Editing tips for when you’re stuck

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Today on the blog we are lucky enough to have our CEO and editor extraordinaire, Raven Whisnant, writing about her top 7 editing tips for when you get stuck on an edit.

Spending time editing can feel like entering a warped reality. You enter some kind of magical, creative realm, and the next thing you know you’ve been sucked into a vortex and it’s 15 hours later. Editing can be disorienting and mind-numbing. It’s a massive responsibility, and it’s ultimately maybe the biggest factor that makes or breaks a movie. A bad editor can make a phenomenally shot movie look awful, and a great editor can make a horribly shot movie look incredible. The person with the scissors holds most of the power. 

Usually, as the editor, you’re the last line of defense for what works and what doesn’t. In a perfect world, everything would just look great and we would just be choosing the best takes for acting, cinematography, pace, and so on. But anyone who’s been in editing knows that is kind of a fantasy. Even with huge productions there’s at least a little bit of puzzle-solving to do. Particularly on smaller budget or more indie productions there’s some fixing to be done in post. Personally, I think this kind of editing can be really fun, but it’s also the kind of editing that can become hard to remain objective about. So we aren’t going to talk about standard editing today, we are going to talk about what to do when you run headfirst into a brick wall. 

You know that thing where you say a word so many times in a row it stops sounding like a word? That’s what we’re talking about. When you’ve watched something so many times that you are unable to really see it clearly. When you have the editing equivalent of writer’s block. How can you see something you’ve seen 800 times with fresh eyes? If something just isn’t working and you don’t have all the material you wish you had to fix it, how can you think outside of the box and find new ideas?

Editing tip 1: Add an opposite mood song in the background.

Whatever the content of the scene, find a song that works with the opposite mood, and put it in as the background. This is obviously just a placeholder–this is just an editing game–so use any song you want. Working on an action sequence? Set it to classical music. Working on a period piece? Set it to dubstep. Working on a horror? Set it to a Celtic women’s choir. Set yourself the challenge of trying to find a beat and melody that actually works with the scene and strengthens it, even when the mood is opposite. Let it surprise you. 

Now unless you’re the director, and unless you have the rights to the song, you won’t actually be able to use it permanently. But you may find that recontextualizing the scene may give you a new outlook on it. Looking at the scene with a completely different tone, pace, and energy can help you unlock new ideas. You may also find that the scene really really works like this, and you’re gonna have to fight someone to let you keep it!

Editing tip 2: Ask if the order of the story is effective. 

When we know a script or a movie so well we can get really stuck in “the way things are supposed to be”. Sometimes when an edit is just falling flat, and you’re running out of ideas, one of the best questions to ask yourself is if everything is happening in the most impactful order. Example: would you build more suspense if you cut a scene, and withhold the information until later? Or perhaps the opposite is true, and the audience is having a hard time caring about a character because they don’t know enough about them yet. Maybe you need to add a scene earlier where their motivation is made very clear. Sometimes even for pace, you’ll find that maybe there are too many fast-paced, high-intensity scenes all back to back, and you need to mix up the order with the quieter scenes to keep the energy up.

Editing tip 3: Cut something unexpected.

Like a lot of these tips, this is just a game. This is for you and you alone. But you might find something fabulous. Try cutting something unexpected. What would happen if you just made a very dramatic change? You know that line that you just can’t lose because it explains everything for the next scene? What if you DID cut it though? What would you have to do to make the piece work if you lost it? Could you fix it? If something corrupted the file of your favorite scene and you HAD to lose it, could you come up with a workaround? 

Here’s a brief example: I was recently editing a film for someone, that was really special and well-made. It was a well-told story, and very well-written. But no matter how we cut it..the opening scene just dragged. I have never recut a scene so many times! We tried it backward, forward, inside out, upside down, NOTHING. It just dragged! But there was so much dialogue that seemed really important, we kept telling ourselves we just couldn’t cut it. Until one day…I did just that. I cut the whole damn thing. I took that 4-minute scene, and I found a place to open the scene on the last 20 seconds, and somehow it worked. I managed to keep in the few lines that really were needed for context, and basically just used the ending of the scene. It worked. It worked hard. The writer was so happy with it that she told me she wished the scene had been scripted like that to begin with. So maybe there’s something you think you really really can’t lose, but maybe you’re wrong. I sure was.

Editing tip 4: Turn off the audio. 

That’s right, turn off the sound. Sure, as the editor you know all the lines by heart anyways, but set yourself this challenge: remove one of the main elements of the film, and see how it feels. Genuinely watch the whole project in silence, and stay engaged. If you note yourself drifting, take note of where. After you’ve watched it, ask yourself these questions: if I didn’t know the script, and I watched it on silent, would I (at least on some level) understand what’s happening?  Did I like this? Did the camera work feel cohesive? Was there anything that looked very different from the rest of the material? Did the pace feel right? If I were in a bar with a TV playing this video and I could hardly hear it, would I be interested? Would I try to hear it over the crowd? Would I Google it?

Editing tip 5: Edit with a metronome or stopwatch.

Pace is king when it comes to editing. As much as I advocate for cutting most things shorter, and faster, I do truly believe in there being a natural pace for everything that serves the piece best. Sometimes a piece needs to be drawn out and savored. The truth is that your movie will ebb and flow, there won’t be one pace that you can, or should keep for the whole film, but there will be an overall rhythm that is cohesive. 

One of the best compliments I have ever received, as an editor was from a composer who was scoring a piece I had just cut, who told me that it was the easiest piece they had ever scored because of the rhythm of every action and every line was already had such a rut hem to it, that the music was very easy to time in sync with the scenes. So where does editing with a metronome play in? You don’t have to make each cut to the beat of the metronome. You just want to use the metronome to gauge the consistency of the timing. 

Select a rhythm that feels right for the scene, watch along with the metronome, and take notes of what’s happening at each beat. This is just to help you gauge consistency, and see if there are any outliers that are much faster or much longer than others. That won’t even necessarily mean it’s a bad thing, it’s just something to be aware of. You may find that your opening scene is incredibly fast-paced, and your fourth scene is very slow and takes its time. That’s completely natural. Your audience has breaks when they need breaks, and is sucked in when you want them engaged. You just want to be sure that everything is moving with intentionality, and that you are being as specific about every beat as you can be.

Editing tip 6: Just try to cut out 20%. 

This is a trick I am known for. Let me tell you: while it WILL make you a great editor, it will NOT make you friends. While the director always has final say over what makes it into the movie and what doesn’t, the editor’s job is to advise the director about what can (and should) be cut. Obviously figure out how to navigate these conversations in patient, understanding ways, but if something doesn’t severe the story? Cut it. Kill your darlings. Cut every single thing that doesn’t move your story forward, yes, even if it’s pretty. If it’s not adding to the story, trash it. 

When I have a cut of the film that I like, I save it, then I make a new copy to play with. I set myself a challenge: if the studio said they love this, but we can only air it if it’s 20% shorter, how could I get the run time down that much? The game always goes the same way. For the first 15 minutes or so I tell myself it’s not possible. Then I have an idea to shave off a few seconds, then a few more, then next thing you know I’m finding full sections I can cut. No matter where I start I can almost always cut around 20% out. Then you revisit your original draft, and just compare the two. You might find that some of the cuts were too short, and you lost moments you actually want back, but I bet you’ll surprise yourself with how many moments are just so much stronger in the shortest version of your film possible.

Editing tip 7: Phone a friend. 

If you’re truly, truly stuck, call a friend. Someone you trust, who you know will give you good feedback. Have them watch the movie and do the hardest thing of all for a creator: give them no explanation, and no context. Don’t even tell them the genre. Say. Absolutely. Nothing. Have them watch it and just get their initial feedback. Don’t talk to them while it’s on, don’t explain anything, or give any spoilers, use them as a completely uninformed test audience. If your eyes are so tired of seeing this movie, use this person as your fresh eyes. Let them tell you what you might be missing, or underestimating. Ask them how they felt about the pace, if they had any questions about the story, if they liked the characters, and if they felt engaged. Use someone nice, and someone you trust, otherwise this is a pretty unhelpful exercise, but in the right hands, this person can really help you see your film more clearly.

There you have it! If you’re truly stuck and dying to mix things up, this should break your film out of the monotony! Remember to always save your main draft, so you can always go back if you don’t want to stick with any of your weird experiments, but give yourself permission to do some experimenting! Even if you know that you’re just goofing off, and you have no intention of using what you made, just play around. Have fun! Put on that creative hat, and just get funky with it! The fantastic thing about editing, is that there’s always an infinite number of ways things can be cut together! So just try some on! I hope these editing tips were helpful to you; happy cutting.

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi


Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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