Leave the emotions at the door, and let the long shots fall to the edit room floor, and you'll create a family album masterpiece that even strangers will admire.
When I was exploring photography as a youth, I never forgot one of the early lessons I learned. I was reading an interview between a professional photographer and his student - and the student, on looking through the pro's portfolio commented, "Man -- don't you ever shoot a bad picture?" And the pro responded: "Sure. But when I do... I throw them away."
It was a forehead slapping moment for me.
The best photo albums are built of only the "best of the best" shots. So why isn't it easier to decide what to keep and what to leave out in our productions? One problem is that when it comes to family videos -- like family photo albums -- our editorial discipline is often clouded by the fact that the person editing them is often emotionally connected to the content.
If you're exclusively creating the video for yourself and your family - then lingering on characters or scenes that have family meaning -- rather than universal meaning -- is fine. But the less lingering you do will make your video much more interesting to a wider audience.
Oh No! The Birthday Cake Scene!
One useful tool I've developed over the years is to translate the scene I'm going to cut into words - the fewer the better. A written executive summary of a typical CUTTING THE BIRTHDAY CAKE sequence might look like this:
In that simple description, you have everything you need to communicate the essential nature of this scene. If I was cutting this, and needed an answer to the question, "how long should my establishing shot of the cake be?" the answer would be easy... just long enough for the audience to establish that it is a birthday cake... a few seconds at most. Let's suppose the cake has fancy writing on it and you have a high angle so those words can be read - followed by a tilt down to examine the fancy icing. That might extend the shot by a few more seconds. But that longer shot covers the first two lines in our description. Progress!
If you hold shots that have a simple message for your audience too long, you risk making a boring video. Because your audience will quickly say to themselves, "Fine, it's a cake. I get it. What's next?" How long should it take you to establish that a cake is being cut? Won't a half second shot of the knife -- followed by an immediate cut to Johnny's smiling face tell the audience everything they need to cover the next scene? Another second or so?
The "cake in the face" bit is potentially funny. Funny is engaging for any audience -- so it deserves a bit of time. Let's give a few seconds to the sequence -- a few quick cuts as Johnny gets the cake in the face, and a slightly longer scene -- a few more seconds - as we see his cake smeared face and everyone laughs. If it's really funny, I'd linger a few more seconds for the audience to enjoy the fun -- then BYE, BYE Scene Over. Probably the "cutting the cake" scene deserves 5-15 seconds. That's it.
Want to know how many five minutes cutting the birthday cake scenes I've seen in birthday videos?
You too, huh?
Now you know why so many people hate watching family videos. They're typically boring -- because the person building them assumed that the person watching them cares so much about Johnny that they're willing to spend five minutes of their lives re-living the moment he cut his birthday cake when he was 5.
Don't Be Afraid
But let me tell you a secret about editing. No matter how good it is, footage you leave out will never matter. Because the audience will never know it existed. Remember, the best family videos aren't comprehensive chronicles -- they're windows into the past. A window on one interesting moment is more powerful than sitting at a window all day long watching little or nothing interesting take place. And so it is with family videos. Our job as editors is to fill the window of our viewer's screens with interesting and compelling content.
The more universally interesting we can make those scenes, the more people will not only watch our work -- but also actually enjoy it.
Bill Davis writes, shoots, edits, and does voiceover work for a variety of corporate and industrial clients.