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Eight Rules To Build Your Film Editing FrameworkMonday, January 27, 2020


It's often said that films are actually created in the editing bay, and any filmmaker that's been a part of the editing process can attest to that. It doesn't matter how good the story is, how beautiful the lighting and cinematography, or how stellar the acting and direction--if the film isn't pieced together in a way that makes sense, draws the viewer's attention to the right place at the right time, and helps to move the story along, then your film will become a random mishmash of scenes and shots seemingly strung together with no rhyme or reason about them.

If you've never edited your own films before, the process can seem daunting. And for good reason--the editing process is where each element of the film, footage, dialogue, music, special effects, color, and more, all come together. The editor is responsible not only for knowing what's contained in each shot, track, or effect, but also how they must all come together to create the film. Editing is both a lot of work, and a ton of responsibility as part of the filmmaking process.

In many ways, the best way to learn how to edit is to dive right in. There's no substitute for the experience of developing your own editing workflow and style. However, there are a number of "rules" that can help steer you in the right direction and get your learning experience started out on the right foot. We've outlined some of these rules for you below.

These particular rules of editing come from several different sources, but primarily from Jeff Bartsch's excellent book "Edit Better: Hollywood-Tested Strategies For Powerful Video Editing". Note that these are just a handful of the editing rules that Bartsch outlines (there are over 70 of them in the book). These are some of the most basic ones to get you started.

And it helps to view them not as "rules" so much as a framework that you can work in as you develop your own style of editing. Like most other rules, many of them are meant to be broken--but not until you master them and understand why they are "rules" to begin with.

Rule 1. Know your desired outcome

Ask yourself, “What do I want my audience to experience, know, or do after they experience my project?” Do you want them to be entertained? Are they supposed to be angry, or inspired? This is the first step in any editing process, and the most important, as it will inform every decision that you make in the editing bay.

Rule 2. Know your market and your message

Who is your audience? Why do they think the way that they do? You have to know and understand who your primary viewers are. And be very specific--saying that "everyone is your audience" means that NO ONE is your audience. Don't be afraid to niche down and figure out who it is that the film will speak to most directly.

Once you know your market, you need to figure out what exactly is the message that you're trying to get to them, and how you're going to deliver it. Some of this can be gleaned from the story itself, the language, and genre, but the choice of shots and how you piece everything together must support how you're going to deliver that specific message to this specific audience.

Rule 3: Start with the important stuff--fill in everything else later

It can be overwhelming to get started editing a film sometimes. There can be hundreds or thousands of shots in a film, with multiple takes--and that's just the video. When you add in audio and other effects, an editor must deal with thousands of individual pieces and parts. So where do you get started?

Bartsch tells a great editing "parable" in his book:

I’ve often heard editors say, “I have a gazillion pieces to work with. How do I start?” Here’s how. Imagine a very large, empty jar, and your job is to completely fill it up. You place a number of large rocks in the jar. One could say the jar is now full, yes? No, not really. You then add a bucket full of medium sized stones to the jar, filling it just underneath the lip of the jar. Is the jar full now? Not yet.

You add a bucket of sand to the jar, which filters down through the large rocks and smaller stones until the level reaches the lip of the jar. Surely the jar must be full now, right? No it’s not, and stop calling me Shirley.

You pour a bucket of water into the mix of rocks, stones, and sand, and it fills up the jar until the sandy water is just about to spill over the top of the jar. Is the jar full now? Why yes, it’s full. Absolutely nothing else will fit in it. Everything is there, including all those big rocks that you put in from the very beginning.

Back to “I have a gazillion pieces to work with. How do I start?” Start with the big rocks. Begin with the core elements of the project that you know will be in there, and fill in the smaller connecting pieces later.

For most films, that means putting together a basic rough cut with no transitions, no effects, and no fancy editing. You simply want to put the shots together in order to tell your story. Once this is done, then you can go back and add in these other elements to craft the story you want.

Rule 4: Put your structure into visual form

It helps to create a visual timeline of your film before you actually start cutting shots together. Break everything down into scenes or smaller sections. Assign each of these sections its own 4x6 index card so you can rearrange them as needed. This allows you to experiment with the story structure before you dive into the actual shot editing.

Rule 5: Read Walter Murch’s "In the Blink of an Eye" to understand why editing works at all

Walter Murch was the editor on films such as Apocalypse Now, all three of the Godfather films, and American Graffiti, to name a few. His book on editing is considered a 'must read' in the film industry.

"In the Blink of an Eye" isn't so much of a tactical step-by-step tutorial book so much as it is a series of essays on the philosophy of editing. Murch breaks down the science of why editing works at all, but in a way that is easy to grasp. He delves into some of his own editing choices, and the ever important WHY of his processes and thinking. Read it, and then re-read it--this is the sort of book that will help you develop your own eye for editing and storytelling.

Rule 6: Actively direct the viewer’s attention

We as editors are responsible for telling our audiences where to put their attention. A well edited film will lead the viewer's eyes on a journey where each detail of the story is revealed piece by piece, to garner the specific effect you're going after.

There are many different tactics that you can use editing to help direct attention--these are a few that are outlined in "Edit Better." Most of these seem obvious when written out, but in practice it can take time to really master these techniques as you develop focus and attention on your editing.

• In an otherwise blank space containing one single object, our eyes will be drawn to that object.
• If an image contains multiple unrecognizable shapes (say a grouping of straight and curved lines) and one very recognizable shape (the outline of a tree), our eye is drawn to the shape we recognize.
• If a black and white image contains one piece of color, our eyes jump to the color.
• When we see anything resembling a face, the focal point usually ends up being the face’s eyes.
• If anything with a face is looking in any obvious direction, the audience’s attention will be moved towards the same direction.
• Motion is the great trump card, one of the strongest attention magnets that exist. Our eyes are instantly drawn to motion over almost anything else.
• Motions that are accompanied by sound are more magnetic to attention than motions without accompanying sound.
• Picture trumps sound. Our brains rely more on what we see than what we hear.

Rule 7: Don't be afraid to experiment with the Kuleshov effect

The Kuleshov effect is a simple but powerful demonstration of how the brain interprets a series of images in different ways depending on what is cut in between then. It was discovered in the early 1900's by a Russian filmmaker named Lev Kuleshov to cut around a bad acting take. His film cut from an expressionless shot of the main actor to a plate of soup, then back to the actor’s face, then to a girl in a coffin, then back to the actor’s face, and then to a woman lying on a couch. When the film was shown to an audience, they raved about the actor’s performance - showing hunger when he saw the soup, grief when he saw girl in the coffin, and lust when he saw the woman on the couch.

Even though the actor's expression never changed, the audience perceived new meanings from the shot depending on what shots followed.

Once you understand the power of the Kuleshov effect, don't be afraid to use it to experiment in your own films. Play with the order of shots to bring new meaning to your scenes and develop interesting storytelling methods.

Rule 8: Minimize the use of fancy digital transitions.

Many digital editing suites will come with a number of built-in shot to shot transitions, and there are countless third party transitions that can be purchased as well. However, pay attention the next time you watch a Hollywood feature--95% of the time, the transitions are the most basic of cuts--hard cuts, jump cuts, J and L cuts, and fades in or out. Seeing transitions like the Venetian blinds or spinning cube effect are pretty rare in most narrative films. While these may be suited well for documentaries or music videos, usually the most basic transitions are all that are required to tell the story and keep the viewer in the world of the film.

These are just a few of many editing rules that are outlined in "Editing Better" and some of the other books on the subject. Note that we didn't even touch on audio or coloring--both of these subjects are editing specialties in their own right, that require their own rules and skill sets.

If you'd like to learn more about the editing process, we've assembled a list of several recommended books for you to check out. All the links below are Amazon affiliate links, and if you purchase from them the 48 Hour Film Project will earn a small commission. Use these as a guide to help learn the rules, but don't be afraid to dive in to working on your own film projects to really begin to master the art of editing.


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