Elliptical editing is a technique used in film editing that allows an event's duration on-screen to be shorter than its duration in the story. The simplest type of elliptical edit is a cut between two shots, both of which show part of the same event. The cut between the two shots allows filmmakers to omit part of that event, thus reducing the time that the event is shown on-screen.

Editors use elliptical editing to control the pace of the story. A long, tedious event that may take hours in the story may be elided so that film spectators only need to sit through a few minutes. For example, the hero of the story might be wandering in a desert for days. As spectators, we don't want to sit in the theater for days, watching his every move. Because of our limited patience, editors will only show a shot of the hero beginning to wander, and then show a shot of the hero entering a friendly town, omitting the uninteresting parts in between.

In a sense, the breaks between scenes are elisions. The film is a series of scenes, each of which only show the most interesting or dramatic events. The interleaving tedium--for example, walking from place to place, sleeping, etc.--is omitted, since spectators aren't interested. Almost all narrative films use elliptical editing in some fashion to keep the running time reasonable.

In addition to the basic elliptical cut, there are three common patterns used in elliptical editing: punctuation, empty frame and cutaway. Annotated diagrams will be useful here (sorry about the crude ASCII art).


                                    
                                                              
                               \ \                             | 
    O                          / /                        O  ( |
   / \                         \ \                       / \  \| )
   |A|  -----------------------/ /------------------->   |A|   |/
   | |                         \ \                       | |   |
 ==============================/ /==================================
    1                          \ \                        2

Overview: We'll use the hero-wandering-the-desert scenario for these diagrams. This overview shows the general spatial layout of the situation: Person A starts at position 1, all the way on the left, and walks slowly to position 2, all the way on the right. (Position 2 is distinguished by a rather sickly looking cactus.)

The distance between position 1 and 2 is so great that we cannot fit the entire scene into a single frame. That is, in the diagrams below, position 1 and position 2 won't be seen together in frame. The vertical zig-zag in the middle of the diagram indicates that the distance between position 1 and 2 is much farther than shown in the diagram.


1. Punctuation

+------------------------------------+
|                                    |
|                                    |
|   O                                |
|  / \                               |
|  |A| ---------->                   |
|  | |                               |
|====================================|
|   1                                |
+------------------------------------+

Shot 1: This shot shows Person A beginning his journey through the desert, at position 1. The arrow shows his direction of movement, as well as the distance he moves for the duration of the shot. (That is, Person A walks to the middle of the frame before the transition). After we see him move for a short time, there is a transition to the next shot.


Transition: A fade, wipe or dissolve transitions between the first shot and the second shot. This transition signals that a portion of the event has been omitted, much like how ellipsis dots signal that a portion of text has been omitted.


+------------------------------------+
|                                    |
|                                |   |
|                           O  ( |   |
|                          / \  \| ) |
|                   -----> |A|   |/  |
|                          | |   |   |
|====================================|
|                           2        |
+------------------------------------+

Shot 2: This shot shows the end of the event, when Person A has arrived at position 2, next to the cactus. The arrow indicates where he started when the shot began, and the direction of his movement. Because this pattern of elliptical editing uses a transition instead of a cut, shots 1 and 2 will be blended together instead of instantaneously switching.


2. Empty Frame

+------------------------------------+
|                                    |
|                                    |
|   O                                |
|  / \                               |
|  |A| ----------------------------->|
|  | |                               |
|====================================|
|   1                                |
+------------------------------------+

Shot 1a: This shot shows Person A beginning to walk from position 1 to position 2. The shot lingers on this part of the event long enough for Person A to walk off-screen, leaving the frame "empty."


+------------------------------------+
|                                    |
|                                    |
|                                    |  O
|                                    | / \
|                                    | |A| -->
|                                    | | |
|====================================|=========
|   1                                |
+------------------------------------+

Shot 1b: This is the same shot, a few minutes after it began. The frame is now empty, since Person A has walked off-screen. Filmmakers will hold briefly on the empty frame, to set up for the cut to the next shot.


         +------------------------------------+
         |                                    |
         |                                |   |
  O      |                              ( |   |
 / \     |                               \| ) |
 |A| --> |                                |/  |
 | |     |                                |   |
=========|====================================|
         |                           2        |
         +------------------------------------+

Shot 2a: The empty frame in shot 1b allows for a cut to this shot, which begins as an empty frame. The cactus in the frame indicates that this is position 2, but Person A has not walked on screen yet. Oftentimes, filmmakers will use a graphic match to smooth the cut between the shots.


+------------------------------------+
|                                    |
|                                |   |
|                           O  ( |   |
|                          / \  \| ) |
|------------------------> |A|   |/  |
|                          | |   |   |
|====================================|
|                           2        |
+------------------------------------+

Shot 2b: Here in this shot, Person A walks into the frame from the left. The empty frames in shots 1b and 2a allowed filmmakers to unobtrusively omit the middle of the event.


3. Cutaway

+------------------------------------+
|                                    |
|                                    |
|   O                                |
|  / \                               |
|  |A| ---------->                   |
|  | |                               |
|====================================|
|   1                                |
+------------------------------------+

Shot 1: This shot shows Person A beginning his journey through the desert, at position 1. The arrow shows his direction of movement, as well as the distance he moves for the duration of the shot.


+------------------------------------+
|                                    |
|      ___             ___           |
|     /   \           /   \          |
|     |   |           o o |          |
|     |  @|           |/  |          |
|     \___/           \o__/          |
|    /     \         /     \         |
|    |  B   \       /   C  |         |
+------------------------------------+

Shot 2: This shot shows Person B and C talking, wondering where Person A is. This shot is known as a "cutaway" shot, depicting an event somewhere else. The cutaway event masks the omission of part of the original event. The key is that the cutaway shot should be shorter in duration that the elided sequence. (The use of a cutaway is related to another film editing technique, crosscutting.)


+------------------------------------+
|                                    |
|                                |   |
|                           O  ( |   |
|                          / \  \| ) |
|                   -----> |A|   |/  |
|                          | |   |   |
|====================================|
|                           2        |
+------------------------------------+

Shot 3: After the cutaway has masked the elision, this shot shows the end of the event, when Person A has arrived at position 2, next to the cactus.


Any film editing technique is difficult to visualize, even with diagrams. To better understand elliptical editing, we'll use real examples from Everything2's favorite film, Fight Club. Warning: Mild spoilers ahead.

A nice example of a variation on the punctuation elliptical edit can be found around 41 minutes into the film. In this scene, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) lists the rules of Fight Club. After he says, "And the eight and final rule: if this is your first night at Fight Club, you have to fight," there is a whip pan which nicely transitions into a shot of one of the fights; this whip pan is the punctuation. This fight started after the rules have been laid out, but spectators don't get to see how the fight started. Instead, spectators see the fight in medias res. Clearly, some time has been elided in this scene. (There is a textbook punctuation edit around 1 hour and 25 minutes into the film--try to spot it).

There is a good example of an empty frame elliptical edit around 51 minutes into the film. The Narrator (Edward Norton) has gone down to the basement of his and Tyler's house, to fiddle with the fuse box. He walks up the stairs to leave the basement, and out of the frame, to the right. In the next shot, we see him enter the frame on the left, walking up the second story staircase. We know that it's the second floor, since he passes Tyler's bedroom, which had been previously established to be on the second floor. The filmmakers omitted the part where he was on the first floor, since that's not important.

Finding an example of a cutaway elliptical edit is left as an exercise for the reader.

Film editing, at its heart, is about the manipulation of time and rhythm. Elliptical editing is one of the most valuable and oft used techniques, because it allows filmmakers to compress time in films.


Notes

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction, Sixth Edition. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001).


/msg me with any corrections or comments.

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