Hone your understanding of film editing until you are dazzlingly brilliant at it.
The very best directors have a comprehensive understanding of film editing. They plan and direct shots in such a way that they can be cut together smoothly and coherently. Ambitious filmmakers would therefore be well advised to learn film editing.
You should generally cut on action, especially if you are cutting from a wide shot of a subject to a tighter shot of the same subject on the same visual axis. Cutting on action means that you cut from one shot to another just as an action is performed, such as an actor taking his hat off. When you join the shots, you use the first part of the motion in the wide shot and the second part of the motion in the tighter shot (you have to experiment to find out exactly where to cut for the smoothest results – it depends on the shots).
There are a number of ways to cut from a wide shot to a tighter shot smoothly:
Please allow the animated GIF images some time to load properly
1. Cutting on action
2a. Cutting on cross-frame movement: the reveal shot
2b. Cutting on cross-frame movement: the reveal shot – A second example
3. Cutting to empty frame and letting subject come in
4. Cutting to secondary action followed by tilting/panning to main subject
5. Cutting on an emphatic part of dialogue
I was able to make the cuts shown above because I knew I was going to make those cuts long before I shot the projects, and directed the scenes accordingly. None of it was a lucky accident.
Please note that GIF animations are not as smooth as proper video. My hope here is that the GIF animations above give you a clear idea of some film editing techniques – much more effective than explaining with words!
Avoiding jump cuts
If you do not cut on action and the two shots are along the same visual axis, the result is a jump cut. Jump cuts are jarring and disconcerting, and pretty much unacceptable, unless that is the effect you want for narrative reasons. Steven Spielberg sometimes uses jump cuts to punctuate the drama of a scene, and he always uses the technique masterfully. An example is the scene in which Carl Hanratty sees Frank Abagnale’s photo in the school yearbook in “Catch Me If You Can.” Another example is the gas station scene in “Duel.”
Jump cuts can also be used to compress time (Spielberg used this technique in “Schindler’s List,” in the scene in which Schindler is choosing his future secretary while his new office is being painted), but again, it is a very specific look and the director must plan the scene very deliberately to make it work.
There will not be a jump cut if you:
a) cut on action, as in examples 1 and 4 above, or
b) cut to an empty frame and let the subject come in, as in example 3 above, or
c) cut from one shot to the tighter shot while something is moving across the frame, as in examples 2a and 2b above, or
d) cut from one angle to another angle that is rotationally at least 20 degrees away from the first one, or
e) cut to another shot and then back to the first shot, or a shot of something else.
The middle shot in (e) is known as a cutaway. You should shoot plenty of cutaways, especially for interviews and documentaries, where you are not able to direct things precisely and need more insurance shots for post-production. Cutaways can be a shot of the interviewer nodding, or a shot of a glass of water; anything that you can cut to. Cutaways are also known as B-roll shots.
More on jump cuts: bear in mind that they don’t only happen when cutting along a visual axis without action; if you cut from one shot to another shot that is perpendicular to it and in which the subject is framed in exactly the same way, that’s a jump cut – perhaps an even more irritating one than when you cut from a wide shot to a close-up with no action. For example, if you cut from a frontal medium shot to a medium shot that is framed from the actor’s side, that’s a jump cut, even though there is an angular difference of more than 20 degrees between the two shots (see [b] above). Avoid it like the plague unless you are seeking a specific effect and are sure of how the audience will perceive it, which is not always easy to predict.
Remember that jump cuts are perfectly acceptable in music videos. The human brain seems not to find jump cuts disconcerting in music videos, which is pretty interesting.
You should also bear in mind that it takes approximately 2 film frames (1/12th of a second) for the human gaze to switch from one side of the screen to the other. You should allow for this when cutting your project.
When editing sound and picture, you should stagger the cuts. This means NOT aligning the video and audio cuts – they should be separated by at least a second. If the cuts are aligned, the change in background noise when you cut from one sound clip to the other will be simultaneous with the visual cut; this breaks the illusion of continuity and will make your project look amateurish.
The following diagram illustrates this technique:
Shooting a variety of angles and editing them together smoothly enhances the cinematic illusion, an effect known as “superior continuity.”
The big implication here is that you must take all of these editing issues into account when you produce your shot list. A director’s weaknesses become painfully obvious when the time comes to cut the movie together smoothly.
Preparing for the edit by studying and analyzing every take you shot
As I watch the takes, I make notes for each take, making brief notes on the camerawork, performance and other relevant details, such as extraneous noises.
For example, one take of a given shot might have a perfect camera move but weak performances, or vice versa.
Of course in principle you want to find the take that is the best in every respect, but this is not always possible.
Particularly for very long shots, the performance might vary in quality, or there might be a camerawork weakness at some point in the take.
Usually none of this as a problem, and for the purpose of assembling the best possible sequence, I typically use different parts of different takes for any given shot. It works very well.
This only becomes impossible when a shot is supposed to be left uncut: in that case you really have to ensure that it is perfect from beginning to end during principal photography.
In any case, ensuring that you have at least one take in which both the performances and the camerawork are good is one of the essential directing skills that you should master.
By the end of this process of reviewing the footage, I have a set of very helpful notes that I use in the actual editing.
For example, when I get to a particular shot in a sequence, by referring to my notes, I know which take has the best camera move, which take has the best performance, and ideally which take has a good compromise of both. This makes the editing process more efficient, because I thoroughly investigated and analyzed all takes beforehand.
If the project you are editing was directed by someone else, studying all the takes and familiarizing with them thoroughly is even more important. You won’t have a clue of what the director did or what the project is about until you watch all the raw footage at least once.
In principle these notes could be made during the shoot, but in practice there isn’t enough time or perspective to do this in the pressure cooker that is principal photography. This analysis of the footage can only be done with peace and quiet, and the perfect time to do it is before you actually start assembling the project on the timeline.
How to learn movie editing and become a highly competent editor: a question from a reader
“What does it take to be a good editor, bearing in mind that editing should not be taken for granted?”
Ah, one of my favorite topics! 🙂
I agree with the vital importance of editing — it is the very heart of movie making. This is why every serious director must also become a master film editor. I am a director who always edits his own work, and I learned the art of film editing concomitantly with learning how to direct. I recommend this path to every filmmaker, because understanding editing makes you a much better director, and editing the stuff you direct does produce significantly better results in the completed project. It simply gives you a much more comprehensive and coherent vision.
It is not enough to understand film editing: you must also practice, just as you cannot become a good violin player just by reading about it.
Here is how I learned film editing:
1. I read Grammar of the Film Languagemultiple times – the most useful filmmaking book I have ever read!
2. I watched my favorite films and spotted the techniques I read about in “Grammar of the film language.” Watching a film with the sound turned off is exceptionally instructive, because you will notice a lot more about the editing when you are not distracted by the dialogue. I strongly recommend this!
3. I went back to “Grammar of the film language” and, having studied the editing of my favorite films, I learned even more from the book.
4. I then watched my favorite films again, and spotted editing techniques that I had not spotted the first time. I repeated this process several times.
5. I shot rough practice sequences with my camcorder and then edited them.
6. I directed, shot AND edited my first project, which was a 30-minute film. Directing and editing your own projects will teach you so much about filmmaking that you will absolutely vaporize other filmmakers who don’t understand editing – guaranteed! By the time I completed my first project, I knew 90% of the film editing I know now, because I prepared a lot and took it VERY seriously. Once it clicks, you’re sorted for life (but don’t stop growing!).
That’s how I did it – there is no magic to it, just lots of thought, study and practice. The practical experience really is essential – studying the theory is not enough.
I hope this helps, and do keep me posted on your progress!