Being a great editor isn’t just about mastering the tools, it’s also about understanding the psychology of film editing. Only when you fully understand the impact of your cuts on the viewer can you make the best editorial choices.
I believe every decision you make while editing should first take into account the psychological impact on the viewer.
Choosing when to cut vs. hold on a single shot creates an entirely different emotion. The same goes for showing a dialogue shot vs. the reaction shot. Or using many quick cuts vs. few sparse cuts. Every stylistic and practical decision you make has a significant impact on the audience experience.
Knowing this is the first step in making better creative decisions. The next is understanding what those decisions communicate to your viewers psychologically.
With that in mind, below are what I believe are the fundamentals of psychology in film editing. A set of principles that can help guide your creative decision making.
If you enjoy this article, you would also love Walter Murch’s amazing book In The Blink of An Eye. It covers some of the same topics in far more depth.
Editing Is Mind Control
For an audience to fully engage with your film, they must feel in sync with it. They can’t be questioning the ability of the storyteller, the merits of the story, or a distracting shot.
On the most basic level, they have to trust the filmmakers enough to relinquish control, let their guard down and go along for the ride. Getting the viewer into that state of mind is a result of earning their trust through the technical and creative choices you make.
The other principles on this list go into more depth on some of these choices, and how they may impact the audience experience as a whole.
But first, let’s recognize that it’s your job as a filmmaker to get into the mind of your audience. And to avoid getting so lost in the creative process that you only see things from your own narrow point of view.
Highly personal / subjective choices will often disconnect the viewer from your film. This is why it’s a bad idea to keep an unnecessary shot just because you think it looks good, or let a scene run on because you find something funny that no one else does.
The edit is supposed to feel like an extension of the viewer’s consciousness. It should allow the viewer to fully immerse themselves in the film, which in turns creates the most meaningful experience.
Now, let’s look at some ways to keep your audience locked in.
Why Invisible Edits Work
A bad cut will take your audience out of the experience faster than just about anything. Even films with a great story, strong performances, and all the other right elements can lose a viewer – even if just temporarily – with a single bad edit.
Most cuts that don’t work are either:
A) Too jarring (a drastic cut between two shots that don’t flow together)
B) Too subtle (a minor cut between two shots so similar it looks like a botched jump cut)
Both of the above will cause the viewer to actively notice the cut, which disconnects them from the rhythmic flow.
The best cuts are invisible.
This is why it always works so well to cut on action (someone walking across the frame), since there is a natural cut point already baked into the footage. It’s also why match cuts work so well too.
There are many other ways to hide your cuts of course. But arguably the most common is eye tracing –
This is when you create a smooth edit by considering your viewer’s eyeline at the end of shot #1, and making sure shot #2 starts out with a similar focal point. This prevents the viewer’s eyes from having to dart around the screen to find the subject in the next shot.
Sometimes it’s not about using any editing trick though, and it’s simply a matter of relying on your intuition.
When you spend enough time editing the same footage, you begin to sense the natural cut points that exist within it. This is especially relevant during dialogue scenes when there is less action to drive your cuts. In those cases, you have to go with your gut – but still with the intent of creating a seamless viewer experience.
The Importance Of Symmetry
The audience is unconsciously aware of the symmetry of your edit at all times, and it has a huge impact on their viewing experience.
When I refer to symmetry, I mean it in the context of narrative flow and structure – both of which must be balanced in order for the viewer to feel a sense of cohesion.
For every set up there needs to be a pay off. If there is a book-end at the beginning, there should be one at the end. If the first half feels naturalistic, the second half shouldn’t feel erratic.
That doesn’t mean your film has to drone at one pace the whole time, or that you can’t have asymmetrical elements that make it more dynamic. It’s a perfectly good idea to have your third act feel significantly faster paced than your first, just as an obvious example.
But as far as story and plot is concerned, there needs to be a degree of harmony.
Imagine withholding key story information from the audience and then dumping it all on them in a lengthy dialogue scene in the third act. These type of decisions make your story and structure feel completely lopsided, and the viewer is acutely aware of it.
In some cases, a poorly written script might create an asymmetrical edit. It’s not always the fault of the editor. But there is always something you can do, a scene you can move, a line of dialogue you can cheat, to help counterbalance where you can.
Cuts & Tension
Many new editors make the mistake of believing you should use cuts to increase tension or intensity. With rare exception, cuts are actually used to release tension.
Imagine watching a scene in a horror film. We’re in a dark bedroom and the camera is dollying toward the closet door. We hear strange sounds coming from inside. Ominous music is playing. The tension has been created.
The longer we hold on that shot (within reason), the more tension it creates. The moment we cut to inside the closet and see the monster, the tension is deflated. Even if the sequence continues to escalate in intensity, there is still a momentary release of tension felt by the audience.
As Hitchcock would say, the thrill is in the anticipation, not the bang. That doesn’t mean every shot should just be held forever of course. There is an upper limit where it feels gimmicky and predictable.
But often times we are too quick to cut.
We want to see the reaction shot, so we cut away from the main character instead of just letting it simmer. Or we prematurely cut to the POV shot to show what the actor is looking at, when it would be so much more powerful to leave it off screen.
So long as you understand the relationship between cuts and tension, you can use it to your advantage.
The Story Happens In Between Cuts
It’s easy to believe that editing is a process of choosing the best shots and stringing them together in a logical way. But the reality is, editing is more about understanding what is happening in between those shots.
In between every cut, every scene, and every sequence there is room for subjective interpretation. The emotional feeling you get when watching a scene play out is not just the result of a dozen or so shots, but what they mean when juxtaposed against each other.
In film editing, 1 + 1 = 3. Or at least that should be the goal.
Shot A has to work on its own, and so does Shot B. But what’s more important is when Shot A is stacked up against Shot B, there is a multiplying effect. The combination of those two specific shots is far greater than the sum of the parts.
The story that’s conveyed in between shots is where your movie lives. That’s the movie your audience is feeling, not just seeing.
Remember that your audience members are active participants in your film. The movie isn’t fully complete until they watch it, at which point it is made whole in their mind.
The Psychology Of Film Editing: Final Thoughts
Hopefully this has been a helpful entry point for those of you looking to gain a deeper understanding of the psychological aspects of film editing.
The most important takeaway is simply that paying attention to the psychological impact of your editorial choices can make a world of difference. Keep it in mind at every step – from cutting rough assemblies to picture locking – and I truly believe your film will be better off for it.
Don’t forget these principles extend far beyond just your picture edit too. Your sound design, score, aspect ratio, color grade, and virtually every other element in post will have a psychological affect on the viewer.
The more you infuse this type of decision making into each step, the more likely you are to connect with your audience on the level your story deserves.
When you’re ready, here are 3 ways I can help you:
1. Make a feature film today: The No-Budget Feature Film Blueprint
2. Build your network and sharpen your craft in our community: The Backlot
3. Color grade & polish your footage with my post-production tools on: Cinecolor