Film editing translates raw footage into a director’s vision by taking individual shots and transforming them into a cohesive narrative. The postproduction process takes many forms, including linear and nonlinear editing, continuity and discontinuity editing, and editing techniques such as cuts and transitions.
Linear editing lives up to its name—the process involves arranging and editing your footage one after the other in sequential order. The technique has mostly been replaced with nonlinear video editing software, but some editors still choose to use the technique due to its simplicity and structure.
Linear editing is:
- Sequential: In postproduction, editors choose and organize visual and auditory elements in sequential order.
- Tangible: Linear editing often involves physical video footage in the form of reels or tapes. Early editors manually cut footage with scissors and then attached it in the correct sequence using tape. The invention of the Moviola in the 1920s made the process less arduous since it allowed editors to view the film while they cut—but it still required that the tape be physically cut.
- Precise: The videotape recorder revolutionized film production and editing starting in the 1950s. To revise a film using this technology, video editors copy scenes from one tape to another in linear fashion. The shots need to be transferred in the correct order, since it’s not possible to add anything to a taped shot without overwriting it.
Nonlinear editing allows video editors to revise the shots on video servers, drives, or hard disks without needing to go in any specific order. Nonlinear editing is the primary editing technique used today. In 2006, film editor Michael Kahn (“Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan”) was nominated for an Oscar for his nonlinear editing work on “Munich.”
Nonlinear editing is:
- Non-sequential: Nonlinear editing was introduced in the 1970s with the invention of the CMX 600, or RAVE (Random Access Video Editor). This device has one monitor for watching footage and another for cutting it using a light pen. Although CMX 600 technology is primitive compared to today’s nonlinear editing software, it marks the first time editors could cut footage without following sequential order.
- Digital: Video editing as we know it today took off through the 1990s with digital editing software such as Adobe Premiere and Avid Media Composer. These programs allow people to edit from anywhere, not just in a recording studio.
- Innovative: During the early days of nonlinear editing, editors had to make lower-resolution footage to use during the editing process since the original footage often took up huge file space. But the industry is nothing if not perpetually innovative. Nonlinear editing software programs including Adobe Premiere and Avid Media Composer have evolved with the technology. The advent of online editing programs and SAAS (software as a service) tools mean editors can work with large files without any need for compression. Today, nonlinear editing has even hit the mobile realm, making film editing more decentralized than ever before.
Crafting a film as a video editor goes far beyond just linear or nonlinear editing. Different types of video edits create different types of films, so editors must consider the desired outcome for the project while deciding on which techniques to use. Popular video editing techniques include:
Continuity editing is the backbone of most film and TV. It’s the process of combining footage into a narrative in a way that supports suspension of disbelief. The purpose of continuity editing is to maintain the same space, time, and aesthetic between shots so the audience isn’t thinking about the techniques going on in the movie.
Continuity editing techniques include:
- Eyeline match: Ensuring actors are looking in the proper direction at all times in relation to anything they share a scene with
- The 180-degree rule: Making sure characters always have the same left-right orientation to each other for the duration of a scene
- The 30-degree rule: Never cutting to a different angle of the same subject by less than 30 degrees
- Matching on action: Cutting to a different angle of the same movement to create fluid action
This editing technique purposely interrupts visual continuity for artistic purposes. Techniques such as jump cuts create a sudden, shocking transition. The job interview scene from “Trainspotting” uses a jump cut to disturbingly depict Spud’s drug-induced mania.
Cross-cutting or parallel editing
A cross-cut takes place whenever a scene cuts back and forth between actions taking place in multiple spaces. Parallel editing is similar but intercuts between two events taking place simultaneously. This editing technique can create a sense of connection, tension, contrast, and pacing.
“Rocky IV” uses a special kind of parallel editing—the montage—to depict the contrasting ways that Rocky and Drago train for their upcoming match.
Cuts are used to transition from one shot or scene to the next. Some of the most commonly used techniques are the J-cut, which keeps the visual from a scene but brings in audio from the next scene; the L-cut, which keeps the audio from a scene but brings in the visuals from the next; the cutaway, which cuts away from the primary film subject to another shot and then back to the original scene; and the insert shot, which cuts to a closer angle of something within a wider shot.
“Dial M for Murder” uses insert shot cuts telescoping to the fireplace so viewers can see that Tony is framing Margot.
Transitions include the fade, or a gradual transition between a scene and a color; the dissolve, or a gradual move from one scene to the next; and the wipe, or a cut that replaces a scene by moving a shot from one side of the frame to the other, or by using a shape to transition.
“Spaceballs” uses a dissolve to comically and self-reflexively transition from night to day.