Scene transitions, sudden sounds, quick cuts, off-screen voices, and narrative flow are just among the many terms associated with the “invisible art” known as film editing. Originally seen as a technical tool in the movie making process, film editing quickly evolved to become one of the most important creative aspects of filmmaking. But as its affectionate nickname implies, not everyone knows much about film editing or how it works. So what is film editing, what does a film editor do, where did it come from, and why is it so important?

Editing Definition FIlm

First, let's define editing in film

While the basic definition of film editing is straightforward, there is still a lot that goes into it. But to understand everything else involved in editing, such as the editors themselves and how they collaborate with others, you must understand the basic core answer to “what is film editing?”

FILM EDITING DEFINITION

What is film editing?

Film editing is the art and craft of cutting and assembling finished film. This work is done by a film editor who helps complete the director's vision of the movie. The creative choices of an editor are usually a combination of what they think is best for the film and what the director (and producers) want for the finished project. Mostly done during post-production, aspects of film editing can involve physical strips of celluloid film, digital files, or both.

What does a film editor do:

  • Cuts, splices, (re)arranges raw footage to create shots, scenes, and more.
  • Makes choices that affect the film’s pace, atmosphere, narrative, music, etc.
  • Works with the director and producers to make a final cut.

Editing Definition: Film History

All about film editing

In the beginning of film, there was no editing. It was a single shot, taken from a single static camera. The fascination with a "moving image" was enough and using the medium to tell fictional stories was still a few years away. Even then, film editing simply involved cutting from one scene to the next. 

It was only when the power of cinematic editing could do to support the storytelling that film editing became a valued process. Let's look back at those early days to see where and how the purpose of editing in film really bloomed.

How It Began

The history of film editing isn’t too fancy, but it does have an early evolution that helped bring it to where it is now. In the early cinema days of the 1890s, the purpose of editing in film was simply a matter of putting frames together to create scenes (back when movies were shorter than 5 or 10 minutes).

During this brief era, very few movies used what would be called “continuity editing,” which meant having continuous scenes strung together seamlessly. Famed French filmmaker Georges Méliès was also experimenting with editing as a visual effect during this time.

With the 1900s, narrative features, like The Great Train Robbery, proved that editing could create the cinematic illusion of time and space. With the power of editing, you could make it look as though a group of robbers have boarded a train and are on the run. So not only can you “trick” the audience into believing what’s happening on-screen, but you create a true narrative, too.

What is film editing history?  •  Editing definition film

Pretty soon after, more filmmakers experimented with the principles of film editing, with some aiming to prove powerful points with it. The Soviet Montage movement emerged in the 1910s and ‘20s, with filmmaker Lev Kuleshov pioneering his famous Kuleshov Experiment.

It involved juxtaposing footage of a man with a bowl of soup, a child in a coffin, and an alluring woman; it would show his unchanging face and cut to one of the three. The idea was, with the power of editing, you could make the audience believe the man had certain feelings towards any one of these scenes.

The Process

Editing film used to literally be a cut-and-paste process, involving splicing and glue by hand. Splicing was the way film editors made their edits, working with copies of negatives and creating workprints. Later on came what were known as “flatbed” machines that made cutting up and splicing film strips much easier, quicker, and precise.

Decades later, digital film editing technology helped make the editing process easier than ever, removing the need to touch the film at all. Once processed, the digitized film strip would be made into a file that the editor (and their assistants) could digitally touch at will on their computers.

Known as non-linear digital editing, this is the way virtually everyone edits their movies today. And if they’re shooting digitally, then that’s one less step they have to take.

What is film editing through the years?

Whether with a splicing machine or a computer, editors still have to compile their “editor’s cut” of a movie. These are often the vision of the film as seen and looked over exclusively by the editor, along with possible notes and such from the director. Later, the director and editor will work more closely together to make a “director’s cut.” This is then followed by a “producer’s cut” or “final cut,” which will include the producer’s input. It’s this “final cut” that, in theory, goes out as the final film.

The Role of Women

Throughout the years, the role of editor has very frequently gone to women. While it has always been difficult for women to break into the role of a director or producer, being an editor was a job women had an easier time getting. This is because, at first, editing was not seen as a “creative” position; rather, it was seen as a “technical” job.

After all, was the purpose of editing in film not simply to put together the scenes compiled by the filmmaker? As a result, there has always been a sizable number of women editors. While appearing to be limiting, they proved that the role of editor can be equally as creative and important to the overall creation of a motion picture.

Types of Film Editing

Editing techniques in film

All those years of editing and playing around with what you can do with it lead to many film editing techniques we use today. Some of these film editing examples are extremely common while others are used less often.

Continuity Editing

One of the earliest forms of editing, this technique simply ensures that things remain the same from shot to shot. If a person is in the middle of drinking from a cup in one shot, and they’re in the very next shot, they should still be drinking from it, or at least be holding onto it.

Editing techniques in film  •  Jacksfilms meta example

If there’s ever a goof in the continuity, that’s famously known as a continuity error. These are probably among the biggest mistakes that audience members will notice during the course of a movie. Even though it can be fun to point out, it can also take an audience out of a movie if it’s too noticeable or jarring. Thus, keeping continuity is one of the big principles of film editing.

Cross Cutting

Types of film editing  •  cross cutting 

Cross cutting is an editing technique that involves showing two or more separate actions by cutting back to them one at a time. This can create the illusion of them happening all at once, or have the scenes serve as parallels of one another (regardless of when each respective scene is happening).

Cutaway

Editing techniques in film  •  Cutaway shot examples 

A cutaway shot is an abrupt cut from one thing to another. As the name might imply, it is meant to cut away from one thing to bring attention to another. This editing technique can be used for virtually any purpose, from a horror scare to a comedic punchline. In many cases, it is used to provide irony to a scene or to unsettle the audience in some way.

Dissolve

Types of film editing  •  The dissolve

One of the most common editing techniques is the dissolve, which has been in use for an extremely long time. It can be described as having the visuals of one scene overlapping with the visuals of the incoming one. It can be used for various purposes, such as if you want the audience to ruminate on what just happened in one scene before entering the new one. It can also be used for creating parallels or comparisons between the coming and going scenes, or if you want to allude to the passing of time.

Fade

Fades are fairly similar to dissolves, but they serve a much different purpose. With a fade, either to white or (most often) black, a scene comes to an end. Unlike a traditional cut, a fade slowly ends a scene definitively. Fades, like dissolves, were very common in the early days of talkies and the pre-Code era of the 1920s and ‘30s, as well as post-Code Hollywood. These days, they’re a little less common, but still used in all genres.

J & L Cut

Editing techniques in film  •  J and L Cut

Cut from the same thread, a J and L cut use sound and imagery to capture the attention of the audience. A J cut is when audio from the next scene infiltrates the current scene before we get to see where the sound is coming from. An L cut is sort of the reverse; the sound from a preceding scene is still with us as we enter the next scene. It is often used in conversation scenes to keep things interesting and less stilted.

Jump Cut

Editing types in film  •  Jump cut examples

Popularized during the French New Wave, a jump cut is when there is no continuity between shots. They call them jump cuts because the shots seem to jump ahead in time during the same shot. This editing technique was mainly created to simply cut time off from a movie by eliminating needless seconds in a scene. However, it would soon become influential in the French New Wave scene and beyond.

Match Cut

Cinematic editing  •  Match cuts  •  Subscribe on YouTube

One of the more famous and popular editing techniques out there is the match cut. This is when a new scene carries over elements from the preceding scene. So if you have a scene of a donut in one shot, the very next scene could be of a bagel; same shape, different object. It could also be of a city skyline in the day, immediately cutting to that same skyline at night.

Montage

Montage is an interesting editing technique because it can mean different things depending on the context.

Editing types in film  •  Montage example

The most common understanding of a montage in film is when a movie puts together a series of shots and moments together into one scene. It’s pretty common in sports films where an athlete or team is training or preparing. Montages are also implied (or outright stated) to take place over a course of time; this makes the montage a compressed presentation of this time passing.

What is the basic building block of film editing?  •  Soviet montage theory

The other montage would be known as Soviet Montage (or Soviet montage theory), which came about during the 1920s. It exists primarily as a theory that encompasses many aspects related to filmmaking, audience expectations, and experience.

Shot/Reverse Shot

Cinematic editing   •  Subscribe on YouTube

It’s one of the most common editing techniques: shot/reverse shot. If there’s one editing technique (outside of a “cut”) that’s in almost anything, it’s this. Two people talking will almost always feature a shot/reverse shot, with a little bit of the 180 degree rule thrown in for balance. Two or more people don’t even have to be talking, as this technique can also be used to showcase reactions from one or more parties.

UP NEXT

Sound Editing vs Sound Mixing

Now that we’ve gone over “what is film editing”, what does a film editor do, and film editing terms, take a look at the audio focused side of post-production. We cover sound editing, tips, and examples, along with what differentiates from sound mixing.

Up Next: Sound Editing and Mixing →
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  • Rafael Abreu received his B.A. in English from Florida International University, along with certificates in Film Studies and Asian Studies. He’s written reviews, scripts, and analytical essays focusing on all aspects of cinema. He can’t stop talking about aspect ratios.

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