Editing ads: Feeling, blinking and cutting with your gut

Editing ads: Feeling, blinking and cutting with your gut

The job of a video editor is challenging. Making films for instance, whether short or feature-length, requires a strong sense of story, pace, and emotion. Editing adverts is a different beast altogether. Yes, the end product is far shorter than that of high-budget feature films, but this doesn’t mean the work requires any less strenuous thought and effort. In fact, the conciseness and specific aims of an advert present a whole new set of obstacles for the editor to overcome. This is because with adverts, you want to create something that not only leaves an emotional impact on your audience but also convinces them to buy into the brand/product/service being advertised.

While it’s true that the same basic principles will always apply no matter what you’re working on, there are some extra considerations when editing for marketing purposes.

Here are a few tips, as well as a few cardinal sins of the cutting process.

Finding the narrative

DO refer back to the storyboard and/or script (if you have them). Some adverts will be rigidly storyboarded and scripted, and the director will have a precise vision of what they want from the start of the process. These resources can give you a head start when shaping the video and establishing its pace. Other projects, however, may have a much looser concept and won’t come together until the post-production phase. In these cases, the editor has to take a more significant role in shaping the story and making sure there is some sort of emotional catharsis, that matches the director’s vision, within the brief timeframe of the advert.

DON’T get precious over the material. In advertising, where many pieces of work will be a mere 30 seconds, this idea applies tenfold. It may be that there’s an amazing shot which is beautifully composed with perfect lighting, but if it doesn’t serve the overall narrative of the video, it should go. You have a very limited amount of time to make an impact on your audience, so every frame counts, and something that doesn’t help towards effectively getting your message across might as well be empty frames.

Timing the cut

DO ‘cut with your gut’, as legendary editor Dede Allen (Serpico, Bonnie and Clyde) proclaimed . The actual rhythm of your cuts is one of the most indeterminate aspects of film editing, as there is no definite answer to what is right and what is wrong. It’s also possibly the most important aspect. Essentially, the whole job revolves around deciding where to make a cut over and over again, yet even though it is the core of what editors do, many would have a hard time explaining their process when it comes to pinpointing the exact frame, 24 of which make up a second of footage, at which to cut to the next shot.

If we turn to other iconic film editors for guidance, the answers are slightly ambiguous. Walter Murch (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) suggests that the cut should be timed with when the audience blinks. Michael Kahn (Jurassic Park) says that editors just have to “feel it”, suggesting that nothing is more obstructive to an editor than “the process of your thinking”.

What all the experts’ advice seems to boil down to is this: cutting is something the editor has to feel viscerally. Finding the right place to splice shouldn’t be something that involves long periods of rumination. There is good reason why editing needs the human touch and why it’s considered a whole art form in itself. Emotion drives the whole process. It requires someone to sit, look, and listen to the shot.

Then there is the worry that your natural instinct is off anyway. The answer to this is simple: practice. In time, you will develop your own sense of timing and innate sense of rhythm.

DON’T leave in mistakes. Sometimes, mistakes in the footage will limit your choice of where to make a cut. An actor’s brief hesitation midway through an otherwise great line reading, a shot that is perfect except for one second where the subject steps out of focus or the camera shakes – these small mistakes may dictate where you need to cut away in order to cover them up.

Cutting video and audio

DON’T cut video and audio at exactly the same time for every single shot. It is one of the tell-tale signs that a video has been edited by an amateur. Let’s say your ad involves two characters talking. You have one long take of an actor delivering all their lines and the reverse shot of the other actor delivering all theirs. You may think that the simplest way to edit this is to stay on the first actor as they say their whole line and then cut to the second actor as they say the entirety of theirs and so on. While I can’t say that cutting back and forth in this way is always wrong, doing it consistently not only shows a lack of creativity but also drains the sequence of naturalism. This is because it’s ignoring the subtle complexities, flow, and dynamics of an actual conversation, robbing the sequence of any resemblance to real life in favour of a stilted rhythm that is more like a verbal tennis match. Instead…

DO edit the video and audio separately. A good technique is to overlap the audio from one take to the previous shot so that the audio is heard before the source of it is seen on screen.

This is called an L-Cut (or J-Cut) and is one of the simplest yet most effective skills an editor can implement.

Conversation scenes, for example, instantly appear more natural using this technique. People interrupt and speak over each other all the time. If you have two characters talking, L-cuts will help give their conversation a much more believable flow. Remember that a person’s reaction to what is being said is often a lot more important than the words being said by the other person.


DO use a temp track if you haven’t yet decided on music. Even if you are stuck on the choice for music, you can put in a temporary track that is at least similar in tempo and style to the one you are likely to use. This is because music will determine the pace and tone of your video. It would create a unique set of problems if you were to edit a video using one style of music as reference, (classical for instance), only to have a completely different style put in its place (a move to swing jazz could then cause all sorts of problems).

DON’T underestimate the power of music and think that you can do without. It’s likely that you won’t be able to go without it (unless you have a very solid reason). What the audience hears is arguably more crucial to their viewing experience than what they see. Think about it: the John Lewis Christmas ads wouldn’t be nearly as heart-warming if it weren’t for the cleverly selected piano cover of a classic song. Music can make or break an advert, so think very carefully about it. Of course, your choices are massively varied. It all comes down to the tone and emotion you want to create.

There are exceptions, of course. A lack of music with just a voice over can create extreme tension. This is sometimes reserved for ads that have a very serious, often health-related message (I always think of the anti-smoking/drug/drink-driving adverts). Such campaigns usually have a very clever audio design in terms of diegetic sound (sound that can be heard within the world of the advert and the source of which is visible on screen – e.g. the background chatter of a busy pub, birds chirping in the sky, or heavy breathing).

Getting the message across

DON’T present all your information in an unimaginative, pedestrian way. If possible, try to get the message across visually. Avoid simply stating to your audience how great the product is, such as through voice over or clunky and unnatural-sounding dialogue between two characters in an overly contrived scenario, if you can do it more creatively through the visuals and by weaving the required information into a narrative. It’s about striking a balance: you don’t want an advert that’s mundane; it may get all the information across but does nothing to enthral the viewer and get them passionate about what you’re selling. Nor do you want an advert so cryptic that, while it may boast gorgeous cinematography, goes straight over your audience’s heads and does nothing for brand awareness.

Of course, it’s not just the editor’s job to do this. It stems back to the whole initial idea of the advert. If the fundamental concept is flawed and the resulting footage is dull and lifeless, you are limited in the ways you can revitalise it. In this case, the whole project may be need to be revised in a ‘back to the drawing board’ moment. But even when the footage is great, your message can still become garbled through sloppy editing. Always have the goal of producing an advert that is clear, creative, and concise.

DO have a clear idea of what your intended message is and who the intended audience will be. This is the most important thing and should be strongly outlined from the very beginning. Some adverts will have a very specific target audience, and this will help you decide on a style and tone. You should be constantly asking yourself what your aim is and what you want your audience to take away from the ad, letting your answers to these questions help you decide how you go about the edit. If you find yourself unsure or if there are mixed visions confusing the project, then you need to have better communication with your director.


DO take feedback and always have a back-up plan. Your project may take an entirely different shape than what you, and other crewmembers, originally intended. Some things won’t work and will require serious rejigging. Be prepared for the project to go through several permutations before reaching the final result. It is vital that you get more pairs of eyes on your project other than your own. Reviewing the same footage over and over can desensitise you to the contents, and can completely numb your judgement, leading to creative fatigue. Take a break, let someone else look over your work, take the feedback on board, and then return to the job refreshed and with an open mind.

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