Filmmaking 101: What is Film Editing?

Jakob Straub
Jakob Straub, Content Writer

There is no movie without film editing. The job of a film editor is unique in the way that it has evolved from the technical cutting together of film into an editing process that requires just as much creativity as skill. Film editing has become more and more important with the evolution of filmmaking itself, and the range of editing techniques has grown thanks to digital technology and filmmakers establishing new editing styles.

Film editing has an immense influence on the look and feel of Hollywood productions and short films alike. Yet the work of the film editor goes unnoticed by audiences because it “disappears” as part of the storytelling. We’ll make the invisible art of film editing visible again by highlighting what film editors do during the editing process and the tools they use to edit films.

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What is film editing and the editing process?

The art of film has many individual artists working together to create the final piece of art, the finished motion picture. Film editing is crucial within the filmmaking process, as it can make or break a feature film. It is the step of transforming the raw footage into film footage with a logical sequence. The film editor selects and edits shots to combine them into scenes and sequences, using various editing techniques and making editing decisions in line with creative instructions and the director’s vision.

Film editing as an art form is unique to cinema, though it’s comparable to literary editing, where an editor might work by themselves or with the author to transform a manuscript or first draft into a finished version of prose or poetry. The work of the film editor is known as “invisible art”—although the editing style is a storytelling device that will shape the film, skillful or artful editing can contribute to the immersive experience of film during which individual edits or editing itself go unnoticed by viewers. To draw the comparison with literature again: when engrossed in a novel, readers will follow the story and not pay attention to style or literary and editing techniques.

The individual project will determine the different types of film editing work necessary. A film editor working on a documentary, for example, might cut back and forth between interviewer and interviewee and select b-roll footage to add in between. The editing process for a feature film can be more creative than working on a TV series with tight deadlines and a fixed episode length. Video editing in advertising can also be more technical because of a brief or edit decision list.

What is film editing? The term film editing refers to the editing process during post-production in filmmaking where the film editor selects film footage from the raw footage to assemble sequences of shots into a finished motion picture, according to an edit decision list or the director’s vision. Film editing is both an art and a skill which involves editing techniques and creativity to craft a cohesive story. The editing process used to involve the splicing of film as a physical medium, but today relies heavily on digital technology and video editing.

Film editing as a job

The film editing process falls to the film editor, also called the video editor in video production. How much creative license the editor actually has depends on the individual production. The film director might even edit themselves, especially for short films, or assist in the process to realize the director’s vision. Film editing tasks can include:

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    Reviewing materials such as script, shot list, and footage outline, and discussing them with the film director.
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    Sorting the raw footage to select film footage for post-production, an assembly cut, or a rough cut.
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    Synchronizing uncut film footage with sound.
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    Collaborating on film audio with sound editing, sound effect editors, and musical directors.
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    Preparing a first cut, rough cuts, and fine cuts for review.
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    Working on notes to refine a rough cut.
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    Potential collaboration with other film editors on the same project to split the workload.

Versatile film editors require technical and creative skills, such as the ability to use digital technology and film editing software, knowledge of film theory and editing techniques to make informed edits, good communication and collaboration skills, as well as a knack for organization and time management in high-pressure environments.

If you want to become a film editor, film theory studies at a film school and formal training in film and video editing, videography, and even cinematography will benefit you, same as any film industry work experience. The American Cinema Editors, ACES: The Society of Editing, and the Motion Picture Editors Guild are helpful organizations for aspiring film editors. The median salary for editing professionals is around $60,000 annually or just below $30 per hour.

What is a rough cut or final cut?

In the editing process, a rough cut or rough edit is the first and still unfinished version, for example, of a motion picture, short film, or television production. It might contain all the crucial pieces or scenes in sequence or in a close-enough order and usually serves to assess the pacing and performances, as well as to determine if any more shots are needed. Filmmakers might show a rough cut to producers or any other test audience to gather input. This version of a film has an unfinished feel to it and might lack visual effects, CGI, a musical score, or even proper sound and dialog.

The so-called assembly cut usually precedes the rough cut and is a stitching together of all shots with no or only minimal editing. It might contain alternate takes for the same shot and is usually much longer than the length of the final motion picture. Every editing version before the final cut is technically a rough cut, but filmmakers also speak of a fine cut when the editing process is close to finished.

The term final cut refers to the release version of the film or product as it will reach end consumers. Usually, the studio or executive producer has a say over the final cut, but the final cut authority or privilege can also be shared. Where the director has that power, their final cut is the director's cut. Otherwise, that term describes a version of the film which usually sees a limited release after the final version. An extended cut or version commonly refers to a final cut version of the film which hasn't been trimmed or edited for length and therefore contains all the shots from the final cut plus additional scenes.

What are some film editing techniques?

At its most basic, film editing puts two shots together without a transition in a so-called hard cut. The splicing of two different shots can use transitions for aesthetic reasons or effect, for example, when combining a close-up and a medium shot. The film editor can also use edits as a storytelling device and move forward in time, creating or disrupting the flow or continuity.

Certain editing techniques or an editing style can be a conscious decision of the filmmaker and film editor to create a certain look. Jump cuts, for example, have become associated with the Nouvelle Vague, the French New Wave cinema. Below, we’ll summarize some common film editing techniques.

Continuity Editing

This editing technique ensures that there is continuity between shots, in a sequence of shots, or in a scene. Continuity can affect where characters are within the frame, what they're doing, or how they look. Changes in continuity can make a shot unusable, which happens when takes run over a period or simply on different days. Common continuity errors include wardrobe discrepancies, items jumping around or disappearing, or differences in makeup. Editors can sometimes cut out continuity errors or combine elements of shots to work around a problem, and subtle errors go unnoticed or don't threaten the audience's suspension of disbelief.

Discontinuity Editing or Jump Cut

The opposite of continuity editing is a stylistic decision that breaks the flow of a sequence or scene on purpose. It is a non-linear editing technique: the film editor jumps forward in time within the same shot, eliminating anywhere from seconds to even minutes of the action to alter the pace or willfully take the audience out of the moment. After the jump, viewers will have to orient themselves and might speculate about what has happened in the time that was left out. The jump cut might also suggest that nothing happened in between and the editing skipped parts of no action.

Cross cutting and Parallel Editing

Film editors use cross cutting to cut across two or more separate storylines or actions happening at the same time. Cross cutting is effective for building tension, for example, when individual characters are all racing towards the same point and viewers anticipate when they will actually cross. Cross cutting typically applies to shots or scenes that are interconnected.

Parallel editing can bring elements together which might share a theme, but are otherwise unrelated. The simple cutting back and forth between the two will have viewers associate them with one another. This technique is not only used in feature films but also in documentaries.

Cutaway and Insert

A cutaway abruptly moves away from the current action or scene to show something else, whereas an insert is similarly a different shot placed in a scene, after which the original action will resume.

Filmmakers and film editors use cutaways and inserts for effect, to give a jump scare, to remind the audience of an element, to deliver a punchline or visual joke, or to delay the resolution of a conflict or detail. Too many of these cuts can create a jagged continuity and lessen the dramatic effect.

Establishing Shot

A feature film or a scene might begin with an establishing shot to provide context and establish a location or setting. A film editor could cut up this long shot with shots from the scene itself or edit the establishing shot for length.

Fade

A fade is one of the most common transition effects and the script might reference it. A scene can begin with a fade-in and end with a fade-out to black or white. In a cross-fade, one shot fades out as another fades in.

J Cut and L Cut

While many film editing techniques are visual, these two types of film editing bring in sound editing as well. In summary, a J cut plays audio before the visual element comes in, therefore before viewers see the source of the audio; an L cut has audio and visual elements change seemingly out of sync, so the audio of one shot might still play while viewers see another shot already.

Where do the names come from? Think of the audio and the video timeline in a video editing software. In a J cut, the audio comes in early and before the video, thus faintly resembling the shape of the letter J (since the audio is typically displayed under the video timeline, it would be further left). In an L cut, the audio lags and overlaps with the next shot, thus pointing right like the horizontal part of the letter L.

Match Cut

With a match cut, a film editor matches one element of a shot with an element in the next shot, which can be similar in shape and size and match the positioning within the frame. One of the most famous examples of this editing technique is the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which a bone that is thrown up into the air becomes a spaceship.

Montage

This editing technique combines shots into a sequence that is almost its own story. A montage often condenses time to show the development of a character or plot element, a quick progression of events, or provide a backstory. A creative film editor can assemble a montage to carry an additional layer of meaning, for example through juxtaposition: cross cutting different shots of seemingly unconnected scenes can relate them to one another.

Shot Reverse Shot

Nearly any film or TV series episode will contain an example of this common film edit, especially when there is a dialog between two or more people. Shot Reverse Shot means you will see an angle followed by its reverse angle, as if the camera rotated roughly 180 degrees between the two shots. Shot Reverse Shot usually alternates over-the-shoulder shots. The editing technique is not reserved for conversations alone but also works well for reactions.

Transition and Dissolve

As we’ve outlined above, the most basic transition is a hard cut between two shots, but there are countless other more effectual transitions: dissolve, fade, push, pull, or roll are just a few examples which exist as presets in film editing software. Transition effects can build tension and help connect shots when you place them well.

How to edit film

Let’s recap what we stated in the beginning: within the film production process, film editing is an invisible art that requires both technical and creative skills and knowledge. On the technology side of things, film and TV largely use non-linear digital editing software in post-production which tracks video, sound and sound effects, as well as music on a timeline. Templates, tutorials and how-to video clips can explain the finer points of using editing software to you.

If you want to learn and improve film editing technique as a storytelling device, you can gain a lot of theoretical knowledge in film school, through practical work at film production internships, and by studying the work of master film editors such as Thelma Schoonmaker (Raging Bull, The Aviator, The Departed), Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, American Graffiti, The English Patient), or “film editing doctor” Dede Allen, as well as Anne V. Coates and Verna Fields.

The following are four guiding principles with which film editors shape the narrative of a motion picture:

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    Continuity: Edits can make or break the narrative flow between two shots. Executed on purpose, it’s an effective stylistic device, but continuity errors are jarring. During principal photography, the film director has help to ensure continuity, but the editor has to continue that continuity work when making cutting decisions and selecting shots.
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    Pacing: The timing of edits affects not only continuity but also the pace of a film—as a whole, and scene by scene. Slow and long shots can build tension, while a hectic pace can raise the stakes and heighten the excitement of action sequences.
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    Emotion: The pace is just one way to influence the audience with edits. Transitions, well-selected shots, sound effects, and cross-cutting audio and video can alter the experience of viewers and amplify the emotions in a scene or sequence and establish emotional connections.
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    Information: Shots and scenes contain information for the audience which will shape the perception of later events, so by highlighting, preempting, or anticipating what’s about to come, the film editor can influence and control this stream of information and rearrange a linear order for effect.

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Common film editing tools

Here’s an overview of well-known editing software used in post-production:

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    Adobe Premiere Pro: Part of the Adobe Creative Cloud, this editing software allows timeline-based and non-linear video editing and integrates with other Adobe software, such as After Effects, Premiere Rush, Photoshop, and Illustrator.
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    Adobe After Effects: Used in filmmaking and TV production, this software is used for visual effects, motion graphics, compositing, animation, tracking, and even basic non-linear video editing.
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    Avid Media Composer: This proprietary film and video editing software has been on the market for over three decades and can be used as a standalone solution or with external devices.
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    Final Cut Pro: This editing software by Apple has a large user base among small and independent filmmakers and is a major competitor to Avid's software solutions. It runs on Mac and allows for editing, processing, and outputting of media.
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    DaVinci Resolve: This software is available for various operating systems and allows for color grading, color correction, visual effects, as well as audio post-production sound editing.

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