I dream for a living.
       - Steven Spielberg

Principles of Editing

Home >> Editing >> Principles of Editing


While screenwriters and directors are the first and second storytellers of a movie, editors are the third ones. Since editors are given a limited amount of footage, it may not appear so, but, through editing techniques, the editor may construct or deconstruct a narrative or documentary, and shape it to his or her own will.

The job of an editor constitutes much more than cutting and splicing footage. Walter Murch, the acclaimed Academy-Award winning editor and sound designer, whose body of work includes The English Patient (1996) and The Godfather (1972), opens his book In The Blink of An Eye by sharing his nightmarish experience while editing Apocalypse Now (1979).

In that picture, Murch faced an intimidating 95:1 ratio, meaning that for every minute of footage used in the final cut of the movie, there were 95 minutes not used. Thus, considering that Apocalypse Now’s theatrical release runs for 153 minutes, this means that the total footage was about 14535 minutes or 242 hours long! With that abnormally extravagant quantity of footage, Murch’s primary task of scrutinizing the footage to determine what worked and what didn’t was exponentially bigger. All editors go through this same process, but in a minor scale.

The Film Historian's Insight

At the end of the 19th century, during cinema’s infancy, films had no cuts or editing whatsoever. The camera ran for as long as the film reel was. During screening, the 1-minute footage was shown in its entirety to a paying audience. Soon, viewers got bored. The static image was tedious.

Editing was the solution. Edgar S. Porter, an early film pioneer, experimented heavily on the two main principles of editing: ellipsis and cross cutting. Both techniques contributed for his achievements with the movies Life of an American Fireman (1903), The Great Train Robbery (1903) and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (1906).

Each frame counts. The addition or removal of one frame may break or make a scene, by supporting or shattering the illusion intended. Therefore, editors work diligently to maintain the viewers’ suspension of disbelief.

Quentin Tarantino on film editing:

“For a writer, it’s a word. For a composer or a musician, it’s a note. For an editor and a filmmaker, it’s the frames. The one frame off, or two frames added, or two frames less… it’s the difference between a sour note and a sweet note. It’s the difference between a clunky clumsy crap and orgasmic rhythm.”

Film editing determines pace and structure; it is a vital component to tell stories efficiently.


Related Readings:

Lessons on Screenwriting:

Lessons on Directing:

Lessons on Cinamatography:


Make Your Own Film
for Under $1000!



Sponsored Links


Have a question?
Ask us here.