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Film editing is part of the post-production process of filmmaking. It involves the selection and combining of shots, connecting the resulting sequences, and ultimately creating a finished motion picture. It is an art of storytelling. Film editing is the only art that is unique to cinema, separating film-making from other art forms that preceded it (such as photography, theater, dance, writing, and directing), although there are close parallels to the editing process in other art forms like poetry or novel writing. Film editing is often referred to as the "invisible art" because when it is well-practiced, the viewer can become so engaged that he or she is not even aware of the editor's work.

On its most fundamental level, film editing is the art, technique, and practice of assembling shots into a coherent whole. A film editor is a person who practices film editing by assembling the footage. However, the job of an editor isn’t simply to mechanically put pieces of a film together, cut off film slates, or edit dialogue scenes. A film editor must creatively work with the layers of images, story, dialogue, music, pacing, as well as the actors' performances to effectively "redirect" and even rewrite the film to craft a cohesive whole. Editors usually play a dynamic role in the making of a film.

With the advent of digital editing, film editors and their assistants have become responsible for many areas of filmmaking that used to be the responsibility of others. For instance, in past years, picture editors dealt only with just that—picture. Sound, music, and (more recently) visual effects editors dealt with the practicalities of other aspects of the editing process, usually under the direction of the picture editor and director. However, digital systems have increasingly put these responsibilities on the picture editor. It is common, especially on lower budget films, for the assistant editors or even the editor to cut in music, mock up visual effects, and add sound effects or other sound replacements. These temporary elements are usually replaced with more refined final elements by the sound, music, and visual effects teams hired to complete the picture.

Film editing is an art that can be used in diverse ways. It can create sensually provocative montages; become a laboratory for experimental cinema; bring out the emotional truth in an actor's performance; create a point of view on otherwise obtuse events; guide the telling and pace of a story; create an illusion of danger where there is none; and even create a vital subconscious emotional connection to the viewer, among many other possibilities.

Early experiments

Edwin S. Porter is generally thought to be the American filmmaker who first put film editing to use. Porter worked as an electrician before joining the film laboratory of Thomas Alva Edison in the late 1890s. Early films by Thomas Edison (whose company invented a motion camera and projector) and others were short films that were one long, static, locked-down shot. Motion in the shot was all that was necessary to amuse an audience, so the first films simply showed activity such as traffic moving on a city street. There was no story and no editing. Each film ran as long as there was film in the camera. When Edison's motion picture studio wanted to increase the length of the short films, Edison came to Porter. Porter made the breakthrough film Life of an American Fireman in 1903. The film was among the first that had a plot, action, and even a closeup of a hand pulling a fire alarm.

Other films were to follow. Porter's ground-breaking film, The Great Train Robbery is still shown in film schools today as an example of early editing form. It was produced in 1903 and was one of the first examples of dynamic, action editing (the piecing together scenes shot at different times and places and for emotional impact unavailable in a static long shot). Being one of the first film hyphenates (film director, editor and engineer) Porter also invented and utilized some of the very first (albeit primitive) special effects such as double exposures, miniatures and split-screens.

Porter discovered two important aspects of motion picture language: that the screen image does not need to show a complete person from head to toe and that splicing together two shots creates in the viewer's mind a contextual relationship. These were the key discoveries that made all non-live or non live-on-videotape narrative motion pictures and television possible—that shots (in this case whole scenes since each shot is a complete scene) can be photographed in widely different locations over a period of time (hours, days or even months) and combined into a narrative whole. That is, The Great Train Robbery contains scenes shot on sets of a telegraph station, a railroad car interior, and a dance hall, with outdoor scenes at a railroad water tower, on the train itself, at a point along the track, and in the woods. But when the robbers leave the telegraph station interior (set) and emerge at the water tower, the audience believes they went immediately from one to the other. Or that when they climb on the train in one shot and enter the baggage car (a set) in the next, the audience believes they are on the same train.

Sometime around 1918, Russian director Lev Kuleshov did an experiment that proves this point. (See Kuleshov Experiment) He took an old film clip of a head shot of a noted Russian actor and intercut the shot with a shot of a bowl of soup, then with a child playing with a teddy bear, then with a shot of an elderly woman in a casket. When he showed the film to people they praised the actor's acting—the hunger in his face when he saw the soup, the delight in the child, and the grief when looking at the dead woman. Of course, the shot of the actor was made years before the other shots and he never "saw" any of the items. The simple act of juxtaposing the shots in a sequence made the relationship.

History of film editing technology

Before the widespread use of non-linear editing systems, the initial editing of all films was done with a positive copy of the film negative called a film workprint (cutting copy in UK) by physically cutting and pasting together pieces of film, using a splicer and threading the film on a machine with a viewer such as a Moviola, or "flatbed" machine such as a K.-E.-M. or Steenbeck. Today, most films are edited digitally (on systems such as Avid or Final Cut Pro) and bypass the film positive workprint altogether. In the past, the use of a film positive (not the original negative) allowed the editor to do as much experimenting as he or she wished, without the risk of damaging the original.

When the film workprint had been cut to a satisfactory state, it was then used to make an edit decision list (EDL). The negative cutter referred to this list while processing the negative, splitting the shots into rolls, which were then contact printed to produce the final film print or answer print. Today, production companies have the option of bypassing negative cutting altogether. With the advent of digital intermediate ("DI"), the physical negative does not necessarily need to be physically cut and hot spliced together; rather the negative is optically scanned into computer(s) and a cut list is conformed by a DI editor.

Assistant Editors

Assistant editors aid the editor and director in collecting and organizing all the elements needed to edit the film. When editing is finished, they oversee the various lists and instructions necessary to put the film into its final form. Editors of large budget features will usually have a team of assistants working for them. The first assistant editor is in charge of this team, and may do a small bit of picture editing as well, if necessary. The other assistants will have set tasks, usually helping each other when necessary to complete the many time-sensitive tasks at hand. In addition, an apprentice editor may be on hand to help the assistants. An apprentice is usually someone who is learning the ropes of assisting.

Television shows typically have one assistant per editor. This assistant is responsible for every task required to bring the show to final form. Lower budget features and documentaries will also commonly have only one assistant.

The organizational aspects job could best be compared to database management. When a film is shot, every piece of picture or sound is coded with numbers and timecode. It is the assistant's job to keep track of these numbers in a database, which, in non-linear editing, is linked to the computer program. The editor and director cut the film using digital copies of the original film and sound, commonly referred to as an "offline" edit. When the cut is finished, it is the assistant's job to bring the film or television show "online". They create lists and instructions that tell the picture and sound finishers how to put the edit back together with the high quality original elements. Assistant editing can be seen as a career path to eventually becoming an editor. Many assistants, however, do not choose to pursue advancement to editor, and are very happy at the assistant level, working long and rewarding careers on many films and television shows.

Women in film editing

In the early years of film, editing was considered a technical job; editors were expected to "cut out the bad bits" (Avent, 74) and string the film together. Indeed, when the Motion Picture Editors Guild was formed, they chose to be "below the line," that is, not a creative guild, but a technical one. This was very helpful to women. Women were not usually able to break in to the "creative" positions; directors, cinematographers, producers, and executives were almost always men. Editing afforded creative women a place to assert their mark on the film making process. Many film editors were women, for example Anne Bauchens, Margaret Booth, Adrienne Fazan, Eda Warren, and Blanche Sewell. Although not the majority today, women are still part of the field of working editors.

Credit controversies

One current controversy is that assistant editors are increasingly responsible for planning, managing, and checking the visual effects of a feature film, yet cannot receive credit for it. Technically, this task is assigned to a visual effects editor. However, many mid and low-level films will save money by putting the responsibility on the assistant editor, an idea that makes great sense since the assistant is closest to the footage and the cut. However, the Motion Picture Editors Guild does not allow assistants to receive more than one credit, so they never get credit for the vast amount of visual effects management that they do. (Unless, of course, they give up their assistant credit.)

Another controversy is that although assistants and other editorial staff work on the picture from the first day of shooting to the last day of mixing, they appear almost at the end of the credit roll. They may be on the film for a year or more, yet be placed way behind someone else who worked on the set for a day. The reason for this placement goes back to the early days of film. For much of film's history, credit rolls were not as long as they are now. The tradition established was to list persons in order that they contributed to the film. But about thirty years ago, credit rolls began to grow greatly in length. They may last up to ten minutes now. Assistants appear chronologically in the post-production section, about eight minutes in to such a roll. By contrast, a set PA, who may have worked only for a short time, would appear in the production section, about four minutes in. Picture editors, who have front end credit (at the head of the film or head of the credit roll) are not affected. Recently, the Motion Picture Editors Guild issued a letter to producers, asking that they move their editorial staffs up the credit roll. Owing to strong traditions in studio film policy, and habit, not many features have volunteered to move their editing staffs up.


Editor's cut

There are several editing stages and the editor's cut is the first. An editor's cut (sometimes referred to as the "Assembly edit" or "Rough cut") is normally the first pass of what the final film will be when it reaches picture lock. The film editor usually starts working while principal photography starts. Likely, prior to cutting, the editor and director will have seen and/or discussed "dailies" (raw footage shot each day) as shooting progresses. Screening dailies gives the editor a ballpark idea of the director's intentions. Because it is the first pass, the editor's cut might be longer than the final film. The editor continues to refine the cut while shooting continues, and often the entire editing process goes on for many months and sometimes more than a year, depending on the film.

Director's cut

When shooting is finished, the director can then turn his full attention to collaborating with the editor and further refining the cut of the film. This is the time that is set aside where the film editor's first cut is molded to fit the director's vision. In the United Statesmarker, under DGAmarker rules, directors receive a minimum of ten weeks after completion of principal photography to prepare their first cut.

While collaborating on what is referred to as the "director's cut", the director and the editor go over the entire movie with a fine-tooth comb; scenes and shots are re-ordered, removed, shortened and otherwise tweaked. Often it is discovered that there are plot holes, missing shots or even missing segments which might require that new scenes be filmed. Because of this time working closely and collaborating - a period that is normally far longer, and far more intimately involved, than the entire production and filming - most directors and editors form a unique artistic bond.

Final cut

Often after the director has had his chance to oversee a cut, the subsequent cuts are supervised by one or more producers, who represent the production company and/or movie studio. There have been several conflicts in the past between the director and the studio, sometimes leading to the use of the "Alan Smithee" credit signifying when a director no longer wants to be associated with the final release.

Emotional versus Physical continuity

Continuity is a film term that suggest that a series of shots should be physically continuous, as if the camera simply changed angles in the course of a single event. For instance, if in one shot a beer glass is empty, it should not be full in the next shot. Live coverage of a sporting event would be an example of footage that is very continuous. Since the live operators are cutting from one live feed to another, the physical action of the shots matches very closely. Many people regard inconsistencies in continuity as mistakes, and often the editor is blamed. In film, however, continuity is very nearly last on a film editor's list of important things to maintain.

Technically, continuity is the responsibility of the script supervisor and film director, who are together responsible for preserving continuity and preventing errors from take to take and shot to shot. The script supervisor, who sits next to the director during shooting, keeps the physical continuity of the edit in mind as shots are set up. He is the editor's watchman. If shots are taken out of sequence, as is often the case, he will be alert to make sure that beer glass is in the appropriate state. The editor utilizes the script supervisor's notes during post-production to log and keep track of the vast amounts of footage and takes that a director might shoot.

However, to most editors what is more important than continuity is the editing of emotional and storytelling aspects of any given film - something that is much more abstract and harder to judge. (Which is why films often take much longer to edit than to shoot.) Emotional continuity, and the clarity of storytelling always take precedence over "technicalities". In fact, very often something that is physically discontinuous will be completely unnoticeable if the emotional rhythm of the scene "feels" right. If you were to slow down scenes from many of your favorite movies, you could easily find many minuscule physical differences from one cut to the next, which are completely hidden by the course of the emotional events.

However, if a continuity error is glaring enough (as in the case of the beer glass), and the edit is emotionally necessary, the editor may try to order a visual effect to fix the problem. Such an effect is not "cheating" or unnecessary. As a rule, anything that distracts from the storytelling is worthy of elimination.

A good example of a continuity error is in the film Braveheart with Mel Gibson. In one of the battle scenes you see William Wallace (Mel Gibson) and his army of Scottish rebels charging into battle with the English. At one moment, you see him with no weapon. Then you see him with his claymore in hand. Then again he has no weapon. Then a pick axe. And when he finally closes in on the enemy, you see him draw his claymore from his back. This often goes unnoticed by audiences and it does not cause any real problems. The whole idea of this scene is to show the rebels fiercely charging into battle, and this small error in no way harms that idea.

Methods of montage

In motion picture terminology, a montage (from the French for "putting together" or "assembly") is a film editing technique.

There are at least three senses of the term:
  1. In French film practice, "montage" has its literal French meaning and simply identifies editing.
  2. In Soviet filmmaking of the 1920s, "montage" was a method of juxtaposing shots to derive new meaning that did not exist in either shot alone.
  3. In classical Hollywood cinema, a "montage sequence" is a short segment in a film in which narrative information is presented in a condensed fashion. This is the most common meaning among laymen.

Soviet montage

Lev Kuleshov was among the very first to theorize about the relatively young medium of the cinema in the 1920s. For him, the unique essence of the cinema — that which could be duplicated in no other medium — is editing. He argues that editing a film is like constructing a building. Brick-by-brick (shot-by-shot) the building (film) is erected. His often-cited Kuleshov Experiment established that montage can lead the viewer to reach certain conclusions about the action in a film. Montage works because viewers infer meaning based on context.

Although, strictly speaking, U.S. film director D.W. Griffith was not part of the montage school, he was one of the early proponents of the power of editing — mastering cross-cutting to show parallel action in different locations, and codifying film grammar in other ways as well. Griffith's work in the teens was highly regarded by Kuleshov and other Soviet filmmakers and greatly influenced their understanding of editing.

Sergei Eisenstein was briefly a student of Kuleshov's, but the two parted ways because they had different ideas of montage. Eisenstein regarded montage as a dialectical means of creating meaning. By contrasting unrelated shots he tried to provoke associations in the viewer, which were induced by shocks.

Montage sequence

A montage sequence consists of a series of short shots that are edited into a sequence to condense narrative. It is usually used to advance the story as a whole (often to suggest the passage of time), rather than to create symbolic meaning. In many cases, a song plays in the background to enhance the mood or reinforce the message being conveyed. Classic examples are the training montages in Sylvester Stallone's Rocky series of movies..

Continuity editing

What became known as the popular 'classical Hollywood' style of editing was developed by early European and American directors, in particular D.W. Griffith in his films such as The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. The classical style ensures temporal and spatial continuity as a way of advancing narrative, using such techniques as the 180 degree rule, Establishing shot, and Shot reverse shot.

Alternatives to continuity editing (Non-Traditional or Experimental)

Early Russian filmmakers such as Lev Kuleshov further explored and theorized about editing and its ideological nature. Sergei Eisenstein developed a system of editing that was unconcerned with the rules of the continuity system of classical Hollywood that he called Intellectual montage.

Alternatives to traditional editing were also the folly of early surrealist and dada filmmakers such as Luis Buñuel (director of the 1929 Un Chien Andalou) and René Clair (director of 1924's Entr'acte which starred famous dada artists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray). Both filmmakers, Clair and Buñuel, experimented with editing techniques long before what is referred to as "MTV style" editing.

The French New Wave filmmakers such as Jean Luc Godard and François Truffaut and their American counterparts such as Andy Warhol and John Cassavetes also pushed the limits of editing technique during the late 1950s and throughout the 1970s. French New Wave films and the non-narrative films of the 1960s used a carefree editing style and did not conform to the traditional editing etiquette of Hollywood films. Like its dada and surrealist predecessors, French New Wave editing often drew attention to itself by its lack of continuity, its demystifying self-reflexive nature (reminding the audience that they were watching a film), and by the overt use of jump cuts or the insertion of material not often related to any narrative.

Editing techniques

Stanley Kubrick noted that the editing process is the one phase of production that is truly unique to motion pictures. Every other aspect of film making originated in a different medium than film (photography, art direction, writing, sound recording), but editing is the one process that is unique to film. Kubrick was quoted as saying: "I love editing. I think I like it more than any other phase of film making. If I wanted to be frivolous, I might say that everything that precedes editing is merely a way of producing film to edit."

  • Edward Dmytryk stipulates seven "rules of cutting" that a good editor should follow:
    • "Rule 1: Never make a cut without a positive reason."
    • "Rule 2: When undecided about the exact frame to cut on, cut long rather than short."
    • "Rule 3: Whenever possible cut 'in movement'."
    • "Rule 4: The 'fresh' is preferable to the 'stale'."
    • "Rule 5: All scenes should begin and end with continuing action."
    • "Rule 6: Cut for proper values rather than proper 'matches'."
    • "Rule 7: Substance first—then form."
  • According to Walter Murch, when it comes to film editing, there are six main criteria for evaluating a cut or deciding where to cut. They are (in order of importance, most important first):
    • Emotion — Does the cut reflect what the editor believes the audience should be feeling at that moment?
    • Story — Does the cut advance the story?
    • Rhythm — Does the cut occur "at a moment that is rhythmically interesting and 'right'" (Murch, 18)?
    • Eye-trace — Does the cut pay respect to "the location and movement of the audience's focus of interest within the frame" (Murch, 18)?
    • Two-dimensional plane of the screen — Does the cut respect the 180 degree rule?
    • Three-dimensional space of action — Is the cut true to the physical/spatial relationships within the diegesis?

Murch assigned notional percentage values to each of the criteria. Emotion, with 51%, outweighed the combined value of all the other criteria.


  1. Arthur Knight, The Liveliest Art, Mentor Books, New American Library, 1957, p.25.
  2. Arthur Knight, The Liveliest Art, Mentor Books, New American Library, 1957, pp.72-73.
  3. Editors Guild Magazine - Columns - Union Made
  4. Walker, Alexander, Stanley Kubrick Directs, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.
  5. Dmytryk, Edward, On Film Editing, New York
  6. Dmytryk, p.23
  7. Dmytryk, p.27
  8. Dmytryk, p.37
  9. Dmytryk, p.38
  10. Dmytryk, p.44
  11. Dmytryk, p.145
  • Dmytryk, Edward. On Film Editing: An Introduction to the Art of Film Construction, Boston: Focal Press, 1984.
  • Morales, Morante, Luis Fernando (2000) Teoría y Práctica de la Edición en videoUniversidad de San Martin de Porres, Lima, Perú
  • Murch, Walter. In the Blink of an Eye: a Perspective on Film Editing, Silman-James Press, 2d rev. ed., 2001. ISBN 1-879505-62-2

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