Editing 101: 50 practical & inspirational tips
JJ Lask
Issue: May/June 2019

Editing 101: 50 practical & inspirational tips

JJ Lask is a creative editor with PS260 (www.ps260.com), which has studios in both New York City and Venice, CA. His list of credits includes work for M&Ms, NY Lottery, Yahoo, American Greetings, and UPS to name just a few. For the past several months, Lask has been delivering his ‘Editing Rules’ to Post readers. Here, you can read his 50 tips, which are both practical and inspirational.

Rule 1: The First Rule Of Editing Is, There Are No Rules In Editing 

An editor is issued countless hours of footage, so the last thing he or she needs is to be handcuffed with rules. The editor must be free to roam into the abyss of endless possibilities. And the editor must cut scenes and clips together and make mistakes because in the mistakes is often where you find the “Wow, that’s cool.” In the abyss is where editors find the magic. No one ever made a difference by following the rules. Rules are a hypocrisy to the sovereign state of creativity.

If you have rules in editing then you are really afraid to change your habits. Habits lead to shortcuts and there is no room for shortcuts in editing. Those looking for shortcuts - look for another craft. Rules inevitably lead to either true or false, right or wrong. In editing, there is no true or false, no right or wrong. Editing is poetry.

Rule 2: You’re An Editor For A Reason

You didn’t find the profession, the profession found you. You probably carry around some social deficiencies. Have no fear - all negative labels are positives in the world of editing. Being alone, quiet and not wanting attention is the fuel that makes great editors. Pale? ideal! Can’t sleep at night? Brilliant! Can’t express yourself in words? Wonderful! Don’t really like people? Perfect!

We are depending on the editor to use his or her personality cracks for a greater conscious level of innocence, sympathy, grief, happiness and love. A great cut relies on you to slip between the frames to tell the story in a truthful way. The editor is the only one who holds the key, because of their deficiencies, that can open the door and slip between the frames.  

Rule 3: The Rule Of Three

Why does every edit feel better when you have three shots in a sequence? Three represents the union of body, mind and spirit. Three is the beginning, middle and end. Active, passive and neutral. Present, past and future. The Rule of Three is a cosmic law and religious tenet. It is fundamental to the universe and just so happens to work great in editing.

Mathematically, three is the only number equal to the sum of all the terms below it: 1+2=3, 2+1=3. Three is the last number that can be defined. Therefore, after the number three you have too many numbers. Thus, you have a mess. But in editing you can’t have a mess. Each shot needs to propel the next. Shot 1 is the beginning. Shot 2 is the middle, and Shot 3 is the end. Done! You can’t have a fourth shot in a sequence, since Shot 4 is too many and it would be an extra ending. Humans on a elemental level are conditioned to seeing in 3s. Don’t give them 2s or 4s. Give them what they rudimentary understand on a primal level.

Three is the magic number. It just is.

Rule 4: Never Read The Script

Take notes
Breathe the film
Let the footage guide you
Light candles
Drink wine
Drink water
Have a purpose

And if you have to read the script, then god forbid never look at the stupid script notes. Who cares what they liked on set? It has no bearing on what will cut together thousands of miles away in an edit room.   

Once during an edit, director Henry Alex Rubin was prepping his next job, which had budget restrictions. He suggested cutting the script supervisor and his producer said how would the editor be able to edit without the script notes? Henry turned to me and said, "JJ, do you look at the script notes?" I replied, "I’ve never looked at the script notes in my life." Done!

Rule 5: Watch An Obscure Foreign Film

Robert Redford once told me if you want to clear your head, watch a foreign film. Well, if you want to fill your head, watch an obscure foreign film. Nothing elevates your perspective and sophistication more than watching foreign films. One of my favorites is an Iranian film called Close Up by Abbas Kiarostami.

Rule 6 - Alpha & Omega 

Alpha is the first letter and numeral in the Ancient Greek system, Omega is the last. The contrast is polemic by nature. In editing, the beginning and end are the most critical sections of your piece. If these two components don’t work, your piece will suffer. These two sections should get a thousand times more of your editing attention and scrutiny than any other part.   

One important recommendation for the Alpha: Make it digestible. Don’t lose your audience before you even get started. Even if your opening is complex, don’t go into the next section with your audience still in section one. Make sure they are along for the ride at all times.

One important recommendation for the Omega: Make it indigestible. Have them sick and laboring over your ending. Leaving them in slight confusion is okay. Never fully wrap it in a perfect bow - that’s boring. Always leave them wanting more.

Rule 7 - Emotional Reality

Film and video cannot and should not be intelligently understood. A film is a product of cutting incongruent clips together to produce an emotional reality. The emotional reality is stronger and longer lasting than intellectual reality. One edit can produce an emotion to inspire an audience to change lives.  

So as the editor, when going into battle with a studio, advertising agency or brand, stand up for the emotional reality, which they often lack the ability to spot and experience. (See the next rule to help in these situations.)

Rule 8 - Rare Eloquence

It is very important to be able to explain your point of view and stand up for your work. Editors are confronted by resistance at every frame by supervisors in higher positions. Since you’re an editor, (see Rule 2) you’re probably not the most verbally gifted person in the world. You must rehearse your stance and viewpoint before you present your work. Try to incorporate the following words (for some reason they work very well): arbitrary, candor, didactic, eclectic, empirical, laconic, maudlin and quandary.

All that said, remember, in the end, your work will have to stand up on its own merit.  

Rule 9  - It’s Not Singing To Me

Sometimes your work doesn’t sing. Sometimes it doesn’t even talk. You’ve put in the hours and the additional hours. No fault of yours, but it’s not good. It feels boring, flat and unimaginative. Maybe it’s the script or the story - you’ve already cut out the boring parts. Maybe it’s the acting - you’ve already cut around the bad acting. Maybe it’s the cinematography - you’ve already cut around the bad camera moves. Well, it’s time to add the letterbox. Letterbox automatically adds imagination, character and sophistication.  

Now what if you already have letterbox on your piece? And it’s still not talking to you? Well, add a little letterbox to your letterbox.  

Rule 10 - The Benefits Of Taking Notes

I bet no one else is.
It makes you look like you care.
It helps you remember stuff.
It helps you to be disciplined.  
It frees your mind. 

Rule 11 - The Client Couch Is Also A Therapy Couch

Bonding begins as soon as clients enter your edit suite. Clients will confess their virtues and their sins. Clients will recount their infidelity on the shoot, their expertise on the shoot, and their genius on the shoot. Just as it is your job to edit, it is your job to listen and not judge. Ironically, I would make more money if I were a therapist. 

Rule 12 - Don’t Be Afraid To Make Mistakes

Every time I’m editing and I happen to put the wrong clip into a cut, a piece of music in the wrong place or a title on a weird part of the screen, inevitably it is so much better than what was designed. So now I have allotted time to make mistakes. It is so important to have that extra day of editing to allow yourself to make mistakes. Exploration. 

Also, never have clients in the room with you during your exploration. Clients always say, “Let me hang out, I promise I won’t bother you.” They don’t mean to but they end up disturbing the whole creative journey because they always say things like, “Don’t worry about that take, we didn’t laugh on-set,” or “Don’t worry about that set-up, the lighting was wrong.” Get them out of the room and make mistakes. 

Rule 13 - Never Blink

In my entire career I have only allowed a character to blink once. Cut out the blinks. I have spent thousands of dollars in special effects to remove blinks. Blinking is weakness. Unless you want your character to be vulnerable, then by all means have them blink. But don’t overdo it. Characters on screen are larger than life; never let them be mundane with a blink.

Rule 14 - Cut For Maximum Emotional Value, Not Continuity

Continuity is dead and has been dead since Oliver Stone’s JFK and before that since Godard’s Breathless.

Rule 15 - Have A System  

And don’t just have a system, have your system. I approach every job the same exact way. 

Here are a few examples: I make my selects while I watch all the dailies. I watch my selects with various pieces of music. I make selects from selects. I have to label my bins and sequences in all caps, otherwise I actually can’t read it; my eyes have become accustomed to only all caps. I label all of my bins the same way every time. I don’t use colors or symbols. The Graphics bin is labeled GRFX, the music bin is labeled MSX, and the voiceover bin is labeled AVO.

I do the same thing every single time because it works for me. Find what works for you, and develop your system. 

Rule 16 - Editors Aren’t Switzerland 

Editors are in the middle of a war. You have armies attacking you from all sides. Whether it’s the director, the agency, the studio, the brand or the financier, they are bombarding your edit room, all fighting for their turf in your cut. While editors must impose order among these hostile nations, keep your missiles ready. Editors have weapons. Know your weapons and if you need to, use them.  

Rule 17 - Editing Is Not Junk Food

A fellow editor once bragged that it took him 30 minutes to edit a spot. That’s how long it takes to make a frozen pizza. Never tell them how fast it took you, instead tell them how long the journey was. Describe to and inform your clients of the effort, care and creativity you put into your cut. 

Rule 18 - Expected Or Unexpected

Editors are supposed to find the “right moment” within the moment. Any editor can cut to the girl crying. But great editors find the moment when she is trying to stop from crying.

Rule 19 - Never Wear Shorts 

Always wear pants when you are editing with clients. Shorts are unprofessional. No one wants to see an editor’s leg hair. See Rule 2: Remember, you’re an editor for a reason.

Rule 20 - Proud As A Parade

Early in my career, I was at a bar in Williamsburg when a Pepsi commercial that I had worked on came on the television. The guy next to me said to his friend, “Oh, I love this commercial.” At that moment I saw the power of what we do.

When you are at a bar or in public, and your commercial or film flashes on the screen, what do you do? You scream out to everyone around you “I made that!” They will be impressed! Someone might even buy you a drink. You might get a phone number. Actually, no, see Rule 2.

Rule 21 - Cookies 

Always watch every single frame of the dailies. Leave no frame unwatched. Never fast forward or watch in double speed. Watch every frame. When you have reached a substantial point in the footage, reward yourself with a cookie. Then set your next goal point, and again, reward yourself with a cookie.

Rule 22 - Thunder Doesn’t Always Happen When It’s Raining

Sound effects are an editor’s best friend. A certain sound effect will make the footage richer. An obscure sound effect will give your cut depth. I have around ten abstract sound effects that I use in every cut. I always throw my helicopter sound effect in there to see if it works, and it always does. Tip: slow down your sound effects 20 percent. 

Rule 23 - Snap Your Finger  
Always cut out of a scene early. It leaves them wanting more. 

Rule 24 - Snap Your Finger - Part Two

Always cut out of a scene a bit too late. It leaves them with more emotion.

Rule 25 - Deft Juxtaposition

Putting seemly unrelated elements together is an enigmatic, innovative technique. Most of the time, personally, I stumble across this by mistake. These mistakes have produced my most memorable edits. Sometimes logic should be tossed into the trash can.

Rule 26 - Truth Destroys The World We Live In

In editing, nothing is true. The world is whatever we want it to be. Don’t listen to anything or anyone. No one has the right answer. The only correct answer is knowing the wrong answer. So don’t use the wrong answer.  

Rule 27 - Be A Problem Solver

Editing is problem solving. Don’t see the obstacles only see the opportunities. Also, don’t be an obstacle. Don’t say something won’t work unless you try it and show it — because it just might work and you’ll be labeled as a problem, not a problem solver.

Rule 28 - Black Is Always The New Black

Everything looks better in black. When someone hands you a colorful graphic, take a moment and try it in black.  

Rule 29 - Everything Old Will Be New Again

Dig in the crate and find the magic. The older the better. History does repeat itself.  

Rule 30 - Rabbits

People do their “thang” like rabbits. I know it’s right in front of you, but don’t do your “thang” with clients, or your assistants, or anyone you work with. Think of everyone like your brother or sister. Keep it on that level.

Rule 31 -  Less Is Less

Less is not more. Less is Less. For example, when you or someone says this section doesn’t need sound effects because the music will drive it. Don’t listen. Have the sound effects in your timeline. Be ready. Have your arsenal ready at all times. Less can be lazy.  

Rule 32 - Contrast Is King

Always bump the contrast in the color correct. It just looks better. Even if the look is ultra flat.  Increase the contrast a bump. It will also limit any contamination of greens. You’ll thank me.

Rule 33 - Dull Knives Are Dull Knives

Keep everything crisp. Have everything tight. I clean the screen and keyboard once a week. I clean my desk twice a day. Get rid of unused cables. Get a haircut. File those fingernails. Iron your pocket square, and if you don’t wear a pocket square, start.  

Rule 34 - Black And White Always Works

Want to impress a client with your creative, out-of-the-box thinking? Turn your film from color to black and white. Let me know their reaction?

Rule 35 - Treat Yo’ Self

You work long and late. You eat like crap. You sit over 12 hours a day. You hardly sleep. If you smoke, you smoke way too much. If you drink, you drink way too much. If you eat, you eat way to much.  Do something to get you through it. Personally, I reward myself with a cookie every time I watch a large section of footage. When working late, suggest to order sushi for dinner, really good sushi, especially if a client is paying. 

Rule 36 - Silence

I have presented cuts over a thousand times in almost 25 years. Editors are the ones that press the long-space-bar button that begins the long, often fraught journey of client comments - most of the time taking a valiant expression of art and turning it into a piece of commerce. But hey, it’s how we all get paid; it’s advertising. After playing the cut down for the first time I was always seeking validation for my efforts.

After the cut would play I would look up from the monitor and scan the room for a reaction. Occasionally, there would be utter silence. The silence was the worst. I felt broken. I was like an addict who needed gratification, especially after getting so much praise in my career.

One day I had an epiphany. The silence wasn’t because it wasn’t good. The silence was because it wasn’t what they were expecting. The silence can be measured by how the client is thinking and how they will have to course correct towards commerce. The longer the silence the better you maintained the art. 

Rule 37 - Advanced Training

The unconscious thinks in terms of content and structure. If you introduce a pattern to your cut, the critical part of the mind will turn off, leaving the viewer in a hypnotic state.  

Rule 38 - Hot Keys

Faster is not always better, but easier is always better. If there’s a way to make my job easier, I’m all for it. Everyday, sharpen your saw. Get your hot keys working for you instead of working for them. Rearrange your hot keys until they’re in the perfect place on your keyboard. Reducing the number of clicks is very important for an editor. That’s why they are called hot keys.

Rule 39 - How Do You Know?

When there is no assistant editor, or producer, or creative, or director or anyone.  When there is not even you. When there is only the characters on your monitor. Then you are in it.  

Rule 40 - The Universe Is Smart

In life people tend to wait for something good to fall into their lap. By waiting, people tend to miss out. Same with the edit room. That great cut isn’t going to just appear into your timeline. However, it does appear close to your timeline. You have to recognize it and get to work on it. It takes time and you need to go get it. It will not come to you. The universe isn’t cruel. The universe is very smart.

Rule 41 - Cheap Trick

Never be cheap. Whether in the edit room or in life, always go all out. For example, in the editing room, instead of having the best monitor from 10 years ago, have the best up-to-date monitor for your clients to view your work. And in life, whenever the Yankees are in the World Series, I always take my best clients. I could buy upper deck tickets, but I don’t. I go all out and get box seats. You always need to impress your clients in the edit and with everything else. And most importantly, you need to impress Yourself.

Rule 42 - Music Is Your Friend

Music is your third best friend in editing. It can hold your cut together and give it direction. You must know everything about every genre of music. I used to think punk music was unlistenable. Now I love the distinctions between death metal and hardcore. Listen to college and public radio stations from Seattle to New Jersey. Listen to podcasts about music. Just today, a Joan Armatrading song I had never heard knocked off my socks. 

Great editors know the differences between Kansas City Jazz and Kansas City Blues or Bronx Hip Hop and Queens Hip Hop.  

When I was a young assistant editor, I was riding the elevator with Joe Pytka. He turned to me and asked what I was listening to. I introduced him to Weezer. Then, we worked together on over 20 projects, how awesome is that?

Rule 43 - Think Like A Kid

The best editors don’t think like editors. The best editors are still 10 years old at heart. Editing is arts and crafts. Your 10-year-old self is a lot more creative than your adult self. Attack your own pretensions and your client’s hierarchy with wit and experimentation like a 10-year-old would.

Rule 44 - No Sound

Make a list of your top 10 films, commercials and music videos. Watch them without the sound.

Rule 45 - Confront The Spectacular

There are so many times where I’m watching dailies and something spectacular happens in the performance or in the camera work but there’s no way to include it in the story in a way that makes sense. Screw the story. Confront the spectacular; the spectacular is the story. 

Rule 46 - Alone In The Wilderness

Way back, before film and television or editing, Americans were known to be the ones alone in the wilderness in their cabin. And the man would build everything in the cabin. He would even make the tools to make the cabin. He would dig the well, plant the potatoes, make the hearth, fish the fish and hunt the elk. In other cultures, one guy cooks, the other hunts, the next guy fishes, one person is responsible for the fire, one person farms while the other one digs. So what kind of editor are you? Because I don’t know about you but I would like to edit with the guy who is an expert on editing.

Rule 47 – The Saucer

In fancy restaurants they always serve coffee or tea with a saucer. I once asked why? They simply told me it just tastes better. And they were right. When you present your cut, make sure you have your saucer. 

Rule 48 -  Fortune Cookie

A young editor once asked, “How do you know when your cut is done?” And the wise old editor replied, “If you started yesterday or a week ago or a month ago you have about 15 years to go.”

Rule 49 - Dedicated To Who?

Every cut you make is dedicated to someone. Someone who either taught you or someone who couldn’t hack it in this highly-stressful, highly-creative, highly-political industry. Think about all of those people every time you make a cut.  

Rule 50 – The Shallow End

No one starts on the triple black diamond. You start on the bunny slope. You don’t jump into the deep end, first you stick your toe in the water. You work up to the surfing the 40-foot waves. It’s a slow process. But somewhere along the line you are going to have push yourself - challenge yourself - to get to the next level.