What Does a Film Editor Do?

By: Diane Dannenfeldt  | 
"Jarhead" follows the combat events of Marine Pvt. Anthony Swofford, right, shown here with star Jake Gyllenhaal, left. Academy-award winning film editor Walter Murch edited the film, adding his own vision.
© Kevin Winter/Getty Images

After 175 days of boredom and waiting, Marine Pvt. Anthony Swofford faces his first moment in combat during a pivotal scene in the movie "Jarhead" (2005). As his group is hit with a barrage of artillery fire, everyone ducks -- except Swofford, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Caught in the moment, Swofford stands up and the camera closes in. A distant explosion is followed by silence.

That's where director Sam Mendes would have ended the scene. But film editor Walter Murch had a different idea, which Mendes accepted: Particles of sand and dust from the explosion hit Gyllenhall's face, and, instead of silence, the audience hears the soft sound that these tiny bits make against his face.


The goal was to bring viewers into the scene by making them feel what the character felt on the battlefield, says Murch, an established feature film editor and three-time Oscar winner. And the tiniest sounds, like grains of sand hitting, can convey a greater sense of silence than silence itself [sources: National Public Radio and Internet Movie Database].

But solid film editing even works without sound. Consider "Battleship Potemkin" (1925), a classic silent movie directed by Sergei Eisenstein and known for its Odessa Steps scene. Citizens join the ship's crew in protest, which leads to a riot on the steps to the harbor. Troops quell the riot, slaying innocent bystanders.

With careful editing, Eisenstein makes the scene more personal by cutting back and forth between the violence, shots of marching boots, individual townspeople begging the soldiers to stop and, most unforgettably, the death of a young mother that leaves her baby's carriage bumping unattended down the long flight of steps [source: IMDB].

This is the movie editor's world, where miles of footage need to be turned into a fast-moving, coherent movie that will bring sound and sight together artfully to convey the director's vision.

What does a film editor actually do? What skills does he need? And how does someone become a film editor? Keep reading to find out.

Job Description of a Film Editor

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.

Skills Required of a Film Editor

Film editors often rely on director's notes to use when editing a film.
© Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images

If you don't like long hours, rush assignments or working alone, being a film editor isn't for you. At the same time, if you can't work well with others, are looking for personal artistic acclaim or aren't willing to keep up with changing technology, you'll be happier in another job than movie editor.

But if you like detail work and being part of a major production in the film industry, film editing may be the career for you. If you're interested in becoming an established feature film editor, here are some of the film editor skills you'll need:


  • Knowledge of the film industry and movie production
  • Knowledge of editing equipment and a willingness to keep up with changes in that technology
  • A good photographic eye for camera angles and special effects, as well as knowledge of audio effects
  • Ability to work alone on detailed and sometimes tedious work
  • Problem-solving skills to make film sequences work well or to work with the available footage
  • Strong interpersonal skills to work well with directors, cinematographers, sound editors, special effects editors and music producers
  • Flexibility to deal with production delays, unexpected problems and varied personality types
  • Ability to remain calm and confident in high-stress or crisis situations
  • Willingness to work long hours on rush assignments
  • A commitment to high-quality work and to continuing to improve your own skills and knowledge
  • A personal code of ethics and commitment to following the director's vision rather than altering material to make a personal artistic statement

[sources: State of California Occupational Guide and Learner]

­­Even established feature film editors find their skills stretched by the demands of complex movies heavy with visual effects, like the Matrix Trilogy. Zach Staenberg, film editor for the trilogy, won an Oscar for "The Matrix" (1999) and edited all three films in only four years, with "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions" both released in 2003.

He found himself sorting out footage shot at the same time and location for two different films ("Reloaded" and "Revolutions") -- and editing both films simultaneously. To make that happen, he worked with a staff of seven, several focused primarily on special effects.

Staenberg also had to work 440 visual effects shots into "The Matrix," 1,100 into "Reloaded" and 750 into "Revolutions." Every time the editors got a visual effects shot, he told an Editors Guild writer, they had to make changes to the film, ranging from switching a few frames to rearranging the entire sequence. Adapting to that ever-changing workflow was the biggest challenge in editing the trilogy, he said [source: Editors Guild].

Do you think you have the skills and the interest to be a film editor? Keep reading to find out the type of training and experience you'll need.

Becoming a Film Editor

Walter Murch started his career as a sound editor on "Godfather III." He is right with Francis Ford Coppola, left, at an Oscars party.
© Lucy Nicholson/AFP/Getty Images

­If you’re eager to become a film editor, you probably need to slow down and start with some schooling to learn about the industry and the technology used in film editing. Beyond that, you’ll need to gain experience working in the movie industry. And if you want to become an established feature film editor, you’ll need to start in a more modest film-editing job and work your way up.

Movie editors have to know the art, the business and the technology of filmmaking. One way to get the knowledge you’ll need is to attend a two- or four-year college that offers programs focused on the filmmaking industry. There you’ll find classes in other aspects of the business, such as directing, cinematography and movie production, as well as film editing.


Schools also offer the chance to work on student projects and job assistance through placement and internship programs. And many schools provide editing systems, like Avid and Final Cut Pro, and equipment that you can use to become more experienced.

For many years, film editing meant cutting film apart and then taping it back together and threading it onto a Moviola, a machine that had a viewer and could hold multiple reels of film with a viewer. The process of reviewing, cutting and reassembling miles of footage was tiring and time consuming.

Now the process has shifted to digital editing technology using computers and digital systems. The Moviola Co. even offers courses on using these systems. Moving, interchanging and adding sections of footage are easier electronically, as is altering or adding animation or special effects to individual frames.

Being adept at using this technology is an important skill for a film editor. Beyond simply learning today’s technology, you’ll need to keep up with changes. That means continuing taking courses and shifting to new technology throughout your career. Even assistant editors need strong computer skills.

With your education behind you, the next step is paying your dues. That may mean working as an assistant in the film industry during school, or it may mean dues literally -- as in union dues. Hollywood film editors usually are members of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.

The guild may be a place to find an apprenticeship as the first step rung on the editing ladder. It also offers career information on film editing, a magazine, wage information and advice.

Another organization, American Cinema Editors, is an honorary society for film editors, whose members are allowed to list "A.C.E." after their names in film credits. While you'll be years from becoming a member, the society may help you as a beginner through seminars and the student competition that's part of its annual Eddie Awards. 

To start, you'll need to build a video resume of your work. You'll also need contacts ­you've made to get a first job. That first job may have nothing to do with editing. You may find yourself a production assistant, an animation-editing assistant or an assistant to an editor.

From there, with contacts, skill and luck, you can work your way up from assistant editor to associate editor and finally film editor. Many film editors build a team of assistants to take from film to film, and directors also like to keep using the same editors. So building relationships will definitely have a positive impact on your career [source: The Princeton Review].

For lots more information about film editors and related topics, see the links on the next page.­

Lots More Information

­Related Articles

More Great Links

  • "A Day in the Life of a Film Editor." The Princeton Review. (http://princeton.localplacement.com/CareerPage Sas.aspx?cid=66)
  • American Cinema Editors. (http://www.ace-filmeditors.org)­
  • "Behind the Scenes with Film Editor Walter Murch." Norris, Michele. National Public Radio. Nov. 8, 2005. (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyid=4994411)
  • "Bronenosets Potyomkin." Internet Movie Database. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0015648)
  • Charlotte's Web. Internet Movie Database. (http://imdb.com/title/tt0413895/fullcredits)
  • "Charlotte's Web Spinners." Rowe, Robin. Editors Guild Magazine. Jan.-Feb. 2007. (http://www.editorsguild.com/v2/magazine/archives/0107/features_article03.htm)
  • "Film and Video Editors." State of California Occupational Guide No. 323, 2002. (http://www.calmis.ca.gov/file/occguide/filmedtr.htm)
  • "How are Hollywood films made? -- Editing." Learner. org. (http://www.learner.org/interactives/cinema/editing.html)
  • "Jarhead." Internet Movie Database. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0418763/plotsummary)
  • "Matrix." Internet Movie Database. (http://www.imdb.com/find?s=all&q-Matrix&x-0&y=0)
  • Motion Picture Editors Guild. (http://www.editorsguild.com)
  • Moviola Co. (http://www.moviola.com)
  • "The Technique of Film and Video Editing." Dancyger, Ken. Focal Press, 2007, page xx1. (http://books.google.com/books?id=IXZ8ROuUlBMC&pg=PR18&dq=%22film+editor%22&lr=&sig=ACfU3U38EZaZO5xAwr50xa-ss8AUKPeGgA#PPR21,M1)
  • "Zach Staenberg on the Matrix Trilogy." Van Hook, Andrea. Editors Guild Magazine. Jan.-Feb. 2004. (http://www.editorsguild.com/v2/magazine/Newsletter/JanFeb04/janfeb04_matrix.html)