Film Editing Techniques: A Beginner’s Guide

Written by: Yuri
Credit: Adobe

What is Editing in Film?

Editing is, essentially, what allows you to organize the pieces of your film in a way that conveys information in the exact atmosphere, timing and structure that you see fit.

As you would imagine, it’s an extremely important part of the filmmaking process, and it’s essential for editors to be acquainted with all of the main editing techniques that are available to them, so they can know just the right maneuver to pull at the right moment.

Great editing can sometimes really redeem a movie and compensate other not-so-great competences of the picture. It’s a powerful tool once you master it and every person involved in the movie making business should at least be aware of the basics of the area.

The Red Carpet Rookies team decided to list some of the most important (and most used) film editing techniques out there. So, pay attention and absorb some crucial information about the editing world, so you can apply it to your next film and make it technically great! 

Shot Reverse Shot

Credit: The Wolf of Wall Street. Dir by Martin Scorsese. 2013. Paramount Pictures.

This technique is simply when two characters are having a dialog in the same room and the cuts keep transitioning between similar angles (usually medium shots or close-up shots) of the two characters. 

When Character 1 is in the shot, usually Character 2 doesn’t appear at all or is presented by some part of his shoulder or head. The small presence of Character 2 within the shot of Character 1 is usually meant to convey a feeling of entrapment or violation that Character 1 is supposed to be going through at the moment. 

This type of editing technique is great to convey a sense of fluidity and continuity. It creates the feeling that those 2 characters are within that same space and across each other having a conversation, even if the director is filming those angles separately and with different camera setups.

Remind yourself that, sometimes, the actor that plays “Character 2” may not even be present in the physical space across from the actor playing “Character 1” when “Character 1” is the one being filmed. However, editing magic makes it seem like they’re definitely both in that same room at the same time having a conversation.

Video example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnZx-rfIgwY

Montage

Credit: Up. Dir by Pete Docter. 2009. Pixar.

A montage is a video editing technique that features a series of short shots that usually don’t happen in the same space. However, they can happen at the same time, providing a sense of build-up and suspense before a big occurrence in the narrative.

They can also happen with big spaces of time between every shot, to expose the development of a character’s (or characters’) situation in a certain environment.

A classic example of a montage is that one in the beginning of the movie “Up”, which is basically its own movie. You can say most of the people that’ve watched the film refer to this scene when talking about it. And in all fairness, it’s a really well executed montage.

The story of the cute little old man Carl and his wife is told right in the beginning of the film without even a word being said in the whole montage. But the audience understands everything they need to know about the character just with the images by themselves.

Some directors that really enjoy working with montages in their films are Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson. “Goodfellas” and “Boogie Nights” are both movies that are full of awesomely edited and beautifully executed montages that could surely teach you something or two about the process.

Video example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2bk_9T482g

Cuts:

Fade

Credit: Fade out

Fade ins and fade outs were way more popular back then. However, they’re still used with a respectable frequency until this day and can surely be useful when placed in the appropriate time.

First of all, a fade in means that we start with a black screen that slowly reveals itself into a well formed image. It’s usually used in the beginning of a film or after a fade out or cut to black. 

And a fade out it’s just the exact opposite of the fade in. Instead of starting with a black screen, you first have a formed image that slowly transforms into a black screen. Fade outs are usually utilized to end a movie or to give an idea that a long time will pass between the fade out and the next shot presented in the film.

Fades usually transmit an overall vibe of calmness or serenity. That’s why you’ll hardly ever see a frenetic action movie using fade ins or fade outs, ‘cause they simply don't make a really good match. 

Video example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ibOfpr2g5k

Iris Shot

Credit: The Magnificent Ambersons. Dir by Orson Welles. 1942. Columbia Pictures.

The iris shot is a technique that was used a lot back in the silent film era. And just like the fades, they are also divided in two categories.

In an iris in shot, you start off seeing an image through a circle then expands to reveal the full image.

And in an iris out shot when you start off with a full image that then becomes a tiny circle, surrounded by black, that tends to show something important inside of it. Iris out shots are typically used to end a movie emphasizing the protagonists or important objects.

Video example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqDhAW3TDR8

J Cut

It’s when the audio from a following scene overlaps the scenes being shown previously to it. Its purpose is, on many occasions, to do some exposition

It can serve, essentially, as a momentary narration to the story, even if the movie didn’t had any up until that point. Or can serve as just a simple and quick introduction to the next scene coming up through a small audio sample of it.

It’s also used constantly in trailers, where editors tend to work on top of an expository line from a character in the movie, which they use as a sort of narration of the main key elements of the narrative or to describe the characteristics of important characters.

Video example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHlWwjnal0g

L Cut

It’s when audio of one shot carries over to the upcoming shot. It creates the feeling of extension or dragging to a scene and can provide many purposes to the transition.

The extended audio can somehow dialog in an interesting way with the next scene or even serve as an introduction to a dream sequence or flashback scene.

It can also serve to make a dialog scene seem more fluid and natural, with lines extending themselves from one shot to the other.

Video example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyH-a964kAs

Jump Cut

It’s a type of cut that generates an abrupt transition between one shot and the other. It usually happens at an “unusual” moment, like in the middle of a sentence or action being taken by a character.

It’s usually created by removing the middle portion of one shot and splicing up together the two remaining parts. That creates the feeling that the shot somehow “jumped” in time, since there’s a portion of it missing. 

This type of editing technique can be used to convey a sense of adrenaline, impulsiveness, repetition or even to add comedic effect to a certain situation.

It certainly can also be used to give scenes a more dreamy vibe, by disrupting the concrete and continuous perspective of time that we are generally used to in movies.

Video example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fcRj0SXYh8

Match Cut

Credit: Grease. Dir by Randal Kleiser. 1978. Paramount Pictures.

It’s a cut that makes a transition with obvious reference between the first shot and the upcoming one. Those references can be presented through graphic, movement, or sound.

It’s a really on-the-nose thing that even more unlearned people in movies can notice as a type of transition that isn’t typical, and gives out a really “look at how cool this is” vibe.

It naturally works with a more comedic and playful effect with the images being displayed, but it can certainly fit more dramatical purposes as well.

Video example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vrnJMJM8dA 

Wipe

It’s a transition where one shot replaces the previous shot by travelling from one side of the screen to the other.

This type of shot is rarely used nowadays, as it’s mostly seen as a kinda tacky editing technique now. However, it used to be much more popular. 

You probably saw these types of transitions in a little franchise called Star Wars. The original George Lucas trilogy used wipe transitions, like, all the time. 

Video example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGqAu9gj_F0

Dissolve

The dissolve technique is when a gradual transition happens between one shot and the other, with the first shot slowly disappearing as the next shot slowly appears over it.

The dissolve usually lasts just a few seconds but an editor can certainly play around with the duration of it, extending it for a longer period, providing a more impactful and evident purpose to the transition.

A dissolve is used to link two scenes together in a more substantial level, as opposed to a normal cut. It can tie two shots together in a beautiful way, creating a significant connection between them or even providing a more dreamlike atmosphere to the scene.

Video example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Lg-JZzWQuc

Establishing Shot

Credit: Skyfall. Dir by Sam Mendes. 2012. Sony Pictures.

This kind of shot has the purpose of providing geographical information without any dialog. It sets up the context of where characters are and probably where some action will take place. They are, most of the time, wide shots and often come in the beginning of the film.

Depending on the context or information provided by previous shots, an establishing shot can be quite the revealing maneuver by the filmmakers, providing crucial information without a single word being said.

Cutting on Action

Is simply when an action by a character continues from a shot to the next one. It provides a sense of fluidity and continuity between two different shots that were filmed separately. 

It is very often used in action movies but it can be used in basically any kind of film. Usually, any editor out there uses this at least one or two times in a film.

Video example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5PzQYwN5eNw

Cutting From a Still Shot to a Moving Shot

You’re usually told that cutting from a still shot to a moving shot (or vice-versa) is a big no-no. And, yeah, most of the time doing this provides an odd feeling to the person watching the film, that detects a certain non-fluidity to the scene.

But that doesn't mean you should never do it. There are particular moments for it.

For example, in the movie “Goodfellas”, when Henry Hill senses that a police helicopter is chasing him, the camera is constantly transitioning between moving shots of him driving his car and of the helicopter moving in the sky.

The scene provides a sense of urgency and paranoia and this particular transition that Scorsese (and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker) keep doing reflects both the confused mental state of the character and the sense of being chased by something that will certainly get you at some point.

In these types of adrenalina-driven or paranoia scenes, such transitions could be adequate. But the use of it in more “relaxed” settings is often discouraged.

Video example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EIX4EvXWe1Y

Cutting to Music

Music cues can be used in uncountable occasions in film. It can be used to start off a film, ending it, transitioning from one act to the next one, etc.

Cutting to music has the obvious purpose of conveying particular emotions to the audience. It often dialogs directly with the atmosphere of the scene, seeking to intensify characters’ emotions and thoughts.

It can also be used as a comedic effect or ironically, when you utilize a song that doesn't reference that moment in the film in a way you would initially expect it.  

Just practice in filmmaking (and editing) can really improve your abilities in picking the right songs for your films and placing them in the right moments. 

It’s often advised, when picking songs, that you should not pick a song that’s too on-the-nose. Like, a song that practically describes what a character is going through in the lyrics. That’s kind of patronizing with your audience. Unless, of course, you’re doing a musical. In that case, you’re good.

Ready to start?

Wanna start learning to edit and put some of these techniques to use? We got your back!

You can check out our article on the best film editing softwares available on the market here

p.s. If you're looking to get into editing or simply just a movie fan, you'll enjoy our podcast interview with Oscar nominated District 9 and Deadpool Editor, Julian Clarke.