Film Editing Education: Rules (or Guidelines)

Picture by Beatrice Murch

Picture by Beatrice Murch

“I want to be an Editor!” I remember my young self saying those words proudly on my first day of Film School. It might have been because of the fascination I had towards the equipment (I had the unusual chance to experience tape-to-tape editing during my childhood and the rise of ‘affordable’ NLE’s created an entire new world for me to explore). It might have been the appeal of a quieter environment, when compared to the busy life on set.  Or, I’d like to believe, I was already aware that editing is an excellent directing school (but clearly, I was not). I wanted to learn how to be an editor and that was probably what encouraged me to embark on the strange train of Film Education.  I was to discover that too many editing lectures seemed designed for monkeys and not for aspiring artists/storytellers.

The majority of my “Film Editing Education” revolved around learning hardware and software operation. I agree that sometimes it is important to know how to ‘hold a pen before learning how to write’ but eventually one realises that hardware and softwares are usually shipped with their own ‘schools’: user manuals. Of course, the concept of in and out points, the ripple, roll and slide tools, and a variety of other software related concept can be valuable in the accelerated context of a school. I also agree that to be employable, one needs to start with less glorious tasks, for example media management, and develop the speed of operation required to survive in some ‘sausage factories’. Yet, too often, software is taught ‘independently’ and not to support the ‘real’ task of being a narrative editor (or even to be an assistant editor).

Would you approach the editing of an action driven scene in the same way you would a dialogue driven one? Probably not. Learning how to edit takes time, and I believe a lot is learned through a trial and error system (thankfully the NLE facilitate this approach). There are two sets of rules (or guidelines) that are easily digested and can be quickly shared to the aspiring editor. The two men guiding my early steps: Murch and Dmytryk.

Inside In the Blink of an Eye film editing legend Walter Murch outlines 6 editing rules.

1) Emotion – Does the cut reflect what the editor believes the audience should be feeling at that moment? Is it emotionally true to the story and character arc?

2) Story – Does the cut advance the story?

3) Rhythm – Does the cut occur at a moment that is rhythmically interesting and ‘right’?

4) Eye-trace – Does the cut pay respect to the location and movement of the audience’s focus of interest within the frame?

5) 2-Dimensional place – Is the cut true to the 2D representation of the film world?

6) 3-Dimensional space – Is the cut true to the physical/spatial relationships within the diegesis?

If you have to compromise on one of these aspects (and you probably will have to) always start from the bottom of the list. Emotion, story and rhythm are far more important than continuity. (Strange how many editing courses and lectures mainly concentrate on the bottom of the list)

Listen to the man himself:

In On Film Editing: An Introduction to the Art of Film Construction, Edward Dmytryk presents a set of rules, or guidelines, concerning film editing.

1. Never make a cut without a positive reason  “The only reason for using another cut is to improve the scene.” Edit points are governed by anything other than the drive to improve what the scene intends to communicate to the audience.

2. Whenever possible cut ‘in movement’  “Creating a ‘diversion’ of sorts … is also the principle at work in the action cut.” The goal is seamless, invisible, “magical” editing. This is not possible without the greatest command of timing: timing that comes from an understanding of human perception and eye movement.

3. The fresh is preferable to the stale  “In art, the obvious is a sin.” Dmytryk suggests that if frames must be added between shots, do so at the beginning of a fresh, new shot so that the viewer accepts the lingering frames as part of exposition for a new angle or shot.

4. All scenes should begin and end with continuing action “Subconsciously suggest to the viewer that he is seeing a fragment of continuing life, not a staged scene with a visible framework.” In other words, enter after it started leave before it finishes.

5. Cut for proper values rather than proper matches. “The film’s dramatic requirements should always take precedence over the mere aesthetics of editing.” Continuity is not the most important aspect of editing.

6. Substance first – then Form “Technical skill counts for nothing if it is used only to manufacture films which have little to do with humanity.”

More on Dmytryk Rules of Cutting:

If you are currently studying Filmmaking and find yourself too often locked in a dark room learning software my advice is: run! Or, take advantage of the situation to edit as much as possible. Remember, “Film editing is now something almost everyone can do at a simple level and enjoy it, but to take it to a higher level requires the same dedication and persistence that any art form does” I tend to often agree with Mr Murch.  It’s not about the keys you press and how fast you can get to 1000 cuts, it is about a decision process designed to guide and influence the experience of an audience. Editing is an Art.

6 responses to “Film Editing Education: Rules (or Guidelines)

  1. Pingback: 12 Rules Of Editing Every Filmmaker Must Know About - Jamuura Blog·

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  3. Pingback: A Director Prepares: Visual Script Breakdown - Jamuura Blog·

  4. Pingback: Continuity: Lines, Beats and Crossings | w(a/o)ndering filmmaking·

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