5 Ways to Kill Your Darlings and Make Better Cuts

Post-production is a combination of organization, construction and subtraction. It’s an editor’s responsibility to facilitate all three operations. Subtraction is so prevalent that post-production goes by another moniker, editing. Editing, it’s the process of rearranging and eliminating video footage to create the most compelling story possible.

Completing a narrative by removing parts of the story is a tricky and nuanced procedure, but it’s addition by subtraction. This process of elimination often gets left out, making editing problematic. The expression “kill your darlings” simply means you don’t need to get attached to your own ideas or favor any single part of your edits. Here are five easy techniques by which you can take yourself out of the edit and put forth the best possible video.

1. Check Your Ego at the Door

Editing isn’t about you or your abilities; it’s not always an opportunity to show off. Editing is about creating a video that effectively communicates with its target audience. There are multiple routes you can go and still communicate with the audience, but your goal should always be about finding the best possible route. This means you need to be objective. The final video shouldn’t be delivered through your voice; the video should stand on its own. To this end, always ask yourself, “what is the story of this video and where am I getting in the way?”

2. Cut It Out

A story is made of statements, segments, scenarios and scenes. Left to themselves, not one of these pieces makes the whole. It’s the conglomeration of the parts that makes the whole, but that doesn’t mean that everything needs to be there. One trap many editors fall into is using every scene or shot given to them because, the logic goes, if it’s on camera it’s most likely meant to be there. However, just because a shot or scene exists doesn’t mean it needs to be in the final edit. If there is a shot or scene that doesn’t advance the story or make the video better, eliminate it. If the video still tells the story without the eliminated sequence, it was never needed in the first place.

If there is a shot or scene that doesn’t advance the story or make the video better, eliminate it.

3. Take a Chance

The path to clarity when editing isn’t always straight ahead. Sometimes a little serendipity comes into play. One thing that sets editing apart from other creative ventures is that video editing is non-destructive. Any timeline is a record of how footage was arranged by the editor; it’s a digital snapshot. One epiphany that’s common amongst editors is that they have the ability to save multiple edits. Saving different versions of an edit allows you to revisit what you’ve done previously and start over when a particular path isn’t working out. Use this knowledge to feel free to experiment and take chances with your edits. A small scene might play a bigger role if it’s cut differently into the overall edit and other scenes are eliminated, allowing the smaller scene to command more attention.

4. Sleep On It

When you’re working on a video, you’re bound to encounter storytelling problems.

Spending more time in the edit bay doesn’t always mean you’re getting closer to a solution. The more time you spend staring at a scene, the more focus is concentrated on that isolated problem. Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to get away from it. Objectivity is difficult from a subjective viewpoint. An edit can be best served by an editor who takes some time away. Rest and reflection on something other than the edit allows you to reset your mind and come back to the edit bay refreshed, with a new perspective on the story you’re trying to tell.

5. Show and Tell

Again, perspective is a tricky thing and it’s tough for an editor to entirely remove themselves from what they see in an edit. That’s why it’s helpful to seek out opinions and input from someone who’s not familiar with the project. They’ll watch the video with a fresh set of eyes. The story the video tells will be new to them. What you should hope to find from the outsider’s perspective is what’s working, what’s missing and what’s not needed. The knowledge gained from a trusted outside perspective can bring new energy and direction into the edit.

Group of people around a computer pointing at screen.
Group of people around a computer pointing at screen.

Some to the biggest obstacles you will ever encounter are the ones you create for yourself. A good editor knows the mantra of, “it’s not about me.” The ability to look beyond yourself, and kill your darlings will help you make the best decisions in the edit bay.

Chris “Ace” Gates is a four time Emmy Award-winning writer and video producer.

Chris Ace Gates
Chris Ace Gates
Chris "Ace" Gates is a four time Emmy Award-winning writer and producer. He is a big fan of animation and transmedia storytelling.

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