Video Editing: Go with the Flow

Have you ever been hypnotized? If you’ve ever been to the movies and found yourself completely lost in the story, you have. A well-edited movie does exactly that, and it’s not a bad thing. It captures the imagination in a way that virtually takes over the brain. We surrender to the story and forget about reality until the credit roll brings us back to earth.

In fact, this hypnotic effect is often so powerful, that if the progression of images is interrupted if things don’t flow smoothly from one idea to the next we experience a shock.

If you’re ever in a movie theater and the film unluckily breaks, you’ll know the feeling. From total immersion to a big, blinding white screen in an instant; the groans that follow are the sounds of pure frustration.

So, when you start to edit moving pictures on your own nonlinear editor, it helps if you pay attention to the techniques that have been developed over time that encourage the audience to engross itself in the flow of action.

The Basics

Many techniques that encourage visual flow come under the heading of "matching action." They are really nothing more than a set of simple rules that help keep the viewer oriented and the action flowing from one scene to the next.

One of the most basic types of matching action is simply making sure each shot follows a logical progression.

Consider the traditional sequence of a person walking through a door. The usual progression one would use might be :

Shot 1 – A wide shot of an actor approaching a door.

Shot 2 – A closeup of the door handle and a hand reaching out to grab it.

Shot 3 – A medium shot of the hand pulling the door open and the person walking through.

Shot 4 – A reverse angle from inside the door showing the character entering the new room.

Shot 5 – A wide shot showing the door close and the character established in the new room.

This shot progression is basic. We know what it’s like to enter a room, so everyone has the same expectation of which scene follows which. What makes the difference between good and bad scene flow is the precise timing of each scene; how much footage you allow before and after each central action.

Look at the sequence in Figure 2A. There is a deliberate error in the In and Out points between the two shots to show a common editing mistake.

Notice that at the Out point of the first shot, the character’s hand is just beginning to rise toward the door handle but at the In point of the next shot, the hand is already on the handle. A straight cut at these points in action would yield a jump that would feel rushed.

Instead, an experienced editor would either allow the action in Shot 1 to continue until the hand reaches closer to the door handle , (Figures 2B) or would move the In point of Shot 2 ahead in the action in order to put some buffer between the scenes. Cutting to the door handle prior to the hand entering the frame, then letting the hand enter the scene and grab the handle, would match the action the audience expects, even if the time between those actions is less than real time.

And that’s an important point. Cutting between expected scenes in a flow doesn’t mean you always have to maintain a real-time relationship between them. The audience often won’t notice if you cut time out of a sequence as long as the action is smooth and flows logically from one scene to the next.

Pace Yourself

The overall goal of every editor should be to understand what each scene needs to contribute to the program and to make sure it remains on-screen exactly long enough (and not one frame longer) to accomplish the scene’s objective.

One clear sign of amateur editing is scenes that run too long. The rule of thumb for scene pacing is the same as in all good moviemaking: if it doesn’t help the audience follow the action or help move the story along, get rid of it.

If you watch first-class editors at work, you’ll notice their obsession with trimming scenes to perfection. They’ll typically set an initial edit point, then set up a playback loop that runs through the edit point. Then, they’ll play the transition over and over while using their Trim Edit keyboard commands to lop frames off the head and tail until the edit feels just right and every unnecessary frame is gone.


Trimming the Action

This is yet another place where modern editors have things much easier than in the old days, when trimming frames meant cutting celluloid strips of film. Today, a couple of taps on the keyboard can manipulate In and Out points and trim individual frames in a scene so that there’s really no excuse for not dialing in your edits.

Many of today’s leading software packages go even further, providing dual-window displays, so the editor can see previews of both incoming and outgoing shots running in real time. This is a great feature when you want to see how trimming affects the shots on both sides of an edit point .

If you watch the great films of yesterday and today, you’ll discover they all have something in common. Whether the pace of the scenes is fast or slow, film editors use these matching action techniques to keep their stories moving along. They align the mood of the performances with the pacing of the edits to give every scene (or sequence of scenes) it’s own natural rhythm.

Recognizing and finding the ideal visual rhythm for a sequence of shots, and editing it so that it flows smoothly from scene to scene is the difference between someone who just strings scenes together, and a real visual storyteller.

[Sidebar: Breaking the Line]
Another element of matching action is the understanding that movements taking place on the screen will always have a perceived direction.
If the movie violates that notion, our brains have trouble connecting things. Imagine that you and your video club are videotaping a school play entitled Vegetables Are Our Friends. Since there are lots of volunteers, you decide that in addition to the video cameras in the audience, you’ll place a camera upstage, behind the scenery, pointing towards the audience.
It’s time for Mr. Tomato’s big entrance. He enters from the left, and moves to the right. Both upstage and downstage cameras are rolling and have Mr. Tomato in a loose closeup.
In post-production, you’d notice that if you cut between those two shots, Mr. Tomato would be moving left to right in the audience shots, but moving right to left in the upstage camera shots.
That’s what’s called “breaking the line.” Viewers expect actions on screen to have a directional flow. Keeping the camera perspective on one side of an imaginary line that runs parallel to the action maintains that sense of flow.
If you need to break the line, use a neutral shot with the character facing directly towards or away from the camera as a buffer, so that the scene’s directional flow momentarily stops.

[Sidebar: Cutaways]

Another technique that lets an editor keep the program moving is the use of cutaway shots or B-roll.

In our earlier example, instead of cutting from the hand closeup to the reverse angle shot of the character entering the room, you could use a cutaway. A cutaway shot of a person sitting at a desk in the room and looking up at the doorway might keep the scene moving, while efficiently introducing a new character. Using the cutaway again allows you to shorten the scene length, since the audience will expect the door-opening action to have continued during the cutaway.

Scene pacing is always dependent on the content of the scene itself. If you were cutting a scene of a mother rocking a newborn baby to sleep, the scene pacing would typically be much slower than if you were cutting a car chase sequence.

Experienced editors take great care with scene pacing, understanding that it can be the difference between an audience that’s fully engaged with the story and one that’s fidgeting in their seats.

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