Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The five principles of editing

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 21, 2011

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1920 film was still very young, but growing in popularity.

As a new industry grew, practitioners raced to understand this amazing new medium and how it worked. Back then there was no precedent and there were no rules about how a shot should look or how a piece should be edited together.

Sound familiar?

But the early film makers did such a good job of understanding the medium, by the end of the 1920s the basic tenets had been laid down – and are still used by us today.

I recently discovered this Russian chap called Vsevolod Pudovkin who started making films in 1920. A few years later he penned a book called Film Technique and Film Acting: inside are five editing techniques. Reading through them, you realise there are plenty of tips and tricks online video journalists can take on board, nearly 100 years later.

Pudovkin’s 5 principles of editing

Pudovkin’s techniques describe several ways editing can be used to enhance the viewer’s understanding of a story, and they’re all designed to create a specific reaction from the audience, something he calls relational editing.

01. Contrast: cutting between two different scenarios to highlight the contrast between them. As an example, Pudovkin suggests moving from scenes of poverty to someone really rich to make the difference more apparent.

.02 Parallelism: here you can connect two seemingly unrelated scenes by cutting between them and focusing on parallel features. For example if you were shooting a documentary about fish stocks in the Atlantic, you could cut from a trawler being tossed about in the ocean to a family chomping down on some  fish’n’chips – in both scenes drawing our attention to the fish: the object that connects them. It creates an association in the viewers’ mind.

.03 Symbolism: Again, more intercutting, you move from your main scene to something which creates a symbolic connection for the audience. Pudovkin (living in Soviet Russia) suggested cutting between shots of striking workers being shot by Tsarist police and scenes of cows being slaughtered: in the audience’s mind, they associate the slaughter of the cattle with the slaughter of the workers.

.04 Simultaneity: This is used lots in Hollywood today: cutting between two simultaneous events as a way of driving up the suspense. If you’re making a film about a politician on election night, you might cut between shots of the vote being counted to shots of your main subject preparing to hear the result. This extending of time builds anticipation.

.05 Leit motif: This ‘reiteration of theme’ involves repeating a shot or sequence at key moments as a sort of code. Think how Spielberg uses a ‘point of view’ shot in Jaws showing the shark looking up at swimmers. The first time he does it creates a visual code for “the shark’s about to attack”. Every time we see that underwater POV we know an attack is imminent. He has allowed us to participate in the decoding.

You can read Pudovkin’s five principles in full in this Scribd copy of his book – pages 74-78.

So can video journalists use these techniques?

Image Credit: Adam Westbrook

Well clearly we don’t all make films loaded with symbolism in the way movie directors do; nor do we have time on screen to build anticipation through simultaneous cutting. However Pudovkin’s five techniques tell us something deeper and more significant about visual storytelling.

Because sound hadn’t been invented when he, Fritz Lang, Eisenstein et al first picked up a camera, they developed a real understanding of visual storytelling. They had to. If you couldn’t tell a story solely in pictures you couldn’t tell it at all. So they constantly invented ways to manipulate camera, edit, props, rigs and lights to get a message across. What they created was a form of ‘picture-telling’ where the audience are invited to participate in spotting and decoding subconscious messages.

This, I think, has been lost in the debate about the future of video and journalism, and possibly from the craft altogether. Instead we rely on dialogue to tell our story, and (at our worst) plaster pictures over the top.

When we move beyond straight point-and-shoot reportage and we want our viewers to understand a story, to relate to it, to care – the cameras in our hand are more than neutral observers: they are powerful tools, more often being left unused.

You wouldn’t learn the intricacies of 3D animation without first being able to draw – so why do we pursue video journalism without learning the basic building blocks of visual storytelling?