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Before a film is edited, it is just an array of shots with no sequence or pure structure. Editing ties these shots together; defining the feel, sequence, and overall direction the film will take.
Shots are not simply patched together. There are many techniques in which the editing team can set the pace of the film. Some films choose to be continuous and logical, each event occurring in chronological order as if the film was real life. Others choose to defy this logic, choosing to use flashbacks to show events that occurred before the beginning of the film, or sometimes showing the film in a seemingly random order (i.e. Pulp Fiction). The way a film is put together in the final cut will ultimately shape its’ effect on the viewer.
In both Ridley Scott’s Alien and Martin McDonaugh’s In Bruges, editing techniques are used to shape the overall effect of the film. Scott uses editing to make us feel on the edge of our seat, terrified, and thrilled, while McDonaugh drives home the emotional impact and turmoil of his characters.
In Alien a commercial deep space towing ship investigates a suspected SOS on a distant planet. The crew ends up breaking quarantine and allows an extraterrestrial creature on board.
There are no flashbacks used in Alien, cutting to continuity and classical cutting are the main devices used. Establishing and reestablishing shots are used to define where the action is taking place. This is important because of the abnormal environment that the characters find themselves in. They are on a distant planet that they are not familiar with. When several of the crew members investigate an alien ship, establishing and reestablishing shots are used to define location when the shots go between the crew investigating the ship and the crew on the main ship.
Feeling uneasy is not uncommon in horror films. Scott does a terrific job of making us feel uncomfortable. During “the calm before the storm”, when the audience knows a character is in danger, but no real action has occurred, there are few cuts and few sounds (neither diegetic nor non-diegetic). What we hear are the sounds of footsteps or the rattling of chains echoing through the room. This makes the character feel alone, or stranded.
When the alien attacks a member of the crew, shots become quicker, cutting back and forth between the victim and the alien to increase the pace of the film. Sequences seem to move so fast that it is almost difficult to understand what truly happened, but that no knowing makes the film even more exciting.
The use of non-diegetic sounds (composed music) help build suspense in this film. For example, when Ridley is trying to flee the ship with Jonesy (the cat), only diegetic sounds are used, but when she sees the alien, non-diegetic sounds are implemented to define Ripley’s fear. As she flees, the non-diegetic sounds cease, but the diegetic sounds from the ship become louder, indicating her panic as she tries to reverse the self-destruction of the ship.
In the final scene, Ripley spot’s the sleeping alien on her escape pod. As she puts her spacesuit on and buckles herself into the captain’s chair, we see the camera go back and forth between her and the alien in shots that start slow but become faster as the alien begins to awaken. This helps define Ripley’s panic and fear as she attempts to discretely kill the alien before it notices her presence.
Scott does a terrific job of keeping us on the edge of our seat in this 1979 classic horror story. By setting the pace and keeping viewers enticed he tells a story that will keep you scared and entertained.
In Bruges tells the story of guilt-stricken hitman Ray and his partner Ken, who are awaiting orders from their boss while they hide out in Bruges, Belgium after a job gone horribly wrong. The film takes more of an artistic perspective to storytelling as appose to Alien.
The first chronological event that occurs does not appear until well after the characters and setting have been established. Not only is this the first event to occur chronologically, it is the most important. Through the use of a flashback we see how Ray and Ken ended up in Bruges. Ray sees two children with their parents, the camera cuts back to Ray, and we see his grief. This transitions into a flashback of Ray killing a priest. In the process a stray bullet kills a child in the church. The next sequence puts Ray and Ken in a museum. The painting they are viewing is symbolic for Bruges as heaven, hell, and purgatory. Ray’s actions make him question where he will end up in the afterlife, and although there is no explanation for how he went from being alone on a bus stop to in a museum with Ken, the emotional themes relate together nicely.
Shots of the city are used frequently. They are not necessarily establishing shots, as they don’t show the exact location of the characters. They are used to show the time of day, establish tone, and transition from one scene to the next. Tone is also set through non-diegetic music. Bruges is a city that is meant to be beautiful in this film. Soft, orchestrated music is used to help define this beauty during these shots.
Action scenes in this film use multiple different camera angles and focus on different characters back and forth to build suspense and unease. For example, when Ken is on his way to kill Ray, we see a long shot, close-ups of Ken’s face, hand, and back of his head, as well as a point-of-view shot in a short sequence. The shots keep shifting from one to another to help build unease and suspense with the help of non-diegetic music. The focus then shifts to Ray, as he holds a gun to his head and we see the shock in Ken’s face.
Reaction shots are used heavily in the film as well. An example of this is after Ken asks where he stands in Jimmy perceived race war. Everyone is shocked by Ken’s story and no one quite knows to respond. We see the unease and uncertainty in each of the character’s faces, Jimmy, the prostitutes, Ray, and finally back to Ken, disgusted by the night’s events.
In one scene in the film, no editing is used. Ken has a long drawn out conversation over the phone with Harry. No cuts are used and this slows down the pace of the scene and signifies Ken’s frustration and boredom during his conversation. It also creates a humorous effect because of how long the shot goes on for.
McDonaugh creates an emotional story in this 2008 black-comedy through the use of editing. He helps us become emotional invested in his characters and the film as a whole.
Editing does more than tie an array of shots together. It creates structure and direction for the film. Whether the film is realist or formalist, the vision of the filmmaker will help bring the story together in a way that communicates its message and feelings to the viewer.
Alien. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Sigourney Weaver. 1979.
In Bruges. Dir. Martin McDonaugh. Perf. Brendan Gleeson Colin Farrell. 2008. Louis Giannetti, Jim Leach. Understanding Movies 5th Canadian Edition. Toronto: Pearson, n.d.