How to Edit - Part 3: The Edit Itself

Written by Peter Haas

RedShark/ShutterstockHow to edit part 3

RedShark Replay: Part three of our series on How to Edit gets to the heart of the matter and looks at how to approach the edit itself.


Rough Cutting

The rough cut is where you begin applying cinematic language, such as montage, music, sound effects, etc., to build a stronger movie. This is probably the longest phase of cutting your film. Some would argue (or joke) that your film is a “rough cut” until you deliver the final product!

Before you dive in, the first thing you'll want to do is make a copy of your assembly edit. In LightWorks go to the viewer monitor and press “Make A Copy.” A new copy of your edit will appear on the desktop area. Open up that copy and re-name it “MyFilmTitle (Assembly Edit).” You can now tuck that edit away somewhere in case you ever need to go back and reference it.

Now, back to work on your edit It is difficult to provide exact “how-to” notes here because every film is unique and director's vision is different. These are the sort of details that are beyond the scope of this article, but I suggest you check out some books about the language of cinema and editing (see suggested reading section) to give you ideas on how you might approach putting your film together.

Here are some general helpful tips based on my experience:

The rough cut is also where you want to start revising the structure of your film to make sure that the story is clear and concise, as well as correct in timing. You should be as clear as possible about information in the beginning and end of your film. The audience needs to feel like there are able to access your story and at the end need to understand that the story has come to a conclusion. The middle reels of the film are where you get to put the “sweet stuff,” the memorable, epics moments of a film. There are many roads to doing these things, experiment! Have fun!

Thing about the basics: who, what, where, why, when, and how of your story. The answers to these things can be subtle (but not too subtle!) and should take the first reel / reel and half of your film to answer. You are right to reject tightly imposed structure, but all things have to have a beginning, middle and an end. It helps to create these things if your audience has an understanding of who's involved and what they are doing.

Find a way to build up your character's personalities, add gravitas to the situation(s) at hand. Remember that showing is always better than telling. If you can portray something through visuals and sound, rather than having something outright spoken, do it. You're audience will thank you.

Simply plopping down gorgeous 4K footage in front of the audience isn't going to get people interested in the film's story, or at least not for long. Make sure you give them even the most tangental story to grasp to, something to keep them invested and interested.

When you're arranging your scenes, make sure you're giving information, building on the knowledge you've given the audience while at the same time raising new mysteries and questions in their minds

Cut in late, leave early. This is probably some of the most classic advice for editors I can think of. You want to make sure that your audience has context for the scene before them, but not too much context. It's an incredibly thin line between understanding and boredom!

Ignore certain external pressures. There are a lot of voices out there, professional and not. There are some worth listening to and others that should be ignored. Anyone who proclaims that you need to tell your story with a particular “language” or “style” because “that's the way it is” or “that's what is popular right now, it will get you sooo many internet hits!” is your most fiendish enemy. There is a mindful ear that must be put to the ground to gain an understanding of the latest trends, but this is merely for educational purposes. Poppy cutting and flashy edit effects of the day are the tricks of small minded, untalented, fear-filled advertising agencies and will grossly date your film and possibly insult your audience. That being said, if you can find a solid reason to use any of these ultra-modern methods, do so, but only if it adds to your story.

Not all feedback is bad! Filmmaking is one of the most complicated mediums, and one can be easily lost in the fray. After you've done a pass or two at the rough cut, you should find an individual or two who you can trust to give constructive feedback and show them your cut. The type of questions you should be asking are things like: “how does this make you feel?,” “is there anything that isn't clear?,” “are there any points in the film that you feel lost?,” “what is your favorite scene / character / moment? Why is that?” Always ask about what is and what isn't working, but avoid any detailed advice about how exactly to fix it. I say this because the fixes should be organic to the story and unless your note-giver is able to gain professional distance, they will be impressing their own vision and experience upon your film. You can try this, but ultimately the results may feel forced.

Ask yourself “Am I enjoying this?” This is more important than you think. Are you making a film that you would enjoy watching? Can you imagine yourself opening this video on Netflix? If not, ask yourself how you can make it entertaining to you.

Make sure to keep that notebook close at hand. You're going to be taking a lot of random notes about shots and timecodes, etc. I always keep a little section of my notebook called “Notes To Future Me.” This is my space for jotting down general revelations about the story (or filmmaking in general), and as a place to write down things I want to remember to do differently on the next film. Being reasonably self critical is part of the learning process, and every film should be part of a greater education towards the craft.

Finally, to paraphrase the Buddha: if any of these teachings are untrue for you, or prevent you from collecting a paycheck, ignore them.


Fine Cut

Fine cutting is the last “clean-up” stage of your edit. At this point you should be making only minor tweaks and changes. Watch your edit down, are there any final fixes you kept wanting to make still lingering about? Any shots to swap out? Frames to trim on a shot? Is the sound level and consistent? Do the edits feel clean and communicate what you hope to communicate? Is everyone's name spelled correctly in the credits?

After going over your film with a fine toothed comb, it's time to prepare the film for mastering. As a picture editor I rarely do my own color correction and sound mix. So the advice I'm most qualified to give here is how to prepare your edit for others to finish the detailed technical work.

Here is the standard operating procedure for preparing your film for mastering:

Before you do anything, create a copy of your edit!

Add a slate to the head of your edit. A slate is a title card that contains the title of your film, the date and total running time (TRT) of the edit.

Add a 2-Pop at the head and tail of your edit. This is the classic count-down leader: “8,7,6,5,4,3,2(BEEP!)...” This iconic image is really an important part of ensuring that everyone is sure that the film is in sync. If you don't have a frame accurate leader you can create a simple 2-Pop:Make a reference print /export of the film and lay it into your edit on it's own tracks.

Add two seconds of black slug leader after the slate and before the first frame of your edit. Add a one-frame color-bar effect. Under that color bar put one-frame of tone. When played back the color-bars and tone should like a sound-synced “pop.” Now do the same for the end of your film, but slighlty reversed. Add two seconds of black after the last frame of picture, and add the same color-bars and tone beep. You want to add another beep at the tail of the film just incase there is any shifting of audio mid-way through the film. With the tail 2-pop you can quickly see by how many frames the audio has become shifted out of sync and correct it.

Ensure your picture and sound tracks are consistent, if you've been lazy, clean it up!

If you are working with a sound mixer and finishing editor, get in touch with them and ask for a list of specifications they'll need to work on your film.

Typically you're going to create an OMF for the audio mixer. Ask your mixer how many frames of “handles” they want.

The sound mixer will also need a low-resolution export of the film with a timecode burn-in. Turn on the BIC settings on your edit and export a copy.

Depending on what your film will be finished on, the finishing editor / colorist could ask for any number of formats of your edit. Most likely they will be asking for an EDL (Edit Decision List), an XML, or AAF of the final edit. They will most likely also ask for handles of your media and might have other small requests you should ask them about.

Have a list of things to talk about your mixer and colorist with. They need as much direction just as any actor or other collaborator (the key word here is collaborator) on your film.  

Color Correction: The color, contrast and tones of your film are an important part of the cinematic language. Do you want to keep the current look of your film, or do you want to change particular elements of the look and feel to portray a different emotion? Do you want to add more golden colors to warm the image or inversely, add blues to cool it down? Should certain color footage be changed to black and white? Do you want to push the saturation of the image to make it more lush? How do these things add to your film's voice?

How do you want your film to sound. You probably have added a lot of music and sound effects to your film, but what do they add to your film? Your audio mixer might have additional idea on how to convey those themes and ideas you were looking to incorporate.

Where are you screening? This is important to know for many reasons. Partially your budget, it doesn't make sense to create a 6K master if you only plan to release your video on the internet. What you should do however is have an idea of where you would like for your film to show, and make a plan for creating a number of masters say, a 2K output for the movie theater, an HD / SD master for TV and DVD sales, and maybe a high quality HD video for the web. Regardless of your plans, talk with your finishing editor because they will need this information to help get the most out of your picture.


Final thoughts & suggested reading

Filmmaker Werner Herzog once gave me the best editing advice I have ever received:

“Too often you have films that are editing for two years or more. If you're doing this, you're editing too long and your film is lost. Edit like you are on death row. Edit with a deadline and work like on that very day you will be strapped to the gurney.”

A bit morbid, yes, but ultimately it's great advice. Editing is a craft and as with any craft discipline is required. Getting the work done is by far the most important thing. Any seasoned editor will tell you that endless contemplation, fear, and intellectualization of the process are your worst enemies. So be bold, move ahead and have fun while doing it!

One final note about NLE software. This article focuses a lot on EditShare's LightWorks editing software because I am primarily a LightWorks editor. I personally think it's the best platform out there, but I know there are a lot of options out there. As an editor you have to be versatile, knowing just one NLE isn't always enough to keep you employed full time. Luckily, all of the methods I discussed in this article are universal and will work in any editing software.

There where many subjects mentioned in this article that were too broad to discuss in any detail, or at least in any way to give them justice. Here is a list of some of the best books out there about editing and storytelling that I've found. If you have any other suggestions, I'd be interested in hearing about your favorite!

  • Arijon, Daniel. Grammar of the Film Language. New York: Hastings House, 1976. Print.
  • Bernard, Sheila Curran. Documentary Storytelling: Making Stronger and More Dramatic Nonfiction Films. Amsterdam: Focal, 2007. Print.
  • Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.
  • Dmytryk, Edward. On Film Editing: An Introduction to the Art of Film Construction. Boston: Focal, 1984. Print.
  • Earle, Eyvind. The Complete Graphics of Eyvind Earle. and Selected Poems, Drawings, and Writings by Eyvind Earle, 1991-2000. Monterey, CA: Eyvind Earle, 2001. Print.
  • Hollyn, Norman. The Film Editing Room Handbook: How to Tame the Chaos of the Editing Room. Berkeley, CA: Peachpit, 2010. Print.
  • Kern, Jonathan. Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2008. Print.
  • Moore, Alan, and Jacen Burrows. Alan Moore's Writing for Comics. Urbana, IL: Avatar, 2003. Print.
  • Murch, Walter. In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing. Los Angeles: Silman-James, 2001. Print.
  • Patrick, Brian Anse. The Ten Commandments of Propaganda. London: Arktos, 2013. Print.

Further Reading

How To Edit. Part 1: Preparation

How to Edit - Part 2: Ingest & Assemble

Tags: Post & VFX

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