Filmmaking For Dummies
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Editing is more than just piecing together shots into scenes. Understanding the story and the best way to tell it is an art. Editing controls the feel of your film and can make or break the illusion.

To edit well, you need to know on what frame to start your shot and on what frame to end it, when to cut to the reaction shot (a visual response from another actor in the scene), and when to stay on the main character.

Some of the elements you need to consider when editing are

  • Pacing: The length of shots and scenes gives the entire film a pace — a feeling of moving fast or slow. You don’t want your film to lag.
  • Scene length: Keep scenes under three minutes if possible, so they don’t drag on and seem monotonous.
  • Order of shots and scenes: By arranging your shots in a particular sequence, you can dramatically affect a scene’s meaning. See the later section “Linear versus Nonlinear Editing” for details.
  • Cutting on action: Most shots cut (or edit) better on action. If your actor is opening a car door, have him or her repeat the action while you shoot it from different angles or shot sizes (such as a close-up or a wide shot). You then can overlap the shots as you cut on the motion. This is also called matching, and it helps hide the cut, making the transition appear seamless.
  • Matching shots: You want to join static shots with static shots, and moving shots next to other moving shots. If you have a fast-paced car-chase scene and the camera is moving wildly to follow the action, a sudden static shot of a car sitting quietly at a stop light will be jarring. (Of course, that may be the effect you want.)
  • Varying the angle and size of shots: A jump-cut happens when shots that are too similar in appearance are cut together, making the picture look as if it has jumped, or that the actor has popped from one spot to another. In order to avoid a jump-cut, you need to vary the angle and size of the next shot. One way to avoid a jump-cut is to shoot a cutaway of an actor’s reaction or of a significant object on-set that you can use to tie two different shots together. An appropriate cutaway can often save the day.
  • Showing simultaneous action: You can cut back and forth between scenes happening at the same time. This is called cross-cutting. Or you can make a parallel cut, which is showing the simultaneous action with a split screen. This was often done on the TV show 24.
  • Choosing the best take (or combining the best of several takes): You shoot several takes of a particular scene so that you have a choice in the editing room. Obviously, the more takes you have, the more choices. You can also combine parts of various takes — the beginning of one take, and the end of another, for example, if you have a cutaway to insert between them — to create the scene you want.

Choosing an editor: Cut that out!

You need to decide whether you’re going to edit the movie yourself or get a fresh pair of eyes to do it for you. Many directors avoid editing their pictures because they’re too close to the material and want to bring another perspective to the story. That’s why, on a big studio production, a picture editor starts assembling your shots and scenes together as you’re shooting, and a sound editor edits the dialogue and other sound elements.

You can place an ad seeking an editor in the classified section of many film and trade magazines like Backstage ( or search online at for an editor near you.

Look for someone who has at least a few films under their belt and ask to see a sample of their work — do they cut scenes tight so they don’t lag?

However, if you’re on a small production, you’re probably your own editor. You’re in good company, though. Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi and Sin City) prefers to cut his own films.

One of the advantages of hiring an editor is that they can start assembling what you’ve shot immediately after the first day on the set. This means that your editor can tell you while you’re shooting whether you need extra footage: a cutaway (a reaction shot or something that helps piece two other shots together seamlessly) to make a scene work better, a close-up of some person or object, or an establishing shot (a wide shot of the location that orientates the audience to where the scene is taking place).

Shooting enough coverage

You need to shoot enough coverage so that you have plenty of different takes and interesting angles to choose from. Every time you add another angle to a scene, you make it more interesting and less monotonous.

Using just one shot in a two-minute scene is like having a stare-down — and that’s just dull and annoying (unless it’s a bet to see who wins). The camera never blinks — that’s what cutting is for. Cutting is like blinking from one shot to the next. When you watch a play, you don’t stare at the stage as a whole the entire time; you concentrate on the individual actors as they speak, or on a prop or action sequence that catches your attention.

If you don’t have time to shoot several angles, then create movement in the shot, such as having the camera follow or lead your actors as they’re walking and talking. Make the shot as interesting as possible.

Some directors shoot a ratio of three takes to get one shot (3:1), and some shoot ten or more. The editor’s job is to find the best take or to combine the best of several takes with cutaways. As you start to piece the movie together, it magically begins to take on a shape of its own, and the story starts to (hopefully) make sense.

Assembling a first cut

The first step is piecing together what is called an assembly cut, rough cut, or first cut. This is the most basic cut possible, showing the story in continuity (because often the scenes are shot out of order, out of continuity).

Editing the visuals of your movie is very similar to writing a screenplay. The first assembly of footage is like the first rough draft, putting things into perspective and giving you a feel for your story. After you have your basic cut, you start shaping, trimming, and cutting until your film feels complete. Like dancing, there’s a rhythm to cutting — it flows, and everything feels like it’s falling into place.

Don’t be discouraged if the first cut doesn’t excite you. The pacing may seem too slow, the performances may appear dull. I’ve often been disappointed with a first cut — and apparently, many big studio directors have had concerns after working on their first cuts.

After your first cut, you start to get a sense of how to tighten up the picture. You start to cut out long boring exits to the door, pauses that are too long between lines, or a scene that isn’t working and that won’t be missed if you cut it out entirely. You may even want to reshoot or add a completely new scene to make the picture better as a whole.

You need to do a lot of shaping and adjusting before your masterpiece shines through. It’s like molding something out of clay — you have to keep chipping away until you like what you see. Also, remember, you are seeing the movie still in its raw form because color-correction, sound effects, music score, special effects, and other elements have not been added yet.

Building a director’s cut

The director’s contract usually stipulates whether the director gets to make sure their vision is followed in the editing room by approving the final cut of the movie. This final, director-approved cut is called a director’s cut.

The director usually views an assembly, or first, cut (scenes assembled loosely in continuity according to the screenplay; see the preceding section) by the picture editor. The director then gives the editor suggestions on where to place specific shots, close-ups, and establishing shots; how to change the order of things; how to tighten a scene; and so on.

Usually, a director gets a director’s cut based on their clout in the industry. Ultimately, the big studio has the final say in the cutting of a picture if the director doesn’t contractually have final cut.

For example, Steven Spielberg always gets final say because he’s earned that honor and proven himself to know what works and what doesn’t. George Lucas always has the final cut because he doesn’t report to anyone but himself!

With the release of most films on DVD or streaming now, many directors who didn’t have the clout to get a director’s cut theatrically in their studio contract now have the opportunity to get a director’s cut featured as one of the bonuses on the DVD or streaming sites, such as on iTunes.

Chances are, you are your own studio boss, so you decide who gets final say on editing. You will probably have the director’s cut because you report to yourself!

director editing on iMac The author working on his “director’s cut” on an iMac connected to a big screen TV for checking details.

Photo finish: Finalizing a final cut

Many times a studio screens a version of the movie to a test audience (a group of people brought in to watch and rate the picture). The audience members fill out a questionnaire, and the studio (or the director, if they have final cut) evaluates all the comments from the screening and may re-edit accordingly.

After all the editing is finished and approved, you create the final, locked picture approved by the studio — or by the director if they have the authority to make the final cut (which you probably do have if you’re an independent director). Now the postproduction work on sound begins, and the composer can start timing the scenes that will be scored (set to music).

Listening to the sound editor

In addition to editing the picture on your movie, you have to assemble and edit the sound elements. These elements are prepared by the sound editor, who is most often the picture editor and even the final postproduction sound mixer on an independent film.

The sound elements are put onto separate audio channels (called tracks) and then mixed down into a final soundtrack that combines all channels mixed together. Some of those edited sound elements include:

  • Dialogue (may have separate dialogue tracks for each actor)
  • Sound effects (can have unlimited sound-effects tracks)
  • Music (usually one or two tracks for music)
  • Ambience (background sounds like birds chirping, an air-conditioner humming, ocean waves crashing, and so on)

Dialogue editing is as important as your picture edit. The sound editor has a variety of elements to consider, such as overlapping conversations or starting a character’s dialogue over the end of another character’s shot.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Bryan Michael Stoller is an award-winning filmmaker who has produced, written, and directed more than 100 productions from music videos and commercials to TV shows and feature films. His movie First Dog had nearly a half-million Redbox rentals, and he has directed stars such as Edward Asner, Barbra Streisand, James Earl Jones, Drew Barrymore, and Dan Aykroyd. Bryan's movies have amassed close to eighteen-million views on video on demand platforms. Learn more at

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