Welcome to this ultimate guide on how to edit video. Video editing is somewhere between a skill and an art form. It’s a complex and rewarding process that can take a long time and create some of the most memorable experiences humans can have.
That said, the term “video” could mean pretty much anything. It all depends on the type of movie or video you are trying to make.
Part 1: Preparing for video editing
Are you more interested in making the next Black Panther or creating an unboxing video of the latest iPhone? Are you weaving together digitized home movies, shooting fresh footage, or a combination of the two?
It’s essential to have a clear idea – a vision, if you like – of what your finished product is to look like.
So, how do you create that vision?
1. Create or tighten up your outline
There are lots of ways to plan your video editing process.
If you are making a documentary or factual movie (that includes most videos for social media) with a voiceover, you might want to create a written script first. You can use this audio component to think about what you want to appear on the screen at any given moment.
On the other hand, you might want to create a storyboard (if you didn’t already make one before any filming started). You will then also need to think about the audio component.
Or you could just make a list of shots and audio in two columns.
At this point, you might realize you don’t have all the footage you needed. Are there wide enough (establishing) shots? Are there sufficient close-ups? If not, don’t worry. It’s a learning process, so you can either reshoot or creatively solve the problem (such as using jump-cutting), and you will know what you need to do next time.
If you want creative inspiration, here you can find the video editing techniques every video editor should know.
All this should make it easier to work with your footage, help you think about any b-roll needed (stock footage, say, of a product you are talking about).
You can’t just use any old footage, though. Much of what you will find on the internet is protected by copyright. As you have no doubt experienced on YouTube, corporations sometimes remove copyrighted content. They can sue. If you are planning on releasing your video commercially, copyright infringement can be an expensive mistake.
2. A bit more about audio
There are two main things to think about when it comes to the audio component and a third smaller one.
If you are recording a voiceover, you can read it from your script before editing your video or create a script after you have made it. In either case, you will need to think about getting hold of a sufficiently high-quality mic (either USB or analog mic with a USB convertor). If the quality is too low, it will interfere with the viewers’ enjoyment.
You should also think about finding a sound-proofed room or somewhere in a quiet location where you can record without distractions.
The second issue is music. Just like with b-roll, you need a license to use commercial music (and to pay royalties). Luckily, there are plenty of royalty-free music providers available. You can even experiment with AI music!
The third issue is the sound effects. You might want to think about the potential of using sound effects to add interest. Or perhaps you want to enhance some scenes with background noise if you are telling a story. The internet has lots of royalty-free sound effects for you to experiment with.
3. Keep things tidy
As you bring all these media to weave together in your video editing workflow, you want to make sure you know where to find things later.
The first thing you want to do is make sure you have moved all your footage from your camera or memory card to the computer. If you leave a memory card on a bus, you might lose everything you’ve shot!
You should probably also consider backing it up to an external drive (about $65 for a decent one) or the Cloud (about $12 / month for 2 Terabytes of data on Google Drive).
Once you have done that, you need to organize your files in folders. You might not have a name for your movie yet, but give it a working title and create a folder on your desktop or in your file system.
In that folder, you should create subfolders. You can name and organize these in whatever way feels comfortable. Still, some people will have folders called “video”, “audio”, “graphics”, “music” “project files” (where you save different versions of the movie at the end of the day), and “exports” where you put the files for viewing.
Or you can keep things simple by creating two folders, “footage” and “assets.” You can create subfolders for “music” and “sound effects” in the assets folder, for example.
You will be creating similar file structures in your video editing program.
Each file should include the name of the project. These can be organized by type of media (audio, footage, b-roll) or – if the video is longer – according to the part of the video or scene.
Creating an outline for the project and keeping things tidy is so important because it gives you some guardrails for the creative work you will be doing later.
Think of it like creating a painting: you want to have your inspirational images, sketches, layout, color choice planned before you work on the canvas, and you also want to have the paints, brushes, and canvas to hand. They also need to be laid out easily for you to work with.
4. Decide on your file size and format
As you know, video files can be huge. That can make them challenging to both store and work with (process on your computer).
Because of this, the industry developed things called “codecs” to compress the files. When a file is played or edited, the codec decodes the data. The great thing is that by working with compressed files, you need a less powerful computer. The downside is that you are likely to lose data (resolution) in compression. That’s why these formats are called “lossy”.
Ultimately, the aim is to find a format that provides sufficient quality while being easy to store and work with on your computer and compatible with your chosen social media platforms.
Suppose you are working with an older or less powerful computer. In that case, if your videos are going to be played on social media, or if you are mainly shooting with a mobile phone, you should choose smaller, lower-resolution formats such as the most common, MP4 (MPEG-4 Part 14); FLV, F4V, and SWF or WEBM or HTML5.
If you have sufficient storage space available (say more than 250GB), your movie is going to be shown on a larger screen, and you are working with higher resolution footage, 4K, for instance, you might want to consider using better image quality, higher file size formats such as Apple’s MOV or Microsoft’s WMV. AVI offers the highest quality, the largest format, and can be played in both environments.
You can convert a higher to a lower resolution format, but you won’t regain lost quality if you are creating into a lower resolution format.
If you are planning on burning a DVD, select MPEG-2 with an H.262 codec. Simple.
A note on computer capabilities for a video editing PC
Video editing is resource-heavy, mainly if you’re working with larger files.
Is it possible to do editing on a slow, old computer with a small, lower-res screen? Probably. It’s just not much fun.
If you are serious about video editing, you will need the following minimum specifications for a video editing PC or MacBook:
Memory/RAM: ideally, you want 16GB of RAM but at least 8. Buy as much as you can afford and save time and swear words.
Processor: Go for multi-core Intel i5/i7/i9 models. You want four or more processor cores.
Storage: SSD and HDD drives are the top choice. SATA drives are at the bottom of the pile. You will need at least 256GB of space at 7,200RPM. External HDs are your friends.
Graphics card: You might want to consider upgrading this. If so, MD and NVIDIA are an excellent choice, but they require a minimum of 2GB of memory.
Screen size: to properly kit out your video editing computer, you want a nice high-resolution screen of a good enough size. 19-21 inches would probably be the smallest.
Firewire or Thunderbolt Ports are almost essential to speed up transferring information and making sure you can playback from your camera or external drive without buffering.
5. Choosing video editing software
There are hundreds of programs to use in your video editing workflow. Some of them are the type of video editors they use in Hollywood, which cram all their features into the product.
Others (particularly those for editing on your phone) focus on a particular element like special effects or subtitles. If you are planning to remove a subject from a movie background, check out Unscreen, putting an end to the ancient and cumbersome green screen process. Either subscription from € 1.18/minute for studios or € 4.99 / minute pay-as-you-go.
Price may be your first consideration. Some software is free (supported by ads). TikTok and Instagram are basic editors and can be used on your phone. Though dated, iMovie remains popular and comes free with your Mac or iOS device.
Others cost several hundred dollars a year either for a $50/month subscription (say to Adobe Premiere Pro) or a one-off price for Final Cut Pro ($299). These two are widely used in the movie industry.
The most popular in Hollywood, however, is Avid Media Composer ($239/year). It’s favored because you can natively edit HD media and high-resolution footage and multi-camera editing. If you feel generous, purchase one of three different packs of plugins for titling, transitions, video effects, and video tools, each costing between $7-800.
The thing is, the more expensive the editor, the more complicated it is to use – that’s true of Avid. And Final Cut Pro is much more intuitive than the better-known Adobe Premiere (and it’s more stable, too.)
Then there are several useful video editors at a fraction of the price. Adobe introduced its Adobe Premiere Elements (about $120) with AI, facial recognition, and guided edits to make it a better option for beginners.
Then there are cheaper options that are not industry standard but work well and get the job done. If you are on the phone, we recommend Kinemaster (from $4.99 a month).
If you are working on a Macbook or desktop, Filmora9 (starting at $39.99) is a popular option, aiming to cut out repetition and simplify advanced features for beginners.
The right software for your video
That question again: what type of video are you making? The answer will help you find the right software. We’ve already pointed out that the movie industry uses Avid Media. And other types of filmmakers in each industry has a particular favorite.
DaVinci Resolve Studio 17 ($299) combines editing, color correction, visual effects, motion graphics, and audio post-production all in one tool. It’s popular with post-production teams because it provides a collaborative environment.
Edius Pro 9 ($499) is frequently used by those in the event or news business because you can edit videos with different resolutions and frame rates on a single timeline without converting them. It’s expensive but great if you are making a documentary.
If you are looking for special effects and filters for a creative project, you can’t go wrong with Pinnacle Studio 24 Ultimate ($120), which has 2,000 and enhanced color-grading tools.
These tools are indeed for the advanced user with deep pockets, but the variety shows how many are out there and why you should do your research: the idea is to find software popular with people doing the same work you are.
Most video editing software pieces are available on a trial basis, so spend some time getting to know what works for you.
It’s a lot to take in. An excellent place to start if you are feeling overwhelmed is our list of the best video editing software for beginners in 2021.
6. Organizing media when learning how to edit video
When you have chosen your video editing software, it’s time to start getting together all the finished film ingredients.
It’s vital to stay organized when you are editing a film.
Then get hold of your storyboard or script to work from and start organizing the media on your computer.
You want to bring that organization through to your video editor. That way, when you start working on a Monday, you will remember where to find the things you were using on Friday.
You will use the same folder structure you created on your computer and the editing software’s native organization structure.
If you are using Premiere Pro, your media will be organized in “bins” that look and can act very much like Finder or Windows Explorer folders. You can drag media out of these bins into sequences in the order you want. To see the result, you can open these sequences up in your timeline.
In Final Cut Pro, you will replicate your folder structure in a “library”, which you save in the movie folder you made earlier. (It’s essential to create a new library for every video because, otherwise, you will tax your computer’s RAM.)
You will then drag the movie folder from Finder or Windows Explorer into your library, and it will replicate the structure and bring all the media along with it. In the library, Final Cut Pro creates Events (which are collections of media) and Projects (which are the edit instructions for the media.
Most video editing programs will have a variation in organizing your media, and you will get to know them intimately.
Once you have all the footage, make sure you know it back to front. You might be tempted to jump straight to editing, but that would be a mistake. Instead, watch everything and use your video editor’s tools to mark up the parts of the footage you think might be useful. Your script or storyboard will be crucial at this point. Which bit of footage might go where?
It might be at this point you realize you have bits of script or storyboard and no existing footage to match. (For example, if you are making a documentary, you will need cutaway footage of some kind for when you are editing interviews – else the visual will jump around). Although this might cause extra work, it’s better to do it and create the product your viewers deserve.
To repeat, the fundamental principles in preparing to edit your video are:
- Stay organized inside your video editor and on your desktop. Use the same structures and, if you add media to one folder in the editor, add it in the folder.
- Be sure to create a new folder and library (if in Final Cut Pro) for each movie.
- Think about the best way to organize your footage and assets. What works for you? How do you work? How complicated is too complicated?
- Do you want to break up the subfolders? You might if your movie is going to be long. You want to be able to find that clip as quickly as possible while you are in the flow of editing.
- Ensure you are familiar with all your footage before you begin editing and mark up potential inclusions and cuts as you go. Don’t be afraid to do more filming or get hold of more footage or audio before you start editing, even if it means a wait before editing.
Part 2: Editing your video!
At last, we can finally start working with the footage.
Start by roughly cutting the footage leaving only the marked-up footage behind (hence “rough cut”), and planning it in order on your video editor timeline using your script or storyboard. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and you can move everything around later if you need to.
Now you have the bare bones of your film. Are you using a separate audio track? This needs a separate edit taking out the ums and ahs and boring bits. After that, you can place it on the timeline as well.
Once that’s all done, you want to tighten it all up and make sure the order is the best it can be.
1. The Fine Cut
As discussed in our blog, video editing types for beginners, video editing is an art as much as a craft. To do it well, you need to have a vision for what you are trying to create in the viewer’s mind. It’s about producing emotion, tension, resolution, giving information, keeping their attention, surprising them, creating a rhythm – all at once!
But, on a basic level, when you are doing your “fine cut”, you are trying to trim away the extra stuff, the beginnings and ends of clips, the too long time the subject spends walking, getting wide shots and close-ups the right length.
Think about the viewer’s attention; what you want them to focus on.
Aim to create a balance between meaning and tension. In other words, it needs to be long enough for the viewer to take some meaning from it but not bore them.
That said, if you are going to linger over a shot, make sure it’s a nice one and be certain having it run for a few extra seconds will give the scene some weight.
For a thriller, you might want lots of quick shots to increase the pace.
A documentary or factual piece is mostly about information: the shots should illustrate what the interviewee or voiceover is discussing. Suppose you have a particularly important interviewee under emotional stress (hurray!) or maybe at the center of the story. In that case, you might want to consider including some shots from before or after the interview to give a “behind the scenes” feel – and to display their character when they feel less closely watched.
As you are working on your fine cut, start thinking about any transitions you want to add. Things like fading to black or white, dissolves and fades can create the feeling of ending a scene. Various wipes are another option to move between sections.
Transitions shouldn’t be too “obvious”. Handle them with taste and care (avoid having the clip turn into a ball and bounce around the screen unless you are going for a comedy effect.)
2. Colour correcting and colour grading
Anything that detracts your viewers from their experience is a bad thing. That includes levels of hue, saturation, and brightness levels changing throughout the video.
You won’t be able to get the consistency you want to correct your color unless you calibrate your monitor. That’s because you want to create – at least at first – a “natural look”. Cameras tend to make everything very bright and highly saturated, and you are trying to recreate what the eye sees. This is particularly important with skin tones.
Most video editors will have basic controls to correct colors. An excellent place to start is with white balance. Perhaps the lighting made your whites look yellow or blue, so you will want to shift the slider. All the other colors will follow in the correction. You can use a reference white image to help.
Having done that, you can move on to the tones. It’s really up to you to work out how to combine these to get the correct blend of things like exposure (brightness), contrast (the difference between light and dark), highlights, shadows, whites, blacks, and color saturation.
Keeping an eye on skin tone as you do this is not only useful; you want to make sure your people are the right color.
You can also explore color grading. This is where you can add filters to your movie, just like on Instagram. As in the image-sharing app, you might want to create a warmer look for a scene or a darker one if you are trying to make a scary atmosphere.
Filters can also help tell the story: for example, you can apply a day-to-night filter or a sunset to change the apparent time of day the scene is taking place.
Check out our blog to learn more about color grading vs color correction.
3. Finishing touches: watching your film like a viewer
Having got to this stage, you might be a bit sick of your film. That’s understandable. Take a break for a day or more. Because now you need to get even more familiar with every part of it!
Because it’s time to watch it all the way through and try and imagine you are seeing it for the first time. Make notes at any point you feel something is wrong.
Are there parts that don’t make sense you need to add more storytelling?
Is the color consistent throughout the scene?
Do some parts go on too long and get boring or jump around?
When you have completed this, go through the movie and make the edits.
Then, well. Repeat the process until you are happy. You might want to take more breaks in between fine-tuning sessions to stay fresh.
Do you have other filmmakers you know or a smart friend who is interested in your career? Ask them to watch it closely with you and say if they see anything weird. Buy them wine.
Make their suggestions – if you feel like you agree – and then you’re done!
4. Exporting and sharing on social
It’s time to get your work into the world.
We have gone into file formats earlier in this guide, but each platform has its preference for social sharing.
You might, therefore, want to save more than one version of your movie if you plan to upload it to several social media sites.
YouTube is pretty agnostic to file formats and can work with MOV, MPEG4, MP4, AVI, WMV, MPEG-PS, FLV, 3GPP, and WebM at a resolution up to 3840×2160.
Facebook can display MOV or MP4 (with H.264 codec) at a lower resolution of 1280×720 and a lower frame rate of 30 fps or below. Two hours maximum.
Instagram videos need to be MP4 (with H.264 codec) at max width 1080p and 30 fps or below. The maximum length is 60 seconds.
Twitter also goes for MP4 with video resolution up to 1280×1024 and frame rate 40 fps or below. 140 seconds is the maximum duration. The bird requires audio at AAC Low Complexity; all the others need AAC.
Getting noticed on social media is a complex topic closer to marketing. However, think about your brand (your values and what drives you to make movies), your profile, and your artistic sensibility—supporting other artists who might help you, and, of course, creating a trailer.
This video editing guide might seem to be the wrong way around. Nearly two-thirds is spent looking at what you need to do to set up before you start editing your video. That may take you some time. But the craft of learning to edit and getting good at it is the work of a lifetime.
However, we have focused on pre-editing because you need to have everything in place and organized so you don’t interrupt yourself looking around for what you don’t have.
You can study and read, but it’s by practicing and getting feedback – and learning from other filmmakers – that you will become a great editor.
Here are the steps you need to follow:
- Be clear about what movie you want to make. Each genre has its way of doing things. Yes, you can break convention, but you need to learn the basics first.
- If you haven’t already done so, create an outline, whether it is a script or storyboard. Make sure you know what will be on the screen and the speakers at any given moment. If you have stuff missing, shoot more, or be creative.
- Create a project folder and organize your footage and other media. Start matching it with your plan.
- Get to know file formats and decide which to use.
- Video editing is hungry! You might need to invest in a new computer, faster RAM, or more storage to avoid frustration.
- Is there a video editing software people in your industry use? Find out. If you are on a budget, explore the best one you can afford now on a trial basis.
- More organization: replicate your file structure inside your video editing software.
- WATCH ALL YOUR FOOTAGE maybe more than once and mark up the things you like.
- Cut the bits you don’t like and move into your software in the order you think might work. Don’t be a perfectionist. It’s the rough cut.
- Start trimming back the parts of the rough cut to make the fine cut. Think about rhythm, pace, and all sorts of impact on the view.
- Do you want transitions? Sound effects? This is the time to add them.
- Now on to how it looks from a color perspective. It’s time to color correct and maybe grade if you want to create an atmosphere.
- Now you need to watch it, make notes on tightening it up, make those corrections – and repeat until you are happy. You might want to show it to someone whose option you trust.
- Finally, it’s time to save it and share it on social media. Follow our short guide to the formats each need.
We hope this guide on how to edit video will prove to be the start of a long and fulfilling journey for you. Good luck and happy filmmaking!