Film Editing: Activity 1

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The Origins of Movie Magic

The very first films in the late 1800s, made by the Lumiere Bros. and Thomas Edison among others, were single-shot actualities: a train pulling into a station, people leaving a factory, ladies walking down the street. The camera was locked in place. It recorded, in its entirety, the "event" taking place. It was the magic of capturing movement that captivated audiences. Editing was originally called "cutting," as it actually was the cutting together of two pieces of film. "Cutters" held the strips of film up to the light and cut them with scissors, cementing the two pieces together at the desired point.

It was no coincidence that several early filmmakers performed as magicians. The jump cut, a deliberate mismatching of two scenes, evolved into the first "special effect" of movies and was probably discovered by accident. Within the same scene, an actor could be made to "disappear" by stopping the camera, removing the actor, and resuming the scene without moving the camera. George Méliès, a Parisian magician, produced dozens of elaborate "trick" films using this effect as one of his primary marvels.

Stage-bound presentations, which had actors performing in the proscenium-like frame of the film without moving the camera, soon gave way to bold close-ups, medium shots, and tracking shots under the direction of film pioneers Alice Guy Blache of France and Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith of the U.S., among others. The storytelling concepts used in magic-lantern slide shows (and later comic books) were used to create a language of film. Cutting from a long shot of an actor standing by a tree to a similar shot of just his face near the tree created a sense of continuous action, even though the shots may have been filmed on different days. Cutting evolved into "editing," the manipulation of time and space. The ability to manipulate time and space also allows the filmmaker to change our emotional and intellectual responses to what we see on the screen.

Review the editing terms listed on the activity master. You might complete the viewing activity as a class, using one of the films suggested, or students might make their own selections and complete the activity at home in preparation for a class discussion. Films with sequences that have no edits at all include the opening sequence of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, the shot on top of the train or the shot walking through the camp in Bound for Glory, and the shot from the dressing room to the ring in Raging Bull. Good examples of rapid cutting can be found in the film-within-a-film sequence of Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr., the Odessa Steps sequence in The Battleship Potemkin, the ambush scene in Bonnie and Clyde, the shower scene in Psycho and the phone booth attack scene in The Birds.

Add-on Activity:

Ask your students to take a short scene from a film and discuss the effect that re-arranging the placement of the sounds or dialogue would have. Ask students to consider what happens when we hear one thing and see another instead of just seeing the sound and picture from one source.

Film Editing: Manipulating Time and Space

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Complete Film Editing Activities Guide (PDF)

Activity 1: Film Editing Terminology

Activity 2: Writing with Images

Activity 3: Creating Meaning

Activity 4: Learning from the Best

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