While the whole film and video industry has evolved over the past few decades, no part of filmmaking has changed more significantly than film editing.
Starting as an artform that was initially done by hand and with scissors and tape, modern film and video editing is now done with the moving of a mouse (or even the clicking of your phone).
So, if you’re looking into film editing (and how to edit a film) for the first time, we have plenty of video editing tips to go over and catch up on. Still, don’t be daunted. While there’s a lot of history to explore — and an endless amount of tricks and techniques to learn — there’s really only a few basic principles that you need to know before you dive in yourself.
They say, after all, that the best way to learn is by doing. And with today’s NLEs (non-linear editing systems) and smartphone video apps, the options to explore by trial and error are greater than ever before.
However, before you dive into how to edit a film on your own, let’s go over some of the basic principles and guidelines. We’ll also give you a bit of history and perspective on this process to help you start your editing journey.
What is film editing?
Let’s start with a basic definition for the art of film editing. Here’s how we describe film editing as part of the filmmaking process in current terms:
A part of the post-production process, film editing is the technical and creative part of turning the individual shots of a project together into a connected and comprehensive film project.
Film editing is also often referred to as “film cutting” or just “cutting.” Traditionally, this was a way to describe the physical act of cutting (or splicing) film strips together into an entire movie, which was how the industry worked in the analogue days.
While there is still some actual analog film cutting that happens today, the majority of film editing takes place digitally through different video editing softwares and apps like Adobe Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro, Avid Media Composer, or DaVinci Resolve.
Film footage vs video clips
Before we dive in too deep, we also need to take a moment to talk about the differences between editing footage for a film project versus simply editing video clips for any filmmaking process purposes.
While there’s obviously a lot of overlap between the two, it’s important to recognize that the term “film editing” encompasses both a larger, holistic artform of the director's vision as well as the more technical form for simply cutting together two video files. It’s not that different from making YouTube videos or even an Instagram story.
However, as digital technologies continue to advance and filmmakers and content creators find more and innovative ways to combine these two worlds, this distinction will most probably begin to disappear entirely.
What is the film editing process?
Now, as we focus on film editing as an artform, let’s go over all the steps of the post-production process.
When shooting a proper film or video project, there are really three distinct stages of video production. From a comprehensive view, we have pre-production, production, and post-production. And from there, each of these stages can be separated into plenty of smaller sub-sections.
Post-production is no different, and you could further break down the steps of the post-production (or film editing) process to include:
- Assembly stage (or a pre-edit)
- Editing stage
- Color correction and grading stage
- Sound editing and design stage
- Formatting and export stage
Those are just a rough outline though, because each film editing project will be unique. And while these might seem like distinct sections, many of these stages actually happen either out of order or even at the same time.
In the past, many of these stages might have been handled by separate dedicated experts. However with today’s digital tools and available online training, the majority of these stages can be handled by one single editor — when using the proper techniques, of course.
Types of editing techniques
Now let’s go over some of the basic tricks and techniques for film editing. Of course, there’s a lot to cover, but there’s also a lot to explore and experiment with as well. Ideally, these classic techniques should serve as a jumping-off-point for you to find your own editing style and workflow.
The first technique (or “rule”) to learn is the concept of continuity editing. As its name suggests, continuity editing is the artform of cutting together shots to create a sequence or scene that feels connected and continuous.
You see this form of editing in pretty much all films, television shows, or video content in general. And when done correctly, you don’t even notice it at all — it simply looks like shots are connected and cut together as they naturally should be, allowing the audience to enjoy the presentation. (Dialogue scenes are a great example of this.)
There are several sub-techniques to explore within continuity editing, like match cutting and eye-line matching (also called eye-tracing). These are smaller tricks film editors use to keep things connected and smooth.
On the other end of the spectrum, we also have to discuss the opposite artform: discontinuity editing.
This technique is any style of video editing which runs counter to a scene or sequence continuity. These breaks are often done by editors with a specific purpose (and if not, then they should be classified as mistakes and can quickly take your audience out of the moment).
However, you can find examples of discontinuity in action whenever you see stylistic jump cuts or jump scares, or other non-linear techniques. Most of these are done in an experimental or evocative nature to further bring the audience into the story.
You can also combine aspects of both continuity and discontinuity editing, such as the complex (but powerful) process of montage theory. Soviet montage theory is an approach which comes from Soviet filmmakers in the 1920s as an experimental way to connect shots that might not at first feel continuous, but end up feeling that way.
These days, you see montages in all types of film projects. And they can vary in how disconnected or connected they are in terms of the shots and story that they are trying to tell. However, when done correctly this technique is great for connecting camera shots to feature film quality.
Parallel editing (and cross-cutting)
Another video editing technique that shares many aspects with other techniques is parallel editing or cross-cutting. This is an editing approach for cutting together film footage of multiple scenes or sequences at once.
While the two terms are often used interchangeably, parallel editing is the more nuanced of the two approaches. It’s aimed at helping the audience connect two scenes thematically, whereas cross-cutting is more of an entertainment-driven decision aimed at building tension for scenes that are interconnected critically.
Cutaways and inserts
Cutaways and insert shots are another filmmaking technique used both in production and post-production. From a filming-standpoint, cutaways and inserts are both individual shots recorded on set with the specific goal of being edited into a scene later.
From a film editing perspective, these cutaways and inserts are used at the editor’s discretion. When not specifically outlined in the storyboard, they are used as a tool to either “cut away” from a part of the scene to cover a mistake, or as a way to highlight one object or element for dramatic effect.
J and L cuts
Let’s move on to how audio can be used in conjunction with video in film editing. J and L cuts are both techniques used by editors to bring in the audio of a different shot either before or after the current one.
And while this concept might be a bit confusing to think about, in reality it’s pretty simple and common in all types of film and video. Whether it’s the whistle of a train in the next scene or a character’s words echoing into the next shot, you’ve seen these cuts in action.
The J cut is the term for any transition where the audio for the next shot comes in early, and an L cut is the term for any transition where the audio stays under the next shot. The J and L names come from the shapes they make on a video editing timeline with the audio either protruding to the left or right of the clip above.
Transitions and dissolves
Finally, as film editing techniques go, we also have to include the myriad of transitions and dissolves that you’ll find as a way to connect two (or sometimes more) shots together.
When starting out, the main way you’ll transition between two shots is a hard cut. You see these all the time and they are the default transition for most softwares and apps.
However, as you’ll quickly find in any film or video project, most shots are connected with different transition effects. The list of options includes dissolves, fades, pushes, pulls, and other experimental techniques.
The effect these different transitions have on your audience are worth exploring and understanding because a well-placed transition can be helpful for building tension, connecting themes, or even letting your audience know that time is passing/being sped up.
Famous film editors
To further explore the basics of film editing, it can be helpful to study the films and techniques of some of the most famous film editors of all time. It’s also important to pay one’s respects and homages as the film editor position has until recently been a critically under-recognized and under-appreciated role in the film process.
One of the most famous film editors that any aspiring film editor should watch and study is Thelma Schoonmaker.
Best known for her 50+ years of working with film director Martin Scorsese, Schoonmaker is often thought of as the auteur-behind-the-auteur. She’s edited every Scorsese film since Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967), including such notable films as Raging Bull (1980), The Aviator (2004), and The Departed (2006).
Similar to her directing counterpart, Schoonmaker’s editing style is noted for a tension-building and story-driven approach. Study her films as great examples of pacing, montage, and prevalent uses of J and L cuts to connect themes or use music across different scenes and sequences.
Another filmmaking master that every film or video editor should recognize is Walter Murch. He is often thought of as the godfather of film and sound editing, which is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek moniker due to his work on the famous films of The Godfather trilogy.
After getting his start as a sound editor (and gaining notoriety for his experimental mixing techniques), Murch moved into film editing where he earned numerous awards and accolades over the years working on films like Apocalypse Now, American Graffiti, The Conversation, and The English Patient.
However, for aspiring film editors, Murch is best known for writing what might be the definitive film editing text In the Blink of an Eye in 1995, where he lays out his famous “rule of six” criteria list for how, when, and why to make an edit.
We’re only listing a few of the top film editors in this short list, but one thing you’ll notice when you do your own research is the trend of many of the most famous and iconic film editors being women. This is because, for most of film editing history, the artform was done by women in Hollywood.
In the earliest days of silent cinema, “cutting” was thought of as a task similar to knitting. And, while the process was not considered as important at the time, these pioneering women would go on to shape the budding artform for years to come.
Along with other editing greats like Anne V. Coates and Verna Fields, Dede Allen is perhaps one of the most well-known film editors in movie history. Regarded as the “film editing doctor” of her time, Allen was the editor of choice for several famous filmmakers and worked behind-the-scenes “fixing” countless other films and projects for movie studios.
If you’d like to read more about Dede Allen and many of the other great women film editors of past and present day, I highly recommend David Meuel’s book Women Film Editors: Unseen Artists of the American Cinema. Meuel goes into the history of these great editors, and also offers plenty of insights into how film editing has evolved over the years.
Hopefully all of the above information will give you a solid understanding of the basics of film editing. And remember: While it’s important to watch the masters, learn the terms, and study the techniques, the best way to learn is by doing.
So as you venture out into the world of film editing, here are some additional articles to check out from the Soundstripe blog:
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