Essential Film Editing Skills and Techniques Every Newbie should Know

For beginners, learning editing can be tricky. Sequencing of events in a story timeline is not tough but understanding the depth of the editing process needs learning and exposure. Though editing is an integral part of storytelling, it also demands some technical prowess.

Film and Video Editing is an art as well as science. Art, because it encompasses all the aspects of storytelling and science because it deals with all the scientific and technical aspects of filmmaking. To master film or video editing you need to learn how to use your tools efficiently to display the conjuring tricks of storytelling.

What Skills do you need to be a Film or a Video Editor?

Like cinematography, editing is also a highly demanding skill set in filmmaking. If you love science and electronics, it is easier to pick the technicalities attached to it. Editing was a very complicated process when the movies were shot in films. But thanks to digital filmmaking, editing, over time has simplified a lot and can be done digitally on a home desktop or a speedy laptop. Today, you can edit a High-Definition video by the small apps in the smartphones.

It is difficult to put what skills do an editor need to have to be a good one. For a beginner, the aesthetics won’t matter as much as the knowledge of the process and the tools. If you want to become a good editor, you can aspire to develop your skills around the following points.

Knowledge of IT :

It is not much of a deal for an electronics or a science student to pick up non-linear editing. But, if you never handled gadgets or struggle with operating computers, it may be a tough nut to crack for you. You need to understand fundamentals of computer hardware and software operations. Why is it important? Because as an editor you will have to operate on a video editing software installed on a computer.

You have to know the various file formats, image resolutions and video compressions and its functionality. The multiple adapters, signal conversions, patching and video output options are some of the aspects which an editor will have to deal with his day to day work. Managing the source files and footages are pure IT functions which a beginner has to master in a short period to advance into the aesthetics of editing.

Creative and Practical Skills:

Now, don’t be complacent if you pick up the IT skills quickly that you are an editor. Without artistic skills, you are still an operator. Being creative is a very subjective thing. What you think is creative can be absolute trash for you director or client. My point of being creative is to expose yourself to contemporary editing techniques to suggest various ways a scene can be cut.

Understanding the grammar of screenplay and cinematography is essential. Both come in handy when you lay out the raw footage to pick the right clip. If you are aware of character motivations, plot points, how to cut action scenes and montages, the 180-degree axis rule, etc. your approach to editing will have better clarity and purpose.

The Sense of Timing:

An editor is also a musician. You have to have a rhythm and beat in your scene or sequence. Every gaze of the actor, the flow of dialogues, the movement of the camera have to be cut in such a way that it looks invisible to the audience. The story flows have to be seamless, and it happens when the rhythm and beats of the scenes play in harmony with the dramatics of the story.

The sense of timing can be learned, but in most cases, you are born with it. It is tough to determine it. The ways of learning are to listen to a lot of music or cut tons of music videos. Some lay music tracks to lay the scenes and cut them according to the beats. But, this is a literal way, what I am trying to put is something intangible, which can be felt and not seen.

Attention to Detail:

The editor has to scan through shots several times to absorb the details and the flaws so that they find the cutting points to stitch the shots smoothly. Any jerk in the scene can throw the viewer out of the story. He may not know what happened but will feel the slap.

The editor can make or break the movie. If you give the attention to detail, you can pick up those little details to weave the story in such a way that it enriches the story with unknown aspects or different perspectives which a screenwriter or the film director may be unaware.

Continuity is another aspect where an editor has to be aware during cutting and pasting two clips. The cuts will shock you if there is a jerk or a flaw in continuity. Sometimes the editor has to take the call whether to live with the continuity error or remove the shot if it doesn’t hamper the scene. There are many blockbusters we see with continuity jerks, but the editor has to deliberately keep it as he may have no other replacement for it.

Take the Responsibility:

Editing is a very lonely and responsible job. The whole burden of the film rests on the editor. All the flaws and garbage printed in the name of footage has to be cleaned and produced into an impressive piece of work. All the muck has to be turned into gold. But if there is any discrepancy in the post-processing workflow, all the fingers are pointed at the editor.

You need to have tons of patience and concentration to deal with all the chaos. The deadlines are inhuman, but the editor has to honor it all with a smile. You have to handle everything with a focus to weave out a marvel. The stress of the workflow is enormous and if you shudder to own such a responsibility, editing is not for you.

How do Editing Techniques Contribute to Storytelling in Filmmaking?

Beginners love to play with the style first before understanding the subtleties that can elevate a story from good to fabulous. So, to understand the editing techniques that contribute to storytelling in filmmaking, I will stress that those are not the jump cuts or the cross cuts but following the pulse of the scene and acting accordingly.

The Power of Sequencing:

When the term “Non-linear editing” got introduced, it not only changed the editing platforms with the advent of digital editing but also altered the narrative. Films like Memento and 21 Grams changed the game forever. It was a conscious play of interchanging of sequences which upped the level of dramatic tension in the narrative through skillful editing techniques.

With the interchanging of shots, you can change the meaning of a scene. One of the examples is the famous Kushelov effect where a shot next to a man’s gaze changes the feel of the scene as shown below:

The Kushelov Effect

You can sometimes play with the minds of the audience by foreshadowing an event which is going to happen later. Another interesting approach is to enter in the middle of a scene, and exit before the scene ends. There are plenty of techniques to play for an editor, but the sole purpose of the improvisation is to better the narrative.

With the audience getting more attention deficit, I have observed a famous YouTuber – Casey Neistat cuts abruptly between scenes. It looked awkward initially, but now I realized it works very well as it makes the narration pacey and when you understood what he was saying, you don’t have to listen to it entirely.

Focus on the Logline and the Plot Points:

Logline is the soul of the film. The whole script is woven around it. The entire film is shot keeping an eye on the logline. So when the raw footage is dumped on the editing table, the editor should also make every decision without losing the focus on the logline. Any improvisation or technique is only good till it supports the purpose of the story or the character.

Like a conductor of an orchestra, an editor too can orchestrate editing skills which adds the right pitch to the crescendo. Sometimes, a great editing can also destroy a film when all you see in the film are excellent techniques but an uneven soulless story. There is a thin line between a show-off and balanced technique. Beginners are more prone to the former, and you should be aware of that. Keeping your focus on the logline strengthens the backbone of the movie.

As a professional editor, your edit should also lead your scenes to the plot points in the script. Maintaining the character motivations and the arcs are as crucial as the logline. Being aware of these story plots, it declutters your mind when you have to decide on selecting a shot from the rubble of several takes and shots.

The Duration, Pace, and the Rhythm:

Every shot or a scene has a life of its own. It dies if it is stretched beyond its duration. You lose the audience when it extends beyond a specified period. It is a tricky problem, but usually, the timing of a cut should happen when it has to happen. It sometimes works on the character’s breathing, or the frequency of his blink or it can also occur when you blink. Figuring the duration of a cut is most of the times decided with the pace of the scene.

Pacing a scene again depends on the mood, the music or the past and later sequence. If you had an intense pacing sequence earlier, you are bound to balance it with a calming pace.

Storytelling is a journey of emotions and emotions work with the character’s feeling and the feel of the drama. The edits have to complement those feelings. For breathtaking scenes where the tension is at its peak the pacing is usually fast, but when there is sorrow or falling of the character, the pacing needs slow breaths.

Music also plays a vital role in laying out our edit. Sometimes the music is audible and sometimes it is inaudible. The rhythm in the edits doesn’t mean you are cutting shots with underlined music beats. It says the rhythm of the narrative where the music may or may not be present has to work. Every scene works on a beat depending on the pacing. Rhythm is an intangible element in editing and is more of feeling it than noticing.

Creative Cuts, Transitions, and Cutaways:

When we learn to edit, our hands itch to do jump cuts or cross cuts between scenes. My favorites are the invisible cuts, the match cuts, and the smash cuts. As a fanboy, I was always intrigued by the J cut. These are conventional editing techniques which are not complicated to learn but quite challenging to use it effectively. These editing terminologies may sound fancy but learning these methods doesn’t make you an editor. These are tools and tips to tell stories a little differently.

Like how cuts shifts from shots to shots, transitions are effective when used to shift from the next scenes or sequence. Who can forget the wipes in Star Wars? If you pick transitions like swish pans and wipes in the correct place, it enhances the drama. Simple transitions like fades and dissolves show a passage of time and help in taking the story forward.

Cutaways, also known as the B-Rolls, are another common technique to enhance the drama.  They are merely close up shots of objects or props that help in underlining or sub-texting tension or emotion in a scene. They also help in salvaging edits where the editor finds technical flaws in subsequent shots or unusable takes. Putting a cutaway solves these issues. If used creatively they can add exciting flavors to a scene.

Editing is often considered a lifeline to salvage bad stories. But, this lifeline can also be a thin line between making or breaking a scene or a film. For a newbie, it is advisable to abstain from too much style. Always try to dedicate oneself to the nuances of storytelling at a deeper level. It is tough to fathom initially, but with time you will apprehend things more clearly.

Feature Photo Courtesy: Glenn Carstens-Peters

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