In my opinion, editing is the most powerful tool in the filmmaking process. Movies and are made, saved, destroyed and transformed in the editing room. Editing is everything. Don't believe me? I'll give you an example. I've spoken before about "The Shinning," this is a personal favorite of mine and arguably one of the scariest movies made. But look what happens with some clever editing and sound design:
Walter Murch wrote a book called In The Blink of an Eye. I highly recommend the book for anyone who wants to learn more about the psychology of editing. In his book Murch states the most important thing to convey in a scene is emotion, even more so than story. The choices you make regarding sound, music, when to cut, what shot to use, etc. all those decisions should first be based on creating an emotion. Next you need to make sure you are telling your story in a way that satisfies your audience. Do the choices you made editing move the story forward? Here are some questions you should ask yourself when you are editing a scene:
1. What is the emotion I'm trying to convey?
2. Am I conveying that emotion?
3. Am I moving my story forward?
4. Is every frame of video I used absolutely necessary or can I tighten it?
Regarding number 4, your edited scene should only contain footage and sound that is absolutely necessary to conveying emotion and story. You should be polishing and refining your scene not shoving in extra footage because it looks cool or because you want the piece to be longer. There will be times when you have to abandon great footage, because it doesn't work in your finished piece.
Okay this is great high level stuff, but what about the actual editing?
There are many tools at your disposal. But the simplest and most effective is a plain cut. No dissolves or wipes or fancy stuff. Use a standard cut and use it frequently. The majority of shots in any movie are not much more then a few seconds long. It's rare to see a single shot over 30 seconds. When you do it's because the director made a conscious choice to hold on the shot, most likely because he or she is trying to convey an emotion.
Murch recommends a good method to use to determine when to cut. Watch your shot and determine at what point you naturally feel like blinking. Murch states in his book, that blinking is like your eyes' way of cutting what you see.
Rather then attempt to explain every possible editing technique and trick in this post I'll instead tell you the things you should avoid.
1. Do not use dissolves or wipes or other crazy transitions. People tend to use these because their cut isn't working and these transitions help mask that. Or they think it's cool. It's not cool. Once you have mastered using nothing but plain old cuts then you can use these tools to strengthen your piece.
2. Do not use filters. I know it's tempting. There are some really cool filters out there. The most common one I see is the film filter. I know a lot of you are shooting on standard def video cameras and you may not like the look of video. You are most likely trying to make your footage look more interesting or less amateur, but this is rarely the solution. There are times when these filters work well, but it's best to avoid them or use them with discretion.
3. Go easy on the music. Half of the emotional impact of a scene comes from your sound design. There's some thing very powerful that happens when you cut to a song you really like, suddenly the footage is alive with emotion. Don't let this become a crutch for you. Simply blasting a metal song and with random shots is not necessarily the best way to convey emotion and story.