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10 Films That Can Teach You Everything You Need To Know About Film Editing

14 May 2014 | Features, Other Lists | by David Biggins


Editing is a selection process. Sometimes hundreds of hours of footage are captured, and we only end up seeing around two hours of it. It’s also a language that has rules. When done badly it can cause boredom or, even worse, confusion.

The importance of editing cannot be underestimated. According to acclaimed film writers David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, the typical Hollywood film has between 1000 and 2000 shots that have been cut together. For action films, that number can climb dramatically to 3000 shots. For this list, I’ve included a clip for a great selection of films that can teach you a lot about film editing. The subsequent text explains the clips, offering insight into filmmaking techniques.

This article has been written in the hope of inspiring you to return to some of your own favorite scenes, in your own favorite films, so that you can deconstruct and analyze how the film’s editing has helped to engineer a perfect cinematic moment.


1. Battleship Potemkin (1925)

The Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin has been paid homage to by both Terry Gilliam (in Brazil) and Brian De Palma (in The Untouchables). The director, Sergei Eisenstein, is famous for creating films that lacked conventional plots and central characters. Instead, his films create highly emotional moments for the audience to latch on to. These moments are assembled in montages that contain juxtaposing images that convey energy and zest.

In Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein is trying to foster the idea of an evil Tsarist government. As a result we’re shown images that the audience will understand and be horrified by: a child getting shot and trampled on, innocent protests being fired upon, a baby’s pram rolling down the steps, oppressive soldiers matching down the staircase, etc. It’s important to remember that Eisenstein wasn’t trying to reflect reality; the Odessa steps massacre never happened, and the sequence is seven minutes long whereas in real life it’d take less than half that time to run down the steps.

The scene concludes with a stone cherub and lion appearing to come to life (three different shots of both statues in different positions gives the impression that they go from sitting immobile to standing and ready for action). These shots, editing alongside the Potemkin firing on tsarist buildings, convey that it’s time to rise up against the oppressors.


2. Casablanca (1942)

Classical editing must, first and foremost, orientate the audience by creating spatial relationships. This can be achieved quite simply by eye-line matching. In this scene from Casablanca, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Captain Louis (Claude Rains) are both established by having the camera behind Louis’s shoulder viewing Rick sitting on a desk. In the shot, we can see Rick’s eyes looking down at the Captain. After the first edit we’re now looking directly at the captain, so the audience knows that we’re looking through Rick’s eyes.

The scene progresses, during their conversation, by having the camera angle change frequently (yet we always know whose perspective we’re looking from). When the camera shows one character looking at another, and then it shows the counter-shot from the other character’s point of view, it’s known as shot reverse shot. The shot reverse shot technique is a keystone of classical editing.

As the conversation draws close, two new angles are introduced. The first angle establishes that the Captain’s position has changed. The second angle allows for the entrance of a third character (had we simply been given a close up of this third character entering, we may not have known where in the room he’d entered from).

Even though we’re no longer looking through a character’s eyes, we’re not disorientated by the edit. This is because the editing follows the 180 degree rule. From the opening shot, Captain Louis is on the right, and Rick is on the left. This set up is maintained for the entire scene until we see Captain Louis walk out of the office, passing Rick. Once a 180 degree line has been established in a scene, it should never be broken – otherwise it’ll accidentally look like characters have swapped their positions.


3. Psycho (1960)

Effective editing can be very powerful. When audiences first watched Psycho, many assumed that the shower sequence was much more graphic than it actually was. The three-minute scene was apparently shot from 77 different camera angles, and it cuts 50 times. This means that it’s actually quite hard to see what’s going on, so the mind fills in the blanks. While the scene is relatively tame by today’s gory standards, at the time, some viewers were certain that they’d seen both nudity as well as the knife stab Marion Crane (Janet Leigh).

Psycho’s shower scene also provides an example of how many directors create links between shots by matching them graphically. Here, we see blood draining down the round plughole and we then dissolve into another round image; an eye. We’ve seen her life drain away, and we now know that she’s dead after we’ve seen her lifeless stare.


4. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Some composers will write a score to a fully edited film. Others will present a score to a director, so that a film can be edited to the music. While this is, no doubt, a trickier task for an editor it allows them the opportunity to create a visual sense of rhythm with their edits.

A perfect example of rhythm editing is the final shoot-out in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The music starts out melodic as the shootist’s eye up one another, and their surroundings. Once each character is in position, and ready to shoot, the speed of the edits increases with the speed of the music. Eyes dart from cowboy to cowboy, as each nervously waits for the other to draw. The result is beautiful, rhythmic, and tense.


5. The Godfather (1972)

A montage takes place in The Godfather, in which a series of assassinations take place in the space of a very short sequence of time. A montage is an efficient way of moving quickly through a story, as you’re able to show a lot of information in a short series of time. Francis Ford Coppola’s masterstroke was to juxtapose this bloody montage with Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) baptism vows, by crosscutting between the two. Michael becomes the literal, and metaphorical, Godfather within the space of two minutes.



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  • Melville Baz

    How can you write about the Odessa steps sequence without mentioning “Naked Gun 33⅓” ?

  • Ted Wolf

    i’m surprised there’s no kubrick film here. every single one of his, although perhaps not flashy, show the genius in editing. the shining alone deserves mention for being able to pass off incongruities without arousing audience suspicion.

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  • Gusbrum

    Top Gun? really???
    And no Kubrick film?
    And what’s worse, the list leaves out Jean Luc Goddard the guy who invented jump cuts and a lot of the modern style of editing. Breathless by Goddard should be in any serious list about editing.

  • Kubrick? Hello? Anyone?
    Other than that glaring omission, good info here…

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  • David Biggins

    Hi guys,

    I agree that both Kubrick and Goddard would have been great editions to my list. Here’s a similar list that I’ve written for Taste of Cinema, this time is was broader and looks at all aspects of filmmaking. You’ll see that I used Goddard for editing (talking about jump-cuts) On this list other list that I’ve written on cinematography that features Kubrick

    Both great filmmakers that I love to talk about, but I wanted to talk about some different directors this time!

    – D.

  • Collin Green

    The only omission is see that is glaring is that of Straw Dogs.

  • Jose Alberto Hermosillo

    Gravity took one full year to be as perfect as it is.

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  • Ramone

    I’d sub the cantina scene in Nepal for the idol scene for Raiders. There’s no better close-up action sequence in cinema than when Toht arrives to take the medallion from Marion. Everything in that scene (visuals, editing of film and audio, as well as sound design) is Hollywood at it’s absolute best.

  • jeannisbe

    David, thank you for this. I enjoyed your selection though mine would be quite different! I would love to see your views on film scenes where there are no cuts – for example, the opening scene of The Player, which I find quite magical.

  • Lutz Bacher

    Film scholar Brian Henderson once argued in an article titled “The Long Take” that Max Ophuls’s CAUGHT is an excellent teaching vehicle for dialogue editing.

  • Milad Mohammadi

    when sb wants to talk about editing, he or she will never forget the PI by Arnofsky, memento by Nolan and cinema paradiso by tornatore!
    And by the way TOP GUN!?! Really are kidding me baby!

  • Mark Spencer

    Umm yeh don’t know about this list. No Scorsese, no Kubrick, Goddard… Thelma Shoemaker and Scorsese’s editing in ‘Casino’ is a tour de force. What about Goodfellas? The secret in editing is the way it is used to completely heighten the telling of a story.

  • Gerald Martin

    An admitted outlier, but take a look at the barely 90-second corral horse-breaking sequence in The Unforgiven (1960).

  • Jasmin Jandric

    What about Whiplash?!?!

  • Alejandro Natividad

    notorious the arrogance and ignorance of the person who wrote this list. This
    “expert” is forgetting some filmmakers that consider the editing as the most
    important part of the film process: Godard, Resnais (he used to be an editor),
    Kurosawa (Rashomon and some other of his films should be considered here), Egoyan, and a canonic filmmaker/editor (Karel Reisz). There are more.The
    American point of view of this list is at the end of the day, a narrow minded

  • lisasheran


  • Ejaz Mehedi

    Submarine,Whiplash and Incendies should’ve been on the list.

  • Donn Hanson

    It’s funny…I see no where in the writing of this article any mention of this being a list of the best or, the penultimate list of editing, etc. I thought it said, basically, something on the order of, 10 films which will teach you everything you might want to know when sitting down to edit a sequence. Maybe I’m insane or missed some nuance in the subtext of the author. I thought the article was well written and the film choices used perfectly illustrated his points. I suppose I could try to prove my vast knowledge of the history of film by pointing out any of hundreds of other examples which might deserve place on some other list. Instead, I urge anyone who is genuinely interested in improving their craft to heed the author’s intent. I’ve been in the business of producing videos for commercial and industrial purposes for some 35 years. I still enjoy an article that’s as well written as this one was to remind me of where to look for guidance and inspiration when putting pen to paper or finger to mouse clip. Instead, I’ll give my thanks to the author for taking the time to create an informative and educational experience. To the gaggle of geese who feel compelled to carp and criticize articles and blogs such as this…I would hope in future you would also thank the author and then add your recommendations of clips the earnest seeker might look for to further elucidate themselves on whatever the topic at hand may be. Again, to the author…thank you. Well done!