How to Edit Films

Editing – Turning key elements on video into a flowing story that makes sense

This lesson is not intended to teach you the mechanics of how to use various video editing software. There are lots of thick books out there for that purpose. Instead, it’s a roadmap of how the arrange the various parts of your story on the video “timeline” to create and interesting or compelling story.

Develop an editing plan

Now that you’ve videotaped your production, let’s begin clicking this baby together into a production on your editing system that tells your story with your production flair. So let’s first develop a plan. There are several ways of planning your story on the timeline although you probably know much of the story by heart.

First, you already had either a script or some kind of storyline developed before you began videotaping. From that, you maybe also made some notes on what and who you videotaped, and on which tapes they are located. If you’re not sure, you can take the extra time now to put some order to all your tapes by making a “tape log” which are columns of notes that list:

  • Tape Name
  • Date and who videotaped
  • Timecode in and timecode out of segments
  • Content of segments – possibly which take to use
  • Audio or video notes – “interesting interview”

Using this tape log, you can begin selecting the clips that you’ll use to edit your production. However, if you want to skip making a tape log or even forget making a rough edit on paper by listing the clips, you can jump right in and begin capturing (digitizing) your desired clips to your hard drive in preparation for editing. Keeping them sorted in folders that make sense relative to your story will help later in organizing production workflow.

So let’s say that you just want to start capturing video on your hard drive by using your script or storyline. That’s fine, get on with it. But as you go, take notes about what clips you’re capturing and where they will fit into your production. Also take notes about what support footage may be needed to help “support” that portion of the production. That way, you’re already thinking ahead to other footage to keep your eye open for during capture.

Whew, you’re finally done capturing. Yes, although capturing can be tedious work at times, capturing and identifying what footage will eventually be used is a crucial part of the editing process. It’s kind of like collecting bricks to build a house. Now let’s dive into the fun part of actually building the house – editing on the timeline.

Common sense rules – give the viewer a smooth ride that makes sense


Though some film editors would like you to think that what they do is all magic by telling a story with edits, it’s really about paying attention to four main things that make perfect sense in telling any story:

  • Follow the chronological timeline of events – start at the beginning and end at The End.
  • Develop the parts of the story from simple to complex
  • Follow logical continuity in the unfolding action and development of the story
  • Include all the main essentials of telling your story (refer back to the lesson on Story)

Now let’s take a more detailed look at the possible footage and edits that you might use to follow these four main principals of editing a story. Again, let’s use our standby example of the chemical plant near the river and let’s use the documentary style.

  • Follow the chronological timeline of events – Even without a narrator, we can use the interview from the elderly fisherman to set the stage of time and place. Remember the setting? He talks about yesteryear when the river flowed clean, full of big fish that were good to eat. Using his “voice lead” (we only hear his voice but don’t see his face yet) we establish setting and time. Here are some examples of some footage to edit in this order. At the end of each edit is a note about what type of transition from one clip to the next might best fit that flow and part of the story.
  • Old photo/s (pan & scan) of river from historical society (dissolve out = ds)
  • Footage of peaceful river (dissolve out)
  • Interview footage of the old fisherman sitting near river telling story, CG (ds)
  • Footage of person catching a big fish (dissolve out)
  • Footage of peaceful countryside (ds)
  • Old Photos of Town (ds)
  • Footage of Town (ds)
  • Interview of Fisherman’s face – close up as he tells.. “but then things changed in 1982 when the chemical plant came to town” straight cut (sc)
  • Footage of chemical plant – wide angle shot (sc)
  • Footage of chemical plant – medium angle shot (sc)
  • Footage of chemical plant – close-up shot of discharge pipe (sc)
  • Develop story from simple to complex – Now that we know when the chemical plant was built and where, we can begin revealing more of the story with simple to complex development. There’s little magic here. Just use the most appropriate interviews to tell the story of what the plant does and why it may be polluting the river and the town’s drinking water. The nice thing about editing a documentary is that you don’t have to follow tricky things such as Pictorial Continuity, which is the proper connection of sequences to create a smoothly joined and coherent video story that don’t violate the physics of time and space. Nonetheless, you need to make your story interesting. You’re striving for a balance between showing interesting people telling their stories without having too many “talking heads” that might make the story dull. So you use “B roll” or “cover footage” to cover their faces at you continue to play their interview dialog. Here’s an example of a short editing sequence where the company chemist is talking about his job and what he thinks is coming out of the discharge pipe.
  • Begin with VO (voice over) only of the chemist telling his story
  • Wide shot of chemical plant (sc)
  • Medium shot of chemical plant (sc)
  • Interview of chemist (sc) – now we see who is telling his story
  • Footage of chemist working (sc) he is still talking in the interview and we only see what is does at his job
  • Close-up of chemist’s face while working (sc)
  • Close-up of discharge pipe with fluid coming out (sc)
  • Interview of chemist (sc)

During all these various edits of scenes that help tell the story, we herd the chemist telling his part of the story. At this point, rather than let the chemist talk anymore about his role and risk letting the story become boring, it might be good to switch to either someone from town or an official from the chemical company to further develop the story. It could even be a worker in the plant who helps make the chemicals who also lives in town and his family drinks the water.

  • Follow logical continuity in the unfolding action – This part should be pretty easy and makes perfect sense in getting deeper and deeper into the story. But an editing trick that you can use to build tension as you unfold the story is to use shorter and shorter edits with interviewed people and the cover footage as you get closer to the climax of a point in the production.

Whew, let’s take a break. No not you, but your viewer. Trying to tell your entire story in a documentary with one interview after another can be both tiring and perhaps boring to the viewer. So give them a mental and visual break with creative transitional pieces. They don’t have to be long. Even 15 to 20 seconds of various edits will give them time to digest what you’ve already shown them and possibly set the stage for your next section or interview subject. Let’s say you wanted to follow the chemist’s interview with someone that worked at the plant and lived in town. Here is a possible sequence of edits to make that “transition”.

  • Workers in plant – nat audio of plant working sounds
  • Close-up of chemicals in big tanks – music audio (ominous?)
  • Refining chemicals process – nat audio with music mix
  • River shot with plant in distance – nat audio
  • River shot with town in distance – nat audio with music mix (ethereal)
  • Homes in town - music
  • One particular home with lights on – music to plant worker’s VO
  • Interview with plant worker in his home with his family
  • Include all the main essentials of telling your story  - Well, by now you’ve already done most of this part. You’ve shown setting, characters, conflict, protagonist, antagonist, on a timeline with rising tension. But here are a few more editing tips that will help you refine your skills.

Show with video footage that supports your story that doesn’t require a host or narrator telling you what you’re seeing and why. That’s the essence of editing – being able to show a story without words telling it.

Orient the audience with sequences that universally go left to right, down to up, close to far, and far to close. Watch out for connecting video clips that pan or have action moving in opposite directions. It will feel like a whiplash to the audience.

Avoid jump-cuts which is editing together two very similar scenes without a change in camera angle, subject or focal length. For example, two different portions of the same interview edited together would make the person appear to “jump”. Instead, break up the two clips in between with cover footage of the chemical plant or river.

Reveal details of the story with cut-in shots (if you have them). Cut in shots cut into the detail of the main action. These are ECU’s (extreme close-ups) of hands in action, chemicals, fish, discharge pipe, faces. Cut-ins follow a medium shot showing a person or scene where the detail is taking place.

Cut-aways on the other hand, cut away to something else related subject or separate simultaneous action, such as a duck swimming in the river looking, or another person looking at something. They serve as great editing bridges to “bridge” two similar clips.

People entering or leaving the scene can also be used as introductions to a new scene or as a final clip when leaving a series of scenes. If they are transitioned with a slow dissolve or “dip to black”, they can also suggest the passage of time. They also serve as a smooth transition between different scene locations or create bridges between segments.

So, that’s a jump start on some of the editing techniques that will help your viewers navigate through your storyline on a gentle ride without speed bumps.

A short sample: Biodiversity of Mexico
Watch this short intro to our first documentary.


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