I Go To Film School So You Don't Have To: Lesson 2 – Editing

In the ongoing series of I Go To Film School So You Don’t Have To, I outline the basics of an introduction to filmmaking class (it’s basically film school without the ‘film’ or the ‘school’). Today: editing.


  • The footage you shot for your assignment (tell a story in one minute)
  • The camera you shot it on
  • A computer with editing software
  • A sandwich (chips and drink optional)

I’ll reiterate what I said last week: I don’t know what software you’re using to edit or what sort of equipment you have, so I’ll mostly leave the technical stuff to you. If you don’t know how to do something, read the manual (or you can ask a question in the comments here). So the next few steps will be quite vague, and then we’ll be talking about theory.

1) Get your footage onto your computer – This is called capturing. It’s best to capture video in individual clips rather than dumping it into your computer as one long file. This saves hard drive space and allows your software to work faster. Some software splits apart clips automatically, and with some software you will have to do this manually. This part takes awhile and you don’t really need to do anything other than review the footage as it comes in, so now would be a good time to eat that sandwich.


  • Clip bin – This is where all your master clips (see below) are kept in a long list. The more you capture, the longer this list gets. This is why good naming habits are important. If you have 54 clips named ‘untitled’ you might as well get it over with now and go throw yourself off a bridge.
  • Master clip – A clip you captured from your tape. This is most likely not something you want to plop directly into your movie without trimming first, because it probably has junk on the beginning and end, actors forgetting their lines, and that damn dog that kept barking. Plus, it’s just plain boring to stick with one angle all the way through.
  • Subclip – A clip defined within a master clip. In other words, you mark a time segment within the master clip that you want to use in your project because it doesn’t contain any junk or mistakes or barking.
  • Timeline – Where you put your subclips and arrange them in a coherent order. This is the most important piece of your work area because it is here that you will shape your project, finesse it, and eventually get frustrated and quit. But then you will come back, days or weeks or months or years or decades or (occasionally) centuries later, and you will finish it because otherwise it will JUST KEEP BUGGING YOU.
    • Playhead – This is something in the timeline. It’s a little vertical line that tells you what frame you are currently looking at. If you hit play it will move steadily forward. You can also click and drag it to anywhere on the timeline at any speed, and you will see the resultant frames played back. This is called scrubbing (there’s no reason to know that, except to act all smug and superior in front of your friends and relatives).

2) Play with it – remember: it’s alright to make mistakes. This is called nondestructive editing, and experimentation is the best way to work.

Digital editing software is built for something called nonlinear editing. This means that you can go back and change things without erasing all subsequent edits, which is something that you would have to do if it were 1989 and you were doing a linear, tape-to-tape edit. With nonlinear editing, you can pick up clips and move them around on the timeline.

Most (if not all) nonlinear editing software uses a system called three-point editing. This means you define three points in time in reference to the master clip that you captured from your tape. Here’s what these three points are, and what they do:

  • The in point – defines where within the master clip the subclip you are defining will begin playing
  • The out point – defines where within the master clip the subclip will stop playing
  • The other point (I don’t know what it’s called) – defines where in the timeline your clip begins playing.
    • There’s actually a fourth point that defines where in the timeline your clip STOPS playing, but that is usually set automatically by your software and we don’t have to worry about it for now.

Now, you don’t necessarily need to know that stuff, but it helps. You’re probably already doing three-point editing without realizing it, and there are many different ways to edit. One of the most popular techniques for beginners is to drop the whole master clip into the timeline and then trim it down from there. You can do this by grabbing the beginning or end of the clip and dragging it in to the point where you want the clip to actually start and stop (this is called rolling the edits), or you can use the ubiquitous cutting tool.

In Final Cut, it’s called the razor. In Premiere, it’s called the blade. In Avid, it’s that little picture that looks sort of like a fish next to all those other pictures that look sort of like other fish. In iMovie, you “split clip at playhead.” In Windows movie maker, you curl up into a fetal position and weep for several hours and then go out and walk the dog.

However you do it, the cutting tool lets you bisect any clip in the timeline. You usually then delete one of the pieces because it contains one of your actors making a Freudian slip that is, although spectacular, out of place in your film. Guess what? That’s three-point editing, too! It’s ALL three-pont editing! You can’t escape! HAHAHAHAHA!

Sorry. All I’m saying is that if you stop thinking about it and just edit, these things tend to work themselves out on their own.

Now, before you get too far, I’ve got something big to spring on you:

That clip bin up there? That’s imaginary. So is the timeline. It doesn’t exist. And not just in the sense that nothing on your computer really exists; these things actually aren’t real.

“Wait a minute!” you cry in outrage (Go ahead, do it. It relieves stress.), “Why did I just spend two hours learning how to use something that isn’t real?” The answer, of course, is that it beats doing real work. But all is not lost! Because your computer is watching you.

Yes, your computer has been spying on you as you do all these imaginary things, and even as it contemplates to itself how silly you are, it writes down every change you make. And every time you ask for something that isn’t actually there, it goes and finds something that vaguely resembles what you’re looking for and shows it to you, under the theory that it’s better to appease you than suffer your insane (and possibly dangerous) ramblings.

Here’s what really happens:
When you capture all your master clips, they are saved as video files in a folder somewhere on your hard drive. When you bring up a master clip from your bin, your computer finds the file you’re looking for and feeds it to your editing software, which in turn shows it to you. When you make a change in your timeline, your computer writes down that change in a text file so it can remember it later.

Here’s the clever bit: when you trim a clip down and put it into the timeline, the original master clip is not affected. Instead, your edits are recorded in this text file, which is essentially a little recipe that explains to the editing software how to take the master clips and turn them into an edited project on-the-fly. ISN’T THAT COOL?

OK. So you don’t think it’s cool. I understand. You probably think it’s really goddamn confusing. WELL, YOU’RE IN LUCK! YOU DON’T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT ALL THAT! Why? Because you live in the imaginary fantasy world of your editing software, which presents you with a nice, safe, tidy ersatz reality that’s much easier to understand. If Søren Kierkegaard were alive today he’d probably have a lot to say about that, but none of it would be very interesting.

Yes, the world of editing software is deep and confusing. This is because software engineers, like the video engineers from last week, hate you. Learn to live with the pain. The most important thing to remember here is that the best way to learn to edit is by editing. Don’t be afraid to play around, you’re not going to break anything.

So you know how to edit. that’s all well and good, but there’s a difference between editing and editing well. I’m not going to be pedantic about what sort of editing is good and what sort isn’t; that’s just something you’ll have to figure out on your own. Instead, I’m going to talk about a few of the prevailing techniques and styles of editing.

The first one is the simplest: don’t edit. Basically, you shoot everything from one camera angle and never cut to anything, just run all the way through from beginning to end. Some people, like Hitchcock, can do this well. Most people wind up with something that is incredibly dull. This is maybe worth trying at some point, but not only is it unlikely to be very interesting, it is much more difficult to shoot.

Another option is cutting on the action. Remember last week when I had you watch a well-edited scene from a movie and said there were probably twice as many edits in it as you would expect? That’s because the editor took the time to cut from one angle to another when action is going on in the frame, and matching the action between the angles so that it flows smoothly. This creates what is essentially an invisible edit – one the audience doesn’t notice because they’re focused on the motion. It takes practice to get this right, but once you do it can work miracles.

If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s UNMOTIVATED EDITING: edits that happen for no apparent reason and just sit there, silently and belligerently daring the audience to justify or explain their existence. JUST FREAKIN’ DON’T CUT TO ANOTHER ANGLE UNLESS YOU HAVE A GOOD REASON. OK?

So what are good reasons for cutting? Well, if you want to show a character’s reaction in close-up, that’s a good reason. If you want to establish the scene or give an overview of the action occurring in the scene, THAT’S a good reason. If you want to use a cutaway of the main character’s left foot in order to expose to the audience his discouragement with the traditional two-party political structure in contemporary American politics, even THAT is a good reason, if you can get the audience to swallow it. If you want to cover up a mistake… that’s not a good reason. That mistake shouldn’t be there in the first place. Find a take that doesn’t have that mistake in it, or use a different angle. If you MUST cover up an edit such as that, at least cut to something relevant rather than dropping in a meaningless cutaway. Mmkay?

Editing software automatically links picture with sound. That’s good enough for now. Just pretty much let sound do its own thing for now and be moderately satisfied with the results. In future lessons we’ll be talking about sound and the myriad ways it is going to ruin your life. So you’ve got that to look forward to.

…And that’s really about it for this week. Your assignment for next week is to edit your movie.

I remain as always your faithful servant,
Dr. Prof. Rev. Mr. Gingerich (unaccredited)

4 thoughts on “I Go To Film School So You Don't Have To: Lesson 2 – Editing

  1. Well golly, Mr. Andrew. My computer makes a funny buzzing sound when I try to edit with it. What does this mean? Do I need to fix it? How do I fix it? I would appreciate it if you answer me these questions.

    Yours truly,
    Vvinni/Vynni/Smith (pronounce V-IN-EE) Gagnepain

  2. Smith,

    When your computer makes a funny buzzing sound it means it’s losing the will to live. Try kicking it real hard.

    If that doesn’t work, throw it out and buy a new computer.

    – Dr. Gingerich

  3. I happened upon this page from a work google alert for linear motion.
    I really enjoyed it. I even laughed out loud once or twice. I will back bookmark and backread your lessons. I am desperately trying to create dvd and online sales videos (in an artistically authentic manner, and one that will provide job security).

    Many, many thanks for sharing without asking for coin.



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