Editing 101 Part 3: The Basic Rules

Film Editing

Image: filmingilman

By Danny F. Santos (doddleNEWS)

Like everything in filmmaking, there are rules to editing a film that you need to know. Of course, as in filmmaking, these rules can be broken. But before we start breaking the rules, we have to first know what they are.

There is one rule, however, that can’t be broken and that has more to do with the nature of reality than editing theory: You can only cut the footage you have. An editor is entirely dependant on what has been shot, even if they need to go to a completely different scene and borrow a shot to complete an edit.

Coverage

Good directors usually come in two flavors: Those who cut in camera, and those who shoot coverage. A director who prefers to cut in camera has already planned out a specific edit for the film, but that leaves the editor with very little material to craft the story in post-production. A director who shoots for coverage tries to shoot as much material as possible to give flexibility to how a film will end up.

However, a great director will do both. They’ll have a specific vision for the film with specific shots, but will also shoot some coverage just in case. Going into the editing suite, be sure you understand how the film was shot.

Matching

This is the most basic element in making an edit: When you cut from one shot to another, they should match. If a character exits screen-right, then the next shot should be them entering from screen-left. This gives the impression of continuation because if the character enters the second shot screen-right, it’ll seem like they turned 180 degrees off screen.

The 180-Degree Rule (image: Wikipedia & grm_wnr)

The 180-Degree Rule (image: Wikipedia & grm_wnr)

Matching also means that when you cut from a medium shot to a close up, the elements in the shots should match. If a character is holding an empty glass in their right hand in one shot, then that glass better be in their right hand in the next shot.

You can also match-cut for impact. One of the most iconic match-cut is from 2001: A Space Odyssey when the bone is thrown up in the air, and then matched to a falling satellite in Earth orbit.

Motivation

Every edit should have a reason that your cutting from one shot to another. It’s not enough to just splice a bunch of random shots together for no reason. If a character turns their head to look at something, then the next logical cut is to reveal what the character is looking at. Then, the logical cut after that is to cut back to the character, and see their reaction.

Cut on Motion

The best time to make any cut is when something in frame is moving. Most editing should be invisible to the audience, so each scene flows. The best way to hide a cut is to edit when something in the frame moves. Let’s go back to the example from Motivation: As the character turns their head to look at something, the best time to cut to what has caught their attention, is just before they finish moving by a frame or so. This will rid you of any awkward pauses.

The Jump Cut

After reading everything in the previous few points, the next rule is to ignore them. Sometimes. Most films are edited in a way that flow naturally, and hide the edits, while a jump cut stands out because it breaks the rules. A jump cut is any jarring edit, and is designed to draw attention to itself.

If you think of it terms of writing, then a shot is a sentence is a period or a comma. A jump cut is a sentence made of capital letters with an exclamation mark on the end. No one wants to read an entire book composed of capital letters and exclamation marks, but when used in the proper context, it can provide a good jolt to the reader.

B-Roll

B-roll is everything that isn’t the main subject or elements in your scene. It’s primarily used for adding details to a scene, or to set the tone. It can even be used as an establishing shot, by revealing the overall details in a scene. The opening scene for Back to the Future is done this way, which reveals a tantalizing amount of information via clocks, a television, newspaper clippings, and gadgets.

Another use for B-roll is to fix small continuity errors. Sometimes there is no way to make an edit match and one of the most used work arounds is to cut to some B-roll. Let’s say your main subject is holding a glass in their right hand in a wide shot, but holding it in their left hand in their medium shot. If you cut from the wide shot, to a shot of a cat looking out the window, then cutting back to the character in the medium shot, will usually hide the fact that the glass has inexplicably switched hands.

The bottom line, however, is that you will always be at the mercy of what has been filmed. If the project you’re working on has a sizeable budget, then sometimes after a rough cut, the director will go back and shoot some pick-ups to fill any gaps in the film.

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Part 1 – Editing 101: The Art of Cutting – Where to Start
Part 2 – Editing 101: Pudovkin & Editing Theory

About Danny Santos

Freelance writer, filmmaker, actor, musician, and visual artist. Writing online professionally for 4-plus years and has produced and performed in over a dozen films and webseries. He has also been everything from a social media consultant to managing a JUNO award winning musician.