How Does Film Editing Work?

MAY 11, 2020
Woman film editing on two computer screens.

If you’ve worked as a Background Actor, then you’re familiar with the production phase of filmmaking, but what happens after you leave set and filming has wrapped? Here’s a look at the film editing process and how all those shots are turned into a cohesive film or TV episode.

History of film editing

When the Kinetograph camera was invented in 1890, filming mainly consisted of single shot recordings of vaudeville shows. By 1900, it became more popular for filmmakers to use multiple camera positions and shots for one scene. To turn these shots into a cohesive visual, a film editor took the positive copy of a negative film strip, cut it into pieces, then taped together the sections from different shots. This process is called linear editing. As the film industry began to take off, technology was introduced to make linear editing more precise, like the Moviola and later flatbed editing machines. Editors had to be careful with their cuts as making additional copies could damage the source negative.

In 1988, the first digital (non-linear) editor was introduced. Shortly after, software was created that made digital film editing quicker, non-destructive, and gave editors more creative freedom, which is why non-linear editing became the industry standard.

Stages of editing

Film editing is part of post-production and is where all elements of a project come together. Each editor and project is different, but here are some general stages of editing a movie or TV episode:

Assembly cut

An assembly cut is the first version of the project where the editor assembles the filmed footage in chronological order. This cut of the film is often simple, long and used to give the director and editor an idea of what they have to work with.

Rough cut

After the assembly cut is finished, the editor goes through scene by scene to tighten everything up. They may decide to use a different take, cut out parts of a scene, or add transitions. Depending on the production, the director and editor may work together through this process or the editor will create a cut to present the director.

Main edit

In the main edit, the editor and director start to fine tune each scene. They look at how each shot works on its own and within the context of the entire project. Between the rough cut and main edit, they may find that reshoots or pickups are needed to fill gaps or enhance the story. If reshoots are needed, Background Actors are often recalled to match the original take as closely as possible.

Fine cut

The fine cut of the film focuses on specific details and making sure each scene is perfect. This is the “fine-tooth comb” stage where the goal is to have the director and producers approve the edit and picture lock the project. Once this happens, the film will be handed over to the sound department for sound effects and sound mixing. If you were hired by Central Casting as part of a walla group, the sound effects you recorded will be added when the fine cut is passed on to the sound team.

While editing is very technical, it also requires creativity. An editor needs to understand and convey the emotion of a scene, recognize which takes work best within the context of the story, and be able to see the big picture of a project. The New York Times says film editing is called “an invisible art” because good editing immerses the viewer in the story and only becomes noticeable when something doesn’t work.

As a Background Actor, it’s important to understand how your role impacts the editing process. Things like crossing the camera at the same time and matching your movements take by take help maintain continuity as the shots are edited together. Professional Background Actors pay close attention to directions given by the Assistant Director and remember their movements throughout a scene.

You can learn more about the filmmaking process in our articles Three Stages of TV and Film Production and What Does a Location Scout Do?

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By Meghan Dubitsky

Article Category:

Industry Essentials