A train speeds incessantly barrels toward a helpless bound victim. A car skids right into a cavernous valley. A spread of bullets erupts between criminal and cop.
The possible narratives are endless. With comparatively minimal effort and risk, all these film scenes can be “created” in some way using parallel editing and a little bit of visual psychology.
So, what exactly is parallel editing?
Parallel editing can be roughly defined as the use of at least two different scenes or perspectives to describe the actions of an event. The scenes are alternated in a way that gives the illusion simultaneous or rapid-successive occurrence.
There are countless films that have featured parallel editing to at least some degree. Perhaps one of the more memorable of such is Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). Porter applies parallel editing techniques to tell the tale of a bloody locomotive heist. Various cuts are used to depict each confrontation, from gun fights to the grand hijacking and penultimate shootout.
Parallel editing, however, is not a thing of the past. It very often sees use in contemporary films, with Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014) being a great example. The movie starts with a tense opening that shows a soldier contemplating whether or not to fire at a child carrying an explosive. Alternating scenes give perspectives to the soldier’s vision, the interactions of the child, and the ongoing combat on the frontline. Parallel editing is used to heighten the stress and give an overarching understanding of the situation and the following developments.
My intrigue with the parallel editing lies in the fact that it neither new nor dated. The technique is a near perfect encapsulation of film history, shaping the way narratives are told and presented.
Parallel editing entered the mainstream film industry after film editing/cutting became rudimentarily possible. As mentioned above, some of the first documented applications came from Edwin S. Porter’s films, most notably The Great Train Robbery (1903) and The Life of an American Fireman (1903).
Moving pictures had only became a thing in the decade prior to the debut of these flicks. Being present in the infancy of the medium, parallel editing had plenty of time to make its mark. It provided an avenue for directors and editors to shape stories to their final form.
Would something be too dangerous to film naturally? Is something impractical to be visualized directly? Need to convey two simultaneous developments? You’ve got parallel editing.
Don’t take my word for it. Famous pieces throughout history that feature parallel editing include The Birth of a Nation (1915), Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and Inception (2010).
Film and Film Engineering
Parallel editing has led me to truly consider everything that goes into a successful film. A gripping script, an all-star ensemble, and a visionary director are certainly quite helpful. However, all of that means nothing if the film isn’t successfully woven together; if the presentation is incoherent, everything prior would have been all for naught.
Parallel editing has also led me to contemplate the journey of the art. It all began more than a century ago with simple grainy pictures, devoted of color, plot, and manipulative ability. Through innovative thought, engineering, and persistence, film has blossomed into the current form we have today.
The concepts of parallel editing are also not solely exclusive to the big screen. The technique involves presenting and manipulating information in a way that is understandable and enjoyable by the masses. Computer science, specifically UX/UI design, involve much of the same, only with a different set of information.
Cousins, Mark. “The Story of Film”. Pavilion, 2013.
TheVideoCaller. “The Great Train Robbery (1903)”. Youtube. 31 October 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuto7qWrplc
Do it. “American Sniper parallel editing”. Youtube. 28 September 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQgtu2rEGvM