Sometimes, video editing seems like a complex, expensive process that takes a mint to
equip and a year to learn.
Sometimes it is, but editing can also be a simple, easy process that requires no extra
Whoa, you say politely; did you just escape from the Edit Points column? What’s post
production doing over here in Camera Work?
Using the camera, that’s what; because the simplest kind of editing utilizes the two
recorders you already own: your VCR and your camcorder. Lash these two pieces of
hardware together and you’re ready to create professional-looking videos. The trick is to
cable them in a way most people would call backwards: from the VCR to the
Before discussing how to do this, we need to make some assumptions that don’t fit
every single videomaker. First, we assume that one of your editing decks is your trusty
We also assume that your VCR is not an expensive model with flying erase heads,
INSERT and DUB buttons, and uptown stuff like that. How come? Because this column
is all about editing from your VCR to your camcorder. If your VCR is a full-featured
editing deck, there’s no need to do that.
Nowadays, almost all VHS-family camcorders have the flying erase heads that are
essential for clean, glitch-free edits. 8mm camcorders have always had them. Many
models also have special effects and even simple titlers, so you can use your camera to
create these spiffy effects instead of fussing with add-on hardware.
And here’s a point people often forget: editing requires constant attention to the counter
on the source deck in order to locate and transfer shots. Using the camcorder as the source
deck is inconvenient because the counter is usually in the viewfinder, where it’s tiring to
look at for long periods of time. By using the VCR as a source deck, you can watch its
big, legible readout instead.
How easy and effective VCR-to-camera editing is depends on your camcorder
format: VHS, VHS-C or 8mm. The easiest combo is VHS to VHS because it requires no
extra dubs to achieve a final VHS program.
Next best is VHS deck to VHS-C camcorder. This means playing your source tapes (in
a VHS-C adapter cartridge) in your deck and building your program on a VHS-C cassette
in your camcorder. When you’ve finished, you have three playback options: use your
camcorder as the player, use an adapter cartridge in a VHS deck, or dub your edited
program to full-size VHS.
With 8mm originals, your options aren’t as good. To use your 8mm camcorder as the
record deck, you’ll have to dub your original tapes to VHS, build your show on your
camcorder and play it back using the camcorder. (Or else dub the show back to VHS for a
fourth-generation copy. Ouch!) If your edit needs are very simple, it may be easier to edit
to VHS and put up with a few minor glitches. For more ambitious editing, invest in an
8mm player (to edit VCR-to-camcorder) or VHS editing deck (to edit camcorder-to-
Cabling a camera to a VCR is fairly straightforward. Just remember to use the
audio/video OUT jacks on the deck and the IN jacks on the camera. If the VCR has stereo
sound but the camera is mono, use the left channel jack (colored white) on the source
Some camcorders come with proprietary hookups that incorporate control cables and
the like. Since these systems differ from camera to camera, consult your manual for
The next step is to overcome the problem that manufacturers designed the camcorder
for shooting, not editing. Its VCR controls are probably tiny and hard to reach, and its
base has a shape that fits your hands, but doesn’t sit solidly on a table.
To compensate, work with your camera on its tripod, adjusted to table height. Orient
the camcorder on the pan head so that by panning and tilting, you can present the editing
controls at a comfortable angle to your eyes and fingers.
Since editing requires working both machines at once, you may wish to reverse the
traditional left-to-right source/assembly deck order–if you’re right-handed, that is. That
way, you can operate the dinky camcorder controls with your nimbler digits.
With your gear lashed up and lined up, the last step is to cable your TV for use as an
editing monitor. Your TV is already linked to your VCR so that you can play tapes; but
for editing, you have to cable it to your camcorder instead.
The reason is simple: if you cable your TV to the source deck (the VCR), it can’t
show what’s happening on the assembly deck (the camera). That is, you can’t see what’s
recording and you can’t review your edited footage. But if the TV gets its signal from the
assembly deck, it will display that program when you’re recording or reviewing. When
you’re not, the TV will display the raw footage on your source VCR, so that you can hunt
Many camcorders have an RF out jack, which is quite serviceable for connecting to
your TV. In some cases, a camcorder has no RF output, and only one set of A/V jacks.
If you have a monitor that "loops" its inputs (passes the incoming signals back out again
for other use), you can get around this problem. To do this, place the monitor in the signal
path before the camcorder, so you can see what’s going to your record deck. You’ll still have to re-connect your camcorder to the monitor to see
what you’ve recorded.
Assembly Edit Basics
With our rig all hooked up, we’re ready to edit a show. Since this isn’t an editing
column, we’ll focus exclusively on the mechanics of operating your camcorder and source
Assembly editing simply means laying down one shot after another, in order, until
you’ve built a complete video. It’s named to distinguish it from insert editing, which we’ll
get to shortly.
To make an edit, you complete four steps. First, you find the last frame of the previous
shot on the assembly tape–the point at which you want to start recording the next
This can be tricky because some camcorders lack the various forms of single-frame or
slow motion playback controls found on almost all table decks. When that’s the case, you
have to play the assembly tape at normal speed, hitting the PAUSE control at the edit
With the camcorder in pause mode, press RECORD, to toggle record/pause mode, and
the assembly camcorder is ready to edit.
The second step is to find the start of the new shot on the source tape in the VCR. Note
the address where the scene starts on the counter (such as 00:10:15, for ten minutes,
fifteen seconds into the tape). Then back the tape up about ten seconds (say, to 00:10:05)
and pause the source VCR.
You have to back up the source tape because you’re going to play it and then make the
edit as it rolls past the edit point; "run-up time" complicates this process. Run-up time is
the amount of time between the instant you enable recording on your camcorder and the
instant that recording actually starts. Depending on your hardware, run-up time may be
up to around two seconds.
(To determine run-up time, shoot some video of a running stop watch and put the tape
in your source machine. Roll the source and when the stopwatch on your screen shows,
say, 00:00:30, enable the record function on your assembly deck. Play the resulting edit
back. If the first frame actually copied shows, say, 00:00:32, then the run-up time of your
record deck is two seconds.)
Back to the edit: okay, the new shot starts at 00:10:15 and you’ve rolled back to 10:05
and paused. Your run-up time is two seconds. So, to start recording at 00:10:15, you’ll
have to enable record on the camcorder when the source VCR shows 00:10:13–two
seconds before the edit point.
The last step is to make the edit. You press VCR PAUSE to disable pause mode and
roll the source. 00:10:10, 00:10:11, 00:10:12–at 00:10:13, you press PAUSE on the
assembly camcorder to disable the pause mode and start recording, and at 00:10:15 it lays
down the first frame of the shot.
(This is simpler than it sounds. After a week of practice, my media arts students can
consistently hit an exact edit point plus-or-minus one or two frames.)
Now record a few seconds past your intended out point, before stopping the edit. That
will give you more freedom in lining up the next actual cut. Then review the edit on the
assembly camcorder, pause at the next edit point, and repeat the whole process.
That’s assembly editing…
Insert Shot A in Slot B
…as distinct from insert editing.
Insert editing means replacing part of a previously transferred shot with new video, but
leaving the audio intact. Example: Karen looks surprised and happy, then reaches out of
the shot and pulls in the bouquet she’s been offered. To reveal what surprised her, you
want to insert a close-up of the bouquet between her look and her reach.
There’s a difference in doing video inserts between VHS- and 8mm-family camcorders.
If you have a VHS-family camcorder, find the button marked INSERT. Not all VHS-
family camcorders have this function. If yours does, only the normal (or linear) audio
recorded on your tape will remain when you insert video. If your camcorder has hi-fi
audio, you will erase it as you insert video (because the hi-fi tracks mix with the video
and record together on the tape).
The VHS video insert function is easy to use. Do it exactly like a regular assembly
edit, except: start by placing the camcorder into pause/insert instead of pause/record. Be
ready when you reach the exact end of the insert to put the camcorder back into pause.
This way, you won’t record over original footage that you want to keep. Some decks
automate this for you: if you zero the counter at the out point, the insert function will stop
there automatically. Unfortunately, this snazzy feature is not common among
If your VHS-family camcorder doesn’t have an INSERT feature, don’t try to insert
video with the regular RECORD function. During regular recording, the tape gets fully
erased by a fixed erase head before the new recording takes place at the video head drum.
A small distance separates the erase head and the video head drum. So when you stop a
regular recording, there are several seconds of completely erased tape at the end of the
recorded material. This will ruin the next scene in your tape. There’s no way to fix it
except to start re-editing from the point of the mistake.
8mm-family camcorders do not have a video insert feature. However, 8mm camcorders
have always had a flying erase head. As a result, you can do short inserts simply by using
the record mode. Unfortunately, AFM normal and stereo audio record along with the
video (similar to VHS hi-fi), and it will all be erased when you do inserts in this
If you wish to use the audio on the 8mm footage you’re inserting, then you should be
okay. But if you’ve mixed in some sound effects or music during your original edits,
you’ll lose them. Some high-end Hi8 VCRs offer PCM (pulse code modulated) audio,
which offers more flexibility in the video inserting process. But as of this writing, no
consumer-level Hi8 camcorders offer PCM audio.
Audio dubbing is an exact opposite of video insert: this function replaces the audio
without touching the video. Again, don’t try it unless the assembly camcorder has an
AUDIO DUB (or just plain DUB) button. (Like the insert function, audio dub is available
on some VHS camcorders, but not others.)
Audio dub lets you go back and add to or replace original sections of sound track with
music or narration. Some VHS camcorders will permit you to record commentary with
the built-in mike and lay it to existing picture. With music, it’s better to record it on your
VCR and then dub it across to the camcorder like any other program element.
8mm-family camcorders do not offer audio dub for the same reason video insert is
missing–since both audio and video signals mix and record together on the tape, any
attempt to dub audio on 8mm tape would erase the old audio and video.
With 8mm-family camcorders (and VHS units without audio dub), there is one method
that you can use to overcome the lack of a dub feature. Simply attach an audio mixer
between the audio connections of your source VCR and recording camcorder. Now copy
your entire tape, dubbing music or other audio from a CD or audio tape player as you go
along. Drawback: you will lose a generation this way, but it does overcome the lack of a
Using a mixer starts to bend our rule of keep-it-ultra-simple, so let’s push on.
We’ve been discussing VCR-to-camcorder editing as a way to utilize the advanced
editing features that come with the camera. That way, you can get banana split results
with a plain vanilla VCR.
But there’s no denying that the camcorder, optimized in every design feature as a
"cam," is less convenient as a "corder." If you find that you enjoy video editing (and it is
one of the most satisfying arts in all videomaking), you may wish to invest in an editing
deck. That way, you can edit in the more conventional camera-to-VCR direction.
With that in mind, here’s a brief rundown on how to prioritize the editing bells and
whistles to pay for:
- Flying erase heads . They are a must for clean edits without wavy rainbow effects and other
- Audio dub. The first step up in editing sophistication is often in audio editing; and without
- Video insert . This is a very convenient feature on some VHS-family VCRs but missing in
- Jog/shuttle . This control usually provides the simplest and most accurate way to locate
glitches. All 8mm-family VCRs have them, so if you’re considering this format, you’re covered. But not all
VHS-family VCRs have them.
the audio dub function you’re effectively stuck with your live audio track. Remember that this is not a
feature of 8mm-family camcorders. Audio dub is often missing on cheaper VHS camcorders as well.
the 8mm family. It’s less crucial than audio dub. You can acheive this effect while assembling your master
tape. Just assemble edit the first half of a scene on your master tape, then the supposed insert, then the
second half of the first scene.
precise tape locations while editing. You’ll find jog/shuttle controls on many VHS and 8mm VCRs.
And one more thing: S-video capability has nothing to do with editing; but if you’re
springing for the features listed above, you’re up in the financial ballpark where very little
extra money will also buy you the high-quality picture that S-video delivers.
And with digital satellite already here and digital cable in the wings, that’s extra quality
you can see and use.