Film Editing Tips – There’s a Reason They Call it “Cutting”

Flatbed editor for editing film.
Flatbed editor for editing film.

Did you ever stop to think about all the filmmaking terms we use nowadays that harken back to the good ol’ days when “films” were actually shot on film? (Uh, wait. They’re still shot on film. Hmm?)

Did you ever stop to think about all the filmmaking terms we use nowadays that harken back to a bygone era when movies were ONLY shot on film? Terms like…

  • “Reel” – as in “demo reel” today, but originally an actual reel of film.
  • “Footage” – how long in feet was the film reel.
  • “B-roll” – an actual roll of fill edited together that was footage secondary to the primary footage (A roll). B-roll nowadays refers to the footage you see playing over some other dialog or voice over. The most common place you see it is in news programs (e.g. shots of a crime scene while you hear the reporter talking about it).
  • “Clips” – physical clippings cut from film reels that were to be spliced together in the editing room.
  • “Bins” – the section Final Cut Pro where video clips are held, but originally, film clips were hung in bins during the editing process.
  • “Cutting” – a nickname for “editing” that originated because film used to be edited by physically cutting a “work print” into clips, then re-arranging and splicing them together.

It’s that last term, cutting, that I want to talk about today. There’s another reason it’s called “cutting.” And a good editor knows what it is.

Last week I watched a promo video for an event that was literally twice as long as it needed to be, and it felt like it dragged (the promo, not the event). I think one of the hardest things for a newbie film editor to do is cut his/her film down. Especially if they were the director too (which is most often the case among the small business filmmakers and photographers who read this blog). There are all those cool shots you just can’t stand to leave on the proverbial “cutting room floor.” So you keep them in. Or you have all these wonderful soundbites that are just too good not to put in the video, so you keep them all. But if you want to grow as a storyteller in this medium, one of the most important things you can learn is the discipline of cutting out anything and everything that is not absolutely needed to contribute to the story (or communicate the message if it’s a commercial production).

A good friend of mine who is an indie filmmaker once told me a long time ago when I was just a filmmaking babe, “cut your films down to as short as you possibly can, then once you’ve done that, cut them down some more.” I always keep that advice in the back of my brain when I’m editing a project. I often have to whittle hours of footage down to just a few minutes. That means every shot, every soundbite needs to be just right. The more “fat” left in a short film, the greater the chance of losing your audience. And in today’s world with so much competition vying for people’s attention, every second counts.

Bin in Final Cut Pro with sequences and clips. I had three different passes of this job before reaching my final length.

Here are some tips from my experience at cutting out the fat

  • Every frame counts: I get so detailed in my cutting, that I’ll shave off individual frames from some shots. Keep in mind that for most of my work there are 24 frames in a second. So I’m literally saving off fractions of a second. But those fractions add up over a four, six, or ten minute film.
  • Cut out “ums” and “uhs”: most of my work is primarily comprised of b-roll over dialog from interviews. There’s no reason to keep the “ums” and “uhs” that people say when they’re trying to remember something, or if they’re stuttering over their words, etc. Not only can you shave quite a bit of time out, but your subject will be happy you made them sound more intelligent.
  • Don’t repeat: often I’ll be interviewing a series of people all talking about the same topic (e.g. employees at a company I’m doing a corporate video for; brides and grooms of a wedding photographer for whom I’m doing a promo; etc.) Inevitably, they will all at some time make a similar or identical point. For the most part, I’ll use the best soundbite from just one of them as it relates to that one point. (However, this is not a hard and fast rule. There may be times when you may want to include a very specific aspect that every single person mentioned, and string them all together to make a strong point. For example, if five people in a row state how a photographer made them laugh.)
  • Aim for a specific length: it helps if you have a specific length of time to shoot for. For a web promo, 2-2.5 minutes is ideal with 4 minutes being tops). Most broadcast TV commercials have to be exactly 29.5 seconds. In “Hollywood,” studios are always imposing strict running times. If you’re committed to a set time length, that will force you to make the hard choices to cut out what isn’t absolutely needed.
  • Save longer versions along the way: in my process of cutting down the films I work on, I’ll duplicate the sequences I create, then rename them with sequential numbers (e.g. promo pass dump, promo pass 1, promo pass 2, etc.) The “dump” sequence is the very first dump of all the footage and synchronized audio. Each subsequent pass is shorter than the last. If I ever need to go back to get a soundbite or visual I cut out previously, I just open it up and copy and paste the clip I need.
  • Be mindful of the message: if you’re creating a commercial piece meant to communicate a message, always keep that message in mind.
  • Split it up: sometimes you can split a video into multiple parts if you feel that the information you have is too important to leave out, but adding it back in will make the piece too long. For my photographer promo clients, I will almost always have a complementary shorter video that has additional interview footage from their clients. (Note: that’s complementary with an “e,” not an “i”. :) ) Think of them as “special features.” It gives the viewer the option to dive deeper into a specific topic if they want, while keeping the main promo short and tight.
  • The human eye and ear are amazing: we can actually take in quite about bit of information in a relatively short amount of time. Use that to your advantage. Sometimes all you need is a split second to communicate a world of information.

Take a look at this award-winning commercial for the “Got Milk” campaign. It’s only 60 seconds long, but look at everything you learn about this guy in that time. And pay attention to how quickly the shots go by after he hears the contest question.

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So the next time you’re editing a project, play a game. Whatever length you were originally planning to make it, cut it in half. Even if it’s just something you do aside from whatever you submit to a client. Practice cutting your films down. And when they are as short as they can be, cut them some more.

Now if I can just learn to apply that discipline to my blog posts. :)

14 thoughts on “Film Editing Tips – There’s a Reason They Call it “Cutting”

  1. Thanks for the insights, even more for the tips on how do you actually apply some of them.

  2. Hello,

    very helpful tips, though I am a bit confused on the following:

    “Sometimes you can split a video into multiple parts if you feel that the information you have is too important to leave out, but adding it back in will make the piece too long. For my photographer promo clients, I will almost always have a complementary shorter video that has additional interview footage from their clients. (Note: that’s complementary with an “e,” not an “i”. ) Think of them as “special features.” It gives the viewer the option to dive deeper into a specific topic if they want, while keeping the main promo short and tight.”

    Could you elaborate on this? What is the point in having an ‘extra’ piece if it is never going to be in the video? And how are you going to ‘split’ the video here? How and in what sense?

    Thanks

    1. This is a very good question. Let’s say you’re making a promo video for a client. You really want it to hit the major services and get viewers to connect. So you may cover all the high level bases like this video we did for photographer Shawn Reeder: http://daredreamer.net/#/shawnreeder/

      But let’s say you have a lot of great detail about some other aspect of his business you can’t afford to go into in the main video. So, you can use one of these extra videos to elaborate on some aspect of the client’s service you only briefly touched on in the main promo. Like this: https://vimeo.com/23357111

      I hope that sheds some light on the subject.

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