Whether you’re new to video editing or an old pro, there’s always room for improvement. And while many crafts and skills have objective guidelines when it comes to doing the best work possible, editing is enshrouded in the heavy subjectivity of art itself.
It can be difficult to take a singular editing technique and say that it will work for all projects.
With a few notable exceptions, successful editing is quiet, lending impact and effect to the story already present in the script and the performances, rather than drawing attention to itself.
To help us hammer out some useful tips for editors of all skill levels, we invited two pros to discuss their own development as editors and share advice on how to hone your editing skills for maximum effect.
Meet the Experts
Yimin Gu found her love for media and film while studying in Hong Kong, a place known to movie-lovers as a singular hub for unique filmmaking. She has worked across just about every genre you can imagine. Gu especially enjoys showcasing stories that feature perspectives rarely seen in mainstream media, from the struggles of individuals with autism to children marginalized because of their religious beliefs or sexual orientation.
Gu’s work has been shortlisted for a long list of festivals and awards, and she continues to seek out projects that have something profound to communicate to their audience.
Editor Yixia Li, originally from China, was heavily influenced by both Western media and Japanese culture during his formative years. His resultant love for many different genres and styles remains a through line of his illustrious career.
Li has worked on many different shorts, commercial projects, and interview series (including the Stage 5 series for NewFilmmakers Los Angeles). He currently lives in LA, continuously seeking opportunities for collaboration.
Artvoice spoke with Li and Gu at length about tips and tools that editors of all stripes can use to improve their craft.
1. The First Steps of an Effective Workflow
The public perception of how editors work on projects is somewhat limited. We tend to either picture someone hunched over a Moviola or we imagine the editor sitting in the blue glow of a computer screen in a dark room for hours (or even days) on end.
These impressions aren’t wholly inaccurate, but they do highlight the fact that we have a fairly static impression of what the editing workflow looks like.
Is isolation somehow necessary for effective editing? At what stage should music be inserted? How often should the editor watch the project in its entirety? Should there be other people in the room, standing over the editor’s shoulder?
Starting out with a project can be especially challenging. Editors are presented with a wealth of raw footage and maybe a few ideas for score composition. But that’s about it. And so the question remains, where do you even start?
For Li, the first stages of editing a project involve getting to know the footage as best he can before starting any kind of assembly.
“I have a weird theory that everything has its own feelings and inherent qualities, even footage. It’s like parenting: you need to spend time with your children. It’s the same for my editing workflow.
Thanks to technology nowadays, editing workflow has become easier and more efficient. Checking file structure is absolutely step one for me. I feel tremendously satisfied when everything is well organized and ready to go. To me, that’s a good starting point.”
Gu shares many of these sentiments, although her first step includes speaking with the director to get a better sense of the overall direction of the project. After all, editors are rarely on set during production, leaving them largely in the dark when it comes to the intended tone of the piece.
“I always have a meeting with the director first. Then I learn the footage. This is probably one of the most important stages of editing for me, if not the most important part. A lot of people jump to assembly immediately, but I find that learning the footage by heart saves time in the long run.”
It’s an attempt at familiarization and organization that makes assembly a much more natural experience. Rather than having to rewatch the raw footage time and time again during assembly, the editor can simply recall a moment or a shot that would work well in a particular stage of the project.
“When I look through the footage, I mark the great moments in acting and in cinematography. In the back of my mind, I can already see scenes forming. This not only helps with putting together the film but also with making changes and rewriting. If you know what you have, then you know what directions you can take.”
2. Beginner Mistakes to Avoid
Mistakes are inevitable, often regardless of skill level. But when you’re just starting out as an editor, there are many different ways to make the work more difficult for yourself.
In hopes of helping novice editors avoid some of the more common beginner editing mistakes, we asked Li and Gu to tell us about some of the mistakes they made early on in their careers and how to avoid them.
In a way, Gu’s most significant mistake in the beginning was caring too much about the project. Or, in other words, the process of criticism and collaboration felt like a series of personal attacks, rather than constructive suggestions.
“I used to take comments very personally. I think the key is to take disagreements professionally, not personally. When I disagree, I always present my arguments to the director with facts and offer multiple solutions.
In the end, we’re both working to make the film the best it can be. And as long as we respect each other as professionals, disagreements can only strengthen the project.”
Li’s early mistakes, on the other hand, had a lot to do with not having an established workflow to rely on throughout the editing process. And unfortunately, these kinds of problems don’t usually make themselves known until the very end.
“When I first started editing, I didn’t understand the importance of workflow, and that caused a lot of problems. It’s always the first few steps: transcoding, data management, and file structures. If something goes wrong with any of these, you probably won’t realize it until the end of the project. And that’s why I’m very strict about setting up the project in the right way. It just saves a lot of time.”
Li also wanted to mention the importance of safeguarding your files. Failing to do so can have disastrous consequences, which Li learned the hard way.
“The other mistake I’d like to point out was a failure to back up my projects. I learned my lesson through several serious computer crashes. It’s simply a crucial step to make a second or third copy of your files. And it’s surprising to me that a lot of filmmakers still haven’t figured this out.”
3. Developing Your Own Style
When it comes to editing, making use of a personal style can be tricky, to say the least. It requires balance and care. An editing style that is too prominent could disrupt the flow and tone of the project, and in most cases, that’s not at all what an editor should contribute to a film.
Editing should serve the larger goals of the production. But at the same time, an editor’s personal style can inform what a project has to say.
For example, Chris Dickens has edited several Edgar Wright films, utilizing a style that became endlessly mimicked by contemporary editors.
At its best, this unique editing style helped tell effective stories while also helping the movies stand out from the competition.
For Li, developing his own editing style came largely from direct collaboration with a director.
“I was lucky to work with a talented director, and I’d say that working with this director helped me establish my own editing style. At that time, transitions were a huge problem in my work because most of them were just boring.
The director sent me a list of films and TV shows that featured interesting transitions, then we sat down and discussed the script. That was one of the most interesting projects I’ve ever worked on. Everything was so smooth and free-flowing, and I eventually adopted that as my editing style.”
Gu also found a great deal of inspiration by watching and processing the work of experienced editors. She made use of the Tarantino method of studying film, which is to say watching as many movies as you can get your hands on until the visual language of film becomes second nature.
“If you think of film narrative as a foreign language, then editing is like grammar. Filmmakers learn the language of film the same way you would learn a language: by watching others use it. The films I watched contributed largely to my repertoire.
From Hollywood blockbusters to Asian and European art films, I absorbed their style of speaking, how they used the language of cinema, and applied it to my own projects. As I practiced on my own, I started to develop my own sense of style and my skills became more refined.”
4. What to Do When You Don’t Have the Footage You Need
So let’s say you’re editing a project and all the footage is there and it looks and sounds great. You probably won’t have all that much trouble stitching the footage together.
But what happens when there were problems on the set and a significant portion of the footage is unusable or several intended scenes were just never shot?
Well, if you’ve had extensive experience as an editor, you’ve probably run into this problem before. And if you’re just starting out, we have some bad news: this will probably happen more than once.
The good news, of course, is that there are ways around the problem. Here’s what the experts have to say:
Gu says that this is another area where collaboration with the director is key. Even if she has her own ideas for how to resolve certain issues, it’s key to run these solutions by the director to make sure that they won’t detract from the finished product in any way.
“There’s always some discrepancy between what the director intends to shoot and what is shot. If a line doesn’t work I try cutting it out or cutting to somebody else, and if something doesn’t happen in picture, I try to cheat it in sound.
I do my utmost to involve the director in this process, to make sure the rewriting falls in line with their vision. One way or another, it gets worked out in the end.”
Li was quick to emphasize that productions can sometimes rely too heavily on the supposed magic of post-production. For him, the most important step is to realize that every solution will be slightly less than perfect, and to accept this as the inherent nature of filmmaking.
“Most of the indie projects I worked on would have at least one or two scenes where they either ran out of time on set or they were too confident and had only one long take for the whole scene. Editors are not gods, we can’t fix every problem.
Through the developing process, production and post-production, every problem hurts the film a little bit. We’re just minimizing the damage.”
One of the most famous examples of having to work around a lack of footage is the story of Jaws, both the movie and the mechanical shark itself. The prop didn’t function correctly, leaving Spielberg with very little raw footage of the shark.
As a solution, Spielberg and team showed the shark sparingly, opting instead to signal its presence by showing other environmental effects.
It was ultimately to the film’s advantage, and it was all borne out of what seemed at first like a major production problem.
5. How to Zoom Out and Keep Track of Pacing
Effective pacing is absolutely crucial to any successful film, and during the editing process, it can be difficult to maintain perspective on what the final cut will actually feel like to an audience member.
It’s easy to be swallowed up by the small-scale details of the footage and the finer points of editing, and this can certainly influence the cut in a negative way.
And so we turn to our experts for potential solutions on how to maintain a broad perspective of the overall project, which allows for more skillful pacing.
Both Li and Gu pointed out how useful it can be to simulate the experience of the average audience member watching the project, which can be achieved through several different methods.
As Li told us:
“There are a few different ways to check the pacing of a film. First, be sure to check the full-length film after individual edits. Second, watch it on a bigger monitor and sit further back. Imagine that you’re in a theater. It makes a huge difference compared to watching it on a small monitor. Third, you might want to give yourself a break and come back. You will always discover something new after the break.”
Gu mentioned a very specific method that has been used for years by one of her favorite editors of all time.
“When a film is finished, the director and I will sit down together and watch the film together on a big screen. It’s such a crucial step. The famous editor Walter Murch always keeps a small cutout of a human figure on the computer when editing.
The ratio of the cutout to the computer would be the same as an audience member to a cinema screen. This is to remind himself that the pacing needs to work on the big screen.”
And of course these basic concepts of maintaining a broad perspective and taking a break from a project so that you can see it from a different angle, resonate throughout many different artistic forms.
Even cartoonist Lynda Barry has spoken at length about the importance of doing your initial work on instinct, then letting the project sit for days or even weeks, not thinking about it at all.
By the time you return to the project, it will probably seem a little bit different, and you’ll be able to view it more objectively after spending some time out of the weeds.
6. Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
And despite the fact that many different aspects of film editing are based on technical skills and knowing how to use your software effectively, film itself is inherently collaborative.
This means that editors not only have to be technically skilled, they also need to have the ability to work closely with many other people, from directors and producers to composers and effects artists.
We’ve already touched on this subject earlier in the article, but both Gu and Li had a lot to say about important it is to forget yourself during the editing process, at least temporarily.
For Gu, feedback during and after post-production is absolutely crucial to improving on the skills she already has.
“During editing, editors and directors have to watch each frame at least hundreds of times, and you inevitably get used to, and thus attached to, the footage and the edits. That’s why we need ‘fresh eyes.’ Art is subjective, and you could have conflicting opinions. But if nine out of ten people tell you they have problems with something, then it’s probably worth looking into.”
Li admitted that at first, pride came into play significantly, and it prevented him from seriously considering notes from other members of the production team. It took time and experience to convince him that suggestions, no matter how minor, are valuable and should be treated as such.
“Most of the feedback comes from directors and producers, and I definitely keep an open mind when it comes to their suggestions. Early in my career, I didn’t want to take a specific suggestion because I didn’t think it would help.
A producer later forced me to make the edit, and it turned out to be a very good solution. That was the moment I fully accepted that filmmaking is a team effort and that you should always be able to consider suggestions.”
Even Alfred Hitchcock’s own wife helped edit many of his most famous features, including Psycho.
Despite the fact that Hitchcock was of course a cinematic genius, even he needed the help of a large team of supporting crew members to offer insights and suggestions that would prove to be crucial to the creation of his most well-regarded films.
7. The Final Cut and Appreciating Feedback
But through all the frustration, all the hard drive crashes, and heated arguments, there is in fact light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps the proudest moment for any editor is the moment when an audience sees a film for the very first time and responds honestly.
This moment of response and reaction can only take place when no further changes can be made. It is the moment of birth for the film itself, and all that’s left to do is to appreciate positive reactions and learn from any opportunities for improvement.
Even the great Martin Scorsese had to reassess the editing and color timing of his film Taxi Driver, just months before it was set for release.
He had to respond directly to criticisms from the MPAA in order to keep the movie at an R rating, rather than the abysmal X rating which would have prevented the film from finding a wide audience.
Even during screenings, feedback can still be incredibly valuable to filmmakers.
Li cited a very specific instance of sharing his work, and it’s an experience that is likely to stay with him for many years to come.
“A few weeks ago, one of my films was screened at TCL Chinese Theater. I was there as both the director and editor.
During the Q and A, I felt that I was one step closer to my ultimate career goals. The applause and compliments I received afterward just made me feel so proud as a filmmaker and motivated me to challenge myself and make better films in the future.”
Gu shares this hopeful and optimistic view of sharing work with others. For her, it’s the moment when she truly discovers whether or not she’s done her job effectively. And if she has, the results can be truly inspiring.
“The proudest moments for me as an editor are when I see people moved by a film I’ve worked on. When I see tears in people’s eyes, I feel like I’ve done my job.
During screenings, I’ve seen people of different races and cultures shedding tears in response to the experiences of marginalized individuals. It brings me joy to know that my work has transcended cultural barriers and resonated with a sense of common humanity.”
In the end, editing is about balance, balance between the technical and the personal, between the big picture and the tiny details that make a film work.
And maybe that image of the editor isolated in a dark room is a bit outdated. The process can, and should, involve a significant amount of collaboration and thoughtful attention paid to ideas you might never have thought of on your own.
We hope this discussion has given you a more comprehensive view of the challenges, trials, and joys of editing. And if the stories and perspectives shared here have inspired you, we encourage you to explore editing software, even if you’ve never worked with it before.
Trust your instincts and always remember that two heads (or three, or four, or fifteen) are better than one.