by the capacity of the human bladder. The film or video is then cut to comply with the resulting limitation in length. If the cutter removes “a piece of film” from the beginning and the end, then the term cut is entirely appropriate for the procedure. However, the word is too simplistic, if not misleading, for everything else happening in the editing room.

Films are not nailed together with a hammer but are intelligently assembled or artistically joined instead. The power and potential of film editing lies in its assembly. It is therefore not surprising that many filmmakers deliberately do not speak of cutting but rather of assembling or editing. Films must not be cut but assembled instead.

1. The most important terms

Cutting

The cut denotes the purely technical process on the filmstrip. Irrespective of whether physically and manually as in former times, or digitally like today, a sequence of individual images is either extended or shortened. The cutting process serves one purpose: to edit a film. An interesting aspect is the fact that during the analogue era, we spoke of cutting rooms and film assembly. Today, in the digital world, the rooms used for the same purpose are called Edit or, even classier, Editing Suites. However, many edits are cut instead of being assembled.

Editing and assembly

Film cutting is dead. Long live assembly! (Part 1)
Sergei Eisenstein, 1898–1948, Soviet film director and editor, a pioneer in the theory and practice of montage.

Colloquially, the term editing is frequently equated with cutting. Correctly speaking, however, the term is far more extensive. Apart from the technical process of extending or shortening, it also encompasses the designation of the cause for cutting. Just as the random principle applied during camera work cannot guarantee the superimposed statement in communication with film and video, cutting should not follow the principle of arbitrariness. This is why films are edited and assembled. Why this is so essential for the quality and effect of film or video is also displayed by the check-list under Section 4. below.

Pacing

Even films, whose scenes are sequentially arranged without cutting or following the assembly principle, still have a rhythm. This rhythm within a take, irrespective of whether it was created deliberately or not, is known as pacing in Hollywood. One of the objectives of assembly is to specifically control the tempo and pacing of a film. Pacing creates rhythmic structures which, in turn, are caused by the timing of the respective film sequence.

Timing

The rhythm of a film is not merely created by the sequence of different elements of action but also, as previously explained, by the length of a scene which, in turn, is determined by takes.  Takes which are cut, shortened or subsequently extended will also modify the timing. In the American film industry, the term is used to designate the length or respectively, the entry or exit point of a take.


2. Order as a prerequisite

In the digital world, the sky is blue. And the volume of available memory on the high-performance computer in the edit room puts a smile on the director’s face. All the more tempting to quickly transfer the material to the computer over night after a successful day of filming.

Every film a puzzle really, from an editorial point of view. Walter Murch

If this is performed without having defined the technical workflow of all other involved aspects (colour grading, animation, graphics, etc.), the blue sky can quickly turn into a nasty surprise. This can result in hours or even days of searching for, finding and perhaps even rescanning individual sections into new resolutions. Not to mention later difficulties regarding the, frequently contractually, owed archiving or adaptations.

If I wanted to be frivolous, I might say that everything that precedes editing is merely a way of producing film to edit.Stanley Kubrick

However, this is not why an order is essential. To edit a film means to assemble a work from hundreds of individual pieces, information and emotions. If editors or directors expend their energy in finding these pieces because the individual parts are in wild disarray on a video server or hard drive without following any structure, they will focus their energy and concentration on the wrong place.


3. Film cutting is dead: Learnings

Assembly is essential for the correct and professional handling of communication with moving images. Like many other cinematic disciplines, mastering assembly requires great talent, many years of experience and profound know-how.

And although this is only indicated at the end of this article, albeit emphatically: assembly does not end with an image. The twin of the image, i.e. the sound, must also be assembled. Film assembly is a universe in which we do not reach for the stars but in which we should use the stars to orient ourselves instead.


Further reading (selection):

  • Essays in Film Theory: Film Form, Sergej Eisenstein, 1949, Harcourt, Brace & Horld
  • Aesthetic Theory,  Theodor W. Adorno, 1973, ISBN-13: 978-0816618002
Über Kristian Widmer 27 Artikel

Kristian Widmer (49) is Executive Producer and CEO of Condor Films Ltd. He has been advising customers on film and video for 23 years.

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