Learn the Basics of Film Editing

Think of a feature film as a sports car. If the screenwriter is the person who built the car, the actor is the person driving it, and the director is the person telling them where to go. But, the film editor is the master mechanic who keeps it functioning perfectly at all times. Film editors do a lot more than just rearrange shots in chronological order. To be a successful film editor, you must be a "big picture" thinker. You need to be able to take hours of raw footage and whittle it down to its bare essentials, while at the same time organizing it in a way that maintains intention and deepens effect. When an editor is functioning at the top of their game, you barely even realize they exist at all. Yet precision, intelligent editing can make or break even the shortest online video – taking an immersive, enjoyable experience and turning into an absolute chore to sit through. 

Film editors use hardware-based non-linear editing systems like Avid, and software-based solutions like Final Cut Pro to take what starts as a collection of disparate elements and turn it into a much larger, more integral whole. Yet at the same time, a film editor is also something of a master surgeon. If there was a mistake during the filmmaking process, the savvy editor knows how to hide it. If a particular moment needs to be exceptionally funny or heart-breakingly dramatic, a film editor knows how to rearrange shots to drive emphasis and maximize impact. There's a reason why film editing has its own category at the Academy Awards. 

However, ALL filmmaking is a collaborative medium – no matter how large or small the production. As a film editor, you need to be able to work closely with other strong, creative personalities. You need to be able to communicate, must be willing to make compromises and must know how to passionately argue for creative decisions that you believe in; without stepping on the toes of writers, producers, directors, actors, and more.


Learn Formal Concepts & Techniques of Film Editing

There are a number of important concepts that filmmakers will rely on in order to assemble footage into the best possible version of itself. By and large, editors must develop a systematic framework to help determine what to show, when to show it, what order to show multiple events in, and in what order. In many ways, they rely on design methods that are very similar to other visual, creative professions. They will need to think about deliberation, rationalization, reasoning and more. As filmmaking is a subjective experience (like all art), they will also need to be try multiple variations of the same basic act in order to identify the strongest possible outcome. 

One of the most important of these fundamental concepts that a lot of 21st century film editing is based on, is called the Kuleshov Experiment. Lev Kuleshov, a filmmaker from the Soviet Union, theorized that juxtaposition played a more important role in emotion than anyone had realized up to that point. He cut a stoic shot of an actor's face with three different objects – a plate of soup, a girl in a coffin, and a pretty girl on a couch. What he uncovered was that viewers projected emotion onto the face of the actor depending on which shot they had just viewed. People who viewed the soup and then the actor said the actor was hungry. People who viewed the girl in the coffin and then viewed the actor said the actor was sad. 

Though this is not the only theory that film editing is based, it remains one of the most important. How shots are arranged in sequence can change everything from the emotion to the impact of the sequence as a whole. Likewise, the length of shots can impact pace. Film editors must understand theories like these to better know HOW to execute something based on what the original intention was, and the effect that the creative team is trying to achieve.


Build a Strong Portfolio

In an era that is now long past, film editing (and many arts-based roles) were treated very much like a trade. You went to school (in this case, film school), got an education, obtained an entry-level position and worked your way up under someone's guidance. These days, things have changed. Thanks to the digital revolution and how affordable film and editing equipment has become, it's easier than ever to make an impact on your own terms. Consumer-grade cameras now offer professional results, and non-linear video editing software comes as a standard feature on most new computers. 

Film school is still an incredibly efficient way to get access to the type of professional-grade material you would likely be unable to buy on your own. If you are having a difficult time producing your own work, this is one option you may want to explore. Likewise, you may choose to take the funds you would have spent on film school and put them into mounting your own production. Both options are equally valid. 

While film schools like Columbia, NYU, and USC offer a great way to obtain industry connections, they are no longer the only way. Many documentary filmmakers, for example, have built careers by teaming with local creatives, producing quality work and putting it on the Internet to be discovered. Networking is certainly easier if you're at a film school surrounded by like-minded individuals on the same career path, but thanks to the Internet and directories like IMDB Pro, it's may now be just as easy to produce your own work and get it in front of the right people by skipping this process entirely. 

In the end, the only thing that matters is the quality of the work you can show someone. Whether you created that work on your own or in the context of a film school does not matter. A degree from NYU will help get you a job, but a fantastically-edited short film likely will. 

Depending on the types of industry connections you make, there is no telling where your career might take you. Even if you don't want to work in Hollywood editing film and television, every organization that has some type of video production needs an accomplished film editor at their side. This can include talent agencies, marketing firms, television stations, and more. Freelance work is also always a strong possibility due to the limited nature that most video production entails.

Get to Know Our Experts

Shane Ross

  • Title:
    Freelance Editor
  • Company:
  • Where:
    Los Angeles, CA
  • Experience:
    19 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I got my start a LOOOOOONG time ago when I was 10. I saw the making of The Empire Strikes Back and got inspired. I borrowed a video camera, gathered my stuffed animals and shot an animated sci-fi movie, and a couple sequels. OK, that really isn’t where I started, but that’s where I got the filmmaking bug.I landed my first production job when I went to college. I was attending Montana State University when I got a job at a production company run by one of the professors. It was for a subsidiary of the local PBS station…Native Voices. It was a company that specifically reached out to Native American filmmakers, which I am. I’m a Salish descendent of the Flathead tribe from Northwestern Montana. While at this company, I did all sorts of jobs, from grant writing to videography, to field audio recording, to directing. It really rounded out my production experience. And it’s what lead to my career in documentary filmmaking. Also while attending MSU, I worked for another professor on a series of documentaries for the Discovery Channel.

    When I graduated, I moved to Phoenix to be with my soon-to-be wife as she finished college. While there, I worked at Apple computer doing tech support. I did this for a year and, while you might think ‘how on earth does this pertain to your career,’ well… it does. While on that job, I was trying to find production work in town, without much luck. Not much to be had, and it is a very tight knit community. I did some production assistant work for a company on a couple commercials, but that’s it.

    When I tried to get work as a videographer, I kept getting asked for my reel (a sample of my work). I had many tapes, but potential employers wanted select scenes all on one tape. But back then getting access to editing equipment was not easy. It was very expensive and rare. Well, I noticed that the company I worked for as a PA had a computer editing system called Avid Media Composer. I asked if I could book a day on it in exchange for work days as a PA. The office manager asked, ‘Oh, you know how to use that?’ Then said that a Hollywood feature was being shot locally, and production was looking for a local hire as the apprentice editor…and that person needed to have Avid experience. (They happened to be the office for production in Phoenix, the hub of people looking for work.)

    So I landed an interview and headed out to the location. I was interviewing with the producer and he said ‘Well, you have many skills that the others who came in had, but not the experience. What can you do that the others can’t?’ As if on cue, the director’s assistant came into the room, interrupting the interview process, and dropped her laptop onto his desk. ‘This is broken! It can’t do anything I need done. It’s always freezing and applications are quitting. I need you to fix this right now!’ ‘I’m in the middle of an interview’ he replied. But she didn’t care. Now, this is where the part about me having the job in tech support comes in. That laptop was one of the first Apple Powerbooks. So I spoke up. ‘Uhm, mind if I have a look? I currently work for Apple in tech support.’

    I fixed the computer in 5 minutes and landed the job. Because not only was the office full of Apple computers, but the edit systems were on Apple computers as well. This movie was Oliver Stone’s U-Turn. And you think that would have launched me down the path of feature film editing. But alas, no- The editor who liked me (there were two) moved to Seattle. The other didn’t like me, so I didn’t move on with him or the company. Ah well.

    My wife graduated, and we moved to Los Angeles. While there, I landed a job at a company that did Fox specials (When Animals Attack!) as the vault manager. A college friend got me the interview, but again, my computer skills came into play. They needed someone to create a database for all their stock footage as the current system existed only in the head of the producer. I took the database skills I learned on U-Turn, and created a tape database using Filemaker Pro. I also networked all the computers in the office so they could send files back and forth. Again, a company full of Apple computers.

    Ok, from there I moved up to being the vault manager at America’s Funniest Home Videos. They needed someone to take their aging database and make it all shiny and new, which I did. While there, I did a little assistant editing on a couple pilots, as they had a couple Avid editing systems.

    Then I moved on to Production Coordinator at a company that did History Channel shows, FOX Family Channel shows, A CBS special or two, and three HBO Behind the Scenes, This involved scheduling, and some assistant editing…and on more than one occasion, completely tearing down an Avid system and rebuilding it. I thought I was technical before. Nope. This topped that. While at this company, I was taught how to use their tape to tape online system (ancient as hell, but still used), and taught to “online” shows. What that entailed was taking all the low resolution “offline quality” footage, recapturing it at full resolution, and then color correcting it. Also, I needed to properly time out shows.

    From there I bounced around. I assisted on a TV pilot for FOX that didn’t get picked up, onlining shows for MTV, Discovery Channel, History, Showtime and then assisted on Judge Judy for 6 months, until I was fired (Well deserved, I slacked off too much, but also hated the job. Still, one should never slack off.).

    From there, I moved to a Disney Channel show called Even Stevens as the assistant editor. I got that job because when I was taking a class to learn the Avid better (when I was working at America’s Funniest Home Videos), I was partnered with an editor and we really got along. Well, his assistant finally moved on and so he contacted me, and hired me on the spot.

    While on this show, I was taught how to edit. I would be able to sit in as the editors cut and to see their process. Both editors (the show had two editors) had very different cutting styles. And after watching for a bit, they would hand me scenes to cut. Well, one would leave early because he considered himself a lazy editor (which is wrong, he was a very GOOD and FAST editor- got scenes cut quickly). He would leave early and hand me scenes to cut. Then give me notes, and let me address them. Then, when screening the cuts to the director, would state, ‘My assistant cut three scenes. Guess which ones?’ Yes, they would be able to guess. But they’d give me notes too. The other editor also directed, so he’d be on set for a full week. That gave me a week to edit on his machine, and I’d get a lot of scenes done. He would also give me notes, but would be in such a hurry after missing a week that he’d just fix the scenes himself. Still, I learned a lot.

    After that show ended we did another Disney Channel Pilot, and then another series, That’s So Raven. I assisted on that for a year before I suddenly got calls to edit. Five in one week! An editor I worked with kept referring me to companies. So I took the leap into the edit chair on a show for VH1 called Super Secret Movie Rules. I lasted all of a week on the show before I and 6 other editors were let go. The show wasn’t turning out how the network wanted, and we caught the blame. So there I was, high and dry, without a job. But only for two days. I was then hired by an editor who I used to online for. Now he was a producer and needed help on two shows he was producing for the SciFi Network (before it was SyFy) called Rage Against the Machine (about how machines were taking over our lives). I stayed at that production company for 2 years, cutting various Discovery Channel shows and History Channel shows, and I also worked at a company down the street doing more substantial History Channel shows.

    Then the company I assisted for on Even Stevens and That’s So Raven started a narrative kids’ show for Nickelodeon, and I rallied for an editor spot. Because they knew me and my work, they hired me. It was a short-lived series, but a fun one… Just 4 Kicks.

    After the show ended I went back to documentary work. I cut a couple shows from my home and have since bounced from company to company, working on various documentaries and reality shows, both onlining (color correcting) and creative cutting. I’m currently at a production company editing various History Channel shows, including the popular Curse of Oak Island, which is a hybrid doc and reality series.

    I like creative input I get on reality shows. While we do have scripts, we don’t need to stick to them as much as one does with scripted narrative shows. We can re-arrange things completely, cut things, add others. I get more creative input than other show types. And I work alone, meaning I’m left to my own devices. I don’t have someone sitting over my shoulder. I cut in solitude. I do my work, show it, get notes, and get back to my work. And I like that I can jump from creative cutting to the more technical color correction and online editing. Gives my brain a break from the norm.

    I also like the fact that I work on a variety of show types. From scripted shows to documentary shows, to reality, to show pitches. I haven’t been pigeon holed into one category. This also means that I’m constantly learning and constantly developing new and creative editing techniques. Not only flashy transitions, but better ways to tell a story. I think that the reality shows that I cut really benefit from the fact that I have cut lots of documentaries, and some of the reality scene work benefits from the fact that I cut scripted narrative, and I know that seeing people’s reactions to what is being said is very impactful.

    I really like that I learn new things. Working on documentaries is very educational. For example, did you know that the United States invaded Mexico during the Mexican American War? And that we conquered Mexico City? But we didn’t keep them. It was all just so President Polk could force Mexico to sell us the southwest states for half what he originally asked.

    I dislike the hours. I work 10 hours a day, five days a week, sometimes six. And sometimes I’m required to work late, so my days can get to be 12-14 hours long, because editing takes time and shows I work on have lots of footage to sort through. It often takes me 4 weeks for the rough cut on a documentary. Longer on a reality show if there is lots and lots of footage. So yes, the long hours of staring at a computer monitor –alone. That’s what I dislike.


    Make a demo reel

    Well, the one thing that was very often asked for after I left college was a ‘demo reel,’ a sample of your work. That’s not something they told us to make when we were at school, when we had the resources to do so. Because editing equipment back then was very expensive. It’s relatively cheap now, so that isn’t much of an issue. So yeah, make a demo reel.

    Work on passion projects

    And, on that note, work on passion projects for free and learn your craft. Don’t work for free on projects that someone will use to earn a buck, but short films and docs that are passion projects. Work on those. Learn your mistakes early. Learn the craft early. This also allows you to add something to your reel. I know an editor who did lots of free stuff that lead to a body of work that landed him a web series, then a cable series, and now he’s cutting network TV shows.

    Your reputation is important

    One thing that is very important is your reputation. Not only in skill level and creative and technical knowledge, but also personally –how well you get along with others. So always be on your best behavior, professionally and personally. Be easy to get along with. And never ever lie about skills you have. If you don’t know how to use Photoshop, don’t say you do. Your reputation follows you. And this business is smaller than you think. We are always asked by employers for recommendations for people to work on shows, and we always recommend people we like working with, who are also skilled at what they do. If someone has a reputation for behaving badly or lying about their skill level, they won’t get recommended nor hired.


    Network, and by that I mean just meet and talk to other editors, other people in your field. Just knowing someone and being personable can get you your first big break. An editor and I got along together very well in an editing class, and that lead to him hiring me to be his assistant. Another time I had a great conversation with an editor at a union get together, and he recommended me to someone else as a possible assistant. But it did take me a while to figure this out.

    Watch things you want to work on

    Here’s a good one: Watch a LOT of movies and TV, things you are wanting to work on. And watching bad movies and TV shows are just as good as watching good shows, if not better. When a show is good, it’s tough to pin down just why it is good. What formula makes it work so well? You might be able to figure that out. But when you watch a BAD movie, you know right away why it’s bad. And that in turn helps you know what NOT to do. But yes, watch lots of movies and TV. It’s called “research,” and it is a valid tax deduction for those in our industry. Yup, your movie stubs and cable bill are tax deductable. As is Netflix. It’s all research.

    Getting experience

    Work on as many projects as you can. This was also mentioned above, working for free. This is the best way to get experience. Work on a paid job so you can get by. But working weekends and nights on projects while you are young and don’t have a family that demands your spare time is a good thing. The more experience you get, the better. Make all your mistakes when it’s a small free project, not when it’s an expensive movie, or TV show, in front of professionals who’ll judge you.

    Make your own films

    Make your own films. Partner with other passionate people who also want to make films. Who knows which one of them will break into the big time and want to bring you along. Even working on lower budget films that pay little is a good thing. An editor I worked with was doing a very low budget feature for free and needed some graphics work done. I had just figured out how to use After Effects when making a gag reel for a TV show we were on, so he asked if I would do it. I agreed. Now, the producer on that movie ended up working on a larger budget Hollywood feature, with a name director, although one with a lower than normal budget. And they needed a news report with news ticker and LIVE and the whole package. Because they didn’t have a big budget, they thought of me. I was paid pretty well and got my work in a feature. I also solved a few problems on the set, and that helped my reputation and lead to future work in that area.

    You’ll most likely start at the bottom

    Know that you will most likely start at the bottom, as a production assistant, or runner, or working in reception. A lot of skills are learned on the job in a lower level position. Sure, you made a film or two, but that doesn’t mean you know how things are actually done on the set or in the edit room. So starting on the bottom will show you a ground-up view of how things are done. I was an apprentice editor, vault manager, and post coordinator before I became an assistant editor. And everything I learned in those lower levels I applied later on. Heck, when you are a production assistant driving across town all day long making deliveries, you learn the town, find the shortcuts, the bad spots.

    Be nice, and be friendly

    Talk to a lot of people and just be nice and friendly. Being nice and friendly gets you remembered, and if someone needs a PA or post assistant, they will think of you. Don’t be afraid to ask if they might need a PA on a project they are on. Go to events like user group meetings (LACPUG has a monthly meeting, and Alpha Dogs post does as well. Both are Los Angeles based). There are groups on Twitter and Facebook that have Pub Nights on occasion; stuff like that. Get to know people. I recall when I was first in the union and added to the roster, I asked how they helped me look for work. They don’t.

    Make sure you like what you do

    Enjoy what you do. This industry requires a lot of hours. Ten hours a day on average, up to 16 or more on the set and in the edit room. So loving what you do helps deal with these hours. But yes, enjoy yourself. This is a very fun, and challenging, industry to be in.

    Greg Ball

  • Title:
  • Company:
    Ball Media Innovations, Inc.
  • Where:
    Pembroke Pines, FL
  • Experience:
    33 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I attended the University of Connecticut with a major in Communications and a specialized major in Video Production. Upon graduation, I worked as a sales engineer for a company (Burns Integrated Systems) that designed TV studios for networks, corporations, and educational facilities. After that, I worked as a producer/director/editor for Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance. We produced and edited videos for training, public relations and marketing purposes. We also shot and edited motivational videos that were used at annual conventions for the company.After Phoenix Mutual, I worked for Burger King Corporation as a manager of Global Video Communications. We produced and edited restaurant training programs, corporate communications videos, convention videos, and marketing videos. We also edited B-roll packages and video news releases. After Burger King, I started Ball Media Innovations, Inc. We’re a full service video production and post-production company.

    What I enjoy most is the creative process, taking video footage and editing it together to tell a story. There’s nothing more satisfying than spending days or weeks working on a concept, adding the footage, creating effects, inserting voice and music, and seeing the final result. It’s very exciting.

    What I dislike is running the business side of what I do. Writing proposals and creative treatments, getting the client to agree with your plan, taking care of the paper work associated with a project and the managing of our website.


    You have to meet people

    One thing I wish I had known was the importance of meeting successful production people in different areas of the business. That includes movies and television, broadcasting, and corporate video. It’s always an advantage to find someone who can guide you, or even mentor you. Had I done that, I may have chosen a different path.

    Watch lots of TV, movies, etc.

    I suggest you watch lots of TV, movies, etc. Watch them, and observe the way they are edited. Do this with old classic films and newer films. Try turning the sound off and just take note of how one shot is cut and joined to the next shot. Observe the use of wide establishing shots, and how they are combined with close-ups, medium shots, and moving shots. I suggest that you try to edit the scenes of a movie together using a different story line, and see if you can tell a story using just the footage. It is also a good idea to find a production company or editor and ask if you can just sit in and watch them edit. Ask if you can assist them. Perhaps you can log footage for them, research stock footage, find them appropriate music, etc. Learn as much as you can from others. And, edit videos for others for no fee. In getting experience, develop your own style, and create a demo reel with your best editing. Then contact companies and ask them if you can show them your demo reel.

    Do anything you can for a production company

    Start by doing anything for a production company. That means moving equipment, taking production notes, logging shots, taping down cables, sweeping the floor, etc. You need to keep your ears open and learn everything you can while on set. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but always understand that most people will be under pressure to meet difficult deadlines, so keep questions to a minimum during the production. But be sure to ask questions during breaks.

    Dylan Greiss

  • Title:
    Freelance Editor
  • Company:
  • Where:
    Cresskill, NJ
  • Experience:
    2 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I developed an interest in a photography/video course in high school and then attended Emerson College, majoring in Film Production. I soon realized that film school did not offer the connections or tools that I was hoping to get in order to start a career in film editing, so I attended a 6-week course at The Edit Center in New York, where I honed my craft and built connections to work on feature films. I now continue to work as a freelance assistant editor at The Edit Center.I developed an interest in a photography/video course in high school and then attended Emerson College, majoring in Film Production.

    Film editing comes with lots of perks. I get to work closely with the director of films and go to private screening events, but at the end of the day the most rewarding aspect of the job is creating something with my personal stamp embedded in it. Editing is like putting together a puzzle, but you get to choose the pieces. An editor often works with hours of footage for each scene, and the average scene is no more than two minutes in length. It’s the editor’s job to pick the best two minutes from all of the footage that was filmed. The final film reflects your decisions and compels the audience to see situations the way that you see them.

    Unfortunately, all of that work can go unnoticed and unappreciated, as not many people have an understanding of what film editing is. It’s easy to observe the choices that were made by the editor, but nearly impossible to judge those choices without having seen all of the other footage that the editor had to work with. So, my favorite part of the job comes bundled with knowing that, often, an audience will not see the hard work that was put into piecing together the film.

    I wish I had a higher appreciation for story and how editing can highlight different aspects of a story. An example of this is deciding which character to show during a line in a conversation, informing the audience who is most important in that moment. The person on screen is whom the audience relates with. The icing on the cake is then deciding how to show them. A close up will make the audience relate with the character’s emotion, while a wider shot suggests distance.


    Don’t lose focus

    It’s easy to get wrapped up in the technicality of film editing. The program itself (I use Final Cut Pro 7.) takes years to master, and letting this get to you can make the more important things, like story, fall by the wayside. Imagine writing a paper on Microsoft Word. You can focus on the formatting of the paper and the grammar, but in the end, it’s what you write that matters.

    Practice all the time

    I highly suggest that you practice all the time with whatever you can! Today we all have access to cheap video cameras and even cell phones. Shoot a film and experiment with different ways of editing it together. Don’t expect the film to be amazing – it’s the practice that counts! If you can, take a film editing course. I took a 6-week course at The Edit Center in New York and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I got to practice editing on real big-budget films while learning from some of the best in the industry.

    If you can’t take a course, get yourself a film editing program, like Final Cut Pro 7 or Avid Media Composer, and just play around with it until you feel comfortable. There are fantastic forums like Creative Cow that will answer all questions that you have!

    Do your research!

    Do your research! Look at some films that you enjoy and pay attention to the edit points, meaning whenever the shot changes. It can be from one subject to another, or from one angle of a subject to another angle of the same subject. Pay attention to why the editor may have made the decisions he made, and always relate those decisions back to the film’s story.

    Film Editor Infographic