How to Time an Edit

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Whether you’re editing a feature film or your sisters wedding, you’re faced with many little decisions about when to time your edit.

There’s a plethora of different variables that factor in to your decision on the timing of cut, and this article doesn’t attempt to work like an algorithm, instead it aims to teach you how to “feel” the cut naturally. You’re edit decision could be based on the music track, the action in the scene, or the dialogue in the scene. You know approximately where you want the cut to take place but not “exactly” where, and this is how you determine that.

A year ago, before I began editing my first indy feature film, I read a book by Walter Murch. For those of you who don’t know him, he’s widely considered to be one of the worlds greatest film editors of all time. He’s responsible for Apocalypse Now, the Unbearable Lightness of Being, the English Patient and Cold Mountain to name a few. The book I’m referring to is titled “In the Blink of an Eye” and it explains the why, not the how of edits.

One of the things I learned from the book is a technique that helps an editor make a proper edit between two shots. If you’ve been to the movie theatres, as well as been on YouTube, then you’ve seen the difference been a well-timed edit and one that isn’t timed so well. The result of an ill-timed edit is, it takes you out of the “dream.” See filmmakers don’t want you to notice that you’re watching a movie. They want you so ensconced in the film that you lose your steady stream of conscious thought and become literally immersed in the story. What that bad edit will do, is snap you out of that dream, and awaken you to the fact that you’re actually watching something that is a fabrication. So you can understand how crucially important a properly timed edit is.

What Walter does, is play the first clip like he’s watching the film, and taps pause the moment he feels the edit should take place. Now he doesn’t just make the edit right then and move on, he continues to repeat that task until he pauses on the exact same frame 3 times in a row. At that point he determines that the edit is correct and moves on. This is an incredibly effective technique, but not always simple, due to the fact that there is 24 different frames in every second of film.

Try this technique, it really works. I’m not as much of a perfectionist as Murch is. If the mean of the times are very close I’ll split the difference, or if I pause on the same time more than once I’m usually satisfied, but just test it out and see what works for you.

Another thing I do that I didn’t pickup from Murch is a technique to sharpen this ability. I’ll watch a film, or television show (anything with high quality editing) and try to guess the times of the edits as they’re taking place. It’s the best way I’ve found to study high quality works and workers within my field. Just paying attention to the editing doesn’t work for me because I’ll quickly slip into the dream and become a viewer instead of an observer/student like I want. I watch the film from the beginning and either blink every time I feel the edit will be made or say to myself “now”….”now”…”now.” (btw that blink I mentioned is not the one referred to in the book title”

You’ll train your brain, like an athlete trains his muscle memory, to make these edits quickly and correctly. The majority of the time in film editing, if no one notices the editing, then you’ve done your job. The edits need to be flawlessly and meticulously smooth to avoid the viewers attention and I hope this article has helped you sharpen your abilities.

Lowell

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The Video Genius was created by Lowell Brillante who is an award-winning producer located in Charlotte, NC. Lowell built The Video Genius from nothing into the creative, growing production company that it is today. In addition to building The Video Genius he also created and manages a video production group on linkedin which currently has over 15,000 members.

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