Film Editing 101: Everything You Need to Get Started

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Photo Source: Avel Chuklanov/Unsplash

Video editing is a growing field that offers myriad opportunities to grow both professionally and artistically. Whether you just started learning how to edit a movie, or are considering the creative possibilities that film editing offers, this guide has the key knowledge you need to develop your craft.

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Why is editing an important part of filmmaking?

Us“Us” Courtesy Universal Pictures

Narrative continuity: Film editing is the art of connecting shots, scenes, and sequences to pull a movie’s story together. Shot length, camera angle emphasis, scene order and transitions, and sound design all impact viewer experience. 

Beyond selecting and cleaning up the best footage, placing it in the right order, and matching it with the right audio and soundtrack, editors also give a rhythm to a movie’s progression. 

In fact, much of a film’s narrative is created in the video editing process. “I think of the famous line: ‘You make a movie three times: when you write it, then when you shoot it, then when you edit it,’ ” says Primetime Emmy nominee Nicholas Monsour (“Nope,” “Us”).

Tone: Editing in film is also used as a visual language. By deliberately connecting shots that play off each other, the editor creates emotional meaning. Even seemingly small decisions in the editing room—such as using sharp, short cuts instead of leaving in long, unbroken shots—influences a scene’s tone. Some editing decisions can change the entire feeling of a film. One famous example of this is the theatrical cut of “Blade Runner,” which features voiceover narration from the protagonist, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). The decision proved to be a controversial editing choice that was later removed from other cuts of the film. 

Mediation: An editor can also be a mediator between the different departments of a film and contribute their own creative ideas throughout the filmmaking process. This is arguably more important now than ever, as editing has become increasingly comprehensive due to the increased use of visual effects in films. 

Most significantly, to edit a film is to handle the labor of the artist and creators who’ve worked on it. When film editing is done well, it elevates the material.

Basic film editing techniques

Star Wars V“Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back” Courtesy Lucasfilm

To edit a movie, you must familiarize yourself with the technical aspects of filmmaking, including momentary editing versus structural editing. Film editors must also be well versed in technical elements such as film segments, shots and camera movements, cuts, and continuity. 

Momentary editing: This is the basic shot placement, cuts, dialogue flow, action, and continuity within scenes.

Structural editing: This is the big picture of the film, which includes pacing, scene order, sequences, and plot movements.

Segments of a film: Editing a film is the process of building up bits and pieces until you’re eventually left with a complete project. Here are the building blocks used by film editors:

  • Shot: A continuous piece of footage between cuts.
  • Scene: The basic storytelling unit of a film, scenes are compositions of shots and audio in a singular space and time. 
  • Sequence: A distinct narrative segment of a film that is made up of multiple related scenes—think of Luke Skywalker’s confrontation with Darth Vader in “Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back.” 
  • Act: One of the major blocks of a film that encompasses multiple sequences. Many films follow a three-act structure that includes common elements of storytelling, such as a climax in the third act followed by a resolution and falling action.

Shots and camera movements: Even though camera work isn’t the editor’s direct responsibility, they should know the basics. Learning about the art of cinematography—especially the different kinds of shots and camera movements—is essential for knowing how to make a balanced edit.

Cuts:  In the video editing process, a cut refers to the shift from one clip to another. The term “cutting” came from the era when all movies were cut and spliced together on reels of physical film. Today, the majority of editing is done in digital programs such as Adobe Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro. A few different kinds of cuts include:

  • Standard/hard cut: A simple transition from one shot to another that’s most commonly used within scenes.
  • Smash cut: A sharp, snap change of one scene to another that emphasizes two contrasting elements. This cut is usually used to highlight a particular story beat, such as a punch line to a joke in a comedy or a way to release a tense moment in a horror or action movie. 
  • Split edit: A deliberate mismatch of video and audio between scenes. Either the audio from the next scene begins before the video (a J-cut) or the video proceeds the audio (an L-cut).
  • Cutaway: This is when an editor embeds a shot from a different time and space into a scene as a way of introducing new information or story beats. 
  • Montage: The French word for “assembly,” a montage is an arrangement of short clips into a continuous sequence. Montages are typically set to music or narration and convey a lot of narrative information in a brief segment of the film. Think of the baptism scene in “The Godfather” or one of the training sequences in the “Rocky” franchise. 

A cut can also mean one of the different versions of a film. Among the different kinds are:

  • The assembly cut: the editor’s first version of the project
  • The rough cut: an unfinished version of the project that implements notes and tweaks from the director but still includes temp sound, music, and VFX, as well as scenes that will ultimately be trimmed or cut from the 
  • Final cut: the version of the project that is locked with finished music and VFX

Continuity: One of an editor’s primary duties is maintaining continuity, or consistency of time and space within the film. 

In the shot-to-shot sense, continuity means that the visual and audio elements line up. For example, if a character is standing in a corner and holding a prop in one shot, they should be in the same position in the next, unless an action has occurred. Audio, like dialogue or diegetic sounds (sounds that originate within the world of the film), should also flow between shots.

Additionally, maintaining continuity means not letting a shot with any foreign elements get into the edit. Remember the infamous Starbucks coffee cup that made its way into a Season 8 episode of “Game of Thrones”? This type of continuity break can disrupt viewer immersion.

Plot continuity is arguably even more important than visual and audio continuity. During the video editing process, a lot may be left on the cutting room floor. Shots, scenes, and entire characters might be trimmed out depending on what the director, producers, and studio decide. As a result, the film’s editor has to keep a sharp eye on the setup and payoff of plot points.

What are the stages of the film editing process?

Tick Tick Boom“tick, tick… BOOM!” Credit: MACALL POLAY/NETFLIX

Film editing techniques vary as much as movies themselves do, but the stages of film editing generally follow a similar three-stage structure:

Preproduction: Although editing is primarily postproduction, the groundwork of film editing is laid during preproduction. Learning the emotional beats of the film, characters, tone, plot, and pacing helps the editor get in the right headspace from the start. “That’s a big part: doing that research, doing that leg work in the beginning. And, of course, getting in the head of our directors is a pretty good idea, too, and trying to understand what their vision is. The more I can absorb the DNA of the film before we start shooting, the better,” says Oscar-nominated editor Myron Kerstein (“tick, tick… BOOM!,” “In the Heights”).

Although editors are sometimes brought in later in the project, having an established editor from the start helps prepare for the next phase.

Production: It’s up to the editor and their team to review the raw footage collected at the end of each shooting day during production (“dailies”). 

The editor gets reports on how the shoot went and usually talks with the director or a supervisor to check if there’s anything noteworthy in the footage. The director might point out any takes they particularly like (circle takes) and want to include in the first cut of the film. Although the director most likely knows if the footage is usable, the editor is the first person who has hands-on access to it. 

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During production, film editors rely heavily on a script supervisor to keep track of continuity. They also use assistant editors to check and organize footage. As they watch dailies, editors take notes of their first impressions of the material. “In the beginning, the assembly process of just cutting a scene together can be really challenging because you’re literally staring at a blank page, a blank canvas,” says Kerstein.

The editor begins to stitch scenes together. As the film takes shape, they begin to work on its structure and pace. Ideally, by around the time production ends, a relatively complete version of the film should be ready to show the director. 

Postproduction: Postproduction is the stage of filmmaking when editors are most needed. The sooner they assemble the shots, scenes, sequences, and audio to finish a workable rough cut, the sooner they can see where changes need to be made.

"On a very simple level, we receive all the material, all the footage and picture from the shoot, and we try to make sense of it. We try to make the most clear, emotional, compelling story that we can from that footage," says editor Nick Fenton. "Obviously, that’s in collaboration with numerous other people, including the director and the sound team and everyone who’s come before us who is involved in the shoot.

Some directors are eager to see the footage as it’s being shot, while others are content to leave it to the editing crew. One of the rarely mentioned responsibilities of the editor is to alleviate any panic that might bubble up in a director during postproduction. “It’s probably the hardest moment for any director, to watch their first cut,” says Kerstein.

Monsour concurs. “People often joke that editors really have a slightly therapist-like role sometimes. Because you’re there, seeing this person who’s worked really hard and thought about every decision, dealing with what it is really going to end up like. You’re in a privileged spot in that way with people’s raw individual journeys that they’re on. So delicacy and sympathy and understanding is important to the whole process,” he says.

It helps to make a few different versions of the material to show the director so they have options to choose from. An editor might make a straightforward cut and another that’s more heavily modified. The latter may involve splicing different scenes together, changing the timeline of the story, and emphasizing sound design in certain scenes. If they stick to a single edit and the director doesn’t like it, the whole project could get set back. 

Once the director approves a cut, it’s shown to the producers, studio, and test audiences. The editor revises individual cuts, scene structures, subplots, characters, sound design, and pacing in response to their feedback.

After final tweaks are made, the film is finally ready to be distributed.

How to edit a movie effectively

Pulp Fiction“Pulp Fiction” Courtesy Miramax

Learning how to edit a movie on a technical level is one thing, but knowing how editing can improve the foundations of a film is what separates the good editors from the great. 

Master the tools of the trade: The best way to seamlessly edit footage is to study video editing software until its second nature. 

"Learn the Avid Media Composer and other editing software, such as Adobe Premiere. Also know Adobe Photoshop and Adobe After Effects as well," says editor Nona Khodai ("The Boys"). "We do a lot of creating in the editing room even if they aren’t the final shots. Whatever tool can help tell the story the best we can, we use. It’s good to know all of them as you never know when that skill could be useful."

Learn the intentions of different cuts and transitions: Once you know the definitions of your L-cut from your match cut, use them intentionally in your editing. Cuts and transitions aren't just a way to get from one shot to the other (and, in fact, can be distracting if you only cut when one line or movement is finished). Use a smash cut to emphasis a shocking moment. Use L-cuts and J-cuts to make conversations flow naturally. Use insert shots to give the audience vital information without wordy exposition

Match the editing to the film's tone: All of the editing choices made for a film should be directed toward crafting its overall narrative. For example, an action movie such as “John Wick” is edited to be fast and fluid, while a period drama such as “There Will Be Blood” is slow and weighty. If the editing isn’t appropriate for the material, it can throw off the whole tone of the film. But if the editing is just right, it’ll make the narrative that much more impactful.  

Study acting: You can't be a great video editor unless you understand the components of a great performance. Often, you'll be building scenes from multiple takes—study notable performances and take note of how the editor amplified and aided the best parts. Did they opt for the close-up or the wide shot? Did they hold on the most devastating line of dialogue or show the scene partner's reaction instead? 

[Actors] are the vehicle in which we tell that story and [through which] we feel that story, so their emotional integrity and their emotional truth is everything," says Fenton. "When I’m watching footage, I spend quite a lot of time writing thoughts down about those performances and that first viewing, that first impression. Even though it’s the raw material and even though you’ve got the crew shouting different things around that performance, that first viewing of watching that performance is so crucial because that’s the most intuitive moment."

Be original: Good editing can also mean assembling a film in an unconventional way that mixes up the structure. Study films that feature non-linear narratives, such as “Pulp Fiction,” “Memento,” and “Mr. Nobody.” Editing can also be used to create a distinct visual style and identity for a film. Think of “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” which was made to look like a single, uncut shot. 

Be evocative: Overall, good editing is always in service to subtly shaping an audience’s feelings and guiding them on an emotional journey. “Generally, I think that good editing is something that evokes an emotional response,” says Kerstein. “If they’ve really manipulated me to feel sadness or laughter, and I just forget where I am, that’s good editing to me.”

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