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The Basics of Film Editing (and How to Edit a Movie)

Jourdan Aldredge

Jan 12, 2022

While the whole film and video industry has evolved over the past few decades, no part of filmmaking has changed more significantly than film editing. 

Starting as an artform that was initially done by hand and with scissors and tape for cinema projects, nowadays editors must learn how to edit content for YouTube — as well as, you know, understand how to edit sound.

(Oh yeah, you might even need to learn how to edit on your smartphone too.)

So, if you’re looking into film editing (and how to edit a film) for the first time, we have plenty of video editing tips to go over that will help you avoid the basic video editing mistakes most editors make when they’re first starting off.

However, they say that the best way to learn is by doing. So, with today’s NLEs (non-linear editing systems) and smartphone video apps, the options to explore by trial and error are greater than ever before.

Now let’s go over some of the basic principles and guidelines for video editing. We’ll also give you a bit of history and perspective on this process to help you start your editing journey.


What is film editing?

Let’s start with a basic definition for the art of film editing. Here’s how we describe film editing as part of the filmmaking process in current terms:

A part of the post-production process, film editing is the technical and creative part of turning the individual shots of a project together into a connected and comprehensive film project. 

Film editing is also often referred to as “film cutting” or just “cutting.” Traditionally, this was a way to describe the physical act of cutting (or splicing) film strips together into an entire movie, which was how the industry worked in the analogue days.

While there is still some actual analog film cutting that happens today, the majority of film editing takes place digitally through different video editing softwares and apps like Adobe Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro, Avid Media Composer, or DaVinci Resolve.



Film footage vs video clips

Before we dive in too deep, we also need to take a moment to talk about the differences between editing footage for a film project versus simply editing video clips for any filmmaking process purposes.

While there’s obviously a lot of overlap between the two, it’s important to recognize that the term “film editing” encompasses both a larger, holistic artform of the director's vision as well as the more technical form for simply cutting together two video files. It’s not that different from making YouTube videos or even an Instagram story.

However, as digital technologies continue to advance and filmmakers and content creators find more and innovative ways to combine these two worlds, this distinction will most probably begin to disappear entirely. 

What is the film editing process?

Now, as we focus on film editing as an artform, let’s go over all the steps of the post-production process. 

When shooting a proper film or video project, there are really three distinct stages of video production. From a comprehensive view, we have pre-production, production, and post-production. And from there, each of these stages can be separated into plenty of smaller sub-sections.

Post-production is no different, and you could further break down the steps of the post-production (or film editing) process to include:

  • Assembly stage (or a pre-edit)
  • Editing stage
  • Color correction and grading stage
  • Sound editing and design stage
  • Formatting and export stage

Those are just a rough outline though, because each film editing project will be unique. And while these might seem like distinct sections, many of these stages actually happen either out of order or even at the same time.

In the past, many of these stages might have been handled by separate dedicated experts. However with today’s digital tools and available online training, the majority of these stages can be handled by one single editor — when using the proper techniques, of course.

Types of editing techniques 

Now let’s go over some of the basic tricks and techniques for film editing. Of course, there’s a lot to cover, but there’s also a lot to explore and experiment with as well. Ideally, these classic techniques should serve as a jumping-off-point for you to find your own editing style and workflow.

Continuity editing



The first technique (or “rule”) to learn is the concept of continuity editing. As its name suggests, continuity editing is the artform of cutting together shots to create a sequence or scene that feels connected and continuous.

You see this form of editing in pretty much all films, television shows, or video content in general. And when done correctly, you don’t even notice it at all — it simply looks like shots are connected and cut together as they naturally should be, allowing the audience to enjoy the presentation. (Dialogue scenes are a great example of this.)

There are several sub-techniques to explore within continuity editing, like match cutting and eye-line matching (also called eye-tracing). These are smaller tricks film editors use to keep things connected and smooth.

You can read more about the basics of this “invisible editing” technique in this article on the fundamentals of continuity editing.

Discontinuity editing

On the other end of the spectrum, we also have to discuss the opposite artform: discontinuity editing. 

This technique is any style of video editing which runs counter to a scene or sequence continuity. These breaks are often done by editors with a specific purpose (and if not, then they should be classified as mistakes and can quickly take your audience out of the moment).

However, you can find examples of discontinuity in action whenever you see stylistic jump cuts or jump scares, or other non-linear techniques. Most of these are done in an experimental or evocative nature to further bring the audience into the story.

To read more on discontinuity editing, dive in deeper by checking out this fascinating article on how YouTubers use jump cuts.

Montage theory



You can also combine aspects of both continuity and discontinuity editing, such as the complex (but powerful) process of montage theory. Soviet montage theory is an approach which comes from Soviet filmmakers in the 1920s as an experimental way to connect shots that might not at first feel continuous, but end up feeling that way.

These days, you see montages in all types of film projects. And they can vary in how disconnected or connected they are in terms of the shots and story that they are trying to tell. However, when done correctly this technique is great for connecting camera shots to feature film quality.

Check out this additional article which further defines Soviet montage theory and explores how filmmakers can use it today.

Kuleshov Effect

Before we go too far into more of these basic types of edits which every video editor should know, we also need to backtrack and explore some fundamental filmmaking principles. One of these key film components is known as the Kuleshov effect and it’s a great intro to the shot and scene construction theory which guides the fundamentals of editing.

If you’re not familiar, you can read much more on the subject in this article which explores what filmmakers can learn from the Kuleshov effect.

Match cutting


Expounding on some of the basic principles of video editing, we also need to talk a bit about match cutting and how it works to transition two shots together. There’s a lot of theory to explore, but the match cut can be a powerful tool to help an audience really connect two shots together either through action, graphic elements, or audio cues.

Read this article to explore much more on how to use match cuts in film and video editing.

Parallel editing (and cross-cutting)



Another video editing technique that shares many aspects with other techniques is parallel editing or cross-cutting. This is an editing approach for cutting together film footage of multiple scenes or sequences at once.

While the two terms are often used interchangeably, parallel editing is the more nuanced of the two approaches. It’s aimed at helping the audience connect two scenes thematically, whereas cross-cutting is more of an entertainment-driven decision aimed at building tension for scenes that are interconnected critically.

Learn more about cross-cutting in this full article on the basics of the parallel editing technique.

Cutaways and inserts



Cutaways and insert shots are another filmmaking technique used both in production and post-production. From a filming-standpoint, cutaways and inserts are both individual shots recorded on set with the specific goal of being edited into a scene later.

From a film editing perspective, these cutaways and inserts are used at the editor’s discretion. When not specifically outlined in the storyboard, they are used as a tool to either “cut away” from a part of the scene to cover a mistake, or as a way to highlight one object or element for dramatic effect.

However working with these types of cuts can be tricky so be sure to read more in-depth in this article into how to add cutaway shots and inserts into your videos.

J and L cuts



Let’s move on to how audio can be used in conjunction with video in film editing. J and L cuts are both techniques used by editors to bring in the audio of a different shot either before or after the current one.

And while this concept might be a bit confusing to think about, in reality it’s pretty simple and common in all types of film and video. Whether it’s the whistle of a train in the next scene or a character’s words echoing into the next shot, you’ve seen these cuts in action.

The J cut is the term for any transition where the audio for the next shot comes in early, and an L cut is the term for any transition where the audio stays under the next shot. The J and L names come from the shapes they make on a video editing timeline with the audio either protruding to the left or right of the clip above.

If you’re still finding these different examples a bit confusing (which is certainly understandable), we have a great article here which really breaks down the fundamentals of j cuts and l cuts.

Transitions and dissolves



Finally, as film editing techniques go, we also have to include the myriad of transitions and dissolves that you’ll find as a way to connect two (or sometimes more) shots together.

When starting out, the main way you’ll transition between two shots is a hard cut. You see these all the time and they are the default transition for most softwares and apps.

However, as you’ll quickly find in any film or video project, most shots are connected with different transition effects. The list of options includes dissolves, fades, pushes, pulls, and other experimental techniques.

The effect these different transitions have on your audience are worth exploring and understanding because a well-placed transition can be helpful for building tension, connecting themes, or even letting your audience know that time is passing/being sped up.

Famous film editors

To further explore the basics of film editing, it can be helpful to study the films and techniques of some of the most famous film editors of all time. It’s also important to pay one’s respects and homages as the film editor position has until recently been a critically under-recognized and under-appreciated role in the film process.

These are just some of the biggest names though, you can read a much more detailed list in this article here on the best film editors (and best edited films) of all time.

Thelma Schoonmaker



One of the most famous film editors that any aspiring film editor should watch and study is Thelma Schoonmaker. 

Best known for her 50+ years of working with film director Martin Scorsese, Schoonmaker is often thought of as the auteur-behind-the-auteur. She’s edited every Scorsese film since Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967), including such notable films as Raging Bull (1980), The Aviator (2004), and The Departed (2006).

Similar to her directing counterpart, Schoonmaker’s editing style is noted for a tension-building and story-driven approach. Study her films as great examples of pacing, montage, and prevalent uses of J and L cuts to connect themes or use music across different scenes and sequences.

Walter Murch



Another filmmaking master that every film or video editor should recognize is Walter Murch. He is often thought of as the godfather of film and sound editing, which is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek moniker due to his work on the famous films of The Godfather trilogy. 

After getting his start as a sound editor (and gaining notoriety for his experimental mixing techniques), Murch moved into film editing where he earned numerous awards and accolades over the years working on films like Apocalypse Now, American Graffiti, The Conversation, and The English Patient.

However, for aspiring film editors, Murch is best known for writing what might be the definitive film editing text In the Blink of an Eye in 1995, where he lays out his famous “rule of six” criteria list for how, when, and why to make an edit. 

Dede Allen



We’re only listing a few of the top film editors in this short list, but one thing you’ll notice when you do your own research is the  trend of many of the most famous and iconic film editors being women. This is because, for most of film editing history, the artform was done by women in Hollywood. 

In the earliest days of silent cinema, “cutting” was thought of as a task similar to knitting. And, while the process was not considered as important at the time, these pioneering women would go on to shape the budding artform for years to come.

Along with other editing greats like Anne V. Coates and Verna Fields, Dede Allen is perhaps one of the most well-known film editors in movie history. Regarded as the “film editing doctor” of her time, Allen was the editor of choice for several famous filmmakers and worked behind-the-scenes “fixing” countless other films and projects for movie studios.

If you’d like to read more about Dede Allen and many of the other great women film editors of past and present day, I highly recommend David Meuel’s book Women Film Editors: Unseen Artists of the American Cinema. Meuel goes into the history of these great editors, and also offers plenty of insights into how film editing has evolved over the years.

The best laptops for video editing

Now that we’ve gone over some basic principles and people, we can get a bit more into the nitty-and-gritty of video editing. We’re talking about hardware now as you’ll really need to make sure you’re working with the best — if not at least the right — equipment for you.

Let’s start by outlining a few of our top selections for some of the best — and most affordable — laptops for video editors which you can currently purchase for under a grand.

  • Acer Aspire 5
  • Apple MacBook Air
  • Dell Inspiron 14

These are three of our top picks, however check out this full article for our full list of the best laptops for video editing under $1,000.

The best monitors for video editing

Similar to talking about cheap laptops for video editing, we also have to talk about the importance of the video monitor itself. While your laptop selection might be locked into a monitor, for your PC setup you have many more options.

However, the monitor might be more important than you think. Here’s our article with a full breakdown of what you should look for as well as our list of the nine best monitors for video editing.

Further reading

Hopefully all of the above information will give you a solid understanding of the basics of film editing. And remember: While it’s important to watch the masters, learn the terms, and study the techniques, the best way to learn is by doing.

So as you venture out into the world of film editing, here are some additional articles to check out from the Soundstripe blog: