The Art of Editing: Discovery Of A Path

Daniel Cook - March 20, 2013


When a friend recently asked, “What makes for good editing?” I found myself tongue-tied, as if I had just been asked the meaning of existence. It was pretty embarrassing, given that I edit video for a living and have for nearly a decade. Forced onto my toes and lacking a more insightful response, I offered a solid copout: “Good instinct?” Oops. It came out as a question.

Handy Copouts Make for Cozy Plateaus

A surgeon could provide the same knee-jerk answer, and he wouldn’t be wrong. The same goes for the teacher, attorney, handyman, baker or sculptor; we all work with both matter and ideas, and how we do that is largely instinctual. Seems straightforward enough. But is “good instinct” a viable answer, considering it does nothing to address the ideas, nor the matter involved with editing? Given that the question inquired about “good editing,” does the response “good instinct” not merely replace one word with another, as if editing equals instinct? Although my answer was partly true, it did bear a certain logical fallacy. And the look on my friend’s face said that he had another word for that fallacy: “Bullshit.”

Handy copouts, at best, make for comfortable plateaus. They serve to conceal the reality that we often don’t understand our own instincts, and that that lack of understanding makes it harder to summon those instincts when needed, thus rendering them practically inconsequential and leaving us with mostly “bullshit.”

The editor, if she wants to improve, must be willing confront her own ignorance. The moment she does that, the real learning begins. And the best place she can start is to assess what she already knows. But before expounding on this point of instincts, we should examine the broader context of the trade—or the art—that is film and video editing.

The “Magic” of Editing

Prior to the advent of editing, the motion picture was nothing more than an amusing novelty, an “invention without a future” (Apple, 2004). While fascinating, it was of little utilitarian or artistic value. With the absence of sync-sound and lack of editorial abilities, it couldn’t be used as a visual storytelling device. The revelation of modern cinema truly happened on the cutting room floor, when the “magic” of editing showed itself as a means of delivering rich and complex ideas to evoke a wide array of emotional responses. As a result, a huge industry flourished. Behind cinema soon followed television, and the rest is history.

While editors often get little recognition, hiding behind the “scenes,” they hold the tools for defining what a film or video is, and for finding—if not entirely sculpting—its very essence. This is not to undermine other production elements, like cinematography or lighting; it is simply to say, the editor has the power to craft the contextual and emotional reality of a work. In that sense, “film is the sum of edits; it’s always the thing you’re looking at,” even though it’s basically invisible (Apple, 2004).

Editing is manipulation, and so it follows that good editing means effective manipulation. The editor must constantly realize that he holds in his hands the reigns on reality, and that every tug on those reigns must be motivated, even if the only motivation is to experiment in hopes of finding that reality. Experimentation should be a no-holds-barred process, given that “editing is not so much a putting together as it is a discovery of a path” (Walter Murch, editor of Apocalypse Now, Pepperman, 2004). And so, the objective isn’t necessarily to assemble an entirely preconceived vision; it’s to discover a path.

The editor’s job is to assemble shots that create visual and narrative continuity, to bend and stretch time, to develop characters, to withhold information until the most effective dramatic moments, to know when to be explicit and when to be implicit, to find and exploit points of tension, to clean up technical sloppiness, and perhaps most importantly, to know when not to edit, so as to let the moment be itself (Pepperman, 2004, p. 35). To master the “magic” of editing, the editor must first have a decent command of editing grammar, or the rules, so to speak.

The “Language” of Editing

Understanding the language of the edit starts with learning the main elements, which are (1) Motivation, (2) Information, (3) Sound, (4) Camera Angle, and (5) Continuity (Thompson, 1993, p.40). We will now examine these terms, providing some tips and examples.

#1 Motivation.
Every edit decision should be motivated by a purpose, an aural or visual objective. The primary motivation should always be to advance the action, and therefore the story.

A) Using dissolves in place of good cuts is an example of unmotivated editing. However, using dissolves to indicate passage of time would be considered motivated. Using them to make a segment “flow more smoothly” is not generally advised, as it’s often a mark of amateur editing.

B) If you cut away from an interview to b-roll, be sure you’re deliberate about the cut. For slow-to-moderately paced pieces, place cuts during natural pauses in talking, even if those pauses last less than 10 frames.

C) Emphasized syllables should not occur simultaneously with a cut, as that calls attention to the edit and breaks the golden rule of editing—that it should be invisible to the viewer.

D) Cutting to music can be effective for certain pieces like music videos or sports montages. But for others, generally make every third shot not timed to the music. Cutting every shot to the music makes the edit more noticeable, which again breaks the golden rule.

E) J and L cuts* can help hide edits (and emphasized syllables) in a sound bite. The motivation for these edits is generally to take the viewer’s attention away from audio edits by changing the location of the video cut, and/or visa versa.

*J and L Cuts Defined
J-cut – A split edit where the audio of the later clip starts playing before its video. Sometimes called an “audio lead,” this edit forms a “J” in the timeline.

L-cut – A split edit where the audio is extended beyond the end of the video clip. This edit forms an “L” in the timeline (Digital Video Editing Glossary, 2012).

#2 Information.
Generally refers to visual information in a shot or across multiple shots. Each shot should offer new visual information (Thompson, 1993, p.42). Generally, the more information the viewer has, the better. However, visual information can be deliberately withheld if motivated (e.g. to create suspense).

  • A) Cutting a talking head from a wide to medium shot sometimes offers no new visual information, which is why it may appear awkward. However, cutting to a tight shot can reveal new nuances in facial expression. This speaks to another rule: It’s generally bad to cut between two shots of similar framing or focal length.

#3 Sound.
As with any other elements of the edit, all sound should be motivated. This doesn’t mean that we have to see the source of a sound; there just has to be a reason for it. For any given shot, the editor should consider what sound might be associated with that image. A trick for tastefully incorporating sound is “lapping,” which means fading in the sound of a shot before the end of the previous shot (see “J” cut). This not only helps to cover edits, but it also helps hold the viewer’s attention.

#4 Camera Angle.
Generally speaking, each cut should incorporate a shot from a different angle. The most important factor when considering camera angles is the 180-degree rule. Once an axis is established, the camera should never appear to cross it, as it disorients the viewer and calls attention to the edit (Thompson, 1993, p.46).

#5 Continuity.
In importance, continuity is second only to motivation. Continuity applies to content, motion, position and sound (Thompson, 1993, p.48).

A) Content. If a woman’s hair is behind her ear in one shot, it shouldn’t be in front of her ear in the next shot. If a man has a cigarette in his mouth in one shot, it shouldn’t be in his hand in the next shot.

B) Movement. If a person is walking left to right in one shot, it should be the same in the next shot. Also, cutting on or matching action is a good way to make seamless edits.

C) Position. If something is in the right of the frame in one shot, it should be in the right of the frame in the next.

D) Sound. Sound should be consistent across shots in a given scene. For example, if you are cutting together a sequence of a person in her office, you should hear office ambience across all shots, plus any sound made by her actions.

A Grab Bag of Tips and Tricks

#1 Stay on Your Plane.
Once an axis has been established, do not cross that line, as it will disorient the viewer. The photographer should be aware of this in the field, but the editor must also be mindful not to break the 180-degree rule in post-production.

(Image retrieved from

#2 Vary Angles by 45 Degrees.
When cutting between different angles of the same subject, try to make angles vary by at least 45 degrees, or else it will tend to look like a jump cut (Thompson, 1993, p.46). Also, try to avoid cutting between two shots of the same focal length.

#3 Cut on Motion; Match on Action.
Motion distracts the viewer from noticing cuts. So, where possible, make cuts during motion. For example, if a person turns his head or lifts his arm, make the cut happen during that action. When cutting among different angles of the same subject, match the action to hide the cut. When cutting among different subjects, cut on similar elements—that is, on motions that appear similar, such as a head turning and a door closing, or, as editor Walter Murch did in Apocalypse Now, a ceiling fan and a helicopter.

#4 Maintain a Fluid Sense of Screen Direction.
Unless motivated by a goal to disorient the viewer (which itself must be motivated by the narrative), the editor should strive to maintain directional continuity. If a person is running from left to right in one shot, she shouldn’t be running from right to left in the next shot. Fast-cutting action sequences may call for this rule to be deliberately broken.

#5 Pace for the Mood.
Pacing is achieved by varying the length of the shots. The amount of information in a shot should determine how long it is on the screen. For example, a moving shot will usually be up longer than a static close-up. Using different angles and shots of different durations can establish pacing. The editor should base the pacing of a scene on the intended mood. If the mood is tranquil, the cutting should be slow. If there is fear or chaos, the pacing should be varied, but generally fast. If there is a tense argument between two people, J-cuts can create the illusion of interruptions. Pacing sets the course for the next goal: Creating patterns.

#6 Create Patterns.
Human understanding depends upon the recognition of patterns. Establishing a sense of cause-and-effect between shots can help create such patterns. Example: Starting a scene with a closeup—which we’ll call Shot A—will generate an immediate question in the viewer’s mind: “What is the context?” That is, where is this object or person (we’ll say a man named James)? What is around James? What is he doing? Shot B—a close-up of James’ hands, say, assembling a gun—may offer part of the answer. We now know that James is putting together a gun. But we still don’t know the larger context. Shot C, like shot A, might ask another question by introducing a new character (who we’ll call Annie). Let’s say Shot C is a wide shot of Annie walking down the hall. This accomplishes several objectives that are motivated by the narrative and conducive to creating patterns.

Pertaining to narrative, the viewer asks, “Who is this person, and what does she have to do with James?” But part of the question of James’ location is answered, as we now know he is in a room off the hallway. So, one question is partly answered while a new question is raised. Pertaining to pattern, the viewer is offered a different angle of a different subject, which now establishes the relative A-B-C cutting pattern for the scene, where Shot A motivates Shot B motivates Shot C.

Shot D (in keeping with A), cuts to a closeup of Annie’s hand knocking on the door. Shot E (in keeping with B) cuts to a closeup of James’ face making a startled expression. Shot F (in keeping with C) cuts to a wide shot—this time, inside James’ room, which provides new information and further answers the question of James’ surroundings. In this shot, we see James jump up from his desk and chamber a round in his gun. Shot G (in keeping with A) cuts to a closeup of Annie’s face, providing new visual information about Annie. The tension builds in this fashion until James finally opens the door, relieved that it is Annie. And so a narrative, with all of its emotional subtext, is conveyed without a single word being spoken.

#7 Embrace Conventions… And Break Them.
The cutting style in the scenario above is used frequently, but it’s considered unconventional. Conventional cutting starts with a master shot of the scene (wide shot), and then works toward the character with medium shots and then close-ups. The scenario above does the exact opposite, using what is known as reveal cutting, which begins with a tight shot, moving wider to reveal new information about context (rather than new detail). Don’t be afraid to break convention. Use a jump cut if it adds something to the scene. Just be sure that it’s always motivated.

#8 Cutaway.
In a dialogue scene, reaction shots are often more important than what’s being said. Cutting away to a person’s facial expression while another person is talking reveals—or rather, creates—new emotional information. Experimenting with cutaways is a good way to find the mood of a scene.

#9 Experiment with Sound, Time and Space.
Create momentum. Apply the musical concept of a crescendo—that is, a gradual increase in volume and intensity—to the edit, by accelerating cutting throughout a sequence or scene to build momentum toward a dramatic climax. This is best achieved in the second or third pass of an edit (after the general content is nailed down). For example, trim one frame off of the first shot, two off the second shot, and so on. A musical crescendo can compliment this kind of cutting.

Cross-cut. Cut away to another scene to suggest things occurring simultaneously, and/or a symbolic connection. Find creative ways of cutting between scenes, such as cutting on similar motions (e.g. door closing/drawer opening). But avoid turning this into a gimmick, as being too literal leaves less to viewer interpretation and compromises the integrity of the “invisible” edit. Parallel Cutting is a variation of cross-cutting that is less literal, although the two terms are often used interchangeably.

Use off-screen action. Let the subject walk completely out of frame, and you can easily cut to another shot of them walking into the frame. This allows you to manipulate the physical reality of a scene.

Use inserts. Splice in shots of objects in the scene that are away from the principal action to offer new detail.

#10 Make a Montage… Or Don’t.
A montage is the video equivalent of a collage. It’s more about creating symbolic associations and emotional impact, rather than following a logical pattern. A montage can compress an entire lifetime—or multiple lifetimes—into a thirty-second series of shots. This technique should be used with caution, as it’s often the path of least resistance. When building a montage, the editor must stay motivated, being mindful to create rhythm, dramatic tension, etc. Does it contribute to the story? Is it the most effective tool? These are the questions that separate the “copout montage” from the legitimate, impressionistic art form.

Decoding Your Instincts

In the book The Eye is Quicker, film editor Richard D. Pepperman speaks to the importance of understanding one’s own instincts. After working in the film industry for decades, Pepperman became a teacher, at which time he began the struggle “to learn what it was that [he already] knew about film editing” (Pepperman, 2004, p. xiii). Indeed, figuring out what you already know is often more difficult than learning what you don’t know. But attempting the former can prove invaluable.

Pepperman writes, “The abiding practice [of understanding instincts] readies me as a teacher, and it has greatly improved my film editing” (Pepperman, 2004, xiii). Yet Pepperman is skeptical of academia. To that point, he quotes editor Stanley Kubrick: “The truth of a thing is the feel of it, not the think of it” (Pepperman, 2004, p.122). Over-thinking the technical aspects of creative endeavors often obscures the essence, even where it seems to reveal it.

If you take a closer look at your own instincts, you might realize that some—or most— of them aren’t instincts at all, but rather rules that you’ve been unconsciously following.

A Certain Amount of Bullshit

I’ve always been kind of leery of looking at editing as an academic discipline. And I’ve tried not to make the argument here that it’s some kind of highbrow art form. Such an argument would require a substantial amount of bullshit, and any conclusion I’d reach could only be the sum of such.

But clearly we’ve seen that “good instinct” alone won’t suffice for the answer to “what makes good editing?”

Those lacking learned knowledge will often use instinct as a crutch, just as those lacking instinct will use learned knowledge. Like other editors, I am usually guilty of the former, as evidenced by the answer to my friend’s question. And knowing that I am subject to this human tendency—that is, to mystify what I don’t understand—I often catch myself in the act. And when I do, I try not to resort to those handy copouts, but rather, to take the opportunity to arm myself with knowledge. I’ve still got a long way to go. I’m guessing you do, too.

So, get behind the edit machine and keep learning—and while you do, consider the words of Francis Bacon: “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts, but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” Let knowledge and uncertainty—not bullshit—guide your craft.

Works Cited

Apple, Wendy (Director). (2004). The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing. USA.

Digital Video Editing Glossary. Douglas Dixon’s Manifest Technology Web Site. Retrieved January 30, 2012.

Eye-line Matching Makes Video Editing Easy and Effective: 180 Degree Rule. (2012). Video Blocks Website. Retrieved March 5, 2013.

Pepperman, Richard D. (2004). The Eye is Quicker: Film Editing: Making a Good Film Better. Studio City, CA: Michael Wise Productions.

Thompson, Roy. (1993). Grammar of the Edit. Oxford: Focal Press.