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Crafting your story in the edit

Film editing, like many other creative and artistic processes, is probably 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration.

Editors spend much of their time logging, organising and sorting through footage, and then possibly as much time again thinking about it. Indeed, as legendary Hollywood editor Walter Murch (famous for his work on films like The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now and The English Patient) has written, editing involves:

“a vast amount of preparation, really, to arrive at the innocuously brief moment of decisive action: the cut - the moment of transition from one shot to the next - something that, appropriately enough, should look almost self-evidently simple and effortless, even if it is noticed at all.”1

So, the work, indeed the art, of the editor is often hidden completely by the fact that cuts are so short in comparison to the organisational and intellectual work required to make them.

However, this is usually deliberate. We don’t notice the cut because we’re not supposed to. Many films, whether fact or fiction, or whether for small or large screen, are edited using particular techniques (often called continuity editing) that help the story flow seamlessly in a continuous and coherent way.

Continuity Editing

Continuity editing is a set of techniques and style of editing which, as the name suggests, aims to provide the story with spatial and temporal continuity. It establishes a logical relationship between shots in time and space, creating a coherent world in which the story occurs.

It is the predominant style of film editing for narrative films and television all over the world, and the techniques are so familiar, so ‘natural’, and so skilfully rendered invisible, that we barely even notice them. And that’s precisely the point - continuity editing is designed to hide the art of the editor as much as possible, which is why it is sometimes also known as invisible editing.

Some of the key ideas of continuity editing include:

  • Diegesis, or the construction of a coherent internal world for the story,using the images and sounds of the characters and objects in the narrative.

  • Cross-cutting, sometimes called parallel editing

  • Jump Cuts

  • Eyeline Match

  • Match on Action

  • Point of View (POV) shots

  • Axis of Action / 180 degree Rule and ‘Crossing the Line’

For more detailed information, analysis and examples of these elements and techniques there are a number of excellent glossaries of film terms available online, such as the one provided by the BFI: Film Glossary

These techniques are merely guidelines for producing logical coherence as the story transitions through time and space. It may be that what you actually want to produce is a sense of discontinuity, disharmony and disorientation, easily achieved by breaking the rules of continuity editing.

Whilst continuity editing is excellent at providing coherence for physical action, it may not always be the best technique for offering psychological depth. A montage editing style, which cuts together a collection of symbolically related images that suggests psychological relationships, might be more effective, if more abstract.

Amount of Footage

When you first sit down to edit you will find yourself confronted with much more footage than you can use. This could be a ratio of five, ten, even twenty times as much material as the length of the final film. It’s important to not let this intimidate you. As Walter Murch suggests, it could even liberate you:

“editing - even on a ‘normal’ film - is not so much a putting together as it is a discovery of a path… the overwhelming majority of an editor’s time is not spent actually splicing film. The more there is to work with, of course, the greater the number of pathways that can be considered, and the possibilities compound upon each other and consequently demand more time for evaluation.”2

So, in the edit you want to have enough material so that you have options for how you tell the story, but not so much as to make the process too long and arduous. The more footage you have, the more pathways through the story you can consider - the downside is that there’s also a greater chance of getting lost!

This is where great planning comes in to play. The better you plan, the easier it should be to select the right pathway in the edit. There’s an old anecdote, sometimes apocryphally attributed to Michelangelo, about a sculptor who said, when asked how he managed the difficult task of sculpting an elephant, that the task was easy:

‘all you have to do is chip away everything that isn’t an elephant’.

In some ways, editing is similar to the apocryphal elephant: you just keep chipping away at everything that isn’t essential to the story, and then you polish and polish until it looks like how you imagined it - or better! Thinking about the following questions share your thoughts in the comments area.

  • Can you think of something you have seen that breaks the rules of continuity editing? Why do you think it did so?

  • Are there any other editing techniques that you’ve seen that struck you as being engaging, but unconventional?

1. Walter Murch. In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing, 2nd Ed. (Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 2001), p.4.

2. Ibid. pp.3-4.

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This article is from the free online course:

Digital Storytelling: Filmmaking for the Web

University of Birmingham