The basics of video editing

Editing refers to the process of creating the ultimate meaning of the shot material through:

  1. Selecting which shots to use
  2. Altering the length, speed or visual look (such as colour or aspect ratio) of the shots
  3. Organising the material in a certain order and juxtaposing shots with other shots
  4. Juxtaposing the shots with layers of sound, text, motion graphics, etc.

In short, editing is a process of both cutting “out” – leaving some shot material unused – and cutting “in”, that is, assembling a meaningful whole of pieces of material that in themselves do not yet carry the same meaning(s) as the whole. Usually, editing succeeds shooting or otherwise acquiring the material. Nevertheless, the planning phase of editing – how we want to assemble the material and why – should be present before the camera starts rolling.

Throughout the history of filmmaking, two distinct traditions of editing have evolved: continuity editing and montage.

Continuity editing is a common style in both television and film narration. It aims to establish a time continuum, which is as unbroken as possible in the story. The desired result looks like it simply shows things happening. The viewer can peacefully focus on the content as the events slide in and out gently and fluently across different cuts.

It [continuity editing] aims to establish a time continuum, which is as unbroken as possible in the story.

Continuity editing is the most-used editing style, especially in Hollywood and Western commercial cinema, so it is also sometimes referred to as the Hollywood edit.

Continuity editing cuts that follow each other should always differ to a large enough degree in shot size and/or camera angle. When the object of the shot remains the same, cutting to only a slightly different framing makes the image seems to jump.

Example of a too big a jump in continuity editing.

A suitable jump in a continuity edit is two to three steps into wider or narrower framings. This same principle applies to varying the camera angle, and can be summarised as the 30-degrees rule: no edit should join two shots whose camera viewpoints are less than 30 degrees from one another. At the other extreme, it is also not a good idea to cut from very wide to close-up or the other way around because it confuses the viewer, unless confusion is the desired effect.

Additionally, in continuity editing movement should follow movement and still image still, but the type of movement may vary. It is common to cut from tilting to tilting or panning and so forth. A good way to film is to start from a static camera then move the camera from one still point to the next, keep it still for a few seconds and only then stop the recording. In the editing phase, this gives more possibilities of using the shot, as it can also be combined with static camera shots when used as a whole.

It is good to keep in mind that trajectories should be finished in the narrative. The match-on-action technique can preserve temporal continuity where there is motion or change in the image. Match-on-action is when some action occurring before the cut is picked up by the cut left by the shot immediately following.

For example, if a person is lifting a cup of coffee in order to take a sip in the first image, match-on-action would be to cut in the middle of the movement of the hand to more or less the same point of trajectory, but from another shot size or camera angle.

If, however, the person is lifting the cup in the first image, in it should not be cut into an image where, for example, the cup is again on the table leaving the task unfinished. This would also create a jump in the image, which continuous editing aims to avoid.

The axis is an imaginary line that helps placing the cameras without risking problems in continuity. It is sometimes also referred to as the 180 degrees rule.

When changing the location of the camera, it is worth considering the so-called axis. This imaginary line travels through two important points close to the camera. When all shots in a scene are done from one side of the axis, the directions of people’s gazes and object movements remain consistent. If movement is suddenly shown from the opposite side of the axis, the object seems to travel in the opposite direction to what it would have done if it had been shot from the opposite side of the axis.

If a person crosses the axis, the crossing should be shown to the viewer. If the crossing is not shown, the viewer is easily confused about the orientation of the shot, producing an end result, which looks and feels illogical.

An example of successive images, in which the the axis is not taken into account. In the previous image the stone is seen thrown towards left. In the following image we see the same stone appearing from the left. As a result the viewer is confused. Is this the same stone? Or are the stones flying from all directions.

If the continuity is broken at some point, the narrative is fractured, which draws the attention of the viewer to the form of the story.

If scenes are not shot in chronological order, the continuity across shots and scenes must be taken into account. It is good to have a person at the scene, whose task is to make notes of the details of every scene, such as the locations of objects like water glasses and the clothing of the performers, in order for the whole to remain consistent. Usually this is done by the script supervisor.

If the continuity is broken at some point, the narrative is fractured, which draws the attention of the viewer to the form of the story. When this is done deliberately, it can be very effective.

Montage  – an artistic editing style

Montage is an editing theory developed by the Russian film theorist Sergei Eisenstein. A montage consists of a series of images or shots, and the meaning and chain of events of the movie are born of their joint effect. Montage can be seen as the cinematic equivalent of a collage. Its main premise is that bringing two or several images together through the means of editing creates meaning that is not found in any of the used images alone.

The cinematic experiments of Eisenstein’s contemporary Lev Kuleshov illustrate this. Kuleshov did experiments in which he researched the way people constructed stories and wholes of the consecutive shots they saw on the silver screen. In his best-known example, the same expression on a male actor’s face is interpreted very differently when it is juxtaposed with a plate of food, a child lying in a casket or a female actress.

In addition to Eisenstein and Kuleshov, the theory of montage was developed further by Dziga Vertov, Esfir Shub and Vsevolod Pudovkin, most prominently in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. The techniques of montage are used widely in art cinema and video art, but also in music videos and commercials.

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This article was updated on January 10th 2020.