🎬 Editing Theory

A brief history of editing.


  • Cut: Changing from one shot to another
  • Rough Cut or Assembly Edit: You’ll usually hear an “Assembly Edit” referred to as the very first pass at editing a film. Then, a “rough cut” or “editor’s cut” might refer to the version shown by an editor to the director before the latter has given input. There’s no final music or special effects (though there is often ‘temp’ music and effects) shared with client for approval before the time-consuming process of perfecting the edit and generating a “fine cut” begins.
  • Picture Lock: Picture shouldn’t change after this point. The edit is “locked”.
  • J Cut: The audio precedes the picture cut creating a “split edit”
  • L Cut: The audio follows the picture cut creating a “split edit”
  • Shot reverse shot: Alternating shots of two characters talking between each other, often times “over the shoulder”.
  • Continuity Editing: Shots are cut together in a clear and linear flow of action. This type of cutting seeks to maintain a continuous sense of time and space.
  • Jump Cut: An abrupt cut that creates a lack of continuity between shots by leaving out parts of the action.
  • Continuity Error: When the action or elements of a scene don’t match across shots. For example, when a character breaks a glass window but in a later shot the window is shown undamaged.
  • Cross Cutting: Technique used to give the illusion that two story lines of action are happening at the same time by rapidly cutting back and forth between them.
  • Cutaway: The interruption of a continuously filmed action with a shot that’s peripherally related to the principal action.
  • Establishing Shot: A shot that gives viewers an idea of where the scene is taking place. These usually involve a shot from a long distance, such as a bird’s eye view.
  • Eyeline Match: A technique based on the idea that viewers want to see what on-screen characters are seeing. For example, if a character is looking intently at an off-screen object, the following shot will be of that object.
  • Fade: A visual effect used to indicate a change in place and time. This involves a gradual brightening as a shot opens or a gradual darkening as the shot goes black or to another color. Sound also fades in and out to convey the change.
  • Matched Cut: A cut joining two shots with matching compositional elements. This helps to establish strong continuity of action. One of the more notable examples of this technique is from a famous scene in β€œ2001: A Space Odyssey.”
  • Montage: A sequence of shots assembled in juxtaposition of one another to create an emotional impact, condense a story, or convey an idea. A famous example is β€œPsycho’s” shower scene.
  • Roll: Graphics or text that moves up or down the screen. This technique is typically used for credits by having text move from bottom to top.
  • Sequence Shot or “The one take”: A long take composed of one shot that extends for an entire scene or sequence. Usually requires complex camera movements and action. Here is a notable example from GoodFellas. (This isn’t a term that is particularly important for an editor to know.)

Walter MurchIn the Blink of an Eye – Notes from the book β€’ Perspective on ratios:Apocalypse Now had nearly a 100:1 shooting ratio (1.25 million feet of film). 1.5 cuts per day were made on average in editorial. Walter uses it as an example that editing is not a process of cutting, but of finding the film. And he’s talking about narrative editing. Helicopter attack on “Charlie’s Point” from Apocalypse Now. 8,000 feet of fim per take (1k feet =11 minutes so an 8-camera shoot I assume).β€’ Hitchcock’s “Rope” tries to show a lack of editing (10 scenes).p.8 – Displace a bumbelee hive a few inches and the bees are fine. Displace it a couple miles and they’re fine because they know to reorient. But, displace it a few yards and they can’t find the hive. They just hover where it’s supposed to be (previously) and sometimes die. Make cuts distinctive.β€’ p. 8 Ancient Egyptian art looks funny–each body part done in the most obviously representative angle we’d associate with it (shoulders aren’t oriented same way as profiled heads). But don’t we do the same thing in film? Getting every angle from its ideal spot and then splicing it together? Will this one day look as comical as what the Egyptians did?  β€’ p. 15- Always try to do the most with the least. Suggestion is more effective than exposition. Start with the minimum you need in music composition, sound design, editing, art, life, production design, etc. What MOST tells the story. Start there and see how it works.

6 criteria of an ideal cut:

  • 1) True to the emotion of the moment (51%)
  • 2) Advances the story (23%)
  • 3) Occurs at a moment of rhythmic interest that is “right” (10%)
  • 4) Eye-trace or audience’s focus on the frame and where it moves to/from (7%)
  • 5) Two-dimensional plane of screen (3D to 2D universe anomalies. 180ΒΊ rule)(5%)
  • 6) Three-dimensional space of action (Are things physically matching where they’re supposed to be in 3D space between the two shots)(4%)

Film school often emphasizes these in nearly the reverse order.

That said, this is a great video on looking at how little continuity matters.

Blinks = Cuts. We don’t pan from one thing to another when we look in the real world.62- We blink once we “get” the idea of what someone is saying. We need the visual clues for understanding so our eyes stay open.65 – He never goes frame-by-frame to select an out point. He marks it in realtime intuitively.SurplusGet rid of “surplus” or “Beyond the frame” information. An editor wasn’t on set and often doesn’t have this so he picks what truly makes the edit make sense. A director comes loaded with this and forgets the audience has no clue what happened outside the frame. Directors would do well to take a good break before entering post according to Walter. Argument: I can logistically do a quicker cut immediately after shooting everything because I edit in my head as we go (at least on short form projects). Doesn’t work on longer projects. Dragnet example of waiting for dialog before cutting. You’ll love it. Techp. xi: 1995 was the last year where number of films edited mechanically equalled those edited digitally.

Cut on action

  • Dmytryk – On Film Editing:
  • “The Overlap”. Leave about 4 frames of overlap between the same action across the edit. The brain needs about that many frames to catch up and provide  an apparently smooth edit.
  • Values “Cut for proper values rather than for proper matches.”You’d be surprised how often a cut doesn’t objectively match but if it’s cut on motion and the idea of what’s happening trumps “perfection” then it reads better. Remember, the audience is into the drama of the story. Similar to Murch’s Ideal Cut Criteria.
  • Dialog is Quick You can usually edit dialog to be very fast-paced. We know about what the end of a sentence is going to be since we get the gist before it ends. So we’re usually responding or somehow interjecting before the line is over. Don’t bore your audience; stay ahead, rather than behind, them.
  • Another Overlap: No need to cut picture and sound at the same moment.
  • “The kitchen stove” refers to the random cutaway that saves your edit; the B-roll shot that hides the continuity or pacing problem you have. 
  • Some things are difficult to judge the effectiveness of in the edit. For example, sound effects make fight scenes credible. 
  • Viewers are most attentive during silent sequences.
  • Editing is the process of pairing down to what’s essential. You’ll have to get rid of stuff you really really liked.


  • Apocalypse Now (Valkyries scene) Link
  • Editorial Style:
  • Dragnet (obvious edit points) Link
  • Movie Trailer Template   Link

Editors on set?

Editors don’t have the “fresh eyes” they once had.SMITH: During production, my hours are kind of insane. And when the films can afford it and it’s reasonable, I often like take an extra day working each week. If it’s a five day shooting week during production, I try to insist on a sixth day as part of the plan. I want to be able to make myself available if costume has a question; if production design needs something; if I’m wanted on set. I am serving the needs of the second unit. I certainly spend a lot of time with them, so I tend to go in very early to do screening and then I stay late at night to do the actual cutting because during the day you run around and you don’t have that focused train of thought. And then I try to get that extra day when it’s allowed so that I can really do the actual real cutting.So I go in super early and just start screening. I won’t cut because the assistants haven’t prepped the material. I just take what the lab has processed and I start screening and taking in those images for the first time.HULLFISH: So since the assistants haven’t done anything at that point, are you just taking notes on paper? Are you doing locaters? Or are you just literally letting it wash over you?SMITH: Well the thing is I have a great team, and on Poppins, it’s a pretty big team. They can get through that material pretty fast, so I can watch it, then deal with whatever the set needs are for part of the morning and then I can sit down and cut before I forget what I’ve seen.


Thoughts on organization and continuity