Rhythm in art is often synonymous with music. Tempo, measures, and beat are critical to captivating listeners and building a great song. Rhythm in film editing works in the same way. The audience’s engagement is largely dependent on the pacing of a film. Too slow is boring and too fast makes it hard to connect to the characters and narrative overall. Pacing is created from rhythm and the rhythm in a film is created by the editor. So, how does an editor control the rhythm of a film? Let’s explore the role of a film editor and the dimensions of film editing.
The Role of a Film Editor
What do editors do in film?
The role of a film editor has evolved from the early days. When cinema was first born, editing could be as simple as cutting between one scene and the next. Then, as filmmakers figured out the close-up, eyeline matching and insert shots, the job became much more complicated.
Most scenes are shot with coverage — footage taken from multiple camera angles of the same scene. The editor now has to decide the duration of each shot and their arrangement. The most obvious way to edit a simple dialogue scene is to cut to whoever is talking.
But that method prioritizes dialogue over everything else. And there are many more opportunities to turn that simple scene into something special.
For example, what happens if you cut to someone listening instead? Character A speaks while Character B listens. Is the scene really about what Character A is saying or is actually about what that dialogue means to Character B?
Now that we've established what this scene is really about, let's talk about other dimensions of film editing like rhythm.
Do we cut between Character A talking and Character B listening to create a "back and forth" tension? Or what happens if we hold entirely on Character B in a single shot? Both iterations would create entirely different moods and rhythms, and each would tell a different story to the audience.
Let's dive into other ways and other reasons why rhythm in film editing is such a key ingredient in the role of a film editor.
How Does an Editor Control the Rhythm of a Film?
Control the shot’s duration
One of the most effective ways to control the rhythm of a film is by controlling the duration of each shot. Establishing an average shot length inherently gives the audience an expectation.
For example, many modern films have an average shot length of 4-6 seconds. This establishes a baseline of the film’s neutral pace for the audience.
The role of a film editor is to control the rhythm by deviating from this baseline in post-production. Cutting shots shorter can ramp up the intensity of a scene. Cutting them longer can create moments of necessary relief and calm.
One of the best scenes to analyze this effect is the iconic shower sequence from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. This video essay explains how the contrast between longer shots and shorter shots in one scene contributed to the effect that terrified audiences around the world.
Rhythmic editing in Hitchcock’s films
This sequence is one of the most studied scenes in cinema history. It also propelled Psycho to becoming not only one of Hitchcock’s best films, but one of the best thrillers of all time.
How does the editor control the rhythm of a film without showing any actual on screen violence? Through brilliant rhythmic editing.
Benefits of rhythmic editing
Support the emotion and tone
Rhythm in film editing is not always as jarring as it is in Psycho. Sometimes, a film’s rhythm is much more subtle, but just as effective. The key to these more subtle moments is to cut with intention.
This does not mean to cut to whoever is talking, but rather to harmonize with the emotions of the story. Emotions take time. Allowing shots to breathe can actually be more effective at eliciting emotions in an audience.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back does this to build up the climax of a scene. Every Frame a Painting compares this scene to one from Ant-Man that falls short due to unintentional editing.
Star Wars vs Ant-Man: Rhythmic editing
This comparison is a perfect example of how editing relies on feeling. This feeling helps editors create a rhythm in film editing. The role of a film editor is to use their instincts to cut with the most emotional impact. And sometimes this means letting a shot run a little longer than what seems necessary.
How does the editor control the rhythm of a film
Create the pace of the scene
In Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, the average shot length is a whopping 13.3 seconds. How does this affect the rhythm in film editing? It makes it slower paced, but does not make it any less engaging.
PTA does this by focusing on the composition and camera movement of longer shots. Even though a shot may be 12 seconds, it could have two or three different frames. This allows him to establish a slower pace without compromising the quality of the film.
Nerdwriter1 dissects how PT Anderson and his editor Dylan Tichenor capitalize on longer shots in There Will Be Blood in the video essay below.
Deconstructing There Will Be Blood: Rhythmic editing
Using dynamic compositions to create engaging longer shots is not unique to Paul Thomas Anderson. It can be found in Stanley Kubrick’s directing style as well as Martin Scorsese’s directing style. Analyzing when these auteur filmmakers choose to cut will give you a better idea of how a film’s average shot duration affects the rhythm of a film.
When attempting to control the rhythm of a film as an editor, there are many techniques that can help. But the primary factor is your instinct. Trust your gut as an editor when finding the rhythm in film editing. And the only way to sharpen your instincts is to edit more.
How to Edit like Walter Murch
Rhythmic editing is one of the key components the role of a film editor. In fact, it is one of Walter Murch’s six rules to editing. These rules are fundamental for any aspiring editor. To learn more about the rules of editing from this award winning editor, check out our next article.
Up Next: Murch’s Rule of Six →
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