The Art of Editing

The most famous scene in film history?

PSYCHO by Alfred Hitchcock – 1960

The scene lasts 2mins 49 seconds.  170 seconds of screen time, the first shot lasts 8 seconds.  The two shots at the end showing the plughole crossfading into Janet Leigh’s eye are on screen for 49 seconds.  How many edits are there in the remaining 2 minutes of the scene?



“The film editor eliminates unwanted footage and joins the desired shots, the end of one, to the beginning of another.”

FILM ART AN INTRODUCTION by Bordwell & Thompson

You should know about this book and it’s authors


How do we decide what is unwanted?

You need a system

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Editing Terminology

Lets first look at the various ways a filmmaker may choose to join two shots together.

  • CUT


  • WIPE



Being versed in film language as we all are, we interpret those edits to mean different things.  For example Fade to Black followed by a Fade In is interpreted as a significant change in time or location of the story.

In joining two shots together, the filmmaker creates a relationship between those shots.  We can define this relationship in four ways:

  1. Graphic

  2. Rhythmic

  3. Temporal

  4. Spatial

You will later have the task of analysing an edited sequence of film.  Defining and understanding these four concepts, will help you to analyse film editing.

1. Graphic Relationship between shots

psycho 4 shots

The filmmaker may link shots by graphic similarities, thus making what we can call a graphic match.

– FILM ART AN INTRODUCTION by Bordwell & Thompson

Shapes, colours, composition or camera movements can all be utilised to effect a match.

2. Rhythmic Relationship between shots

A shot can appear on screen for 1/25th of a second or for the entirety of the film.

In general, by controlling editing rhythm, the filmmaker controls the amount of time we have to grasp and reflect on what we see.

– FILM ART AN INTRODUCTION by Bordwell & Thompson

janet leigh

In the Psycho shower scene the editing speeds up ramping up the pace of the sequence in line with the violence being portrayed.  The viewer is left no time to think about what they are seeing,  encouraging a more emotive response.  In this case one of shock, horror and disorientation.

The Bourne Identity – 2002


3. Temporal Relationship between shots

Where as rhythm deals with the pace of a scene or film, temporal relations are concerned with how the editing contributes to the plots manipulation of the story time.


DAVID by Sam Taylor-Wood – 2004

A 67 minute film played on a continuous loop showing David Beckham asleep, commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery.

Video art is not subject to the conventions of cinema, most moving image work we view displays action.  Non-action is a rare thing in western cinema.  The script is the main tool for manipulating story-plot relations, the general aim is to show only that which is relevant.  A sequence showing a woman doing her makeup would only be shown if it was considered relevant to the narrative or development of the character.  If it were relevant, the chances are that editing would be used to compress the screen time, editing can create a temporal ellipsis.

Elliptical editing presents an action in such a way that it consumes less time on the screen than it does in the story.

– FILM ART AN INTRODUCTION by Bordwell & Thompson

4. Spatial Relationship between shots

The final category of shot to shot relations deals with how the filmmaker constructs the film space.

There are conventions to editing that we abide by and must be aware of during shooting in order to keep our audience on board.  The 180 degree rule.

180 degree rule

Another convention is the Point of View shot.  A character is shown looking off camera, cut to a shot depicting what they can see, shown from their point of view.  If they look up, the adjoining shot would need to match the angle to maintain spatial continuity.

1oliver looking up ralph-lee-hopkins-looking-up-at-towering-aspen-trees-in-autumn-hues

Below is an video on using movements within the frame of vision to maintain a continuous flowing sequence.

Pre Production

Your understanding of how a sequence might be cut together will influence how you shoot it.  You need to be thinking about the edit, before you turn on our cameras.


An original Saul Bass storyboard for Pyscho

I’ve spoken about the technique of editing, this lecture is about the art and power of editing.  Mr Hitchcock…

Editing is THE filmmakers tool.  We control what the audience see, precisely, down to 1/25th sec.  Think how that distinguishes TV & Film directors from Theatre directors. There are plenty of ways a theatre audiences attention can be drawn to different areas of a stage, thespians just have to try a bit harder.  Filmmakers dictate what the viewer sees, and that means there’s a danger of becoming lazy and formulaic. Fade in, establishing shot, mid shot, reverse shot, point of view, close up.  It’s easy to forget that editing is a creative tool in itself.

Continuity Editing

Pre-title scene of Pulp Fiction – 1994

In this scene consider how filmic conventions are complied with, the 180 degree rule, shot reverse shot etc

Quentin Tarantino Pulp Fiction 1994

Here Tarantino is mostly complying with filmic conventions, the spatial relationships between shots work to keep the viewer well orientated, there’s a near point of view shot showing the waitress pouring coffee.  It’s filmed just to the side of her POV which avoids the waitress looking directly down the camera lens,  which is another common convention employed to maintain the illusion of ‘film space’.

What is slightly unconventional is the lack of an external establishing shot to aid placement of the scene.  This is the very first scene in the film, before the titles, it’s designed to throw the viewer directly into the story without giving them time to settle themselves.  There’s no time to allow the viewer to settle themselves, the dialogue speeds along, the story has began.  For a similar reason there are no cut aways of the diner, with the exception of the very brief shot of the waitress the camera remains transfixed to the couple.

For the most part – especially in western (Hollywood influenced) cinema the filmmaker wants to tell their story succinctly and fluidly without drawing the viewers attention to the nuts and bolts of the filmmaking process.  You want the audience to focus on the story, not how the story is being told.

It’s the story that matters right?

Alternatives to Continuity Editing

Sometimes what’s interesting is how the story is told.

Timecode by Mike Figgis

Pulp Fiction intertwines multiple plots in a non-linear narrative fashion.  The film explores many other filmmaking conventions.  The lack of an establishing shot in the opening pre-title scene above.  The use of a 1940s black and white street projection as the background to a night time car scene, off kilter cinematography and editing all helped to established Tarantino’s ‘Auteur’ status.

In the scene below (close to the end of the film) notice there are no edits for first 70 secs.  The scene then maintains an unusual 90 degree profile framing.

As the film reaches its conclusion the narrative comes full circle.  Pulp Fiction has a Beginning, a Middle and an End.  Just not in that order.

Tarantino isn’t doing anything particularly unique, he is standing on the shoulders of the giants who went before him, what’s interesting is that he’s exploring the technicalities of filmmaking in full view of the mainstream.  This exploration is justified because of the un-conventional narrative structure.

La Nouvelle Vague – The French New Wave

During the late 1950s Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard  spearheaded a revolution in cinematic conventions.  For example the use of jump cuts in A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) 1960 to perhaps distance the audience as a Brechtain device, or as a way of mirroring the characteristics of the lead character.

 A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) by Jean-Luc Godard 1960

Avant Garde Cinema – London Filmmakers’ Co-op

The work of avant garde filmmaker John Smith explores and exposes the language of cinema itself.  Purposefully drawing the viewers attention to those Hollywood conventions that have become so well established they are no longer apparent.

The Girl Chewing Gum – 1976

How to Edit

How you edit will vary depending on the kind of project, the message you wish to convey, the audience you are targeting and the tone you are aiming for.

“The film editor eliminates unwanted footage and joins the desired shots…”

– FILM ART AN INTRODUCTION by Bordwell & Thompson

How do we decide what’s unwanted?

 Two points:

Most student films would be vastly improved if they were half the length.

Learning Premier or Final Cut is relatively easy, removing a limb from your baby is incredibly hard.

Above all


What I mean by that last statement is, as a filmmaker you naturally build an attachment to certain shots.  You will hopefully be proud of your work, you want to share it with the world, show them what a talent you are.  But on the whole, the world doesn’t care.  If you have something to say, you should think carefully about how you say it.  If you haven’t done that your audience won’t listen.  And why should they?

You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

An outside eye can be very useful, they can view material objectively and give you a better idea of how your audience will respond to your work.  Have you repeated yourself? Have you expressed your message succinctly?  Do you know clearly what your message is?  Not clearly defining what you’re trying to say is at the heart of many troubled projects.

Less is more

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.  Sometimes the content requires simplicity.

Big Train – BBC Comedy – 1998-2002

The editing (and indeed filming) of the above sketch couldn’t be simpler, yet it successfully supports the purpose of the material – to make us laugh, by being appropriate to the content.  The shots showing the group response to “Tom Henderson” could have cut together numerous close ups of the office staff.  The humor lies in the unified group reaction and the repetition of this.  Therefore showing the whole group in a single shot and repeating this shot is the best way to support the material.

Editing Factual Content

The same conventions we have looked at apply to non-fiction work also.  I have recently completed a series of films for English Heritage.  Over the past few years I’ve been filming in Birmingham’s Jewelry Quarter at JW Evans a Silversmiths established in 1881.  The series JW Evans Candlestick 5044 shows the creation of a silver candlestick, portraying the various processes and craftsmen involved.  My brief was to produce a 45 minute film to be sold on DVD, and an 8 min silent film for screening in the factory.  I shot around 14 hours of footage which needed to be edited into a coherent narrative.  I did this in stages I initially assembled on a timeline all the footage I thought would be useful, interviews and relevant cut-aways.  I treated each process as a separate chapter and produced a film for each chapter, purposefully including more detail than I would eventually need.  These films added up to 95 minutes, I needed to halve the footage to hit the 45 min target.

Working so closely with the footage I began to loose objectivity, I didn’t have an outside eye to guide me, fortunately I did have time.  I found I had to leave the project for a few weeks at a time, after a break it was much clearer to me what the essential footage was and I was able to complete the film.

Whilst I was working on the 45 min film I kept an eye out for footage I could use in the 8 min film, dropping that footage into a separate timeline as I went.

All the films are uploaded to a Vimeo channel JW Evans Candlestick 5044 .

Thelma Schoonmaker

Is a more successful editor than myself.  Learn about her here…

Thelma Schoonmaker – Editor

Analysis of Editing 

When analysing any material consider first what it’s intended purpose is, you can then make judgements based on how successfully it is achieving that objective.  The main objective of the Office Manager sketch for example was to raise a laugh.

Consider the structure of the piece, does the editing contribute to the content and in what ways?

What emotional responses does the content evoke?

Consider the Graphic – Rhythmic – Spatial – Temporal relationships between shots.

Can you envisage a different approach?

You have the option of developing your own analytical skills – have a look at the clips on this page and write a blog post or two over the coming weeks.

The End

For those of you who have, thank you for listening.

Please give me some feedback regarding this lecture in the comments box below.


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