So what does a video editor actually do?
Short answer: they edit videos. That’s it, right? Well, yes and no. An editor is in charge of assembling raw video footage in order to produce a final broadcast-ready product – the video that people are eventually able to watch.
However, there’s a lot more to editing than just cutting film. Today’s technology means editing is in many ways both a straightforward and complex process. It is accessible to both beginners and novices, thanks to a wide range of video editing software available on the market. On the other hand, the possibilities available to filmmakers thanks to professional, skilled editors are nearly endless. It is a highly complex role that demands a wide skill set.
Using some examples, let’s look at the basic roles editors fulfil while producing a final product.
Footage assembly and cutting
This is the biggest part of an editor’s job, and arguably the most difficult of all. What many people don’t realise is that the raw footage produced by directors is generally much longer than the final product—and comes to an editor often completely disorganised. When making our longboarding documentary in Wales, we recorded countless hours of footage, which we had to then turn into a coherent 25 minutes-long narrative. Those hours of footage would have never become a film without editing. An editor might have thirty takes of the exact same shot. They have to go through each take and find the best one—something that must be done for every shot used in the project.
After that, editors must assemble their shots into a coherent narrative. This is harder than it sounds. As the very smart chaps at Inside The Edit point out in this video, editors must “sculpt”, “slice” “shave”, “trim”; they decide when to reorder, when to add time, and when to take it away. They must also decide when to tighten a sequence or when to let the shots ‘breathe’.
Most importantly, what editors choose to ‘take away’ is as important as what they choose to keep. How clips are ordered, how long they are, and what their rhythm is, is vital to building feeling and emotion, and ultimately engaging audiences. In that respect, editors have probably the most important role in making a film. They are what gives film its rhythm.
Great footage can be butchered by poor editing (something many directors fail to learn by editing their own work), while lacklustre footage can soar thanks to good editing. Like a copy editor, it is the job of editors to tell the best story they can with the footage given to them.
It’s important to remember that editing doesn't just involve moving images. The role is also part sound designer, as it is also down to editors to make sure the cuts sound as coherent and logical as its visuals. If a lot of footage takes place outside, such as in our road movie, The Van with No Plan, editors need to make sure the recorded sound is clear and crisp—and if it isn't, they need to find an alternative soundscape, such as music or electronic sound, to replace it. Editors also need to decide whether a shot will be silent, quiet, or loud, and they need to also ensure that volume is consistent throughout.
You might think that the director is in charge of everything visual, but this is not the case. Every film requires some sort of colour grading or correction. This is because colours are not always reproduced accurately in raw footage, particularly if the camera’s white balance is off. Colour is a big part of what makes a film stand out aesthetically, and needs to be done right.
Often, directors also want to play with colour to achieve a particular look or feel for their film. Many of these colour choices are very subtle, but very deliberate (think of The Matrix’s green hues.) If asked to do colour grading, an editor must also take on the role of a painter—blending different colours and shades together to achieve a distinct, uniform look for the cut.
It doesn't end there. Editors might have to implement special effects, dubbing, or voiceover. It all depends on what the project involves, what the situation calls for, and what the other personnel or budgetary restrictions are on a project. Editing is a multifaceted, complex job, and films wouldn't be watchable without it.