Editing your short film

Once you’ve got all your shots in the can, only one step remains: edit that sucker!

This step is many things: daunting, exhausting, thrilling, exhilarating. It’s where your movie becomes the movie it’s meant to be.

Assuming you’re all digital and not piecing together actual strips of celluloid, editing falls into a few key stages.

  1. Watch all your footage. How long this takes depends on how much you shot. You’ll want to check out every second of every take, and make notes on things that worked or didn’t work (e.g., your actor did a great reaction 3m 42s into take 5, their co-star delivered the perfect line in response 3m 50s into take 8…). Make these detailed notes, with the times of the things that worked (or didn’t work), so that you have a complete list of every shot, and which moments you might want to use. See you in a couple of months.
  2. Assemble. Not like the Avengers. This can be the most painstaking stage of all. This is you putting together your assembly, or rough cut. Mashing together different shots to see what works. It helps to be ultra-organized here: go line by line, reaction by reaction. Re-watch your clips for each beat, note down which parts of which shots you want to put next to each other, and away you go. Try out those combinations. If they don’t work, try different variations. (Yoda will be ok with all that trying, we promise). As you put your clips into your editing software, and then cut the small snippets of each one as you construct your movie beat by beat, you can mess with shortening them, intercutting them differently, experimenting with shots from different angles… Some takes are faster than others — you can see what speeds work, and adjust the clip lengths. Maybe that long pause that seemed to work on the day doesn’t now that it’s in context — so you can edit it down and make the scene fly. It’s mind-bogglingly slow and detailed work, but it’s fascinating and thrilling to watch your story coming together.

    External monitor

    Connecting an external monitor so you’re not looking at your clips in a little 3×2 inch box is extremely helpful…

  3. Continuity. You might be putting together your favorite shots to construct an argument that’s happening — but then you notice your actor’s hair is different (maybe they brushed it behind one ear in one shot, and the other ear in a different shot), or they’re leaning forward in one moment, then leaning right back the next. It’s not just about being guided by the best performances — you have to make sure the visuals flow and what’s happening matches up from shot to shot. So if your actor leans forward from one angle, you might cut to the next shot from a different angle that shows them continuing to move — this gives your movie flow and a good kinetic energy. The audience may or may not specifically notice, but they’ll certainly feel it. Watch out for cups moving around the table if the actors picked them up during the scene, or glasses getting more or less full, or any prop/furniture movement. There are a million details, and you need to see them all.
  4. Audio. Be prepared to separate your sound from your visuals. You might need to take a line from one take where you’re looking at actor A, and lay it over the reaction shot where you’re looking at actor B. Or take some “room tone” from one take, and lay it over a gap in another take where you had to cut out the sound of someone banging into a table. You might need to take dialogue from an entirely different moment and lay it over a shot where it doesn’t belong in order to create a beat that wasn’t there before. The possibilities are endless. So play with it. Have fun. Editing is where your movie is truly written, so embrace the “anything can happen” feeling!
  5. Polishing and cleaning. Once you have a rough cut, with your audio cut together too, you need to embark on the next phase: cleaning everything up. This means fine tuning each and every transition from one clip to the next to make sure your movie is tight and flows cleanly and dynamically. You’ll also work on your audio, adjusting the EQ, dealing with hiss or other extraneous noise, increasing volume in a quiet take, or reducing it if people start shouting and making the sound distort. It also means adding sound effects, e.g. footsteps, doors opening, cups clinking, background ambient noise, etc. Whatever you need to add that extra dimension to your story and evoke the world that your characters are living in.


    Audio clips for days… Editor’s sanity not pictured.

  6. Color Correction. Technically part of the cleanup, this is a step unto itself, as you adjust exposure, shadows, color, saturation, in order to make your image rich and dynamic. You can really give your scenes life, warmth and a cinematic feel with this step.
  7. Music. If you need music for your movie, this is the time to add it. Once your picture is locked, sound cleaned up, color corrected, you can add the soundtrack.
  8. Credits. It’s up to you how and where the credits go, but they should be unobtrusive in the sense that they must fit your story and your mood. They can be simple, or they can be David Fincher in Seven-style insane (and awesome). Whatever works for your movie.

Watching your clips, cataloguing them, then piecing them together into a rough cut which you then fine tune, while you get all your audio clips cleaned up and in the right place, can take weeks, even for a 10 minute short. It’s all about making each moment sing, about doing your story justice, and making sure you do your actors justice too. They’ve worked hard for you — you need to choose moments that show them off.

Editing is where it all comes together, and the true identity of your movie becomes clear. What you thought it was, what you thought you shot on the day… that all falls away. You work with what’s there, and what’s there will tell you what works. It’s incredibly thrilling and fulling. And never more so than when you screen the finished product for the first time!

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