How To Get Away With Editing Editing Part 2: Finding A Pulse

Welcome to part 2 of The Basics Of Editing – filmmaking advice for anyone needing some general knowledge on editing together a compelling story. The topic of this article is all about finding the pulse. 

The Heartbeat.

The edit of any film will create the heartbeat of the story. This is where we get the pacing and the flow. Much like a classical musical piece there are ups and downs in a film. Rarely will you experience a story throwing everything at you at 150% capacity for 2 hours or vice versa. It would be either too boring or too draining … or both.

In The Basics Of Editing Part 1 last article I mentioned you need to learn how to be heartless with your edits, figuring out how to cut what needs to be regardless of how cool it looks. This is because the heartbeat is what’s important to the story and if a shot or a scene gets in the way of that flow then it’s going to hinder the story no matter how many goosebumps it gives you or how much time and money went into creating it.

Every film has a pulse. That pulse speeds up and slows down, which ideally should create the same effect on its audience. If the editor screws up the cut then the flow dies and so does the film. Sounds brutal, but that’s showbiz baby!

Editing isn’t so much the actual splicing together of clips but rather discovering the path of the film. Most of the time spent won’t actually be cutting but considering pathways for the film.

I often spend hours just staring at the screen, planning in my head where I think the film should go before I start cutting. However, ultimately it’s the job of the editor to find the heartbeat, so you won’t really know how the story will pan out until you start cutting.

It’s equally as important both to not waste too much time thinking as well as jumping right into cutting without any thought at all. You need to find a balance of thinking and doing. Both of these things are useful for creating a comprehensible story.

Using the script as an initial template to cut a scene isn’t a bad idea, but ultimately the script is old news. You now have footage to cut with and often it will look different to the original idea written out on paper.

Movies will often do reshoots when something isn’t working. What’s in the script might not actually end up being a realistic story element once it’s been shot or perhaps there simply wasn’t enough time to shoot everything needed. Unfortunately this isn’t always as obvious until you’ve cut the movie together using the footage you have. Ergo; reshoots.

So, always use the footage you’ve been given as best you can.

The Purpose.

Have you ever gotten tired watching a scene because the camera was constantly shifting between characters or objects? This can exhaust your audience, which in some instances can be the whole purpose of the scene but many other times it isn’t necessary.

Don’t just cut to cut. Cut with purpose, and make as few cuts as possible. Don’t constantly shift perspective just because you can. 

Allow the audience’s imagination room to create some of the story for themselves. Don’t spell everything out for them by showing literally everything going on in the scene.

The Emotion.

Every cut should help give clues about the emotions of the characters involved. In the 2012 Les Miserables scene with Ann Hathaway singing, ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ there are no cuts. Her performance gives the audience everything they need to feel what she’s feeling. Cutting during this scene may prohibit the audience from experiencing this.

2010’s Black Swan does the exact opposite but for just as necessary a reason. In the scene where Nina and Lily are dancing in a club, there’s rarely a shot held for longer than half a second. The purpose of these editing choices are solely to disorient and confuse the audience, giving them a glimpse of what’s going on inside Nina’s mind.

Each cut should be intentional and help build the story. The heartbeat of the film is what the audience needs to feel.

There you have it, more basics of editing. In part 3 we will talk in detail about how you can be creative in using different types of cuts to contribute to the story.


  • Jay Evans


    Jay Evans has spent the last 8 years working as a film editor, 4 of which have been with The Initiative Production Company. In his spare time he enjoys music, comedy, experimental cooking and getting lost in the woods.


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