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Arts & Entertainment

How to Edit a Movie: Guide to Film and Video Editing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Aug 28, 2020 • 7 min read

While film editors aren't often given the public spotlight like directors, writers, or actors, the art of film editing is essential to shaping the final version of a movie.

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What Is Film Editing?

Film editing is the process of assembling shots into a motion picture or television show to realize the director's vision. Editing is both a technical and creative skill, as film editors are responsible for both assembling film footage using video editing software and making artistic choices that impact a film's narrative. Film editors take raw footage and use editing techniques like cutaways, crosscutting, parallel editing, continuity editing, and match cuts to reconceptualize the scripted version of a film's story to make it come alive. Film editing spans many rounds of shaping, refining, and fine-tuning before a finished final cut of the film is complete.

Why Is Editing an Important Part of the Filmmaking Process?

Whether you’re working on an independent short film, a Hollywood feature film, or a television show, the importance of the art of film editing cannot be overstated. There are four essential ways that editing affects a film's narrative:

  • Editing determines when the audience receives information. Editors have the power to rearrange scenes and jump forwards or backward in time for either dramatic or comedic effect. An editor can hold on a shot longer so the viewer picks up extra information, or they can purposely withhold information to better set up a twist ending.
  • Editing dictates pacing. Editors look at pacing on a scene-by-scene basis and in the context of the film as a whole. For example, an editor might use slow, longer shots in a specific scene in order to build suspense. In the same film, the editor might feel the story is dragging and decide to cut an entire unnecessary scene in order to speed up the overall pacing of the film.
  • Editing ensures shot continuity. Editors are responsible for ensuring there’s a coherent flow from shot to shot. For instance, if a character walks through a door and the editor cuts to a shot on the opposite side of the door, it would be jarring if the character was suddenly several steps ahead of where they were before the cut. Editors time their cuts so the scenes flow properly. This is especially important when films shoot in different locations that need to appear like one location when edited together.
  • Editing amplifies emotion. Editors can work with transitions and shot selection to make the viewer experience a range of emotions. Think about a classic horror film jump cut where the editor abruptly cuts to a frightening image at the same time that a jarring sound effect plays. By cutting away at a surprising moment and punctuating the cut with an audio cue, the editor is able to manufacture fear in the audience.
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4 Stages of the Film Editing Process

The film editing process involves a series of versions or cuts (named so because editing used to require the cutting and slicing of physical film strips). These cuts are the result of the following workflow:

  1. Logging: Usually handled by an assistant editor, logging is the process of sorting and organizing the unedited, raw footage (called "dailies”). As the film shoots, directors and cinematographers often mark certain shots as favorites to help guide the video editor once they receive the logged footage.
  2. First assembly: The first assembly, or assembly cut, is the editor’s first cut of the entire movie. The editor strings together all of the usable footage and organizes it into a chronological sequence that corresponds with the film’s script. For large budget Hollywood features with high-profile production companies, the editor often works on assemblies of individual scenes while the film is still being shot.
  3. Rough cut: The rough cut may take many months and is usually the first time that the editor works with the film director. The rough cut might involve minor tweaks, or the director may wish to go back to the drawing board and start afresh for parts of the film. The director will often want to reorder, cut, and trim scenes, in addition to swapping in different shot angles and performance takes. Rough cuts only feature simplified placeholder titles, visual effects (if any at all), and sound effects.
  4. Final cut: Once the film's director and producers are satisfied with the state of the film, the editor adds the finishing touches. This includes sound effects, music, visual effects, titles, and color grading.

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The Top Editing Systems Used in Postproduction

Today, most movies and shows are cut on non-linear digital editing systems. These software programs gained traction in the early 1990s and revolutionized postproduction by making editing faster and easier. Media is uploaded to the computer, saved as digital files, and organized into bins, the postproduction term for folders. Editors retrieve a clip by clicking on the file, similar to working with other documents. A film has a track (denoted by a row) for every element, like video, music, or sound effects, allowing editors to adjust the placement and levels of each one individually.

There are several editing systems used in postproduction, and it often comes down to which one an editor prefers. The most popular editing softwares used in postproduction include Avid Media Composer, Final Cut Pro X, Adobe Premiere Pro.

How to Edit a Movie: 8 Film Editing Tips

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Film editing is often a time-consuming process of trial and error. Use these tips to speed up your editing time and add some new editing techniques to your repertoire.

  1. Mask your cuts with movement. An easy way to achieve seamless transitions between shots is to cut while there's either on-screen movement (such as a punch or a kick in a fight sequence) or camera movement (like a whip pan).
  2. Keep it tight. Consider whether it is necessary to watch a character walk up an entire flight of stairs or go through their morning hygiene routine, and cut out footage that slows the pacing of the film. This also applies to long pauses between lines of actor dialogue. To speed things up, experiment with cutting between different camera angles or removing unnecessary footage all together.
  3. Reinforce the purpose of the scene. Edit each shot in a way that supports the central drive of the scene. For instance, if a character's present actions are caused by a moment in their past, you might use flashback cutaways to clarify their behavior. Or, in a scene with a ticking time bomb, you might heighten suspense by frequently cutting back to the countdown.
  4. Use audio match cuts. In addition to visual editing techniques, the editor can achieve powerful effects with the audio track. Just as you can match cut visual elements, it's also effective to match cut dialogue and sound effects. A famous sound effect match cut occurs in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) when the sound of whirring helicopter blades during a battle continues into the next scene, where Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) lies in bed beneath a spinning ceiling fan. Matching the sound of spinning helicopter blades to the spinning ceiling fan suggests Willard’s inability to escape his memories of war.
  5. Use motivated cuts. A motivated cut implies a causal link between one shot and the next—for instance, when a character acknowledges something offscreen and you cut to that specific thing. This can be as simple as a shot of a character waving to someone off-camera, followed by a cut to a shot of that person. Motivated cuts can also build suspense, like if you show a character's eyes slowly widening as they stare at something off-screen in fright before you finally cut to the source of their terror.
  6. Use insert shots to reveal information. Insert shots are close-ups of an item (a clue at a murder scene, for instance) or action (hands playing a piano) that help focus the audience's attention on a specific thing. Insert shots not only add diversity to your selected shot compositions but can also help transition between different scenes.
  7. Avoid cutting audio and video simultaneously. In other words, refrain from cutting to another shot at the same exact time that the audio stops. If one character finishes a line of dialogue and you immediately cut to the person to whom they're speaking, you will draw attention to the cut. Instead, begin the audio for the next shot either slightly before or after you cut—this is known as pre-lapping and post-lapping.
  8. Invest in a second monitor. When you edit video clips on one monitor, it tends to get cramped, and it's easy to waste time as you constantly move back and forth between windows. Using a second monitor gives you the extra screen space to separate your editing timeline from your folders of audio and video files.

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