The Art of Editing

Gain an understanding of edit pacing, matching action, and motion continuity.

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Editing 101: The Art of Cutting – Where to Start

By Danny F. Santos (doddleNEWS)

You’ve heard the old saying that a film is written three times: First as a screenplay, then during production, and again when it’s been edited. It’s easy to find tons of information on how to write a screenplay or direct a film (I should know, I’ve written a lot on the topic of production) but editing is usually regulated to just the technical side of how to operate either Avid or Final Cut.

While you should really know your suite inside and out, it still leaves out how to develop an eye for editing. In this series of articles, we’ll leave the software aside, and focus on the actual building of a film through editing.

Your Primary Tool: The Cut

Everything about editing comes down to one primary tool: The cut. Virtually every film is comprised mostly from cuts, with a transition or two thrown in there somewhere. But you’re looking primarily at cutting from one shot to another, to turn raw footage into a film.

Pointing this out seems a bit silly, since you obviously can’t make an edited film without cuts, but as an editor, you should understand that this is your most powerful tool. It can be wielded in extremely different ways, you can make a seamless cut that the audience doesn’t notice or you can jar them with a smash-cut. Editing isn’t about just cutting something together, it’s about invoking a feeling.

Learn By Watching Films

The easiest way to learn how to edit is to watch movies. Watch a lot of movies — the more the merrier. Pay attention to how scenes have been cut together, and when the shot switches from a close-up to a medium shot to a wide shot and when.

A great edit is the one you don’t notice: where you aren’t aware that a cut has been made. One game that I played when I was learning how to cut was taking a scene from a film, watching it, and then estimating how many cuts were made. Then go back to rewatch it; pause it every time a cut was actually made, and compare how many cuts you thought were made against how many were actually made. Nothing will make you realize how many edits are made in a film by watching it, and then pausing at every cut.

I also highly recommend finding the worst films you can find to watch, as well. You can learn quite a bit from these films, and maybe even more so than you would just watching great films. There’s a lot to be said about learning what not to do. And by worst films, I don’t mean Hollywood bombs, because they still had professional editors working on them; try to find no-budget films, or cult movies known for how bad they are.

The Edit and the Fan-Edit

Taking in how others have cut their films is one thing, but doing it yourself is quite another. I may get some flack for saying this, but what suite or software you edit on doesn’t matter. The difference between a free NLE, and one that will cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars, is negligible-to-non-existant when you’re learning. There’s a whole bunch of technical reasons to go with a higher-end system when you’re making a feature-length film, but the process for actually cutting remains the same. A cut in Avid Composer is exactly the same as a cut in Windows Movie Maker or iMovie.

With that in mind, use whatever editing software you have on hand to cut a video. Go out and shoot a narrative video with friends, or a bunch of random shots, and start splicing shots together. These will be terrible, but the act of just doing them will start to train your eye where to cut, and you’ll begin to get a feel for editing. I’ve even gone as far to edit a few films by hand — and I mean actual film, with a splicer, by hand (see image above)! If you have the access to something like this, I can’t recommend it enough.

But one of my favorite learning tools has been the fan-edit. Basically you ingest a Hollywood movie into your computer, and re-edit it to your heart’s content. This is can be a lot harder than you realize, because you also need to cut around audio issues and visual cues, there’s no b-footage lying around for you to use. So grab your copy of The Phantom Menace and try to fix it, or The Matrix sequels, and try to cut that down to a single 2-hour film.

The Theory

One thing I haven’t touched yet is the theory behind editing. Part of this is because I’m a big believer in trying to intuitively know when to cut, and the only way to do that is to just jump into the deep-end and start. But understanding why an edit works is also important, so in the next part of this series, I’ll introduce you to Vsevolod Pudovkin.

About Danny Santos

Freelance writer, filmmaker, actor, musician, and visual artist. Writing online professionally for 4-plus years and has produced and performed in over a dozen films and webseries. He has also been everything from a social media consultant to managing a JUNO award winning musician.