Editing Basics

Editing is part of the post-production of a film. Usually, it begins immediately after principal photography, when all the shots are recorded. The resulting footage is given to the editor and his team. By then, the director’s favorite takes would be circled in the camera report, a document also given to the editor to help him choose the best takes.

Editing is the art of  assembling shots together to tell the visual story that is films. An editor is an important crew member in any film because he will give final shape to the project. They are called the third storytellers of a movie because, after the writer and director, the editor will construct (or de-construct) the narrative and truly define the story that audience will see.

Here is how Alfred Hitchcock explains some of the fundamentals of editing:


14535 Minutes of Footage

The job of an editor is 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.

Therefore, 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 usually 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-reel 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 well.

What To Do To Be a Film Editor?

An editor has to have a good instinct for the length of each shot. As Tarantino mentioned, a few frames off can make a difference.

A great way to be aware of the length of shots is to watch a film you like on mute. Without sound and music to hide the cuts, you will get to experience each and every cut in a way you hadn’t before. And that’s important because cuts is what editors do. Also ask yourself why did the editor made a cut when he did it. What was he trying to convey or provoke? You will soon notice that a horror scene is cut differently from a humorous scene.

And remember: making the cut is easy. The hard part is knowing where the cut goes.

Because the editor is dealing with images and selecting the strongest footage, he also has to understand the basics of cinematography,  specifically shot sizes. Reaction shots, for instance, can make a scene stand out like it’s nobody’s business. It’s your job to know where to insert them, and for how long.

Additionally, an editor has to be computer savvy and incredibly organized. The computer is your primary editing tool, and you will be playing with programs, codecs, file formats, and plugins to obtain your desired effects.

Two books I would recommend for you are: In the Blink of An Eye and Some Cutting Remarks. Both are from professional editors who have worked in the golden years of Hollywood. But Murch’s is my favorite because his essays on why cuts work and other topics are still relevant today.

The Cutting Edge

Here’s a great documentary about film editing. It’s over an hour long, but it’s quite insightful:

One of my favorite takeaways from the film is when Steven Spielberg explains the disagreements he had with his editor, Verna Fields, during the post-production of Jaws. While Spielberg wanted to extended shots with the shark, Fields was in favor of shortening anything with the beast. Ultimately, Spielberg agreed that Fields was right. The point here is how directors can have their minds clouded by working on the set. Spielberg had invested so much time and effort on the shark that he wanted more screen time for it. But for the editor, none of that matters. What matters is the end product because that’s what the audience will see.


Also referred to as “planting and payoff,” foreshadowing is a highly effective plot device that helps make the story feel more plausible. It consists of an introduction early in the movie of something that will be extremely relevant as the plot unfolds. Without foreshadowing, the audience would refuse to accept a beat of the story, deeming it implausible.

James Bond movies contain classic examples of foreshadowing. The character Q, always present in the set-up of the movie, introduces gadgets, weapons, and cars to 007 (planting). In the first act, those gadgets aren’t much needed. But towards the end, Bond always uses them to fight villains (payoff). Without the proper foreshadowing in the beginning, the audience would feel cheated and confused.

As a general rule, the villain is the only character in the script that may be “lucky.” The heroes will suffer misfortune most of the time, thus if he or she has an object or a skill that is vitally important in killing the villain, planting it early on is required.

Spoiler Alert: The following contains story spoilers, used here to illustrate the technique (but the movies below are old classics, so maybe you have already seen all of them. If not, you should!).

 Foreshadowing an Object

The James Bond example mentioned above fits into this category. The cars, weapons, and gadgets are objects presented in Act I. Foreshadowing an object is required when the character in question is not likely to already have it. For instance, unless the character is a policeman or a criminal, introducing a gun beforehand is needed. In Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise (1991), the gun that inflicts a wound at the end of Act I is introduced much earlier, during the first ten minutes of the film.


In Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), the foreshadowing is more subtle but equally valid. Somewhere in Act II, Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) trips on a pressurized air tank, which he curses. In Act III, Brody shoves that same tank into the shark’s mouth and makes it explode.

Foreshadowing a Skill or Talent

In James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), an early scene shows the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) talking into a police radio imitating a dead policeman’s voice, thus establishing this skill. Later in the film, the Terminator reproduces Sarah’s (Linda Hamilton) mother’s voice in order to discover Sarah’s location.

In Cinema Paradiso (1988), 9-yeard-old Toto’s (Salvatore Cascio) constant attention of how Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) threads the film and operates the projector gives him the experience he needs to operate the projector himself. When Alfredo suffers an accident, the young boy replaces him at the projection room.

In Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984), a voice over narration by Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) early in the picture, coupled with other visual cues, foreshadows Mozart’s (Tom Hulce) proficiency of the craft: “This man had written his first concerto at the age of four! His first symphony at seven! A full-scale opera at 12!” When Mozart humiliates Salieri at the piano, the audience understands how.

Foreshadowing Behavior

Justifying someone’s action is necessary when their behavior would otherwise be considered contrived or fake amidst the circumstances established in the movie.

About halfway through Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), an expository flashback presents Captain Koons (Christopher Walken) talking to a young Butch (Chandler Lindauer) about a gold watch (that quickly turns into a minor MacGuffin to Butch’s character). Captain Koons explains to Butch that the gold watch first belonged to his great grandfather, and it has been with the men of the family since. Later, when Butch (Bruce Willis) learns that his girlfriend forgot the watch in their apartment, he decides to return home even though mob hit men are on the lookout for him. Had the gold watch’s history not being explained, Butch’s decision to go back would be unbelievable.

Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) introduces Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) as an ambitious and impatient stockbroker. After a negotiation with a wealthy businessman over the phone, Bud looks to a friend and says: “You know what my dream is? It’s to one day be on the other end of that phone.” This little line of dialogue explains much of Bud’s behavior throughout the movie, including his illegal activity.