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Film editing

Making the film after you make the film

The film editor gets the final say in telling the story. Now that the pressure of production is over and the money outflow has slowed from a deluge to a trickle the editor can take his/her time. Scenes that were shot that are less than perfect can be improved, or at least the flaws can be hidden.

The best way to learn about editing is to watch lots of good movies. Just like writing a screenplay every scene is a little story in itself and every scene must be absolutely essential or is doesn't belong in the movie. The editor must understand the point of each scene just as well as the director (if they aren't the same person) so they are trying to accomplish the same thing.

The first step is logging the film. This means watching every scene that was shot and taking notes on such things as performance quality and technical flaws. Using a non-linear editing system makes it easy to move the clips associated with different parts of the movie into directorys or bins to begin creating the first rough edit.

Cuts and Transitions

Non-linear editing systems typically support hundreds of different transitions and effects. The only transitions used in movies, with rare exception, are the plain cut and the dissolve. Other transitions just become distracting to the audience.

Generally each scene starts with an establishing shot or coverage shot then cuts to closer shots of the actors and action. During the most dramatic moments the most extreme closeups emphasize the drama. As the action speeds up the length of clips should get shorter.

Cuts between clips should be made at the point the actors move. This tends to hide any slight inconsistency between the shots.

The first rough cut may take several months to complete and there may be several versions of the rough cut before the director and editor are in agreement.

The sound designer and music composer generally get involved at this point.

The process continues for several more months as unnecessary scenes are removed and the remaining scenes are tightened.

The sound designer and music composer join in for the final cut, adding sound effects and the musical score.

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Must Have!

The Filmmaker's Basic Library has all the top-rated filmmaking resources.

Learning resources on DVD

A documentary, The Cutting Edge , illustrates the entire history and technique of film editing from the very earliest days to up 2004. Interviews with Steven Spielberg, Michael Kahn, James Cameron, George Lucas, Alexander Payne, Walter Murch, Anthony Minghella, and others bring needed insight into how the film editor fits into the creative process.

The Big Sleep comes with both the theatrical version and a recently discovered pre-release cut. The differences a little editing can make are fascinating.

John Dahl's Joy Ride comes with four alternate endings.

The 2-disc set of Hannibal has a multi-angle edit gallery for the beginning filmmaker to study what goes into making multi-angle action scene.

The English Patient (Miramax Collector's Edition) includes a master class on editing with Anthony Minghella. Excellent explaination of why deleted scenes got cut out. For some reason Walter Murch, the brilliant editor of The English Patient is not included in the feature.

Die Hard (two disc edition) has a great supplemental feature on editing 2 scenes from the raw footage to the finished film. Also a great three minute clip on "to letterbox or not to letterbox" which shows why it makes a difference.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace features a documentary where Wallter Murch, Francis Ford Coppola, and Phillip Kaufman explain why scenes get deleted. There is a priceless story of Walter Murch removing a moment from the film "Julia" and the director saying that the scene being cut from was the scene that got him started on the project to begin with. Not a great movie but excellent special features.

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