How I Learned to Edit (And they didn't teach me this in Film School)

There are a million ways to edit something and a million ways to go about the process of editing... but it was something an "old school" editor taught me that really made things click and has greatly influenced how I edit today.

Now I'm not talking about the hardware, software, and mechanics of editing - that can change. I've edited tape to tape, by physically cutting film, and on non-linear editors such as Avid Media Composer. Those are the tools. I'm talking about the process of using the tools to tell the story that you want to tell. The tools will change but storytelling doesn't. (Avid's old motto was "Tools for Storytellers" - wish they kept it)

While in Film School and after while I worked at Avid I made it my goal to learn Avid Media Composer inside and out and I did. After moving to Los Angeles in 2001 I worked as an assistant editor (mainly in music videos) but I also taught Avid at Moviola since I was also a certified Avid Instructor.

One of my students once was an "old school" film editor who hadn't edited for a while (he detoured into the music business) and now wanted to get back into editing. He was used to cutting and splicing physical film. He knew how to edit and tell a story but just needed help learning the new tool.

For a while I worked for him as an assistant editor as well. One day while he was cutting a short film for somebody he let me take a stab at it and I edited for a while as he observed. Then he asked how I went about editing.

I said something to the affect of... "Oh I just start cutting the footage and throwing clips into the timeline until I like it."

He then explained that this was completely the wrong way to go about doing it. Before I even cut one clip into the timeline I should know exactly what I was trying to do.

The reasoning for this makes complete sense... after all when he was editing many years ago every edit was a destructive edit. You physically cut the film and taped it together. Putting back those physical frames you removed was hard and I know... in film school when I cut physical film I learned that very quickly. So because each edit that you made was destructive... you had to be pretty sure that that was the edit you really wanted to make before you made it.

So what do you do? You watch your footage. You watch your footage a lot. You watch your footage many times and take notes. You watch your footage and you edit the film in your head. You know what you are going to edit before you even cut a frame.

This process is still very important today even though all of the editing systems today are completely non-linear & non-destructive. (editing on film is non-linear but destructive - editing tape to tape is linear) If you just threw things down into your timeline wily nilly it gets very easy to create a mediocre edit. You can easily find yourself getting "stuck" with shots that you just cut in with no real reason at all.

The process of watching your footage (and re-watching and re-watching) allows the film or scene to slowly form in your mind. You find yourself discovering new ideas and new ways to cut a scene each time you watch and you are able to test everything out in your head before you even make an edit. The shots you choose should tell a story and have a purpose behind them. This is a process I still use today and his lesson has vastly improved my editing.

Converting this method to non-linear editing, what I do today is create "Selects Sequences" from the raw footage for each scene. These are usually broad selects that I make while watching the footage. Then from these "Selects Sequences" I create what I call the "Selects of Selects Sequences" and further whittle down the footage and I organize the placement of the clips in this new sequence into different sections based on the moments of the scene that I've blocked out in my head.

For example I'd have a section of the sequence where all the best opening moments are... where all the best cutaways are... where all the best middle moments of the scene moments are... best ending moments... best cheats...etc etc ... it depends on the scene that you are cutting.

Once I've created these sequences I've watched the raw footage a bunch of times and I have a pretty good idea what the scene is going to look like. This process takes a good day to a day and a half depending on the complexity of the scene. Then once I've watched all of the footage the actual edit takes a couple of hours tops.

I find it amusing when a producer asks me how a scene is going a couple hours in to me "editing" a scene. It's going great.. but I have nothing to show anyone as it's all in my head. :)

I hope that you find this tip helpful... again there are many ways to edit but I've always found this to be sound advice from an "old school" editor that I've shared as often as I can. Please be sure to let me know what you think and any questions you may have in the comments.


Cover image credit:

Steenbeck 16mm flatbed ST 921 (6498601571) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (Creative Commons — Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic — CC BY-SA 2.0)], by DRs Kulturarvsprojekt from Copenhagen, Danmark, from Wikimedia Commons


that's awesome advice!!! :D so helpful! I am an actual storyteller. I tell stories for a living to children to inspire them to read books. when I was editing I was so caught up in putting these crisp, clear shots focused on the character of the protagonist and my head was swimming with all the different type of cuts. Lcuts, n j cuts, n parallel editing. Reading this post just pointed me in the right direction: back to basics. back to storytelling which I am very comfortable with! so thank you for the great tip. :)

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