Basic Editing Principles for Filmmakers

Editing is one of the most interesting and rewarding parts of making a short film or video. It’s where the story really comes together. Decisions you make about which shots to use, how you put them together, and how you use sound, will make a big difference to your movie. So here’s a beginners’ guide to basic editing principles.

There’s a guide to the editing process here.

Shoot for editing

You should be thinking about editing as you plan and shoot your film. The pages about continuity and coverage have advice on how to film shots that will edit together.

Select just what the story needs

Don’t be precious about your footage, however proud of it you are. The finished film is the important thing. You may need to leave out some really good stuff if it doesn’t fit. (But don’t delete any clips unless you’re absolutely sure they’re unusable.)

Select the important action 

Choose the clips that show the essential action. You can leave out anything that doesn’t help tell the story. Use just the part of the clip that has the action you need.

Show something new with each edit

Show a different subject, or a different view of the same thing: a different shot size or camera position.

Vary the shot size and angle

Don’t cut between two very similar shots of the same thing, unless you really want a ‘jump cut’ for effect.

Step between shot sizes

If you cut straight from an extreme long shot to an extreme closeup, viewers won’t understand where the closeup fits into the bigger picture. Use an in-between size like a mid shot to bring the viewer with you.

Use cutaways to hide jumpy edits

If you have to cut similar shot sizes together, use another shot to hide the join. Add it as a ‘cutaway’ above the main clips.

Use a master shot for an overview

Long shots and extreme long shots remind viewers of where everything fits into the scene.

Get the pace right

A shot should stay on screen long enough for people to understand it, but not so long that they get bored.

Closeups, simple shots, and shots without any action or movement, can be short. Long shots, extreme long shots, and any shots with detail will need to be on screen for longer.

Check that the pace is consistent. Sudden changes of pace look really clunky, whether it’s a shot that outstays its welcome, or one that flashes by too fast to grasp.

Use the right transitions

Transitions are the ‘joins’ between shots.

Does your scene show continuous action, or one short space of time? You should use cuts, where the shot goes straight into the next one. If you use fades or dissolves, you’ll confuse people.

In a cross dissolve or cross fade, the shots dissolve into each other (one image gets weaker while the next shot gets stronger). You can use these to show that you’ve left out a short space of time, or part of a journey.

You can use a fade out (usually to black) at the end of a scene. Fade out followed by a fade in means that a period of time has passed.

Wipes and other elaborate transitions don’t usually contribute to storytelling.

Edit on the action

If you edit while an action is happening, rather than at the beginning or the end,  it’ll look smoother. Viewers will concentrate on the movement, not the edit.

Don’t cut moving shots to still shots

It’s jarring if you show something moving in one shot and it’s not moving in the next shot. Let the movement come to an end before you cut to a static shot.

Pay attention to the sound

Don’t have sudden changes in sound level, or dead silence, unless you’re deliberately trying to shock people.

Build your soundtrack carefully 

When you have more than one audio track, you need to balance the sound levels. You don’t want background sound, or music, drowning out dialogue.

Use sound that carries across the edit

You can use ‘wild track’, ‘room tone’ or ‘ambience’ – background sound from the location – to avoid silence and keep things smooth.

For dialogue scenes – where you cut between shots of each character – try using split edits where the sound changes at a different time from the picture.

These are also called J-cuts (where the sound changes first) and L-cuts. You can use a J-cut as a sound bridge between separate scenes, where you hear the sound from the new location before you see it.

Keep track of the bigger picture

Don’t get so bogged down in one edit that you lose track of how it fits into the sequence. Play several shots together – or the whole sequence – to check how it all works together.

Learning editing programs

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Learn the basics of editing with my new educational resource. Create a short movie from a choice of over 90 clips including movement, action, dialogue and B-roll.

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  • a 34-page PowerPoint introduction to the continuity system.
    Learn more…

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I provide face to face and online training in the UK and Europe on Final Cut Pro X, Adobe Premiere Pro CC, and iMovie (Mac or iOS).

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