Editing: The True Storyteller

January 18, 2010 at 10:25 am Leave a comment

Your goal when editing is to keep the story moving and to keep your audience engaged. Once your scenes are shot, your footage is uploaded, and your storyboard is in hand, it is time to make decisions that will bring your ideas to the final cut.

You might have the perfect script, phenomenal actors, and great camera work, but if your editing is not precise and deliberate, your film will miss the mark.

As an educator or an independent filmmaker, editing is probably the most difficult step to learn in the filmmaking process. It is very subjective, and while there are some proven formulas to follow, it all comes down to the footage you are working with and practice, practice, practice.

The following editing tips assume that you have worked from a storyboard and that you have filmed multiple takes of each scene (a good rule for every filmmaker).

Conversations on Film

  • Cut tight — The best editing approach is to cut tight scenes without becoming too “cutty.” This may mean taking out unnecessary pauses between actors’ delivery of dialogue lines. Sometimes it means tightening the gaps within dialogue sentences through the use of carefully placed cutaways. It may also mean losing redundant lines of dialogue. Remember, you want to keep the story moving in your film. If something doesn’t help the audience know more about a story or a character, get rid of it.
  • No Dragnet edits — The original Dragnet television series used a certain approach to cutting dialogue scenes. Audio and video edits tended to be made as straight cuts between the actors without any overlaps as they delivered their lines. It followed this formula: cut to actor A, deliver the line; cut to actor B, deliver the line; cut back to actor A and so on. Boring!

Our brains seem to react better to edits where the change in picture and sound is not always together. These are called split edits, L-cuts or J-cuts. I suppose this more closely mimics real life, where we first hear someone start to talk and then turn our head to see them. Or one person is talking and we look over to our friend to see their reaction before they respond. Editing in a style where images often precede or follow the dialogue edit feels more natural to our minds and makes the scene flow more smoothly.

Also, I will frequently cut scenes that use a little of each take as I cut back and forth between actors’ dialogue lines. This will create the best composite performance of all the actors in a scene. When you do this, though, you should be prepared to defend what you liked about the choices you’ve made.


  • Matching action — Matching actors’ hand positions, use of props, and stage position from one cut to another falls into the technical category of how to make a proper edit, but don’t get caught up in all the technical stuff. Focus on whether that cut drives the emotion of the scene or moves the story along (if the scene does neither of these things, you might just want to cut it all together).

Technical matching to avoid inconsistencies is your least important concern. I’m not saying you should throw it out the window, because a mismatch that is too extreme can be very jarring to the audience. On the other hand, the audience will often ignore many minor continuity differences from one shot to the next if they stay totally engrossed in the story.

  • Moving camera shots — Moving the camera around is a staple of action sequences. This might be a camera on a dolly, Steadicam, or just handheld. In an action scene, your editing is designed to create a level of tension.

When I cut these shots together, I prefer to cut on movement so that the camera is in constant motion from one shot to the next. Many directors disagree, preferring instead to start and stop each camera move before making the cut. Both approaches work under the right situations, but my tendency is to cut tighter and not let the audience’s eye rest on the set, a shot or a scene for too long, unless there is a reason to do so.

  • Don’t cut back to the exact same angle — If you have a choice of several camera angles, don’t automatically cut back to the same camera angle or take that you just used in the previous shot. This is, of course, unavoidable in a dialogue scene with only two angles and one take of each. But, if the director thought ahead and shot different takes with different angles and framing, try to use a little of all the shots. Mix it up.

It’s All About the Story

Someone said that there are three films: the one that’s scripted, the one that’s been filmed and the one that’s edited. When you are creating your final cut, pay close attention to the story chronology and don’t be afraid to veer from what was written or filmed if it makes sense to do so.

Many editors use their storyboard to create a quick visual representation of the storyline. This helps you make sure that you reveal things to the audience in the most logical order and that nothing is inadvertently edited out of place. Have your storyboard with you while you edit.

Think about film editing like writing music: the film has a rhythm, and the editing needs to flow with it. Pay attention to the pacing of your cuts, and always keep the story moving forward.

The choices you make will decide how the audience will view the story, and ultimately how they will react to it. Review your decisions to create the best scenes and performances and try to stick to your storyboard ideas.

Remember, the closer a scene is to one that feels polished and conveys a clear story, the more accepting an audience will be of your cut. Take your time, and be creative.


Entry filed under: OneSeventeen Media, Young Minds Digital Times. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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