History of film editing – Reisz and Millar (1968)

The Technique of Film Editing, Second Edition (1968) is a classic text by Karel Reisz and Gavin Millar that is read even now by film students.

It’s a useful resource for anybody interested in how stories are put together, and how life is viewed and experienced, then and now.

Because I’m currently taking a film editing course at Ryerson University, I’ve found it useful to read the book, which is on the reading list.

I’m taking the course so I can learn nonlinear editing using Adobe Premiere Pro.

Part 1: 1953

The book is structured into two parts. The organizational structure of the book works well.

The original part, written by Karel Reisz in the early 1950s, is subdivided into three parts – the history of editing; the practice of editing; and principles of editing.

The principles of editing that Reisz refers to are categoried as follows:

  • Constructing a lucid continuity: Smoothness:
  1. Matching consecutive actions
  2. Extent of change in image size and angle
  3. Preserving a sense of direction
  4. Preserving a clear continuity
  5. Matching tone
  6. Making sound flow over a cut
  • Timing
  • Pace: Rhythm
  • Selection of shots
  • Sound editing:
  1. Analysis of a sound track
  2. Sound and the editing of the picture

The above-noted analysis of a sound track includes the following detail (p. 264):

  • Car engine continues. As Johnny hits the ground a loud dramatic chord of music suddenly swells up.

The author adds the following note (p. 267):

  • Because music has been used sparingly up to this moment, its sudden entry makes a more precise and definite point than would have been possible with a continuous background score.

Part 2: 1968

The second part of the book was written in the late 1960s by Gavin Millar. Topics include:

  • The introduction of the widescreen format
  • Cinema-verité and the documentary film of ideas
  • Nouvelle Vague
  • Personal cinema in the sixties

Both editions are introduced by Thorold Dickinson.

In the 1968 edition, Dickinson offers a series of occasionally elliptic notes regarding a revised way of looking at the 1953 edition.

It’s great to read such notes, however cryptic they may be, and to have the book divided into two parts, with suitable subsections.

Aside from discussions of the techniques of film editing, the book serves as a source of insights and reflections regarding history.

Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl: Veronica Foster. Source: Libraries & Archives of Canada PA - 119766. I would add, based on a conversation with her daughter, at a Doors Open event at the Small Arms building, that Veronica Foster was in fact a non smoker. She posed with the cigarette only for the occasion of the photo shoot that was involved in the creation of the posters.

What strikes me is the consistent use of the male pronoun whenever the work of an editor, director, or producer is discussed. I’m pleased that we now can speak of her or his as a matter of course. The text’s frequent allusions to ash trays and smoking are also of interest. Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl, the celebrated 1940s Canadian propaganda icon, comes to mind. The photo on the right is noteworthy among other things for its effective use of lighting. [I’ve since learned, at another site, that Veronica Foster’s daughter is reported as affirming that Veronica Foster was a non-smoker, who was persuaded to stage a smoking session for this poster. As I understand, other than on this occasion, she did not smoke.]

[Update: An Oct. 1, 2013 Globe and Mail article, of relevance regarding the male pronoun, discusses the lyrics of O Canada. End of update.]

A useful resource addressing first-person accounts of war – that is, war stories – is Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989). Of related interest is The Boys’ Crusade : the American Infantry in Northwestern Europe, 1944-1945 (2003).

The year 1953, when the first edition of Reisz and Millar (1968) was published, has many associations. By way of example, in that year an addition was built at the Wesley Mimico United Church, the proposed redevelopment of which I’ve been following with interest since February 2012.

Grand Theft Auto 5

The discussion in Part 2 of changes in the film industry up until the late 1960s is of interest as well. With regard to what has occurred since that time, the emergence of videogames combining interactivity and Hollywood production values is a key development.

The videogame industry underlines that storytelling has in recent decades emerged on many platforms aside from film. This is among the first thoughts that have occurred to me after I read the 1968 text by Karel Reisz and Gavin Millar.

A Sept. 17, 2013 New Yorker article regarding Grand Theft Auto V is entitled: “How evil should a video game allow you to be?”

A Sept. 17, 2013 CBC article is entitled: “GTA5: How Grand Theft Auto has changed the gaming world: Innovators left a ‘psychic footprint’ on the culture at large.” The article notes:

  • “GTA was ahead of the curve, because it embraced the villainous protagonist, the socially reprehensible protagonist, earlier than a lot of current TV shows,” says [Stephen Totilo, a writer and reviewer for the gaming website Kotaku], referring to cable series such as The Sopranos or Breaking Bad.

A Reuters article in the Sept. 20, 2013 Globe and Mail is entitled: “‘Grand Theft Auto V’ blows past $1-billion mark.” The opening paragraphs read:

  • Grand Theft Auto V has crossed the $1-billion sales mark after three days in stores, a rate faster than any other video game, film or other entertainment product has ever managed, its creator Take Two Interactive Inc. said on Friday.
  • The latest instalment of GTA, a cultural phenomenon that has once again sparked debates on adult content and violence, received strong reviews and racked up $800-million in first-day sales alone.

We can add that – as a Sept. 25, 2013 blog post by Alan D. Mutter underlines – a strong demand currently exists for a wide range of entertainment-oriented digital content including movies and shows.

A Sept. 25, 2013 Globe and Mail article regarding CBC English-language programming is also of relevance, as is a Sept. 16, 2013 CBC podcast entitled: “CRTC Head Jean-Pierre Blais on Cellphone bills, Netflix & the future of Television.”

The impact of video games is a topic of ongoing research and discussion. A Sept. 18, 2013 Forbes article is entitled: “Do Games Like ‘Grand Theft Auto V’ Cause Real-World Violence?”

By way of updates: (1) A March 25, 2014 Slate article is entitled: “Facebook Just Bought the World’s Most Advanced Virtual Reality Machine for $2 Billion.” (2) A March 26, 2014 New Yorker article is entitled: “What is Facebook trying to tell us about Oculus?”

[Update related to genres and storylines:  (3) An Oct. 8, 2013 Globe and Mail article is entitled “‘Beyond: Two Souls’ more like a blockbuster sci-fi movie than a game.”

Of relevance with regard to storylines – such as in Mad Men: The concept of the twilight of the middle class is addressed in a May 14, 2014 CBC article entitled: “Even Republicans are talking about America’s growing wealth gap: French economist Thomas Piketty’s ‘capital’ idea – a wealth tax on the super-rich sparks a debate.”

Given my interest in the history and underlying conceptualizations related to narration, narrative, and storytelling, I found the reference to the questioning of the “founding myths” of particular interest, on the above-noted CBC article.

End of updates]

Highlights from Reisz and Millar (1968)

Each of us has the capacity to take anything that occurs in life, including in one’s imagination, and divide it into a series of components from which a scene can be re-created.

[Update: I was interested to read an Oct. 3, 2013 New York Times article that makes a distinction, with regard to how one uses one’s imagination, between literary fiction and popular fiction. End of Update.]

The economics of filmmaking – How are productions financed? What forms of entertainment do audiences like to see? – provides a compelling subtext that hovers in the background of both editions of the text.

The director of the scene is in a position to guide the spectator’s reactions, because she is able to choose what detail the spectator sees at a particular moment.

When a scene is unfolding, a static image can be cut in after every detail of the general scene, partly to create suspense, partly to establish (say) that a suspect is unidentified and unsuspected.

Some shots are added for dramatic reasons. They may not add to knowledge of the scene.

You can have a continuous take into which you insert a static shot. Or you can deal with an extended shot and leave out any insertions.

A film sequence is made up of incomplete shots whose order and selection are governed by dramatic necessity.

Contextualization is a key feature of editing

As I’ve noted elsewhere:

My understanding of how blurbs work is influenced by Erving Goffman, whose academic career I’ve discussed in a previous post:

  • [Gregory W. H.] Smith notes (pp. 14-15) that “Goffman’s contribution to the war effort was to work for an agency [that is, the NFB] then heavily involved in the production of propaganda films. At that time the noted Scottish documentary filmmaker, John Grierson (1898-1972) directed the Board.
  • “While Goffman’s duties were mostly low-level and routine (boxing films for dispatch and preparing cuttings files from magazines), he could not have avoided exposure to discussions about filmic practices for decomposing ordinary life into elements that could then be reconstructed as a representation of reality [Y. Winkin, ed., Erving Goffman: Les moments et leurs hommes (1988), pp. 20-21].”

Two NFB films about Regent Park demonstrate the applications of techniques dating from the Film Board’s propaganda productions. Of related interest is John Grierson: Life, Contributions, Influence (2000).

It’s useful, with regard to icons of film history, to contextualize W. D. Griffith among others.

A study by Steven Bach (2007) of Nazi-era filmmaking is of relevance as is Iron Fists: Branding the Twentieth-Century Totalitarian State (2008).

Update: Also of interest is Love, Hate and Propaganda, a six hour DVD series about World War Two. A review of the series posted at the B.C. Teachers Federation website can be found here.

Of related interest is The Shoah in Ukraine: History, Testimony, Memorialization (2008).


A Jan. 2, 2014 Atlantic article, which I learned about from a tweet by Bob Brent, is entitled “How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood.”

A Sept. 11, 2014 New York Times article is entitled: “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.”

The article notes:

  • TV characters are among the allegorical figures of our age, giving individual human shape to our collective anxieties and aspirations. The meanings of “Mad Men” are not very mysterious: The title of the final half season, which airs next spring, will be “The End of an Era.” The most obvious thing about the series’s meticulous, revisionist, present-minded depiction of the past, and for many viewers the most pleasurable, is that it shows an old order collapsing under the weight of internal contradiction and external pressure.

[End of excerpt.]

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