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Editing theory

Editing, the arrangement of shots into sequences, is a key factor in shaping a viewer’s experience of a film.

Editing guides us from shot to shot, and usually aims to produce a spatial and temporal whole, to ensure that the world of the story is coherent and, hopefully, compelling.

On the surface this sounds like it might be quite a mechanical process, where the editor merely follows the structured plan of the director to simply place the shots in sequence.

However, it has long been recognised that editing is perhaps the one aspect of filmmaking that is unique to the art form. The editor is not a machine, the editor is an artist, using fragments of footage to conjure a plausible, integral and even magical world.

The Kuleshov effect

In the 1920s, Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov carried out a series of experiments in editing by assembling sequences composed of separate dramatic components. In the most famous of these experiments, Kuleshov cut together neutral shots of an actor’s face with a variety of other images - a bowl of soup, a dead child in a casket, a woman reclining on a sofa.

The reported effect of the experiment was that audiences assumed that the actor’s expression changed, depending on the preceding shot (hunger, sadness, and lust respectively), based on the assumption that he was reacting to things in the same physical space as himself. Film scholars refer to this phenomenon as the Kuleshov effect: a series of shots that prompts the viewer to infer a spatial whole from fragments of the space.

The Kuleshov effect is a demonstration of spatial and temporal manipulation. The combination of shots establishes a relationship between them in space and time, often inferring causality, whereas in reality the materials may have come from completely disparate times and locations.

Unfortunately, the original footage from Kuleshov’s famous experiment has been lost, although there are numerous re-workings of it available to view online, including the famous ‘dirty old man’ version created by Alfred Hitchcock.

Denotative and connotative meanings

The analysis of film as a language borrows much of its terminology from linguistic and literary analysis. Such is the case when thinking about the denotative and connotative meanings of an image, particularly when thought of in relationship to other filmic elements like voiceover and music.

The denotative meaning of an image refers to its explicit, direct meaning. So, an image of a rose is just that - an image of a rose. The connotative meaning of an image is an idea associated with an image in addition to its denotative meaning. So, in the same example, an image of a rose might also signify passion, love or beauty.

Consequently, connotative meanings are inherently less stable. Two people could see the same image and agree on what it denotes (although such agreement is also often contingent on other commonalities of culture, language and identity). But they might disagree about what the image connotes depending on its juxtaposition next to other filmic elements such as text, voice, music, or simply by the shots that precede and follow. The knowledge and experiences that these filmic elements bring with them will change their reading of the image.

The next time you watch a documentary, or even a television news package, think about the relationship between what is seen on screen and what is heard. Think about the following questions and share your thoughts in the comments area.

  • Do the images work in an expository - and more denotative - manner, to simply show what is being said by the voiceover?

  • Or is the relationship more abstract? If so, what other meanings can be connoted?

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This article is from the free online course:

Digital Storytelling: Filmmaking for the Web

University of Birmingham