Begin With the Edit in Mind

The production footage of a professional director is like a racing car in a kit. Though there are thousands of parts to assemble, every last nut and bolt is present, beautifully finished and shaped for a perfect fit. Amateur footage can be more like a wrecking yard: a skilled mechanic might improvise a jalopy out of scavenged parts but it aint gonna win any races.

Directing like a pro means designing and fabricating the hundreds of shots in a video shoot so an editor can assemble them smoothly. Though the details may be fearsomely complex (say, in a film like Titanic) the basic principles are simple.

But first you must recognize that youre not building the racer as you shoot. Instead, youre machining parts for the editor to assemble in post production. Professional directors start from the premise that a program is not a straight documentation of its content. Instead, its a synthesis, a construction of small pieces that create the illusion of a seamless whole because they fit together so tightly.

Think of it this way: when you tape a real-time event like a ball game, youre simply recording what happens. Editing in this case means weeding out the bad stuff. But if youre shooting a scripted program, youre creating "what happens" one piece at a time. Editing a scripted program means picking and assembling the good stuff from scratch. Most documentary editing is subtractive; other professional editing is additive.

With that crucial difference understood, youre ready to consider the three Cs of shooting for the edit: coverage, continuity and cutability. With these principles as guidelines, you can create all the components of an Indy 500 champion.

Get It Covered

Coverage means giving the editor enough material to cut with. In order to provide this coverage, you need one other C: completeness. Its amazingly easy to omit things by accident, which often happens because shooting is so fragmented. It may seem obvious, but hey, dont tape a prisoner opening his cell door without showing where the key came from.

Beyond the obvious goal of completeness, coverage means overlap and repetition. In overlapping action from one setup to the next, you allow the editor to start the incoming shot precisely where he or she has clipped the outgoing shot (see Figure 1). Since the action continues across the cut, the uninterrupted flow conceals the edit.

Its not enough, however, for the editor to start shot B just any old place before the end of shot A. As the director/camera operator, you need to pre-visualize good edit points in the action as you stage it, so that at least one or more are built into both shots. If a character snatches a letter from a table, theres probably one edit point just before she reaches for it, a second point just before she lifts it and a third point as she begins to open it. Covering all three moments in both the A-roll and B-roll increases the editors cutting options.

Most professional directors go so far as to repeat entire beats (short segments) of action in multiple angles. The classic way to cover your caboose is by shooting the entire scene in master shot (an angle wide enough to show the whole action). Then you shoot the scene at least twice again from closer angles, to feature individual players and to show details .

The old "master shot/his closeup/her closeup" scheme has long been a cliche, but it does at least deliver ample footage to cut with. A more modern alternative is to replace the master shot with a custom-built setup (such as a moving shot) that covers the entire action. This avoids the master shots static, stagy feeling while still providing full coverage from at least three different angles.

A good director also provides coverage for protection. A protection shot anticipates a potential problem and delivers the means to fix it. For example, suppose shot A shows a character getting into a car, turning around in the driveway of a large estate and accelerating to the street. Shot B shows the car screech into the street and drive away .

Watching the action in shot A, you wonder if all that backing around might get boring. To protect yourself, you shoot a quick closeup of the driver as he reverses and then starts forward. By cutting in this protection shot, the editor can omit most of the backing footage and lose much of the driveway as well. An action that took 30 seconds in real-life now lasts only ten on the screen.

Cutaways, Inserts and Color Shots


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To complete your coverage of a sequence, capture cutaways, inserts and color shots. Cutaways show material other than the main subject. For example, a cutaway might show a gardener reacting as the car roars off down the driveway.

An insert reveals a detail of the action or provides extra information. A hand turning an ignition key is an insert that shows detailed action, while a closeup of a fuel gauge reading empty delivers information. If an insert or cutaway follows a shot of a performer noticing or looking at something, the shots are sometimes called a "glance/object" pair.

Color shots are cutaways that add to the general atmosphere rather than provide information about the action. A wide shot of the garden party on the lawn behind the driveway would be a color shot.

Cutaways and inserts make great buffer shots. By displaying totally different content, a buffer shot softens viewers memories of the shot that preceded it. So if the editor wants to shorten a dull passage, correct an action mismatch or screen direction booboo, or repair a performance mistake, a cutaway or insert at the fix point will often conceal the surgery.

Incidentally, color shots dont buffer as well because theyre unmotivated. Theyre great for establishing the feel of a new locale, but they can seem intrusive when they interrupt the action. If you cut back to the lawn party in the middle of the cars screaming exit, the audience wonders what the party shot is for. For more details about cutaways, check out The Wonderful Cutaway in the June 2000 issue of Videomaker.


Continuity means shot-to-shot consistency of information, action and screen direction. The goal is to make the program play as a single, continuous whole. This can be very tough to achieve because a single-camera setup can only capture one angle at a time. If you shoot the next angle weeks, days or even minutes later, Murphys Law will fire up and changes will try to sneak in.

The most obvious inconsistencies involve information and action . In shot A, for example, she reaches for the letter with her right hand. But in shot B she picks it up with her left hand. Then, in shot C, the envelope is already torn because she opened the letter at the end of shot B. At about this point you can hear an anguished "Aaarrgghh!" arise from the edit bay.

A good editor can fix, omit, hide or minimize many continuity lapses (See Edit Suite in the March 2000 issue of Videomaker for tips on how to do this.) Your job, as shooter/director, is to prevent them in the first place.

The best way to do this is by screening shot A before shooting B to check the details of the action. This is easy in situations where you can keep a VCR and monitor handy. But if you must, review footage by playing it in the camcorder, protect yourself from problems:

  •  Use shore power or carry extra batteries, because playback burns precious juice.

  •  If reviewing a shot you just completed, verify that youve rolled past it to raw stock before resuming. This avoids taping over the end of the shot.

  •  Also consider "blacking" your blank tape to provide continous time code from the beginning of the tape to the end.

  •  And if shots A and B are different shooting sessions, have performers make written inventories or take a Poloroid of their costumes, and then phone them every shooting day to remind them of what to wear.

    Continuity of screen direction is, of course, the technique of keeping every player in every shot of a single action (like a dialogue scene or a chase) pointed and/or headed in the same direction (left or right) with respect to the frame around the image. Screen direction is a big topic, for more information regarding screen direction, see Edit Suite in the April 1999 issue of Videomaker. Here, its enough to summarize the three types of screen direction and add some quick tips for managing them.

    Look. Within a sequence, each characters face should be angled, more or less, toward the same side of the screen. Unless theyre both looking out to sea or something, subjects speaking to each other should maintain opposite screen directions.

    Movement. With moving actors (or cars or horses or space ships) each one should proceed in the same screen direction from shot to shot. As with look, the angle of screen direction movement may vary from almost straight toward the camera to almost dead away from it, as long as there is a slight tendency toward the same side of the frame.

    When the look or movement are aimed perfectly toward or away from the screen, you have a neutral screen direction that can serve as a buffer between shots with different directions. Other ways to change screen direction smoothly include:

  •  Allow the mover to exit the screen in one direction. Then start the next shot with an empty screen. And lastly have the mover enter the screen traveling in the opposite screen direction.

  •  Injecting a cutaway between the two different directions, to soften viewers memory of the original one.

    The subtlest screen direction involves pure convention. In a car interior, the driver usually points screen right and the passenger screen left, regardless of the cars own screen direction. However, when cutting between exteriors of the vehicle and interiors of its occupants, youll get smoother edits if you match the car with whichever person is headed in the same screen direction. If the car is driving right to left, cut to (or from) the passenger; if left to right, cut to the driver.

    What if theres no passenger and the cars direction is opposite the drivers? Cut to a neutral angle shooting out the windshield. And which way is the car itself traveling? Right to left, heading westward or the opposite way pointed east, following the orientations of conventional maps. As for north/south travel, a high, neutral shot of the car headed up or down screen couldnt hurt, though this is not as important.

    Finally, think about things such as sunsets, which happen in the "left" (West). Its not vital to put them there in your composition, but doing so does smooth the continuity and every little bit of detail helps.


    The last characteristic of good footage for editing might be labeled cutability: the overall ease and smoothness with which a series of shots go together. In addition to the traits already mentioned, cutable footage is characterized by a healthy variety of setups and decisive angle shifts from shot to shot.

    To obtain a broad range of camera angles, good directors avoid standard, cliche shooting plans like the one in Figure 2. Thats hackwork: an approach that gets the job done without costing much thought. Instead of planning shots in standardized setups, look at each beat of action (or other unit of content) and pick the angles that fit it best.

    For example, in an intense dramatic scene, you may decide to play everything close, so the angles vary only from closeup to extreme closeup. In contrast, your setups for a corporate promotional might start at full shot and not get nearer than loose closeup. That corporate program may stick pretty close to neutral camera heights too, but a wild music video might range from wormseye to birdseye angles and most of them will be purposely off-level.

    The moral is, within any overall shooting style, you can vary your setups so that you arent repeating yourself. In addition to creating variety, camera angles need to be decisively different from shot to shot. For a thorough exploration of shot selection, see Nice Shot, in the April 2000 issue of Videomaker. For our purposes, the gist is worth repeating here.

    Every camera setup has three traits (four if you count lens focal length): subject size (from extreme long shot to extreme closeup), horizontal angle to subject(from front angle through profile to rear angle) and vertical angle to subject (from birdseye to wormseye). To ensure a smooth edit, it helps to change at least two out of three of these traits from one shot to the next (Figure 5). Image size and horizontal or vertical angles are the most commonly changed.

    A good editor can get away with a single change (say from a front angle medium shot to a 3/4-angle medium shot at the same height) but only if that one change is decisive. If the shift from the front angle is only a few degrees, a jump cut may occur.

    Some situations dont welcome wide variations in image traits. In an on-camera interview, for example, you cant use extremely high or low setups or pull back to long shots. In this situation, it may help to make moderate changes in all three traits at once. One angle on the interview subject might be a front waist shot at neutral height, while the other is a 3/4-medium closeup with the camera just a tad low. Though there isnt much change in any one trait, the cumulative effect of all three is decisive.

    To wrap it all up, a professional director thinks of every camera setup, every shot, every action in terms of editing: am I including all the information? Is there enough overlap for matching shots? Do I have enough variety to sustain interest and allow decisive shifts from one shot to the next? If your answers are a consistent yes! then youll deliver a kit full of video parts thatll make a champion racer every time.

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