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What is parallel editing?

How and when to use this editing transition

what-is-parallel-editing

WHAT IS PARALLEL EDITING

Parallel editing, also known as cross cutting, is an editing technique where you cut back and forth between two or more different scenarios. By doing so you can relate the action or characters in those scenarios to each other.

 

what-is-parallel-editing-demonstration

 

The different scenarios can be from the same scene, or (more often) from completely different scenes.

 

Perhaps the most famous example of parallel editing in film is Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception. You know, the film where the characters plug themselves into a dream within a dream within a dream. It’s a headfuck of a plot but is a good example of parallel cutting between time/location.

BUT, this is just one way to use parallel editing; in order to intensify the action. There are many other ways to use parallel editing other than to intensify action scenes. We’ll get on to those in a sec.

 

 

A HISTORY OF PARALLEL EDITING IN FILM

Some say that the first film to use parallel editing was The Great Train Robbery (1903) by Edwin S. Porter, but that’s not entirely true. If you watch the film here, you’ll notice that the character’s storylines are told independently with no intercutting. 

A more relevant example is Louis J. Gasnier’s 1908 short The Runaway Horse (Le cheval emballé). In this very early film we cut between external and internal to give emphasis to the actions of the horse. Without this intercutting the plot of the film falls flat.

 

 

WHY WOULD YOU WANT TO USE PARALLEL EDITING

There are a few reasons you may want to use the parallel editing technique:

  1. To intensify the action in a scene
  2. To create context between two characters/scenes
  3. To show two scenes in two different locations play out simultaneously
  4. To connect two storylines
  5. To create tension or suspense
  6. To create a paradox

 

 

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF PARALLEL EDITING

By cutting between two shots you are effectively adding together the elements of each scene. There are a few different approaches to parallel editing in film, depending on what you want to achieve. Below are examples of the different types of examples of parallel editing in film, and when you might want to use them.

 

PARALLEL EDITING TO INTENSIFY ACTION FILMS

By intercutting between two scenes you can add together the intensity of each scene to create an overall feeling of greater intensity. For example, imagine you have two scenes back to back, each with an intensity of 6 out of 10. By cutting back and forth between the two scenes you can ramp up the intensity to around 8 out of 10.

This is how Christopher Nolan uses parallel editing to great effect in Inception.

PARALLEL EDITING THROUGH TIME

By parallel editing between scenes in two different timeframes (e.g. the present and the past), you can create comparisons and contrast between them.

A shot of someone looking out of a window at an empty street might provide little context. Now imagine the same shots intercut with sepia toned versions of the same scenes, but instead of an empty street that person looks out of the window as their lover leaves for work for the last time. We wouldn’t know this was the last time they saw each other without the context from both timeframes.

PARALLEL EDITING BETWEEN LOCATIONS

Parallel editing between two different locations essentially shrinks the world in which our characters live. This is most common when cutting between two people talking to each other on the phone.

We can also create contrast between these two locations to help with the story: Imagine two sisters are talking on the phone. One sister is talking from a messy household while kids run around screaming. The other sister is talking on the phone from a beach as she tans with a cocktail by her side. We’ve created a clear and evident backstory about the drastically different life decisions these two siblings took. Boom. Just two intercut shots have created an entire narrative.

 

PARALLEL EDITING TO CONNECT TWO STORYLINES

By parallel editing between two storylines we can give clear evidence of how the two stories are connected. Usually the two storylines meet at some point, normally towards the end of the story.

It’s a technique used across the entire Lord of The Rings series of films. One group goes and does one quest while another group goes and does another quest to help out the other group or the main quest overall. Eventually they all meet and pat each other on the back and tell each other what an awesome journey they had.

You’ll find most TV series’ do this. Each character has their own storyline that intertwines into the main storyline that they all follow.

 

PARALLEL EDITING TO CREATE TENSION OR SUSPENSE

You know all of those movies that have you really tense because you know that someone is about to get f’d up. They probably used parallel editing.

You’ll find good use of parallel editing in The Silence of the Lambs – the 1991 film directed by Jonathan Demme and edited by Craig McKay. The parallel editing in The Silence of the Lambs cuts between two tense scenes. One scene unfolds indoors as a serial killer panics with a victim. Another scene unfolds as the police are surrounding the house outside, ready to break in and raid the place. No character on the inside is aware of what is happening outside, and nobody outside is aware of what is happening indoors. As the two scenes intercut they play against each other, ramping up the tension to unfold in an unexpected climax. Check it out:

If the two scenes played out straight, one after the other, the action would not have felt anywhere near as tense. The editor, Craig McKay talks about editing that scene here.

PARALLEL EDITING TO CREATE CONTRAST

The versions above cover how parallel editing can join together two character’s stories. Usually in a way that improves the telling of the story. But you can also edit together two opposing shots purely to create contrast. Or you could say juxtaposition if you’re a film student. The second scene may not even contain any of the established characters.

There is a very early example of this in D. W. Griffith’s 1909 short film A Corner in Wheat. The story follows a tycoon as he monopolises the wheat industry, eventually pricing out the very people that grow the wheat crop. The film intercuts between the rich celebrating their riches and the poor queuing in the bakery without enough money to buy the bread. The characters in the queue are none we are familiar with. This is almost like a kind of reaction shot.

Using parallel editing to intercut between the action and the result of that action can create an interesting contrast. There is also contrast between the two classes of society, in many ways. You can use the same technique to create contrast of any type if it fits in the narrative.

 

 

EXAMPLES OF PARALLEL EDITING IN FILM

Here are a few more great examples of parallel editing/cross cutting in film.

 

The intercutting at play here in The Godfather is amazing. If the baptism had just played out linearly in its own scene, it would have fallen flat. It would have killed the pacing of the movie. However, intercut between the violence of the shootouts and you have an incredible example of parallel editing to create contrast. Michael becomes the child’s godfather whilst simultaneously becoming ‘The Godfather’.

 

This scene in The Untouchables is a great example of parallel editing within the same scene. By cutting back and forth to the pram falling down the stairs, the action has been intensified. There is something else at stake amongst the shootout – the life of the innocent baby.

 

Cloud Atlas is like one 3-hour-long parallel edit. Well worth a watch. Whilst this opening scene does not strictly cut back and forth between all the timelines, there is an interplay and correlation between the timelines of each scene. This becomes apparent as the film plays out.

For more examples of parallel editing in film, see every Chistopher Nolan film. The guy has built his career using parallel editing. Noteworthy examples are Interstellar, The Dark Knight, Dunkirk, and of course Inception.

 

 

HOW CAN YOU DO PARALLEL EDITING SUCCESSFULLY

There are a few tricks you can use to help with the cohesiveness of your parallel editing.

 

DON’T USE PARALLEL EDITING FOR THE SAKE OF IT

Only use parallel editing to help tell the story. If the two scenes you are intercutting between don’t relate to each other, all you’ll do is confuse the viewer.

 

COLOUR GRADING TO HELP DEFINE SCENES

Inception is a parallel editing nightmare (from an editor’s perspective). Probably the most advanced example of the technique in action. But as a viewer it’s fairly easy to understand what’s going on in what timeline. Aside from the set design, colour grading is a strong reason behind this.

When you watch it you’ll notice that each ‘world’ or timeline has a different hue to it. One has a more blue tone, another more orange, the other more green etc. It’s easy for the eye to understand which world is which, based purely on colour and not just the environment in the shot.

inception-colour-grading-references

Courtesy of LeifEricson on YouTube

 

You can compare all the timelines side-by-side here.

 

MANIPULATE PACING WITH YOUR PARALLEL EDITING

Any scene has its own pace – a rhythm or speed in which the shots play out that creates the overall feeling of the scene. An identity if you will. You can use two different rhythms to create two different identities for two different scenes. The viewer’s brain will subconsciously correlate each particular rhythm to each scene without even realising.

USING CINEMATOGRAPHY TO HELP YOUR PARALLEL EDITING

In the same way that you can use the timing of the shots to create an identity, you can use cinematography to distinguish between two scenes. You may decide to only use shaky camera in one scene and stable shots in the contrasting scene. Or maybe close shots in one and long shots in another. Dark and light. There are loads of options. Get creative.

DO THE MATHS

When parallel editing between two scenes, intercutting similar levels of intensity will amplify that intensity. However, if the intensity of the two intercut scenes is on the opposite sides of the scale then you will average out the intensity – lowering the intensity of the higher intensity shot. 

I’ll give you an example.

Let’s imagine we have a scene of a car chase. The intensity of the scene is 8/10.

Imagine intercutting this scene with some cops chasing down a criminal (6/10 intensity). The intensity of the two scenes are close together (8 and 6). This helps each scene increase the intensity of the other, resulting in an edit with an intensity of 9/10. Perfect for pumping up action and high-tension scenes to have you on the edge of your seat. 

parallel-editing-intensity-bar-infographic-2

 

Now imagine we cut the same car chase (8/10 intensity) hurtling towards a house. Inside the house is a gentle afternoon tea party (1/10 intensity). Sounds like a great comedy. This will lower the intensity of the car chase to around a 6 or 7.

parallel-editing-intensity-bar-infographic-3

However the purpose of the parallel editing in this case was not to intensify the action but to create contrast for comedic effect. And tbh it sounds like it’ll have hilarious consequences. You won’t be on the edge of your seat, but you will feel tense, and ready to laugh.

To help you figure out if two intercut scenes will increase the overall intensity or average the intensity out, I’ve made a tool. Here is an equation you can reference when you need help figuring it out:

 

i = intensity of scenario (out of 10)

IF Max/Min(i) DIFFERENCE = ≤3 then Max(i) INCREASES

IF Max/Min(i) DIFFERENCE = >3 then Max(i) DECREASES

 

 

So, what does this equation mean?

Well, imagine we are rating scenes on an intensity scale of 0-10. If the difference between the intensity (i) of the two intercut scenes (SceneA, SceneB, etc) is 3 or less, then the overall intensity will increase.

If, however, the difference in intensity of the two intercut scenes is over 3, then the intensity will be averaged out – decreasing the maximum intensity overall.

This is not a hard and fast rule but is a pretty good indicator for those who are unsure.

I bet you never thought you’d been learning equations to help you with your video editing, eh?

 

This is all part of my belief that the basics of video editing can be broken down into systems. Once you know the systems, then you can break them.

 

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”PABLO PICASSO

 

 

Now you should know:

What parallel editing is

The history of parallel editing

The different types of parallel editing

Examples of parallel editing in film

How to successfully parallel edit

 

 

If you found this useful then so will someone else! Share it with your friends and gain some kudos.

 

Know any other great examples of parallel editing you think should be included? Let me know in the comments.