The purpose of video editing

In a nutshell

  • At the most basic level, the purpose of video editing is to construct the video’s narrative.
  • Editing is the process of curating and arranging footage captured during production in order to tell a story.
  • Editing can be used to manipulate time — for both practical and creative purposes.
  • Good editing clarifies your message and sharpens your storytelling, and great editing leverages editing’s power to evoke emotion.

When we think about the filmmaking process, we often picture a lively film set with actors and crew and a director calling “action.” In truth, however, this is just one phase in a much longer process. Filmmaking is usually divided into three phases. In pre-production, we decide what story we’ll tell and how we can best tell it, both creatively and logistically. Production puts that plan into action on set or on location. This is when the raw images that will become the film are captured. And finally, we have post-production — the editing phase. But when we put so much effort into the first two phases of production, why do we still need to edit? What is the purpose of video editing?

That’s the question we’re here to answer.

What is video editing?

Before we answer the why, though, we need to define the what. Let’s take a quick look at what editing is so we can better understand why it’s so important.

Editing is the process of curating and arranging footage captured during production in order to tell a story. Within this definition is a wide range of processes and techniques that allow editors to craft unique and compelling narratives. However, video editing wasn’t always so sophisticated.

Before editing

Today, editing feels like a natural and necessary part of the filmmaking process. However, the language of editing, and thus of cinema itself, has taken a long time to evolve. As a completely new art form, early filmmakers had to experiment. No one knew how audiences would respond to more complex editing styles. Plus, filmmaking and editing equipment was massive, expensive and required specific skills to operate. Combine all this with the familiarity of the theatre format, and it’s no wonder that single-take documentary and tableau-style narrative filmmaking dominated the early days of cinema.

Early innovations

As filmmaking technology evolved, new editing techniques and conventions evolved alongside it. As early as 1896, just a year after the Lumiere brothers hosted the first public film screening, George Méliès was experimenting with in-camera editing and practical effects. The film features numerous examples of the substitution splice technique. With this technique, the camera records a portion of the shot, stops while a prop is added or removed, and then starts again, without changing position. This gives the illusion of a continuous clip in which objects and people spontaneously appear or disappear. With this technique, a fluttering bat can transform into a man in an instant, as we see in the opening shot of “The House of the Devil (1896).”

However, despite an innovative approach to editing, Méliès still relied on tableaus when it came to narrative storytelling. Even his 1902 masterpiece, “Trip to the Moon,”— which made extensive use of Méliès’ many filmmaking tricks and techniques — features mostly wide shots and front-facing actors.

The language of cinema

Over time, increasingly mobile camera setups meant editors had a greater variety of footage to work with. Concepts like montage and continuity editing began to take shape. Filmmakers began to tackle more complex stories.

One oft-cited cinematic milestone is “The Great Train Robbery,” made by Edwin S. Porter in 1903. The short, silent film tells the story of a train robbery gone awry. Yes, the film exposes cinema’s inherent connection to the locomotive and kicks off the quintessentially American genre of the Western, but this film is significant for another reason. In one sequence, the film cuts between three different scenes — the telegraph office, the robbers’ hideout in the woods and a jovial dance hall. Rather than causing confusion, cutting between these locations tells us that the events transpiring in each are happening at the same time. Thus, “The Great Train Robbery” offers one of cinema’s earliest examples of parallel editing. The ability to convey multiple separate actions simultaneously opened the door to a new world of storytelling tools. And the language of cinema as only gotten more subtle and complex.

Why do we edit?

For most of cinema history, editing required physical film strips to be sliced and spliced by specialized editing technicians. It was a very physical, destructive and linear process compared to the digital editing tools used today. Now, modern non-linear editing software allows editors to freely manipulate footage across the entire timeline. Despite the technological advancements, however, the goal remains the same: Use the images you have access to to tell a compelling story.

Whether you’re editing a cinematic narrative, a TV commercial or a YouTube video, every editor is a storyteller. You may think, with all the planning and organization that goes into the production phase, that editing is a simple process. Just select the best takes and line them up in order. However, the refinement and texture that editing adds to a video should not be overlooked. Let’s work our way through the various reasons to edit video, from most basic to most nuanced.

Construct the narrative

At the most basic level, the purpose of video editing is to construct the video’s narrative. The production phase creates the narrative building blocks. The editor takes those blocks and arranges them into a form that audiences can absorb and understand.

To understand why this is necessary, it’s important to consider the logistics of film and video production. First of all, most productions do not work through the script in chronological order. Instead, similar scenes are grouped together to streamline the production and make scheduling easier. Scenes that take place in a single location will often be grouped together. That way, the production only needs to set up on location once, no matter how often the location appears in the final production.

Likewise, actor and crew availability also factor into the shooting schedule. For example, if a particular character only appears in three or four scenes, those scenes can be grouped together into a single shoot day. That way, the actor only needs to be on set for one day, even if their scenes are spread out over the entire movie.

Since most movies are shot out of sequence and often demand multiple takes and angles for each scene, we need to edit to make sense of the jumble of clips captured on set. Stanley Kubrick noted in an interview in “Stanley Kubrick Directs” (Walker, 1972), “I love editing. I think I like it more than any other phase of filmmaking. If I wanted to be frivolous, I might say that everything that precedes editing is merely a way of producing film to edit.” In other words, without editing, there would be no film.

Controlling time

Along with constructing the video’s narrative, video editing also serves the purpose of controlling the passage of time. Most often, this comes in the form of time compression. In film and video, mundane actions like walking from one room to the next are usually condensed through a simple cut. The viewer is expected to understand that we are jumping ahead to get to the next part of the story more efficiently. Thus, compressing time in video serves the important function of preventing boredom.

For example, consider the “Darjeeling Limited.” This 2007 Wes Anderson classic explores family dynamics after loss through the motif of travel. If you watch the film, however, you’ll notice that the more tedious aspects of the travel experience have been abbreviated or trimmed out altogether. Most viewers don’t want to sit for hours watching Jason Schwartzman stare out the window, waiting for the train to make its next stop. Editing allows you to skip from one impactful moment to the next, without everyday banalities getting in the way.

At the same time, editing also has the power to slow down the passage of time. Expanding time, either through slow-motion or through parallel editing techniques, allows viewers to take in more detail. This can help reveal and emphasize the meaning behind an important scene or event. It can also increase the tension of a scene or an entire film.

Hitchcock’s “Rope” (1948), for instance, uses the illusion of the “one-shot” to slowly build suspense over the course of the film. In deliberately decelerating time, “Rope’ subverts our expectations about the language of cinema and storytelling, thus contributing to an overall sense of unease.

A scene from "Rope" (1948)
A scene from “Rope” (1948). Image courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures

Clarify the message

So, we know that video editing is necessary in a practical sense because of the way movies are produced. You need a way to organize the raw footage so that it tells a coherent story. We also know that editing has the power to manipulate time. This has the practical advantage of condensing a story into a manageable package that can be easily consumed.

At the same time, editing also serves a less concrete purpose. Editing can clarify your message. By cutting out the boring parts, we emphasize the meaning we truly want to convey. Honing the footage down to its sharpest edge helps viewers connect with your video and its story. As author and actor Esther Freud advises in her seven rules for writing, “Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life.” Though this tip is directed at novelists and writers, the principle is the same. Anything that does not contribute to the clarity of the story or the development of a character should be cut. It doesn’t make a difference whether the story is told through text or through moving images.

Evoke emotion

To recap, the purpose of video editing is first and foremost to construct a coherent narrative. Once it accomplishes that, editing can be used to manipulate time — for both practical and creative purposes. Elevated one step further, good editing can clarify your message and sharpen your storytelling. Truly great editing, however, leverages editing’s power to evoke emotion.

Film theorists call it the Kuleshov Effect. The basic principle is that when two images are cut together, the audience will subconsciously connect the two to create meaning. The original experiment demonstrated that the same clip can convey wildly different emotions depending on the context in which it is placed. This concept would be further explored and exploited by filmmakers and early theorists like Sergei Eisenstein, eventually coalescing as Soviet Montage Theory.

Modern filmmaking favors a more realistic style of editing referred to as continuity editing. This style of editing focuses on constructing a coherent narrative timeline within a logical narrative space. Continuity editing is not as concerned with constructing meaning through the juxtaposition of images. However, the way we combine images still plays an important role in directing the viewer’s reaction to events in the story. In reality, the most effective filmmakers use both montage and continuity editing to guide the audience’s emotional response.

An ever-evolving language

Today, cinema has matured to a point where we have a reliable set of storytelling tools. However, even today, the language of cinema continues to evolve. Advances in filmmaking equipment and editing software mean we can continue to experiment with different ways of combining images. And with the rise of AI, the demand for short-form content and the increasing accessibility of powerful video editing tools, it’s more difficult than ever to predict how the language of cinema will grow and change in the future. Now that you understand the purpose of video editing, you’re ready to start experimenting with the techniques that will take your editing from adequate to awe-inspiring.

Nicole LaJeunesse
Nicole LaJeunesse
Nicole LaJeunesse is a professional writer and a curious person who loves to unpack stories on anything from music, to movies, to gaming and beyond.

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