Adobe Premiere. Final Cut. Avid. Everyone has their preferred editing software (for us here at Lens Head, it’s Premiere Pro). Regardless of what editing tools you like to use, editing is one of the most fun, satisfying, and essential stages in the production process. If, like us, you’re passionate about storytelling, then there’s no better feeling than watching the story take shape right before your eyes in the editing studio. Second only to the director, there is no other person who wields the power of story more than the editor.
Generally speaking, a sign of good editing is that you don’t really notice it (save for some notable exceptions, which we’ll look at soon). Bad editing, on the other hand, is hard to miss. Awkward cuts or shots that linger for too long can disrupt the flow of the story and become distracting. Playing loose with continuity or the 180-degree rule can be confusing. And don’t get me started on the flurry of rapid cuts that’ve become the norm in action movies. Talk about whiplash! Editing is like a jigsaw puzzle; you can try and jam together pieces that don’t fit, but when you fit the pieces together perfectly, it’s extremely satisfying. And discovering that perfect recipe is the best part.
Let’s look at some examples
You can manipulate editing for a variety of effects, ranging from dramatic to comedic. In The Godfather, cross-cutting juxtaposes the baptism of Michael Corleone’s godson with a montage of massacre and murder. In Psycho, Hitchcock famously spliced 52 cuts into a scene about a minute long to play up the shock-factor of Marion’s last shower. More recently, Christopher Nolan utilized clever editing in last year’s Dunkirk to link three parallel narratives, unifying the stories across three different timelines (and snagging the Academy Award for Best Editing). Here are two great examples of innovative and creative editing:
In this sequence from The Fifth Element, editor Sylvie Landra uses cross-cutting to join two scenes so seamlessly that they blend into one. In this scene, the evil Zorg has just completed a deal in which he was supposed to receive four sacred stones in return, but the heroes have hidden the stones away in a location known only to them. Here, the editing doesn’t simply cut, but bounces playfully back and forth in a call-and-response pattern. Landra interweaves one conversation across two totally different scenes. Her editing is snappy, creative, and uses the two scenes to complete one another, to the point where distant characters are actually answering each other’s questions as if they’re in the same room. That same year, Steven Spielberg utilized editing to comical effect in The Lost World:
In the Jurassic Park sequel, editor Michael Kahn abruptly cuts from a horrified mother to a shot of a yawning Jeff Goldblum. He is surrounded by palm trees and the sound of the girl’s screams blends seamlessly into the screech of train tracks because (surprise!) our pal Jeff is actually in a subway station. Here, the sudden cut immediately defuses the tension building around the little girl being menaced by dinosaurs with a brilliant “Wtf?” moment. In this case, the comical effect derives from the unexpectedness and lack of context. It’s a quirky editing moment where the randomness of it all quickly subverts the horror. (Plus, who is quirkier than Jeff Goldblum?) Editors can have a sense of humor, too.
Even when shooting, a good, forward-thinking director will always be editing in his mind. That way, when the editor sits down with the footage, his work is already cut (pun 100% intended) out for him. Unlike principal photography, where the pressure is on, time is money, and many things are out of your hands, post-production is relatively low-pressure. This is why I personally love editing—you have more freedom of control. Compared to the hustle and bustle of shooting, in editing you can take your time to get a feel for the footage, find that natural rhythm, and start piecing together the puzzle. It can actually be quite therapeutic and relaxing.
As we’ve seen from the earlier examples, there are a lot of ways to get creative with editing. If you are just starting out and looking to learn editing techniques for yourself, my best piece of advice is this—YouTube is your friend. Whether it’s something as simple as panning from right to left, if you want to make it look like it’s raining using After Effects, or you need a crash course in color correction, there will be a YouTube video for you. I managed to teach myself to use Premiere Pro this way and, speaking from experience, I was able to find practically any skill I needed to know on YouTube.
Editing is like surgery and you are the surgeon, stitching together all of the elements that will give the narrative its shape. So settle in with a nice cup of coffee or tea or beer (we don’t encourage drunk editing), load up your editing program, roll up your sleeves, and make some magic happen. Because seeing the story unfold right at your fingertips is a joyous thing and, for a storyteller, there’s no feeling more empowering.