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Film Editing Principles

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 1/26/2011

Here is a look at important principles that will drive your film editing process.

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    Since the Beginning

    Film editing, the form by which films are actually constructed, has relied on similar principles ever since the motion media was first developed. These film editing principles still guide most film editing decisions as they are used to create film forms that can be interpreted and enjoyed by audiences. Though it is a creative art form, film editing still runs with these base principles that are pretty much common to most film editing situations. Here is a look at some of the most important film editing principles that will remain somewhat consistent for editors.

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    Establishing the geography of your story space is going to stand out as one of the most important film editing principles as you have to communicate an often artificial world to your audience. This is not easy to achieve and will require you pairing a lot of different shots from your coverage, often starting with a master or establishing shot. This will have to then be matched with medium and close up shots, allowing your characters to get a correct position in relation to each other. Presenting the scene so that it makes visual sense to the audience is one of the most important things you can do, but you will also have to have input on the production side to make sure that these choices are supported there as well. This going to be especially important for continuity editing, as well as focusing on the 180 degree rule and avoiding jump cuts.

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    Cutting Choices

    Making cuts is the basis on which film editing is built, but they should only happen when they are properly motivated. Over editing, meaning focusing on too many cuts that are unmotivated, can distract the audience and destroy the scenes that have been built up.

    Likewise, making the choice to cut between different clips needs to be at appropriate moments in the scene. This means that switching between characters should be motivated by a change in the focus, meaning something like a character speaking or performing an important action. The cuts should only be made in these situations and otherwise the clips should be allowed to play so that what is produced can be seen.

    If the cutting choices are not directly in the service of presenting a clear scene they can still be included, as long as they are motivated. Though this may not be in line with the film editing principles of classical continuity editing. Instead, the cutting choices should be based around creating an energy, aesthetic, or other purpose, as long as that purpose is explicit.

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    Going Back

    The most important film editing principle to follow is not just around how you cut the film, but how you actually approach the editing process. When you are editing you have to make sure to take several passes at it as it is impossible to complete your project in one sitting. The reason is that editing deals with a series of moments, individual cuts, and isolated pieces of media. You have to focus on it piece by piece until it is finished, but that does not allow you to see it as a whole. You need to take a step back and see how the whole scene is coming across. How is it flowing? Does the scene maintain the emotion and information that it is supposed to have? How are the lines appearing? All of these questions should build the way, you then go back and make changes to the work you have already done. The content of the scene will always take precedence over the technical choices you make, so you are often going to have to redo what you have done so that you can really bring out the essence of the scene.