Yesterday, a friend who knows I write for Videomaker asked which 8mm format VCR to buy. She was hoping to avoid the hassle of connecting her 8mm camcorder to her VHS VCR to watch her footage.
“Why bother,” I queried, “since you’re editing to VHS anyway?”
Her answer was a more robust version of, “surely you jest!” Turns out her videos never make it to
VHS tape–she shows her original tapes straight from her camcorder, in their entirety.
Their relentless, stupefying entirety. My friend doesn’t edit her tapes at all, which is why
she generally screens them in solitude, musing, perhaps, on the ingenious excuses people invent to avoid
watching the tapes with her.
She doesn’t get the clue that the most exciting ten minutes of young Jason’s birthday may be
reasonably interesting, but viewing the whole party in real time makes Chinese water torture seem like a
It’s probably safe to generalize that almost every event ever recorded could use some editing
before showing. If you give the process an honest try, you’ll discover a great truth about this medium: in
shooting you only collect the footage; it’s in editing that you create the video.
To provide an easy entree into editing, we’ll survey two very simple, yet radically different,
approaches to selecting and organizing your footage. These are editing from camera to VCR, and editing
right in the camcorder as you shoot. To help you understand the pros and cons of each approach, we’ll
begin by addressing the point that my friend doesn’t understand: why editing is absolutely indispensable to
good (or at least, watchable) video programs.
In editing your videos you improve your original footage in two essential ways:
- by selecting the best moments.
- By sequencing those moments to make sense and provide viewer satisfaction.
Let’s start with the process of selection.
Somebody once observed that movies are life with the boring parts cut out. (If you know the
origin of this profound, if homely, insight, please e-mail me at Videomaker; I’d like to give
credit where credit is due.)
Many new videomakers come from still photography, where editing is often performed by the
viewer. Watch people flip the pages of a photo album and you’ll see that they linger over some prints,
glance briefly at most, and skip others completely. In doing this, they are controlling both what
they look at and how long.
The viewers of your programs can’t do this. In the video medium, you and you alone dictate what
viewers see and how long they look at it. (Fast forward is so clumsy and distracting that it’s really
negligible as a viewer control.) So if you refuse to do the selecting that viewers can’t do for themselves, the
most innocent footage will soon stretch into diabolical torture.
To illustrate, here’s a transcript of one very short section of my friend’s footage. This excerpt is
from young Jason’s birthday party (the complete tape contains two numbing hours of this stuff):
As the party games wind down in the yard, Father says, “Okay, everybody, let’s go inside and open
presents,” so we follow the party guests as they straggle inside and arrange themselves around the living
room coffee table and when everyone is finally settled and the general noise level has dropped below a roar
we document Jason as he starts to open a package containing a coloring book and a set of felt markers but
it takes a while to work the ribbon off and another while to undo the elaborate wrapping job, then finally,
the present is unveiled and in response to the videomaker’s “Let’s see the book, Jason; hold up the book; no,
turn it toward the camera, okay,” he follows instructions, then puts down the book and markers and pushes
the wrapping paper to the floor with one hand and the off-camera voice asks, “Who’s it from, Jason?” and
Jason rummages around on the floor for a few minutes and eventually retrieves the wrapping and we hear,
“Look at the card. Read the card, Jason–no, out-loud. Who? Oh–Marcie. Thank you, Marcie. Say thank
you, Jason,” so Jason says, “Thank you, Marcie.”
Then Jason reaches for the second present in the pile…
…as we sink into a leaden stupor. Why? Because that section may run about four minutes, of
which only ten percent holds any real interest. Here is the same passage, edited to just that essential ten
percent, weighing in at a very bearable 24 seconds:
- Father says, “Okay, everybody, let’s go inside and open presents.” Kids start past him toward the
house. CUT TO:
- Jason as he reaches for the coloring book package. CUT TO:
- Party guests watching. CUT TO:
- Jason extracting the coloring book and holding it up. CUT TO:
- Closeup of the coloring book. CUT TO:
- Jason as he says, “Thanks, Marcie.” CUT TO:
- Wrapping paper coming off the second present.
There, as promised, is that little slice of life with the boring parts cut out.
As you look it over, notice two things about the edited sequence:
- It includes every important moment from the unedited footage.
- You create it right in the camcorder by shooting only the high spots, instead of rolling tape throughout the entire activity.
Editing In the Camera
But you can’t edit in the camera just by shooting shorter shots. To make an effective program, you
have to do just a little bit of planning before the event. Then, as you shoot, apply a dash of moviemaking
savvy. To see how this works, we’ll keep using the birthday party example.
The pre-planning part is ultra-simple: all you have to do is prepare your tape and shoot a title to
start your show. Prepare your tape by putting it in your camera and recording a few minutes of footage
with the lens cap on. Yes, you read that right: you want to record pure black. Next, rewind the tape
completely and then roll it forward to the one minute mark. This will create a professional-looking blank
screen ahead of your show (instead of snow and audio noise) and prevent you from putting program at the
very start of the tape, which may eventually be ruined by frequent tape rewinding.
With your tape preset at the one-minute point, record a ready-made title, such as “Happy Birthday
Jason” lettered in icing on the birthday cake. (Or print “Jason’s Birthday” on a blank, card-size envelope
and shoot it atop a brightly colored wrapped present.)
Now go ahead and record the festivities, keeping a few simple tips in mind. First, as you make
each shot, pretend that you’re watching it in the finished program. When the action stops interesting you,
stop shooting it. A shot ceases to be interesting when it has delivered its essential information (such as,
“Jason unwraps a present”) or when it continues repeating the same information (“Jason is still unwrapping
that same present. And unwrapping. And unwrapping…”).
In short, pre-time the length of every shot by imagining how it will play in the finished
But though you should time your shots to their eventual running length, avoid the sin of
“snapshooting.” Snapshooting means rolling tape in two or three-second bursts that will zap by on-screen
like a 30-second cola commercial.
Next, change camera angles to avoid jump cuts. Suppose you stop shooting Jason unwrapping that
package because the process goes on and on. Then, as the paper finally falls away, you turn the camera on
again. Because you are resuming the same camera angle, the on-screen Jason will abruptly and obviously
jump between the first shot and the second.
To avoid this, stop the first shot and, while Jason continues endlessly unwrapping, frame a very
different angle (say a tight closeup of his face) to anticipate his reaction when the gift is finally revealed.
Start rolling again as the wrapping comes off and the change in angle will conceal the part you
You can also conceal gaps with cutaways and inserts. A cutaway is a shot of
something other than the main action, like the children watching Jason in shot number 3, above. By
inserting cutaways, you can eliminate stretches of boring footage. In this example, you see that Jason’s
having trouble with that package, so you turn and grab a shot of the other kids watching and then wait until
Jason has the wrapping almost off before resuming his shot.
An insert serves the same function as a cutaway. It is simply a closeup of a detail. Shot number 5,
above, is an insert: a tightly framed image of the coloring book.
That’s about all there is to editing in the camcorder as you shoot; but you can improve your results
even further if you observe just three more simple rules:
- Don’t firehose. Firehosing means sweeping your view vaguely around the scene without ever
really stopping to focus the viewer’s attention on a given subject. It carries a huge sign reading “Amateur
City” because it implies that you don’t know what you want to tape. Try this instead: find a good
composition and shoot it for a few seconds, pause the tape, find another good shot and resume shooting.
The results will look gratifyingly professional.
- Never play a shot back in the viewfinder to inspect it after shooting. For one thing, this drains
battery power, and batteries flake out faster than you might think. For another, you run the risk of stopping
the playback before the end of the shot on tape–or worse, past the end of the shot. The result is
either a prematurely clipped scene or an annoying burst of noise.
- Finally, look for an ending, a shot that satisfies the audience by providing a sense of closure.
It doesn’t have to be fancy. For Jason’s party, imagine this as the last shot:
From the living room, a full shot of Father and Jason at the front door, waving at departing guests
and calling “See ya! Thanks!” etc. Slow pan around to living room, revealing apparent explosion of bomb
composed of wrappings, ribbon, and paper plates. Zoom in to stack of loot on coffee table. Fade out.
Just like that, your program is shot, edited and ready for showing.
Shooting to Edit
If cutting in the camera works so well, why bother to edit later? Because you’ll realize two important
benefits that pertain to the basic reasons for editing in the first place:
- to select the interesting moments (and cut the boring ones), and
- to sequence those moments in a coherent and satisfying order.
Editing after you’ve finished shooting enhances your ability to do these things.
When you edit in the camera, you have to make instant decisions about when to start recording
each moment and when to stop. And if you don’t make the right decision in either case, you’re stuck with
what you chose.
If you want to shorten a lengthy process like gift unwrapping, you have to immediately find a
cutaway or an insert, whether appropriate or not. In short, you have to make artistic judgments in real time,
with no second-guessing.
Nor can you control the organization of your program. Because you were forced to shoot in real
time, straight chronological order is the only shot arrangement possible.
By editing in post production you can improve your program considerably:
- You can adjust shot lengths to fine-tune them for continuity and interest.
- You can choose among different available inserts and cutaways.
- You can eliminate zooms–not to mention goofs like bad focus, light flares, and the like.
More importantly, you can re-order your shots to create a more coherent program organization
and to provide more entertaining sequences. For example, instead of grabbing a main title from the cake or
a hastily lettered card, you can make one at leisure after the fact and then put it at the start of the edited
Suppose you place your camcorder on a tripod, take a wide shot of the post-party fallout in the
living room, restore the room to order and tidiness, and then take a second version of the exact same shot.
Now shoot JASON’S BIRTHDAY lettered in felt marker on a plain card and then begin your edited
program like this:
- Wide shot: the immaculate living room. CUT TO:
- Card: JASON’S BIRTHDAY. CUT TO:
- Wide shot: the living room disaster after the party.
Notice that in editing you have reversed the actual order of the messy and tidy shots. That, in a
nutshell, is what editing’s for!
When you shoot to edit later, you follow all the tips and suggestions mentioned above, with two
major exceptions that involve shot length and cutaways.
Instead of pre-visualizing the final running time of each shot, train yourself to roll at least
five full seconds before the start of the action you think you want and keep rolling five seconds after it
ends. There are two reasons for this:
- Extra “head” and “tail” footage gives you more freedom to time your edits.
- Extra footage before the action gives your edit controller (if you have one) or your fingers (if
you don’t) a little prep time to execute a clean and accurate edit.
When shooting to edit later you also handle cutaways and inserts differently, because you don’t
have to shoot them in real time. To return to our birthday party example, if you get various closeups of
party guests watching the present ritual, you don’t have to use them at the points where you shot them.
Instead, you can edit them in anywhere you need them.
Or take the transition from the back yard games to the presents. In the example used above the
location switch is admittedly rather abrupt. But suppose that before the guests came inside, you got a nice
shot of the neatly stacked presents on the coffee table. Later, when you edit the two sequences together,
you have a transition all ready to insert:
1. Father says, “Okay, everybody, let’s go inside and open presents.” Kids start past him toward the
house. CUT TO:
1a. The pile of enticing packages on the living room table. CUT TO:
2. Jason as he reaches for the coloring book package.
See how it works?
So take your choice: editing in the camera is quick and easy, and it offers a certain excitement that
comes from creating a program on the fly. Editing after-the-fact takes more time, but provides a second
chance to improve on the original and great flexibility in organizing the program.
But do pick one editing scheme or the other, or else you’ll end up like my friend, alone in the dark
with the two-hour sleeping potions that she mistakenly thinks are video programs.