Parallel Editing

Parallel editing (cross cutting) is the technique of alternating two or more scenes that often happen simultaneously but in different locations. If the scenes are simultaneous, they occasionally culminate in a single place, where the relevant parties confront each other.

Film Historian’s Insight

Also known as cross cutting, parallel editing gained prominence with Edwin S. Porter in his acclaimed movie The Great Train Robbery (1903). In this early picture, cross cutting is used to show what occurs in two different places but not much else. Though Porter didn’t use the technique to its full potential, he was responsible for introducing the concept to the American cinema, allowing others to build on it.

In The Lonedale Operator (1911), D. W. Griffith further develops the technique by using parallel editing to provoke suspense. This picture tells the story of a young girl who substitutes her dad as a train station’s telegraph operator during payroll day. When robbers try ransacking the place, the young girls locks herself in the telegraph room, where she asks for help. Cross cutting shows the three relevant parties to the plot: (1) the frightened girl, (2) the robbers trying to break in, and (3) the approaching posse.

 The clip below is from The Silence of the Lambs (1991). It is one of the most famous occurrences of cross cutting in American cinema. It happens in the film’s third act and spoils a big surprise, so if you haven’t seen the movie and if you don’t like spoilers, watch the film first. It is a must-see.


Why use it?

To add interest and excitement to an otherwise boring sequence. Parallel editing is often applied to create suspense. Imagine the following scenario:

A woman takes a shower, singing gaily. Steam fills up the bathroom. Finishing up, she turns off the water. She dons her bathrobe and enters her bedroom. As she opens the closet, a masked assailant stabs her on the stomach.

What’s wrong with the scene? A woman taking a shower, singing, and dressing up are not particularly exciting. How can we improve this scene? With parallel editing. Now image this scenario:

A woman takes a shower. A van pulls over in a dark alley. The woman sings gaily. Steam fills up the bathroom. Two masked assailants are in her kitchen. The window behind them is broken – their entrance. The woman turns of the water. One of the assailants yanks a knife out of the holder. The woman dons her bathrobe. The two assailants venture on the second-floor hallway. One of them enters the bedroom, hides in the closet. The woman leaves her bathroom into the room. She opens her closet and is stabbed on the stomach.

Think of visual value. The first version is only exciting at its conclusion when the woman is stabbed. This second version is suspenseful throughout, especially with ominous music. To a savvy filmmaker and cinephile, it’s obvious that the two storylines are going to intersect in a major plot point.

When use it?

Implement cross cutting when you’re confident it’s going to work and you have the budget for it. Notice that in the two versions above the plot point is the same: the woman is stabbed. Everything else is potentially superfluous.

So if you have the budget, shoot both scenes and apply parallel editing. If you don’t have the budget, abridge the shower scene and move as quick as you can to the bedroom and the stabbing.

The Next Step

In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), parallel editing is used to develop theme. The cross cutting back and forth during the baptism scene shows the contradictory lives of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). In the church, Michael accepts God and renounces Satan. But parallel editing shows hitmen recruited by Michael murdering his enemies. The paradox is evident. Whereas in one scene Michael fulfills his religious obligations, in the other he carries on his mafia duties.



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