5 Basic Film Editing Principles to Understand

Filmmaking 15/07/2019 5 min read

Editing is powerful, but good editing takes time, patience, and practice. The way you edit can either push your viewers away or draw them in. In this tutorial, we’ll explore five practical film editing principles you can start using immediately. 

Whether you’re new to editing or have years of experience, it’s important to have an understanding of some essential theory to help keep your projects on track. With these tips in mind, your films will have a better chance of maintaining your audience’s attention and increase their perceived production value. 

Film Editing Fundamentals 

1. Avoid Jump Cuts 

A jump cut is when there’s a visible cut between two pieces of footage, but the scene remains relatively the same. If you spend time watching videos on YouTube, you’ve most likely seen this before. Sometimes, it appears as a slight jump in the video that is hardly even noticeable as a cut, because the underlying picture hasn’t changed. 

Unless you have a good reason for jump cutting, it’s best to be avoided altogether as it comes across as quite jarring. Instead of looking intentional, it looks like a glitch in the video (but not the good, artsy kind). 

There are a few ways to avoid this: 

  • Choose a follow-up shot of a significantly different focal length 
  • Change the angle of view by at least 45 degrees 

You can combine these two and get quite creative when it comes to bridging shots together. If you only have one camera on your subject and are short on different angles and focal lengths, try to zoom in on the after-cut clip to differentiate the two in a better way. 

2. Use Relevant B-Roll 

One great way to avoid jump cuts is to use B-roll footage instead. B-roll is defined as supplemental or alternative footage that’s intercut with your main shots. For example, if your subject is discussing a sport, and you have a moment where you can’t avoid a jump cut, you can insert a clip of them playing the sport. Using B-roll will cover up the cut and reinforce the message. You can use relevant stock footage too to slot in. 

Often, giving an alternative visual reference will improve your audience’s engagement and understanding of the subject matter. Remember, people are visual beings, so avoid using a static shot for too long is very helpful for comprehension. 

3. Cut on Motion 

You may think a cut is a cut, but not all cuts are created equal. One of the goals of editing is to make the viewing experience so engaging that the audience forgets they’re watching a film. It feels like they’re immersed in the world you’ve created. 

Badly cut edits jar the viewer out of that experience a bit and can create confusion. You’re looking to create flow. One way to do that is to cut on motion. If something happens on screen that involves a bit of motion, choose that point to make your cut. If you’re making a narrative film, typically, you’ll end up getting another shot from a different angle that can follow through on that same action. 

You also don’t need to cut on motion exclusively within the same scene. Try using it to cut between two scenes. For example, a jewelry box closing shut in one scene, followed by a slammed door in the next one.  

4. The 180° Rule 

The 180° rule usually applies to scenes where there is a dialogue between two or more people. It does, however, require you to have shot your material properly in advance! 

If you had to look at your two subjects from above, draw a mental line between the two of them and choose one side of that line to film from. This will mean that in the classic over-the-shoulder look, you’ll be filing over the left shoulder of one subject, and the right shoulder of the other. 

When cutting back and forth between these two shots, your audience has an understanding of where they are looking in relation to the world around them. It helps to bring things together in the scene and create that connection between your two subjects in the minds of the viewers. If you break this rule, the result can be disorienting and confuse your audience.

5. What’s Your Motivation? 

The fifth tip is more of a miscellaneous one, but one that’s worth thinking about in each edit. Ask yourself with each editing decision, “What’s my motivation for doing this?” 

Context will most often be the most important reason behind what you’re doing. Remember, your audience’s scope of view is limited to what you show them, and it’s up to you to find ways to engage their attention and make them feel the way you want them to feel in any given scene. 

You want to give the viewer a bigger picture of what’s going on in the film’s world. Of course, this can change depending on what exactly it is that you’re editing. For example, imagine your first clip is a woman sitting on a sofa. She looks happy and is flipping channels on the TV. Suddenly, she turns and looks in the opposite direction. Consider these two different scenarios: 

Romantic Comedy 

Your motivation for your cut is to show something that’s happening in her world that makes her feel a certain way. Maybe her phone rings, so you’ll want to cut to a close-up of it lying on the table. Perhaps the doorbell rings, so you may cut to an over-the-shoulder shot of her date standing on the doorstep waiting for the door to open. Set the scene. 

Horror Film 

In that same scene, your motivation is most likely going to be to build suspense. In this case, you will achieve that better if you cut to something that doesn’t give much context to what she’s seeing but instead creates tension. Maybe a door is slowly opening, or a curtain is waving in the wind. Leave it open for your viewer’s imagination to take over. 

With this in mind, you should be able to see how motivation can make all the difference when it comes to making the right choices for your production. As long as you remember your motivation, you can avoid adding confusing and unnecessary edits. 

6. Bonus: Left To Right, Right To Left 

As a general rule, we tend to see things going from left to right as moving forwards, and from right to left as moving backward. This is psychological more than anything. If your subject is moving from left to right in your frame, your audience subconsciously perceives them as moving forward — whether that be in their life, their mission, or whatever’s going on. 

Filming them from right to left can give a powerful indication that they are regressing or going backward in the situation they find themselves in. This is subtle, yet it can make a big difference in an edit. Give it a try and see how it changes the feeling of things! 

You can also flip footage horizontally if you have it shot one way and want to use it the other way (as long as there are no indicators, such as text, that your footage was flipped). 

Editing is where the real magic happens in filmmaking, and the quality of it can make or break your project. These five basic film editing principles may sound very simple. Still, once you’ve learned them, you’ll be astounded at how much difference they make towards making an edit look smooth, believable, and just far more professional.