Video is a time machine. Learn to control it, and you can really have some fun.

Say the first word that comes into your head when I say “birthday-party video.”

“BORRRING!!” There, I said it for you.

Why are amateur videos of birthday parties (or holidays or weddings or vacations) so often stupefying? Easy: they’re too long and their contents are too dull. So it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how to fix them: make them shorter by showing just the good stuff. As the venerable cliché puts it, movies are life with the boring parts cut out.

That’s a grand old saying and true in its way, but by itself it’s too simplistic. It makes you want to ask:

How do you decide which parts are boring? How do you hide the fact that their loss leaves the record incomplete?

How do you stitch the remainder into a coherent presentation? The answer to all three questions is the same: you do these things in your video by controlling and manipulating time.

As we experience it, real-world time has several traits that are utterly unchangeable: It’s continuous, steady, sequential, and singular. In video, however, these traits are as flexible as hot silly putty. To make a watchable program you absolutely must control time’s continuity, and by the time you’ve mastered the other three traits, you’ll be an accomplished director.

So let’s see how managing these aspects of time can improve even the simplest videos. To illustrate, we’ll take yet another look at that ever-popular (???) program, the birthday video.

Chopping Holes in Video Time
In real life, Rachel starts to open her second birthday present while you videotape the process. She lifts the package, but then puts it down again to eat some more cake and ice cream before picking the box up and resuming opening it. Watching Rachel inhale chocolate cake is as numbing as watching the hands on a schoolroom clock, so here’s how to cut that part out and leave an invisible incision.

First, get a brand new camera angle. While she scarfs a bit of cake, move around to the side of her and zoom closer. Later, you will edit out the eating by cutting directly from the front angle as she picks up the box to the side angle as she begins opening it. The angle change will distract the viewer’s attention from the fact that you’ve dropped that part of the action.

Alternatively, you could use a cutaway: a shot of something–anything–that is outside the main action. To get cutaways for later use, turn the camcorder on the faces of the birthday guests to record their reactions to the presents. (You don’t have to match actual reactions to their specific presents because the audience can’t see what they’re responding to.)

Then, when Rachel dips into the cake, keep right on shooting. In editing the show, you’ll replace 60 boring seconds of eating with five exciting seconds of guest reaction, then return to your original shot. The missing 55 seconds will go completely unnoticed.

Both methods exploit the key idea that video time is not continuous; you can cut any parts you don’t want.

Video Has Brake and Accelerator Pedals

Real-world time passes at a fixed rate, second by rigid second.

Not video time! As we just saw, cutting stuff out can speed things up, but there are also places where you want to slow the pace of time, often to create suspense. Imagine: at Rachel’s birthday party, we’re down to the very last shiny package. Rachel says wistfully, “Oh, I hope this is a Dolly Dumpster Diver! I want that doll more than anything!!”

That’s your cue that you’ll want to increase the screen time devoted to opening that last package. You’re already changing camera positions to record the action from varying angles, and you’re getting numerous cutaways of the other children’s expectant faces. To obtain the last key shots, you’ll pull one more trick: fake it.

Yes, fake it. Later, maybe even after the party’s over, put Dolly Dumpster Diver back in her box and drape the paper loosely over it. Then give the box to Rachel and set up a shot from behind her, looking over her shoulder to frame just the package and her hands. Rachel pulls off the paper, opens the lid, and, ta-daa! there’s the coveted doll. While you’re there, zoom in to grab a tight close-up of Dolly’s sweet old bag-lady face.

Got it all? Great. Then you can edit the sequence into a sequence like this:

  1. Rachel talks about wanting the doll.

  2. Knowing face of guest (or parent) who supplied the doll.

  3. Rachel starts opening the package.

  4. Cutaway of guest watching.

  5. Rachel struggles with the wrapper.

  6. Close-up from new angle of Rachel’s hands struggling.

  7. Faked clasp of paper coming off and lid opening.

  8. Close-up of Rachel’s delighted face.

  9. Faked clasp of doll’s face.

  10. Back to master shot of Rachel reacting to the gift.

By adding the extra shots, you’ve stretched 30 seconds of real time to at least 60 of screen time, increasing the suspense and enhancing Rachel’s joy at receiving the gift.

Not One Thing after Another

Ah, but suppose the doll was not, in fact, the last gift, but the very first one; and the rest of the presents were anticlimactic socks and crayons and such. In real time, the present sequence started big and then went right down hill.

Hey, no problem! Who knows or cares about the actual order of events? If you have lots of cutaways of guests, angle changes on Rachel, and inserts of doll faces and other details, you’re perfectly free to rearrange events completely, starting with the least-exciting gift and working your way to the climactic doll.

Keep in mind that you’re not operating a convenience-store surveillance camera here. That is, you’re not documenting a space in time from A to Z but synthesizing a presentation of events. This principle operates even more strongly with vacation videos. If you’re touring the land by car or RV, for instance, geography controls the order of events. Starting from Dallas, it’s Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, San Francisco, in that order.

But look at the effect of starting with the serene, esthetic Bay city, then contrasting it with the spastic extravagance of Vegas and finally commenting on both works of humankind with the humbling grandeur of nature’s indifferent vastness.

The moral: if you want a trip record, keep a diary; but if you want an exciting, memorable video, re-sequence real-time events to deliver more dramatic impact.

Everything’s Happening at Once!

In the real world, gazillions of things are happening at once, all over everywhere, but you can only be in one place at a time, experiencing just one set of events.

Videos, of course, don’t have your real-world limitations, and they’re especially good at showing two (or even more) streams of action in alternate chunks. You know the cliché: Nell tied to the railroad tracks, then Snidely Whiplash escaping, then Dudley Doright riding to the rescue, then the oncoming train, then Nell, then Dudley…. This is called intercutting or cross cutting, and you can do it too.

Suppose Rachel’s doll is not, in fact, in the present pile and suppose she innocently asks, “Where’s Dad?” You, Mom, are taping the party so you say, “Wrapping one last gift” from behind the camera and think no more about it.

Until you start editing and Rachel’s remark sparks a whole new idea. To make it happen, you and Dad go out on a videotaping expedition to three or four local X-Marts and toy stores. When you’ve edited your new footage into the program it looks roughly like this:

  1. Rachel says she wants the doll and unwraps another gift.

  2. Dad desperately searching the toy shelves of a store.

  3. Rachel unwrapping a second gift.

  4. Dad grimly driving to another store.

  5. Rachel unwrapping, as before.

  6. Dad pulling up to another toy store.

  7. Mom looking anxiously at her watch (taped later, obviously, with Dad on camera–or why not let Rachel shoot it and get in on the fun?)

And so it goes until…

  1. Rachel reaches the last present in the pile as…

  2. Dad comes barreling through the front door with triumphant look and package.

  3. Rachel looks up as Hero Dad deposits last package.

Corny? Sure, but still effective; and notice two things about time here. First, the entire shopping sequence was shot days after the fact, and second, the shopping and present-opening sequences were intercut, almost shot-by-shot to show two things happening at the same time but in different places.

Admittedly, cross-cutting is pretty advanced stuff for Getting Starters, but you can work up to it. Meanwhile, if you can learn to expand, contract, and reorder time, you’ll make much more exciting videos.

And if you merely master the art of cutting the boring parts, you’ll produce programs that are, at least, fun to watch.

Good shooting!

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