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What does a film editor do?

Job Description of a Film Editor
A film editor combines hours of film footage together to make a movie.
A film editor combines hours of film footage together to make a movie.
© Andy Sotiriou/Photodisc/Getty Images

A film editor is a mechanic who removes the unneeded and fits pieces of film together to make a finished movie. He is a collaborator who works with cinematographers and sound editors to bring sight and sound together. And he is an artist who captures a director's vision and tells a compelling story.

Being a film editor requires hours of looking through footage and then assembling a film a half-second at a time, while working quickly to meet the filmmakers' deadlines. Describing the job to a National Public Radio reporter, film editor Walter Murch said it is "a cross between a short-order cook and a brain surgeon" [source: National Public Radio].

While a skilled movie editor's contribution can mean the difference between a hit and a so-so film, film editing done well is completely invisible to the audience.

Here are some of the most important elements in the job description of a film editor:

  • Read the shooting script and meet with the director to understand his  vision for the film.
  • Make visits to the locations during filming to gain a sense of how the shooting is progressing.
  • Go through footage, once shooting is done, and select scenes based on their dramatic and entertainment value and contribution to story continuity. The editor is looking for the best combination of photography, performance, consistency and timing.
  • Trim the segments of footage to the lengths needed for the film and assemble them into the best sequence to tell the story.
  • Work with sound effects editors, sound editors and musical directors on sound, score and film sequences that will be added to the film.
  • Insert music, dialogue and sound effects, using editing equipment.
  • Review the edited film, make corrections and prepare it as a first cut, or rough cut, for the movie director and movie producers to view. The first cut may take up to three months to assemble.
  • Make revisions, as requested by the director and producers, and prepare the final cut for release to the film house for production. The final cut may take an additional month to finish

[sources: State of California Occupational Guide and Learner]

­While movies traditionally have had a single lead film editor, the trend with big-budget features is to split work between two editors. For "Charlotte's Web" (2006), Director Gary Winick started with Susan Littenberg, an established feature film editor he had used on previous projects. Because the movie combined live action with animation sequences, he also brought in Sabrina Plisco, an editor experienced with visual effects.

The two editors split up the scenes, edited them, and then swapped and re-edited each other's. By the time shooting was complete, they had plenty to work with -- 1.5 million feet of film. But more than simply selecting and assembling footage in the desired sequence, they had the challenge of combining footage of the human actors with that of animals who seemed to be talking, like Wilbur the pig, or were simply animations, like Charlotte the spider [sources: Editors Guild and IMDB].

A film editor needs to have both technical and artistic movie-making skills. Go to the next page to find out what these are.