How do you carve an elephant out of marble? Easy, get a block of marble and chip away everything that doesn't look like an elephant. How do you edit three hours of raw footage into a digestible three-minute finished piece? No problem, take out all the bad stuff. If that's still too vague for you, have no fear! Here's a short list of techniques and "bad stuff" to look for as you sit in the edit bay.
Five Seconds of Heads and Tails
All right, this is more of a shooting technique than an editing tip, but chances are you are shooting as well, so I included it (and if you are not, make sure your cameraperson covers this). Heads and tails, or what some editing environments call handles, are amounts of tape recorded before the action starts and after the action stops. I usually record at least five seconds on either side. You really want these, especially if you are going to use a fade or dissolve before or after your clip. For example, if your subject starts talking as soon as you hit record, you won't have ample footage to fade in from black. When shooting, I hit the record button on the camera and announce "Tape rolling" and then watch the time code on the LCD monitor advance five seconds before yelling "Action!" After the subject has finished speaking I wait an extra five seconds before declaring "Cut."
Organization is extremely important, much more important than you might think. With today's huge hard drives and your own ambitious creativity, you can easily be working with hundreds of media files (video, audio and stills), even on a short project. As I go through my source footage, I organize all my clips into bins with keywords (for searching) and I use the color codes and the "good" check box option that Final Cut Pro has put in its Browser window. All advanced editing programs come with some sort of organizing tools and you would do well to check them out. When you want to find that great quote buried in 30 hours of raw footage, you'll be happy you took the time to use them.
The Importance of a Monitor
This is an expensive fix to a serious problem, but it should be on top of your equipment wish list. You need to see your video as it will be viewed and the picture on your computer monitor is not what it looks like on a television. Every professional edit bay has a video monitors for a reason. In our editing, we'll use a video monitor to examine the color, watch for interlacing problems and to check the masking. The best solution is to get a professional production monitor, but if you don't have $700 or so, a simple NTSC color television is certainly better than nothing.
Edit with Rhythm
Finding a desired rhythm was the best lesson I learned from three years and $60,000 worth of graduate film school. I was editing my first short on a Media 100 system when the director of the program noticed my creative struggle. He pulled up a chair and without explanation he tapped the space bar, starting the play head on the timeline. He then simultaneously tapped his foot, his finger on the desk and his head for eight beats and tapped the space bar again. He said, " That is where you cut." Rhythm has as many different definitions and techniques as there are editors. Observe the rhythm in other works and find the rhythm that works for your creative style and for the piece you are working on.
Don't Overdo Dissolves
I know your software has over 600 dissolves. I have been to many student film festivals and I have seen them all. Have they helped advance the story? Have they enhanced the work? 99% of the time they have not. Most projects primarily use cuts and occasionally dissolves and fades to black. Start paying attention to how many times films that you pay to see or get aired on television have star dissolves or checkerboard wipes. It doesn't happen often. Yes, there were funky wipes in Star Wars and organic transitions in the campy Batman television show. Use these effects only when your work calls for it, not because they are there.
This may win hands down as the biggest area of error for beginning post production people (as well as the production crew). Nowhere near enough time is spent on tweaking, improving, constructing and creating good – no, strike that – great audio. Audio is hugely underrated in the filmmaking process. Audio includes production sound, sound effects, music, voiceover, Foley (audio produced in post while watching the moving image such as drinking sounds or footsteps) and every other sound that does or does not exist in the finished product. I have heard people say that good audio enhances the visuals, but I can think of many films and documentaries where the audio made the scene or even the whole movie. Plan as much time for your audio edit as you would for the visual edit. If you are not an audio expert, find someone who is, take a few classes or buy a few books on this art form. Audio engineering can be intimidating at first, as it was for me for too many years, but the sooner you start experimenting, the sooner your videos will show the professionalism.
Video in the USA is made up of 30 still photos a second which, when played one after the other, give the viewer the illusion of a moving image. Today's software is frame accurate, something that was very difficult when I was editing on linear machines in the mid-eighties. That means you could cut a clip in thirty different places within a second. Now imagine you are shooting a talking head and after the interview you turn the camera off. The next time you rolled, you took a close-up of a speeding train passing by. Now you are editing feverishly at your desk and when you watch your rough cut you have a sense that something strange happens at the end of your interview. You can't quite make it out but there is a subliminal blip at the end of the interview and before the next scene. One possible problem is that you left a single frame of the video from the train scene after the interview on your timeline. The second situation is that you somehow left a blank frame of black or no video between the cut.
When you are zoomed out of the timeline, you can't see this error, but if you zoom all the way into the cut you will notice a single frame of something you didn't intend. I see it all the time with student projects in the edit bays. Worse yet, I see it in finished products at the festivals. Editing is an exact science. Someone can make a fair work in an afternoon but to make the same video perfect could take weeks.
"Kill Your Babies"
A bit dramatic I know, but this was the favorite saying of a group of high school film students I taught in Northern California and it served them well. When you shoot, direct or produce a certain scene you could become attached to it for reasons other than it being a good scene. Then in the editing bay, your emotions fog your objective judgment to hit the delete button. There could easily be dozens of these "babies" in your piece making what should be a tight and enjoyable five minute finished work into a grueling forty-minute endurance test for your family and friends. If you are unable to objectively kill your babies, ask a few people whose judgment you trust to watch and criticize.
Save Often or Die
This is like brushing your teeth before you go to bed: everyone knows you should do it, but few do. Then one day you have no teeth. It's the same with editing. I have gotten in the habit of manually saving every five minutes or so and saving after I complete a complicated edit. Since project files are fairly small, I also tend to periodically save new versions of my project, so I always have something to go back to if I change my mind later. This way, when the power grid goes down, you don't loose your last two hours of work and you make that looming afternoon deadline.
Know Your Audience
"Know your audience" is another seemingly simple concept, but I can't tell you how many editors miss this one. If you are making a short film about sensitive issues in hospice ward, you probably don't want to edit it in a hip-hop, MTV style. Know who your viewers will be and edit it in a way that will impact them and leave them with the emotion you are trying to communicate.
The Final Cut
There it is: ten common editing tips. Understand these and you've carved a pretty good-looking elephant. You'll also have a happier time in the editing bay and your audience will leave the viewing with smiles, if that is the emotion you are trying to give them.