Ten Tips for Successful Editing

Hi! I’m Tess, a FTV student at JMC Academy in Bris-Vegas. I love everything about film, but my strengths lie withdirecting and, surprise-surprise, editing. Though I consider myself a people person, there is nothing I like better than locking myself in a dark room with a warm, buzzing computer, hundreds of megabytes of footage, some huge head-ache inducing headphones and a never ending stack of doritos for a couple of days… I’m sure you editors will understand. Anyway, I’ve learnt a lot so far in my time at JMC and without further ado, here are my ten tips for editing a film!


In my second trimester at JMC, during my documentary unit, my life came crashing down around me. Okay, not quite, but it sure felt like it. I’d shot a stack of interviews, some killer B-roll and even filmed at a one-time rally in the city, and for some naive, dreadful and completely regrettable reason, I saved it all onto one single hard drive. Just one. Needless to say, when I plugged said harddrive into my laptop one morning to find NO DATA at all, my heart fell out of my chest. After many opinions from lecturers and friends, a lot of tears, about 6000 attempts and plugging it into every computer you can imagine and $400 in recovery costs later, I came to the daunting realisation that most of my footage (the best of it, of course) was gone forever, obliterated into the black void of digital nothingness. 


Since this life changing event, I now use two hard drives, a laptop, a computer in a different location and a portal to another world as back-up destinations for every project I work on. I suggest (well, insist) that you do the same. Please!


Ever since I can remember, Friday night in my family home has always been ‘movie night’. I don’t know if that’s why I’m studying film, or if it’s another reason entirely, but I do know that it has certainly helped me. I’m sure any film editor, whether it be an Academy Award winner or a budding amateur, will tell you that to know film you have to watch films. 

Although I like to think I have a bit of originality in my editing, I take so so (so so so) much inspiration from other films and filmmakers. While I have my favourites (Andrew Weisblum, Kirk Baxter, Sally Menke), I try and watch anything and everything, taking recommendations from those who I respect and admire, taking every opportunity I can to learn what and what not to do. I make notes, save clips, copy things in my spare time and try to take it all in, putting everything I watch and love into my brain for when I might need it in an edit. 


I’ve done an editing exercise before where all I was given was a bunch of footage. No script, no shot list, no idea of what the story was or how to construct it. It was fun, but near impossible. A lot of the time, the editor hasn’t directed, shot or written the film, so it’s really important to be on the same page as them all. One way that I do this, is to make sure that I read through the script a few times, often before I even sign on to edit the film. That way I’m familiar with the story, and I know that I’ll enjoy it. Then, once the film has been shot, I make contact with the Director to see if any changes were made to the script. 

If there were, they should be noted in the marked-up script that the Continuity person has (hopefully) scribbled all over on set. During the edit, I’ll sit with this, the continuity logs, the script and the shot list beside me, so I can keep coming back to the original visions of the film for my reference. 


Before you begin an edit, it's super important to watch all of the footage. This seems pretty self explanatory, but when you're given 114 hours worth of footage for a short film, it's easy to skim. Resist the urge! You'll be given continuity logs, which will tell you the director’s prefered take, but without watching every take there's no way of knowing which take is really the best. Take notes as you go that dictate the good and the bad parts of each take. And remember, don't even think about dragging anything into a timeline until you've watched every single clip!


In my most recent trimester, I was the editor on a short film as part of our Production Project unit. As part of this, I decided it would be best for myself and my editing if I were on set during the shoot. I signed up as Continuity (or Script Supervisor) which meant I was in charge of overlooking and correcting any continuity errors, as well as making notes on any changes to the script, reviewing the shots to ensure they would edit well together and keeping an eye on the consistency of production design and hair and make-up.

This was one of the most beneficial things I could have done. Not only did it allow me the experience of being on set, but I got to further understand the story, had an idea of what every shot looked like before even getting to the edit room, was responsible for my own department in terms of continuity and a smooth edit, and I got to build a relationship with the cast and crew, making connections I wouldn't have made had I been solely the editor. 


What? I’ve already mentioned this one? Well I’m not sorry! It’s super important, especially when other people are relying on you to keep the footage and project safe. Remember, if it’s not backed up in three places, it doesn’t exist! 



By far the most important relationship  in the post-production stage is that of the director and the editor. Essentially from the moment that the rough cut begins, the director is required to overlook the entire editing process. Sometimes this means sitting with the director for hours at a time while they watch you work or sometimes it means showing them a cut every couple of days and taking on their feedback. Whatever it is, you can see why it's so important to be on good terms with them. You need the director to trust and believe in you, otherwise every suggestion you make will be second guessed. 

In saying that, you also need to remember that although this is technically the directors film, you were asked to edit it for a reason. There will definitely be times where you and the director don't see eye to eye. This is natural, and to be expected in any working relationship, but it’s important to know when to stand your ground. If you believe that you are in the right, and have evidence (others opinions, logical reasoning) to support you, it’s your right to make your voice heard. Remember that you and the director are both working towards a common goal: the best film possible. 


I’m sure you can probably guess that sitting in front of a computer for hours at a time will drive you completely insane (if you’ve met an experienced film editor, you’ll understand). So it’s important to try and save yourself some sanity by taking a break every now and then. Not only will it save your eyes from becoming square, but it’ll allow you to come back to the film with a clearer and more focused mind. 

This may sound simple, but it’s difficult. I tend to get so lost in my edit that three or four hours can go by without my realising. Other times, when I’m lacking motivation, an hour can feel like a lifetime. To get through it and make sure that I maintain my sanity, I like t structure my breaks. I’ll try and stretch my legs every hour, grab a snack or walk around every few hours, and take at least an hours break every five hours. Another thing I find really important is taking a day or two’s break from the edit. I try to manage my time to allow this, tearing myself away for a while so I can come back to it with a clear perspective. If your deadline doesn’t allow this, try and at least have a few hours off, and do something completely distracting so you’re not thinking about the film. This’ll allow you to come back to it a bit more fresh (and will remind you that there is a world beyond the pixels on the screen). 


If by the end of the edit you don't know every single word, shot and moment of the film, you haven't done your job properly. I recently re-watched a project that I edited a couple of years ago and I remembered everything. This is because I watched the edit, start to finish, about a billion times. It's so easy to look at (well, obsess over) the film in small sections rather than as a whole, but in doing so, you’re almost neglecting the collective story and mood of the film. When you make a change to a section, go back and watch the whole edit to see how it works with everything else. 

As well as this, it’s important to watch, re-watch and watch the edit again when it’s coming to crunch time. A lecturer once told me that when you think you've finished an edit, you're about halfway there. I guarantee you that for at least (at LEAST) the first ten times you watch an edit once you think you’ve finished, you will pick up some thing you can change. Maybe you’ll try changing it and realise it was better as it was, but you won’t know unless you try (and nine times out of ten, that’s not the case).

Basically, just watch your work a lot. Get the director to watch it a lot. Ask lecturers, peers, random people on the street (maybe not) to watch it a lot. And don’t accept that you’re done until there is absolutely nothing else you can improve on.


By the end of the edit you want to have something that you are truly proud of, so remember to have fun with it and be as creative as you can. If you’re a student like me, you’ll know that this early on in our career is the perfect time to experiment, so try new things, experiment with techniques and don’t let boundaries get in the way. The best editors are inventive, creative and non-conventional. Be like that! Be brave and bold and don’t be afraid make mistakes in your editing, because now is our time to learn and to grow as editors.

Remember, as director/producer/writer/legend, Alejandro González Iñárritu puts it, “Movies become art after editing. Instead of just reproducing reality, they juxtapose images of it. That implies expression; that’s art.”

Thanks Tess! 

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