Inside the Mind of an Editor: How Do They Know When to Cut?

"When I cut  I feel, I feel, I feel, and I say, 'Here.' For no reason. Just feeling." — Chantal Akerman

Editing is very much a technical craft. However, if you ask filmmakers like Akerman about their technical editing process, they're most likely going to tell you their decisions are based more on intuition rather than intellect — which isn't all that satisfying for those just wanting to learn a few techniques that'll make their editing better. But, perhaps first understanding how editors think and feel will help beginners form a solid foundation on which to set the technical knowledge they'll pick up along the way. In this enlightening video essay, Tony Zhou addresses that all too important aspect of editing.

You can't really teach an individual how to feel, nor can you instill in them intuition. However, you can teach them new ways of looking at a scene — interpreting facial expressions and reading an actor's eyes. You can remind them that, as editors, they are making art out of time and space, rather than with acrylic or clay, and they can use as much or as little of it as they want. You can linger on a shot of a subject for five seconds longer, or shave a couple of frames off the end in order to relay the message an actor is trying to convey to the audience.

But Zhou provides some great tools that you can start using right now in your own editing. Challenge yourself to:

  • Read a subject's eyes to determine the emotion of a scene.
  • Ask how much time you're going to give an emotion.
  • Find the relationship between the story and the rhythm of your edits.
  • Decide whether invisible or visible editing is right for the story or a specific scene.
  • Make sure that every single edit you make is motivated.

Don't be worried if you feel like you haven't attained that mystical intuitive sense that great editors seem to have. That comes with time and experience. The most important thing for any young editor to do is to work and work and work and work. The more you work, the better you'll get, and eventually the way you think and feel will start to evolve and mature to a point where you're making decisions not because it follows textbook rules and archetypes, but because they just feel right.     

You Might Also Like

Your Comment


Tony Zhou is the man. Every video on his channel is perfect.

May 13, 2016 at 5:44PM

Kelvin Nhantumbo
Director, Screenwriter

Walter Murch wrote in "In the Blink of an Eye" his hierarchy for making a cut and even assigned a numerical value to each reason:
1. Emotion - 51%
2. Story - 23%
3. Rhythm - 10%
4. Eye trace - 7%
5. 2D Continuity - 5%
6. 3D Continuity - 4%

May 13, 2016 at 6:23PM

Maury Shessel

Though he left out 'actor fluffs line' - 10%, 'shot goes out of focus' - 5%, 'opportunity to cut a few lines of dialogue' - '15%'....

May 14, 2016 at 12:04PM, Edited May 14, 12:04PM

Alex Richardson

I love this!

May 13, 2016 at 6:48PM

Terrell Lamont
Director, Director of Photography

It took me a couple of years to develop the instinct of where to cut. I think when you're starting out, it slows you down a bit that you're learning the technical aspects (I.e. - using an NLE, workflow, different codecs etc).

Once you have that down, your higher brain functions are free to just worry about how things feel.

May 14, 2016 at 11:01AM, Edited May 14, 11:01AM

Fahnon Bennett

Finally I know how editors do it. I was always amazed by that!

May 15, 2016 at 5:29AM


The directors have to edit their films. As long as the editors get to edit a story in all honesty they have to be called co-directors. Hmmm, a Director of Editing?

You feeling me on DoE?

May 15, 2016 at 11:50AM


Director of Editing, I like the sound of that.

May 16, 2016 at 12:13AM

Joonas Nieminen
Cinematographer and editor

I really think that editing your own stuff for the rough cut is a mistake. You end up getting hung up on that one shot you valued the whole shoot, that scene you want to cut first. Letting someone who has never seen the footage before is a good way to destroy the box you put yourself into while shooting in the field. Obviously, you may change the whole piece and put it back how you wanted it to begin with but even seeing it cut another way is a great thing.

May 17, 2016 at 8:32AM

doman nelson
Director, Editor