Early films were short films that were one long, static, and locked-down shot. Motion in the shot was all that was necessary to amuse an audience, so the first films simply showed activity such as traffic moving along a city street. There was no story and no editing. Each film ran as long as there was film in the camera.
The use of film editing to establish continuity, involving action moving from one sequence into another, is attributed to British film pioneer Robert W. Paul's Come Along, Do!, made in 1898 and one of the first films to feature more than one shot. In the first shot, an elderly couple is outside an art exhibition having lunch and then follow other people inside through the door. The second shot shows what they do inside. Paul's 'Cinematograph Camera No. 1' of 1896 was the first camera to feature reverse-cranking, which allowed the same film footage to be exposed several times and thereby to create super-positions and multiple exposures. One of the first films to use this technique, Georges Méliès's The Four Troublesome Heads from 1898, was produced with Paul's camera.
The further development of action continuity in multi-shot films continued in 1899-1900 at the Brighton School in England, where it was definitively established by George Albert Smith and James Williamson. In that year, Smith made As Seen Through a Telescope, in which the main shot shows street scene with a young man tying the shoelace and then caressing the foot of his girlfriend, while an old man observes this through a telescope. There is then a cut to close shot of the hands on the girl's foot shown inside a black circular mask, and then a cut back to the continuation of the original scene.
Even more remarkable was James Williamson's Attack on a China Mission Station, made around the same time in 1900. The first shot shows the gate to the mission station from the outside being attacked and broken open by Chinese Boxer rebels, then there is a cut to the garden of the mission station where a pitched battle ensues. An armed party of British sailors arrived to defeat the Boxers and rescue the missionary's family. The film used the first "reverse angle" cut in film history.
James Williamson concentrated on making films taking action from one place shown in one shot to the next shown in another shot in films like Stop Thief! and Fire!, made in 1901, and many others. He also experimented with the close-up, and made perhaps the most extreme one of all in The Big Swallow, when his character approaches the camera and appears to swallow it. These two filmmakers of the Brighton School also pioneered the editing of the film; they tinted their work with color and used trick photography to enhance the narrative. By 1900, their films were extended scenes of up to 5 minutes long.
Other filmmakers then took up all these ideas including the American Edwin S. Porter, who started making films for the Edison Company in 1901. Porter worked on a number of minor films before making Life of an American Fireman in 1903. The film was the first American film with a plot, featuring action, and even a closeup of a hand pulling a fire alarm. The film comprised a continuous narrative over seven scenes, rendered in a total of nine shots. He put a dissolve between every shot, just as Georges Méliès was already doing, and he frequently had the same action repeated across the dissolves. His film, The Great Train Robbery (1903), had a running time of twelve minutes, with twenty separate shots and ten different indoor and outdoor locations. He used cross-cutting editing method to show simultaneous action in different places.
These early film directors discovered important aspects of motion picture language: that the screen image does not need to show a complete person from head to toe and that splicing together two shots creates in the viewer's mind a contextual relationship. These were the key discoveries that made all non-live or non live-on-videotape narrative motion pictures and television possible—that shots (in this case, whole scenes since each shot is a complete scene) can be photographed at widely different locations over a period of time (hours, days or even months) and combined into a narrative whole. That is, The Great Train Robbery contains scenes shot on sets of a telegraph station, a railroad car interior, and a dance hall, with outdoor scenes at a railroad water tower, on the train itself, at a point along the track, and in the woods. But when the robbers leave the telegraph station interior (set) and emerge at the water tower, the audience believes they went immediately from one to the other. Or that when they climb on the train in one shot and enter the baggage car (a set) in the next, the audience believes they are on the same train.
Sometime around 1918, Russian director Lev Kuleshov did an experiment that proves this point. (See Kuleshov Experiment) He took an old film clip of a headshot of a noted Russian actor and intercut the shot with a shot of a bowl of soup, then with a child playing with a teddy bear, then with a shot an elderly woman in a casket. When he showed the film to people they praised the actor's acting—the hunger in his face when he saw the soup, the delight in the child, and the grief when looking at the dead woman. Of course, the shot of the actor was years before the other shots and he never "saw" any of the items. The simple act of juxtaposing the shots in a sequence made the relationship.
The original editing machine: an upright Moviola
Film editing technology
Before the widespread use of digital non-linear editing systems, the initial editing of all films was done with a positive copy of the film negative called a film workprint (cutting copy in UK) by physically cutting and pasting together pieces of film. Strips of footage would be hand cut and attached together with tape and then later in time, glue. Editors were very precise; if they made a wrong cut or needed a fresh positive print, it cost the production money and time for the lab to reprint the footage. With the invention of a splicer and threading the machine with a viewer such as a Moviola, or "flatbed" machine such as a K.-E.-M. or Steenbeck, the editing process sped up a little bit and cuts came out cleaner and more precise. The Moviola editing practice is non-linear, allowing the editor to make choices faster, a great advantage to editing episodic films for television which have very short timelines to complete the work. All film studios and production companies who produced films for television provided this tool for their editors. Flatbed editing machines were used for playback and refinement of cuts, particularly in feature films and films made for television because they were less noisy and cleaner to work with.
They were used extensively for documentary and drama production within the BBC's Film Department. Operated by a team of two, an editor and assistant editor, this tactile process required significant skill but allowed for editors to work extremely efficiently.
Acmade Picsynch for sound and picture coordination
Today, most films are edited digitally (on systems such as Avid, Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro) and bypass the film positive workprint altogether. In the past, the use of a film positive (not the original negative) allowed the editor to do as much experimenting as he or she wished, without the risk of damaging the original. With digital editing, editors can experiment just as much as before except with the footage completely transferred to a computer hard drive.
When the film workprint had been cut to a satisfactory state, it was then used to make an edit decision list (EDL). The negative cutter referred to this list while processing the negative, splitting the shots into rolls, which were then contact printed to produce the final film print or answer print. Today, production companies have the option of bypassing negative cutting altogether. With the advent of digital intermediate ("DI"), the physical negative does not necessarily need to be physically cut and hot spliced together; rather the negative is optically scanned into the computer(s) and a cut list is confirmed by a DI editor.
Women in film editing
In the early years of film, editing was considered a technical job; editors were expected to "cut out the bad bits" and string the film together. Indeed, when the Motion Picture Editors Guild was formed, they chose to be "below the line", that is, not a creative guild, but a technical one. Women were not usually able to break into the "creative" positions; directors, cinematographers, producers, and executives were almost always men. Editing afforded creative women a place to assert their mark on the filmmaking process. The history of film has included many women editors such as Dede Allen, Anne Bauchens, Margaret Booth, Barbara McLean, Anne V. Coates, Adrienne Fazan, Verna Fields, Blanche Sewell and Eda Warren.