As an editor, your job is to pull of one of the greatest tricks—that is to be invisible in front of everyone. In other words, while your work as an editor ultimately creates the film, it should be so seamless as to go unnoticed.
Proper editing is an emotive process, which means as an editor you have to feel your way through each cut. Literally, you will make a cut, play it through, and feel it. Does if feel right? Does it work? If yes, move on. If not, circle back, recut, and feel your way through it again. Cut. Feel. Cut. Feel.
There is a reason things need to “feel right”. That’s because when you make a film, you are entering into a unique relationship with the viewer wherein you must provide a virtual reality for them. Not just any reality, but one that is consistent with the way the viewer experiences the world. The reality you create for them must so closely mimic the viewer’s normal perceptions that they forget it was edited.
Remember that the camera is the equivalent of your viewer’s head. Don’t do anything with the camera or the editing that doesn’t feel right.
One way to learn proper editing is to pay attention to when people tend to blink and how their eyes move when they are watching something occur in real life. Keying into these two behaviors will allow you to mimic this behavior with your shooting and editing.
While it is true we blink to clean and moisten our eyes, we do not blink at regular intervals. Instead, we tend to place our blinks where they are not in the way of observing action and gathering information. With this in mind, we are now going to explore another type of editing, the matched-action cut.
Think of editing film like speaking a language. A single frame of video is simply a single still image. When we string thirty of them together we’ve got one full second of moving image, right? Well, think of single frames as analogous to letters. Clips are words. A sequence of clips is a sentence. Sequences are compiled to make paragraphs, and so on. Editing a film is a process of speaking a language, and just as with writing, you will need to follow conventions of visual grammar in order to make sense to your viewer.
A Word on Reality
People tend to think that documentary filmmaking captures what actually happened in front of the camera without bias, that the camera is simply an impartial vessel that merely conveys actuality, truth. While the camera itself is impartial, the operator is not. We make personal choices that influence what we record, how we frame it, what we say, and how we edit it together. It is more accurate to say that through recording, scripting, and editing, you are at best representing reality, and it is convincing because of its realism. An important point for you, however, is that viewers tend to believe what they see. When communicating STEM disciplines that demand accuracy and neutrality, you must be aware of both your biases and the viewer’s susceptibility to them.
It doesn’t take a professional editor to recognize bad editing. We all know when cuts are jarring or don’t feel right. Before you even begin editing, take time to watch people and study when they blink. Then take time to think about editing grammar while watching professionally edited films. If you begin to understand how and why editing works, your films will flow smoothly and feel polished.