With production wrapped, it is now time to put this thing together. In this installment I’ll go over:
  • a basic folder structure to use for your project
  • 3 edits used often
  • when and why to cut
  • and the three phases of editing

There are 5 stages to this workflow. Note: This is my workflow, not necessarily those used by A-List superstar directors, though I assume it shouldn’t be that much different.

  1. Organize
  2. Review & Rename
  3. Rough Cut
  4. Fine Cut
  5. Final Cut & Picture Lock

*Note the last three stages are passes/phases of an edit.

Organize your Footage and Other Essentials

Whether it’s creating files captured from tape or moving files from your SD cards, get your footage out of your camera and onto your hard drive. Also, if you or someone else has created things for your project, round those up as well.

You should be able to organize all your footage, pictures, audio, pre-made graphics, etc., in some way. If not, it may be difficult to find what you need or take forever to find that “one thing.”

Here’s a basic organization structure.

Place everything in one folder with your project name. Within that project folder create these subfolders:

  • edit – when you create a new file in your editor, you’ll create it within this folder.
  • footage – dump all your footage here.
  • pictures – whether you’ve taken pictures, or created them in photoshop, that goes here.
  • sound – any sound effects, noise, or music you already have, they go in this folder.
  • assets – anything you may add to your project like motion graphics, lower 3rds, logos, fake lens flares. (These you may acquire after your edit, but I like to create the folder anyway since I almost always make assets)
  • documents – scripts, waivers, legal notices, receipts, notes.

You’ll create more folders the bigger your project is or the more organized you feel you have to be to find what you need. But I think this will get you through the majority of most projects.

Review and Rename

Get familiar with the footage by reviewing them as you rename them. I’m assuming the files you have are labeled with proprietary designations and sequential numbers (MVI0465 or something like that). You’re going to want to change them to something like “Scene 2A Take 1.”

TIP: In part four for double system sound, I had a step where you yell out the shot and clap. When renaming your footage listen to that shot name, because that’s what you’re going to rename it to.

Having a good overview of the shots, retained in your short-term memory at least, allows you to semi-edit in your head, plus you’ll be able to recall what shot you want to use when deciding edit points. And yes, I actually watch everything that was shot.

Basic edit techniques

Let’s get down to business. For reference sake, editing is taking individual shots of pictures and sound and compiling it into something with a story or at minimum, makes sense to watch. The edit is the transition from one shot to the next.

There are primarily three “edits” I find get used the most.

CUT— An instantaneous change between two shots. This is the simplest and most used edit.
FADE— A gradual progression from picture to black and vice versa. I’m sure you’ve heard of “fade-to-black,” this is what’s being mentioned, although you can fade to whatever color you want; another most used color would be white.
DISSOLVE— A gradual progression from one picture to another. It’s mostly used as a technique to convey a passing of time, or in the case of montages, a smoother and more “pleasing” transition.

When to cut

Knowing when to cut, in my opinion, is half subjective, and half methodical. On the one hand, you can cut a story multiple different ways and each get a different emotional response. On the other hand, you can decide on edits through a systematic approach and end up like a ton of business videos. Don’t even get me started on the replicable system some people are selling, I’m just not a big fan of cookie cutters… unless it deals with cookies.

The big thing in editing is communicationknowing what you want to convey to your audience. What emotion do you want them to experience? What’s the idea you want to put across? Then you want to make sure that your edit doesn’t pull away from this experience you’re trying to craft for them.

I believe people in general have watched enough movies to know when an edit doesn’t make sense. I’m sure you’ve probably watched something and wondered, “What was the point of that?” or “What does that have anything to do with?”

So when do we cut?

There are many reason we can choose to cut, a good portion of those reasons are subtle, but we’re talking about basics, and I believe there are a few common reasons in all editing scenarios to cut.

New information

First, besides knowing what you want to communicate, I’ve learned a new shot should always present new information for the viewer. So ask yourself: what do you want your audience to see next? And there better be a good reason why they should see it, unless you want someone asking themselves, what the hell was that?

Here’s an example: a guy walks through a door looking for his watch, he only finds it by the noise it makes.

The cuts could be a wide shot of him digging through his apartment, a sound is heard, cut to a close-up of his eyes looking towards the left of the screen, and then cut to a two-shot of the watch he was looking for as well as him walking toward the watch and grabbing it. A simple 3-shot edit.

My rule of thumb for new information goes to either cutting to what you think is interesting and cutting to what you think is necessary. Obviously “interesting” is a personal choice, an aesthetically pleasing shot, an insert of a pivotal object, a reverse-shot of dialogue scene. Necessary is what you believe is important to move the story forward. Is watching a kid waking up, walking to the kitchen, opening the refrigerator, grabbing the milk, grabbing a bowl, pouring his Lucky Charms into said bowl, pouring milk, and devouring his cereal important and necessary in a scene that deals with the kid being late to catch the bus to school? You be the judge.


Cutting for continuity within an edit simply means not confusing your viewer. Having a shot of someone walking toward a table and in the next shot she’s already seated at the table reading a newspaper is definitely not continuous; it’s jarring. Continuity is keeping those edits from drawing attention to itself. You can also call it “seamless editing” because it just flows.

Continuity actually starts when the camera rolls during production. The actions and positions of actors and objects should be repeated for every take of a shot, that way when putting together different camera angles of the same scene, the dog doesn’t just disappear out of the wide-shot and reappear for the overhead shot.

Screen direction (the viewer’s sense of placement on screen) is also important to continuity because it deals with how your audience knows where things are. For instance, in a dialogue scene, it’s common practice for when character 1 is looking right while talking to character 2 that the other shot (also called a reverse-shot) with character 2 be looking left when responding to character 1. If both characters were shot facing right, the assumption is both are talking to a third character off screen.

Trim the fat

Get rid of extraneous seconds that distracts or doesn’t add to the story.

In an edit that has movement but no dialogue, if the action seems to be repeated from its previous shot, trim the new shot down a little. i.e. A door is starting to close in shot 1 and cuts as the door is half-way closed. The next shot (shot 2) begins with the door completely open and ends completely closed. Cut out the head-end of shot 2 to start as the door is half-way closed. This makes the transition from shot 1 to shot 2 continuous, and flow better.

Follow your script

Knowing your script makes it a breeze to figure out how your footage will cut together. Since your script is already broken down by scenes, it just makes sense to work by scenes. No breakdown necessary. Unless those particular scenes happen to contain some complex sequences. In that case, break your workload down accordingly.

A word about genre

Different genres have their own editing techniques. A horror movie has a lot of tricks to scare you while a drama uses long and lingering shots. Action movies tend to be frenetic and have quicker cuts, and comedies use abrupt cuts to punctuate punch lines. Of course none of these are hard rules, they’re more conventions of editing in certain genres.

If you watch a ton of movies, like I do, you’ll pick up on the “grammar” of each genre. That’s what I recommend you do if you want to get better at editing. Watch movies. Watch a lot of movies. But not just watch, pay attention to how a film (and its sequences) is edited and the effect it gives you. Write it down, use post-it notes, tissues, pay stubs, whatever. Be ready to break a few rules, break convention, it’s always being done.

Rough Cut, Fine Cut, & Final Cut

Unless your movie is super small, or you’ve already edited in your head, you’re more than likely going to go through a couple passes of editing. I find myself going through these three phases, no matter how clever or complete I think I’ve already nailed it in my head.

The Rough Cut

Putting together the rough cut should be fairly quick, you’re deciding on consecutive shots and assembling an overall story. Don’t get hung up on timing, you just want the main idea down.

The Fine Cut

During the fine cut, you’ll fine-tune those clips you have on your timeline by “trimming the fat” and massaging your shots to invoke an emotion or reaction. You’ll double check that the screen direction makes sense and smooth out anything that stands out too much, including audio.

The Final Cut & Picture Lock

The goal of the final cut is to get to picture lock, a point where you no longer need to make any changes that can affect the timing of your movie. Once your movie is locked we can polish it off by correcting and enhancing color, which is what we’ll discuss in the last part to this series and maybe optionally add a few music tracks .

Every film is a puzzle really, from an editorial point of view.
– Walter Murch

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I’m leaving out compositing special effects and scoring because I don’t believe it’s absolutely necessary to make a fine movie. Your movie can work without them. Plus I don’t consider special effects and music composing a basic skill set, more like a long-ass learning curve which would defeat the purpose of me writing this series to get you out and making your movie as soon as possible. But of course if you know people, then more power to you. Utilize that. I do think adding a few music cues to your movie does help to flesh out the tone of a scene and you can get those from many of the royalty-free music sites out there online somewhere.

In the final post to this series we’ll discuss primary color correction techniques.