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Know Your Film Editing History, Part 1

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CreativeCOW presents Know Your Film Editing History, Part 1 --  Tutorial

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©Sven Pape. All rights reserved.

Knowing about the history of film editing can help you understand how best to use these tools today, as well as point to where film editing might go in the future. Join feature film editor Sven Pape, host of "This Guy Edits", for part 1 of his fast-paced, example-packed conversation with Los Angeles-based filmmaker and film teacher Tyler Danna.

THIS GUY EDITS is by film editor Sven Pape, an A.C.E. award nominee, whose credits include work for directors James Cameron, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and James Franco.

TGE is about how to tell stories creatively.

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Re: Know Your Film Editing History, Part 1
by Nick Meyers
very thorough, Franz.
i hope you also posted this somewhere that they can read it too.

Re: Film Editing History - Some Important Notes
by Franz Bieberkopf
Sven Pape, Tyler Danna,

Your title and post invites discussion and offers a good opportunity for important corrections to some persistent misinformation (repeated here) about the history of editing. Some general knowledge about such is available even on wikipedia but I’ll offer an overview here.

While it is perhaps predictable that you would choose Dickson and Edison as hero figures from the legion of cinema inventors, your choices for the early history of editing seem to me to more confused and misinformed.


It does sound grand to “start at the beginning”, and it is perhaps justifiable in a “pop” history to jump over early innovations and practices and start with continuity editing, but your use of Edwin Porter seems to me a bit puffy as choice for “the first edit”. For one, this denies the early history of editing (it was certainly part of cinema before 1903), but more importantly it shows ignorance of the Brighton school.

You use a common reference point from past film history texts and teaching - “The Life Of An American Fireman” (Edwin S. Porter, 1903). However, this film isn't “the first linear assembly of a film”, nor “the first linear assembly of a story”, nor other innovations you claim for it.

If your concern is continuity editing, it’s early innovations are attributed to British film pioneers (beginning in 1898) and specifically the so-called “Brighton School” (which included James Williamson and George Albert Smith).

from wikipedia ( ):
“The use of film editing to establish continuity, involving action moving from one sequence into another, is attributed to British film pioneer Robert W. Paul's “Come Along, Do!” [1898] … further development of action continuity in multi-shot films continued in 1899-1900 at the Brighton School in England, where it was definitively established by George Albert Smith and James Williamson.

The wikipedia article goes on to outline how G.A Smith and James Williamson during the years 1898-1901 continued to innovate, pioneering close-up, reverse shot, subjective points of view, multiple exposures, breaking continuous action into different camera angles, multi-shot successive continuity, and special effects. David Fisher, in his book “Cinema-by-Sea” goes so far as to say of G.A. Smith that “His films were the first to establish the basics of coherent narrative and what became known as film language, or "film grammar”.”


One example is probably sufficient (though there are many) - comparing James Williamson’s “Fire!” (1901) with Edwin S. Porter's “The Life of an American Fireman” (1903). They are both available on youtube, and comparing them, there are a few things worth noting beyond the obvious similarities. You have already qualified that “The Life Of An America Fireman” was first released in 1903 in a version where the same action is repeated - once from outside the house, once from inside the house; it was only later that Porter recut the film to follow action from inside to outside. The double exposure that Porter opens with (which is a form of editing) was an earlier innovation of the Brighton school. Also of note, Williamson creates suspense by showing the fire in the first shot (privileged information for the audience), and there’s even a hint at what would become compression of time when we cut to the inside of the burning house from the rushing firemen outside.

“Fire! shares … the distinction of being a major influence on a pioneering American film, Edwin S.Porter's The Life of an American Fireman (1903), which borrowed Williamson's narrative model …”
Fire!, Michale Brooke at BFI ( )


After this example you make a strange claim for stagnation in editing from 1903 to 1910 (“nothing has changed”), while at the same time restricting yourself (strangely) to the movies of Porter and Edison. This dismissal (limiting yourself to the small corner of American production at that time) doesn’t acknowledge technical experiments in sound, colour, effects, involvement in music composition, development of genre, and interesting shifts in the two founding strands of documentary and “show-business”.

If I review “Cinema Europe” (David Gill, Kevin Brownlow, 1995, Episode 1), it’s full of innovations at that time - the Italian epics, the incredible triptych in “White Slave Trade” 1910, the charming technical virtuosity of Segundo de Chomon, for example. Richard Howells, in his book “Visual Culture” writes of “Rescued by Rover” (Cecil Hepworth, 1905): “The film is considered a step forward in both film grammar and structure. …demonstrated that advances in film language could be made in editing as well as shooting. …. Rescued by Rover shows a growing understanding among directors of how stories can be told on film.”

During this time (before 1910) cinema spread across Europe, it’s colonies, America - around the world. Maybe most importantly for film form and editing, however, was that during this decade “… while documentary items in most countries outnumbered fiction films as late as 1907, the mix was changing. Fiction films were increasing in numbers and came to dominate audience interest” where before actualities had been the most common fair. (Erik Barnouw, “Documentary, A History of the Non-Fiction Film" p.21). So it was a dynamic time in film - and these dynamics had real impact on form and editing.


But I suspect, that’s where much of your misrepresentation of history is coming from - it’s clear that you’re limiting your take on film history to “story”, and certain mainstream, contemporary storytelling techniques. While that may be useful for some of your audience, you may want to clarify this focus for posts on such a broad forum, and avoid statements that “editing is story”.

(To be clear - editing is not “creating story”. “Creating story” is one thing you can do with editing; there are many others. I think it's probably fair to say that editing is structure - that editing creates structure - in its broadest sense. But it's also that other thing you dismiss - cutting.)

I share your interest in knowing film history, and I hope this has been helpful to your undertaking.


Some follow-up reading:
Edit: unable to fix the link above.
Re: Know Your Film Editing History, Part 1
by Herb Sevush
Very good introduction to the beginnings of film making. However if your going to undercut DW Griffith's contributions by continually adding "according to him" it would behoove you to show some example of Griffith exaggerating his importance. I realize it's hard, given Griffith's blatant racism, to give him credit, but unless you can show me someone else doing what he did in that era, your just gonna have to suck it up and acknowledge that cinematic language begins with him. He didn't invent the CU, he didn't invent cross cutting, but he was the first to use these techniques in a structured way.

Herb Sevush
Zebra Productions
nothin' attached to nothin'
"Deciding the spine is the process of editing" F. Bieberkopf
Re: Know Your Film Editing History, Part 1
by Joachim Smith
This is a very interesting subject.

However, Mr. Danna would do well to consider the words of legendary British actor Ralph Richardson:

"The most precious things in speech are the pauses."

And heed the advice of Thelonious Monk: "The loudest noise in the world is silence."

I just couldn't stand Mr. Danna's logorhea to watch the clip to the end. Judging by the look of poor Mr. Sven Pape, he had a hard time too…

Kind regards,

Joachim Smith
film and video editor

If it were easy, anybody could do it

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