Flixist Film School: Editing 101


Alright everyone, please take a seat. Welcome to your first day at Flixist Film School. Today, we’ll be discussing film editing. You may think this is the last thing I’d want to cover, but my theory is that if you understand how to edit, you understand how to make a better movie. We’ll be taking a look at this theory, plus the history of editing, how different editing programs differ, and how music can either make or break a scene.

Hit the jump so I can drop some knowledge on you readers.

Part One: The History of Film Editing

Louis le Prince Cameras

To understand editing, you need to understand the history of film. Now, lots of folks out there probably think Thomas Edison invented the motion picture camera. Well, they’re wrong. Louis Le Prince was actually the inventor of the first motion picture camera, and received his American patent for the invention back in 1886. His invention was a sixteen lens beast called the “LPCC Type-16”. While not a motion picture camera in the purest sense, it still could capture a sequence of images to give the illusion of motion. How it worked was the camera would take a picture with the first lens, and then very quickly take another picture with the second lens, and so on and so forth until all sixteen lenses took a picture. That same year, Le Prince was granted the patent on the world’s first single lens camera, the “LPCCP Type-1 Mk 1”. In 1888, after the manufacture of the Mk 1, Le Prince shot the world’s first motion pictures himself. Now, these weren’t movies in the traditional sense; They were mostly simple one shots of a quick action, like a man walking around a corner (which you can see here).

Great, we all now know how the film camera was invented. But how does editing tie into this? Hold your horses Tex, I’m getting there. Now, for a while, films were shown on a kinetoscope. The kinetoscope, an invention by Thomas Edison, allowed viewers to see single reel films of people dancing, boxing, and other menial actions. For the time, it was mind blowing, but there needed to be more. Enter Edwin S. Porter and Lev Kuleshov.

In 1903, Edwin S. Porter made a film called Life of an American Fireman. The plot is simple, a fireman rescuing a woman and child from a burning building, but the editing was complex. This film is considered the first time that cross-cutting was used. Cross-cutting is used to establish action in two different locations.

Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, Lev Kuleshov was experimenting with montage. Kuleshov, one of the first film theorists (And helped found one of the first ever film schools, the Moscow Film School), he developed what is now known as the Kuleshov Effect. Using stock footage, Kuleshov intercut shots of a bowl of soup, a beautiful woman, and a dead girl in a coffin with a shot of an actor with a neutral face. Audiences praised the acting, but there was no acting to speak of; it was all in the editing. What Kuleshov proved is that audiences will bring their own emotions to the plate, and in turn, place those emotions on an actor.

Look at a film like 500 Days of Summer. There are plenty of people who think Zooey Deschanel’s character was a cold-hearted bitch, but there are also those who relate to her, and think she did the right thing by dumping Joseph Gordon-Levit’s character. Differing opinions like this are usually based upon emotional attachment to characters, past experiences, and psychology. Basically, to know how to engage an audience, you need to know a bit about psychology. I’ll save you that rambling mess of a lecture for another lesson.

Part Two: Actually Editing


So, we’ve covered a bit of the history of film, and film editing. Now, let’s talk about the process of editing. Before you even touch a frame of footage, it’s important to understand the difference between destructive editing, and non-destructive editing.

Destructive editing is when you’re actually manhandling strips of film, physically cutting with a razor blade, and taping together sequences. This process was long, arduous, expensive, and usually sent editors into a state of madness. But with the advent of digital editing systems, non-destructive editing is the way we’ve been cutting movies since the 90s. Since we now benefit from editing digital video, as opposed to physical film, an editor can try out different ways of cutting together a scene without ruining strips of film.

While I’m on the subject of editing systems, let me make one thing clear. Your choice of editing software rarely matters. Yeah, I said it. Final Cut, AVID, Premiere, Vegas, they’re all the same. Some will say I’m full of crap, but when it comes to the process of editing, it’s all about making your edits. If you’re more comfortable using Final Cut instead of AVID, use it. Lately, there seems to be this big trend of fanboyism towards different editing platforms. We all have our preferences, but it’s getting absurd. The bottom line is that, yes, some are technically (read: can import different kinds of footage, or runs better on different computers) better than others, all editing software does the same thing; It’s just different ways of doing things. Above all, edit using the tool you’re most comfortable using.

Alright, now that that rant is over, let’s discuss the rules of editing. There are several different lists by different editors, but they all basically say the same thing. I’ve condensed those lists, while adding a few of my own rules, too. Because I’m an egomaniac.

1) Read the script. This may be a no brainer, but if you don’t read the script you’re given, how can you tell the story? You won’t need it later, but for your first pass on the film, read the script.

2) Work with the director. Again, another no brainer. What I encourage every director to do during the first rough cut phase, is to edit together their own version of the rough cut, while I do my own pass on it. Even if the director doesn’t have any clue how to use editing software, he has the storyboards to work with. From there, you have a deeper understanding of what the director wants in the edit, and you can work with him to achieve his vision.

3) Don’t cut without good reason. Before you make a cut, ask yourself “Is the audience going to learn something new through this cut?” If the answer is no, then hang on to the shot.

4) Just because you made a cut, doesn’t mean it’s the right place to cut. You’ll know when you’re up against this one. If a cut just isn’t flowing right, or just seems off, it’s probably because the cut isn’t exactly where it needs to be. You’d be surprised what shifting a cut a few frames can do.

5) Cut on movement whenever possible. This helps offset any “weirdness” associated with a cut. A good example of this is if one dude is going to punch another dude. If you start Shot A with the motion of the fist accelerating towards the other guy’s face, then Shot B should continue this action.

6) The 30-degree rule is for suckers. You don’t want to be a sucker, right? While it’s a nice thing to keep in mind, the 30-degree rule is one of the last things you want to worry about. For those that don’t know, the 30-degree rule states that all cuts should be offset in the space of the scene by at least 30 degrees. Get creative with your cuts!

7) Music is totally a thing. Music can alter an entire scene’s meaning and mood. Check out the examples below. Note: I do not own the rights to The Social Network, so please don’t sue me.

This is the original, for reference. Trent Reznor’s and Atticus Ross’ score perfectly captures the mood of the scene: the fact that Mark’s girlfriend dumped him starts his slow decent into alienation from the world.

Now, this one works, but it doesn’t work for the story that is trying to be told. If this were a rom-com, Buddy Holly would’ve been a great choice. But alas, a rom-com, this is not.

Ok, this one just doesn’t work at all. Students, take note: You can’t just throw any song behind your movie.

Part Three: In Conclusion

That about does it for me. I hope this was as informative to you as it was fun to write. But like any good school, there will be homework. Don’t worry, it’s cool homework. Watch two movies with very different editing styles. I suggest 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Bourne Ultimatum. From an editorial standpoint, what makes these two films different? Note the rules I listed above. And if you are way in to editing, I have some good reading material for you. Check out In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch, The Eye is Quicker by Richard D. Pepperman, and Make Your Own Damn Movie! by Lloyd Kaufman.

If you have a topic that you would like to see covered, or if you have feedback, shoot me an email at [email protected], or yell at me through the Twitters, @mroahrig.