How Do You Know When to Cut?

Follow your instincts.


“There are no right answers.”

The editing process is intrinsic to the magic of cinema, putting shots in conversation to build a film’s events, emotions, and meaning.

Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting, one of our favorite YouTube channels here at Lights Film School, dives deeply into the art of the edit in his fantastic video essay, How Does an Editor Think and Feel?

Let’s take a few minutes to give it a watch:

“I cut based on instinct,” Zhou says.

Like legendary editor Walter Murch, Zhou’s instinct revolves around his observations of a character’s eyes, those “windows to the soul” revealing emotion.

Of course, in order to register emotion onscreen, we need time. It’s upon you as the editor to determine precisely how much time a shot needs. While “there are no right answers,” the solution involves consideration not only of a character’s eyes in a single shot, but also of how that shot interacts with the shots around it.

Zhou gives an excellent example of the mechanics of shot interaction from Hannah and Her Sisters. Michael Caine’s character looks at something offscreen. The next shot shows the subject of Caine’s attention: a young woman. In so doing, the shot contextualizes the wistfulness in Caine’s eyes, establishing his character’s wants – without dialogue! – so that the story can move forward. We understand the dramatic engine immediately.

Hannah and Her Sisters | Orion Pictures Corporation, 1986

Hannah and Her Sisters | Orion Pictures Corporation, 1986

Hannah and Her Sisters | Orion Pictures Corporation, 1986

Hannah and Her Sisters | Orion Pictures Corporation, 1986

On the other end of the spectrum is Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, about a man who struggles to connect with the world around him. The edit expresses the character’s disconnection by using quick cuts to sabotage dramatic payoff and clarity.

“It is one of the most committed examples of ‘form follows function,'” Ebert’s Matt Zoller Seitz writes in his review. The unpredictability of the edit manifests “the impossibility of imposing meaningful order on experience… The film seems to be fighting a losing battle to make sense of itself, to coalesce into a statement, to not fade away” – which is precisely its intention. The fragmented rhythm of the shots in Knight of Cups externalizes the protagonist’s internal state and ultimately creates the film’s meaning.

Knight of Cups | Broad Green Pictures, 2015

Knight of Cups | Broad Green Pictures, 2015

Every editor develops a sense of rhythm that will guide them in their pursuit of the holy grail of filmmaking, namely, externalizing the internal. As Zhou notes, this sense is something that’s built with experience over time – “editing is very similar to dance in that way. You can explain the rudiments of dance, but to really learn how to dance, you have to dance.”

So get out there and “dance”, filmmakers. Follow your instincts one project at a time.

Because the more you edit, the faster you’ll develop your unique understanding of when you should cut, and the better your movies will be.

 Michael Koehler, with


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