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Seeing the Invisible: Understanding the Art of Great Editing

By Cynthia Close

The Technique of Film & Video Editing: History, Theory and Practice, 5th Edition
by Ken Dancyger
Focal Press
486 pages

For those who are looking for a quick-fix, "how-to" book on film editing, this is not the book for you. Ken Dancyger has written a book that, more than anything, can help all of us who love "the movies" learn how to look at films. He states that the goal of the book is "to be practical" and "to be concerned about aesthetic choices, but not overly absorbed with the mechanics of film editing."

Dancyger has authored numerous books on editing, screenwriting and film production. As a past chair of undergraduate studies in the Department of Film and Television at New York University--and currently Professor of Film and Television at the Tisch School for the Arts at NYU--he brings a sweeping view of his subject that is both historically broad and intellectually deep. The book charts a generally chronological path through the history of film, starting in 1895 with silent film in Chapter One, and ending in 2010 with nonlinear editing, digital technology and the height of that achievement as represented by such films as Avatar. 

The book introduces us to films that have become classics such as Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery, when the concept of "film continuity" begins, and then segues to D.W. Griffith, the acknowledged father of film editing in the modern sense. The chapter on the Silent Period is liberally laced with black-and-white illustrations from Griffith's Broken Blossoms of 1919 and iconic stills from Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein. In his discussion of Eisenstein, Dancyger demonstrates the relationship of film theory to both the directing and editing processes. Eisenstein's Theory of Montage is broken down to Metric, Rhythmic, Tonal, Overtonal and Intellectual aspects, each described in words and images, helping to draw the connection between the idea and the resulting effect. By the end of this chapter, it is clear that the Silent Period (ending about 1930) was a time of great creation and experimentation, when editing, unfettered by sound, came to maturity. It gave me a new perspective in looking at works that had almost become too familiar.

The introduction of sound came with radio and telephone transmission technology. In 1927, Warner Bros. produced the first sound feature (with voice), The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson. Dancyger manages to astutely weave concrete information about technological developments into his editing narrative, starting with a description of Edison's Black Maria studio in the previous chapter and moving on in this chapter on early sound film to Warner Bros. Vitaphone, sound-on-disk system and the Photophone, an optical system produced by RCA that eventually became the industry standard. The evolution of technology has been the driving force throughout the history of film. It is impossible to separate the creative from the technological and this becomes increasingly apparent as the book progresses. The development of the Wide Screen, lightweight, hand-held equipment to serve the needs of cinema vérité documentarians, the influence of television and MTV, and ultimately digital technology, is covered in subsequent chapters.

While most books on film technique focus on feature, narrative films, Dancyger gives more than a nod to the important role experimental and documentary film have played in the evolution of editing as an art. He mentions the impact on editing of the cinema vérité work of Unit B of the National Film Board of Canada and the fact that profit played a less central role for experimental and documentary films; therefore, creative innovation was the result.

The use of case studies and detailed references to specific films, editors and directors throughout the book is most satisfying. I made many discoveries, such as Alfred Hitchcock's 1929 film Blackmail. It was shot in part as a silent film and in part as a sound film. Although made very early on in Hitchcock's career, we see the essence of what makes a Hitchcock film: Editing both sound and picture to create a feeling of foreboding and suspense. Hitchcock managed to transcend early limitations of the nascent technology.

The history and theory of editing comprise the core elements of the book, but the role the editor plays cannot be overstated. However, all filmmaking requires collaboration, and the degree of freedom that the editor has depends on the relationship with the director and producer. As Dancyger points out, "The power relationship between editor and director or editor and producer is never the same; it always depends on the interests and strengths of each." 

"The Goals of Editing" is a new section in this fifth edition of the book. In short, "The goals of the editor are particular: to find a narrative continuity for the visuals and the sound of the film, and to distill those visuals and sound shots that will create the dramatic emphasis so the film will be effective." When the audience enjoys the story and forgets the mechanics, an editor is successful. "If the audience is aware of the editing, the editor has failed."

It is evident in nearly every line of this book that Ken Dancyger loves movies. I can imagine that he has watched every film in the 19-page filmography that appears in the appendix. While I am not a film editor and have no desire to be one, reading this book has elevated my awareness of how to "read" a film. It has made me eager to see every film in that filmography, from the 1908 Adventures of Dolly by Griffith to Z, the 1969 film by Constatin Costa-Gavras. Thanks to modern digital technology and Netflix, I just may be able to see them all.


Cynthia Close is executive director of Documentary Educational Resources.