5 Fundamental Editing Techniques

In my favorite opening to any filmmaking book, Edward Dmytryk, in his classic On Editing, tells this story:

It was the early 1930s. A very important guest, Baron Rothschild, was being given Paramount’s version of the Grand Tour. One of his stops was my cutting room, where I was asked to say a few words by way of defining my craft.

I was young and enthusiastic. Some twenty minutes later, as I paused for breath, the Baron smiled. 

“It would appear,” he said, “that film editing is the art of filmmaking.”

I agreed, trying to ignore the twinkle in his eyes. Of course, I was then a film editor. A few years later, when I became a director, I would have probably changed my pitch-but not too much.

After working on nearly every part of the filmmaking process, I must say that “editing is making the movie.” Everything up to that is assembling the raw materials. But if filmmaking is akin to building a house, it is in the edit bay where the film is built.

Fundamental Editing Techniques

After over a decade of experience editing everything from 15-second social videos to narrative shows and feature-length documentaries, I wanted to write this article on the fundamentals of editing. The marketplace is full of jobs for “video editors,” but so many editors have never had the opportunity to study their craft in-depth. Many rely on graphic transitions and social trends without ever mastering the art of the invisible cut. 

But if there’s one thing I know about editors, it’s that they love to learn. So this article attempts to lay a foundation for the fundamentals so that you can go beyond editing by feel and have a deep knowledge about why a cut is working. 

#1 Cutting on action

The most basic technique of editing is cutting on action. An actor starts a motion in one frame, like lunging with a sword in a medium shot at :38, and a cut is made. The action is completed in the next shot which is a close up.

This technique works well because the viewer anticipates the action will be completed in the next shot. The edit can feel stunted and stagey if your cuts happen before or after the action. When you cut on action, the sequence will feel fluid, and the cut will be “invisible.”

A great book on this subject is The Invisible Cut, by Bobbie O’Steen. Sometimes you have large movements like the thrust of a word. Other times, you have to take advantage of more subtle movements like the turn of a head or shifting of an eyeline. 

#2 J and L cuts

The concept of cutting on action can even be extended to audio. To smooth out a cut, you can have the audio of an incoming clip begin just before the video does. This produces a “J” cut. The incoming audio gives the viewer a little heads-up that they should expect to see a speaker in the next clip. 

Think about a dialogue scene. If you were standing in a group with two other people having a conversation and one person was speaking, your attention would be on the speaker. If the other person spoke up, you’d hear their voice and then turn your head. This is a natural “J” cut, where you hear the audio before adjusting your view of the scene. 

When editing an interview with two angles, cutting between them at the very tail end of the sentence can be helpful rather than waiting for the speaker to complete their final word to cut away.

The reverse of the J cut is the “L” cut. Sometimes, you want to cut away to some footage before the speaker finishes their line. This is especially helpful if the talent makes a funny expression or if you need to cut the line mid-sentence. An L cut can also do a good job of setting up the next scene or visual.

#3 Match Cut

Match cuts use a similarity between two shots to connect them. Match cuts are often planned in pre-production, but sometimes you can discover them in editing as well. This video by StudioBinder does an excellent job of showcasing many different kinds of match cuts. One of the most famous match cuts is in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where a bone is tossed into the air, and then the film cuts to a space station that is similar in shape. 

Another match cut focuses on the audio. Music or a sound effect from one shot may continue into another, and it takes on a new meaning in that new context.

Motion match cuts take advantage of cutting on action (Technique #1) to connect two shots so that the action seems continuous, but the incoming clip takes place in a different location or is completed by a different character. Edgar Wright uses this technique in his films.

#4 Eye Trace

If you are watching an interview, your eyes are typically focused on the eyes of the subject. If you cut away to something else, your focus will start in the place where the subject’s eyes were. If the main subject of the new shot is in another part of the frame, your eyes take a moment to hunt around the screen for what they should pay attention to. This can result in a “jump cut,” If the incoming clip has the main subject in the same place on screen as the outgoing clip, you will have taken advantage of “eye trace.” Take a look at this video from Jay Lippman, who shows different ways to employ eye trace to produce smooth cuts.

As you can see, eye trace is an effective tool for combining cutting on action and match cuts. When you start layering techniques as an editor, you can really separate yourself from the pack. These kinds of edits are fun to watch and keep viewers engaged.

Eye trace is especially useful when you need to insert a cut into an interview that was shot on a single camera. If you punch from a medium angle to a close up you can line up the subject’s nearest eye in the same spot on screen. If you punch in over 30% it will not look like jump cut. You can hide the cut even more by doing it on a word, combining eye trace and an audio match cut.

If you punch in on an interview, it is helpful if the camera’s resolution is higher than the resolution for the final deliverable. For instance, shooting 4k for a 1080p deliverable. Or shooting 8K for a 4k deliverable. This will prevent a drop in quality in the final piece.

Every editor should read Walter Murch’s classic book, “In the Blink of an Eye.” In this book, Murch (Editor for Apocalypse Now, The Godfather III, Particle Fever) dives into his philosophy of editing. And while you should read the book, I can summarize it by saying, cut on the frame just before someone blinks. Don’t cut while they are blinking, and don’t cut after the blink. This is because blinks seem to coincide with the completion of thoughts.

Murch theorizes that editing works precisely because people blink. We are producing little “cuts” all the time. 

YouTube Channel This Guy Edits demonstrates the technique of cutting on blinks.

Murch has also pointed out that the audience will often synchronize their blinks with the blinks of actors. Using this method causes the edit, the actors, and the audience to all sync up to the same rhythm.


These five fundamental techniques are important for every editor to master. As you can see in the examples, they flow into one another and build on each other. Sometimes, you edit by feel and end up in a “happy accident” of a nice cut. But videos rely on dozens of cuts, and you’ll be more effective if you know why each cut is working or not. This knowledge becomes even more important if you are sitting side-by-side (or over a remote connection) with a director.

A director can ask for a cut and then wonder out loud why it isn’t working. When you have a working vocabulary of visual grammar, you’ll be able to instantly identify when a cut works and why it is awkward. This skill set can flow backward into more effective directing, storyboarding, and even screenwriting. 

When you know the craft of editing, not just using an NLE, you become an incredibly valuable contributor at every step of the filmmaking process. You’ll be able to write for the edit, storyboard for the edit, direct for the edit, and shoot for the edit. And of course, you’ll be an absolute pro at the edit.